P2P-oriented net.art (2)

This is the second part of a text taken from a presentation at Medialab Prado in Madrid, by Juan Martín Prada, for the Inclusiva-net meeting in July 2009. Our first excerpt yesterday dealt with the commons, today, Juan covers specific p2p dynamics.

Juan Martín Prada:


“Clearly, given that for years many online activism proposals focused their efforts on the analysis of how exchanges are produced on the Web and on how common goods circulate, inevitably many of them soon devoted their main research to P2P (peer-to-peer) networks and the social dynamics they have generated.

Since the mid-1990s, the use of P2P networks (distributed networks comprised of nodes that function simultaneously as clients and servers) has skyrocketed. These communication networks are among users, which makes many services they need available, such as many process cycles or large bandwidth or storage resources. In addition to enabling file sharing directly among multiple users, P2P networks make countless communication services possible. Some examples include: telephone communications, video conferencing, television, and even decentralized information distribution systems that escape censorship in a highly efficient way, such as Freenet), entertainment (multi-player games), and distributed computation (for example, P2P networks are used for projects such as Tsunami Harddisk Detector by Michael Stadler), among many other possible services.

All of these uses are legal. However, at present, the majority of the most popular P2P networks are utilized by users for illegal downloads of movies and music under copyright. Therefore, the applications of these networks and the anonymity they enable have many facets and purposes. Digital piracy is precisely the greatest threat posed by these networks and that is why their development, even for completely different uses, will be increasingly controlled and hindered. There is no question that since the beginning of this decade, we have witnessed continuous questioning of these networks from business and institutional circles that see them as the main instrument for carrying out infractions of intellectual property law. Moreover, when majority media mention P2P networks, they usually speak exclusively about these illegal practices, which implies their continual criminalization.

In this respect, a growing number of people think that instead of attempting to halt what seems to be an inevitable process, the efforts of businesses in the audiovisual sector should be directed at designing new business models in which P2P networks are seen as a new field offering possibilities and opportunities, not as a terrible threat. Thus, those who oppose the anti-piracy measures being taken in many countries affirm that the music industry is making a huge mistake by continuing to focus its business expectations on the sale of CDs. Trying to prevent the proliferation of copies of something so easily reproducible (once something has been digitalized, it will inevitably circulate over the Web) is an anachronistic standpoint based on the belief that business based on anti-Web logic is still possible, when the fact is that we are fully immersed in the Network Era. Nor should we forget that the problem of digital piracy is something that has its roots in the past. It is curious that many software companies who already suffered from massive piracy of their programmes prior to the appearance of P2P never did much to prevent the circulation of thousands of pirate copies of their products. In fact, on many occasions it has been stated that the almost complete dominance of Photoshop, for example, as compared to other graphic editors, would not have been possible if Adobe Systems Incorporated had not permitted the more or less secret use of its programme by people who were not willing or able to pay for it. In contrast to the logic of traditional capitalism, which consists of the sale of material goods whose value is based on scarcity, this proves that in cyber culture, the value of any digital good always increases with its distribution .

These issues are so relevant and up to date that their presence is continuous as a central theme in many artistic and digital activism practices on the Web. There is a large group of initiatives whose critical foundation can be exemplified in another project by UBERMORGEN.COM, Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico: Amazon Noir (2006). This project aimed to get Amazon.com, the well-known online bookstore, to offer users complete volumes of books on sale, free of charge. This was achieved by an application designed for that purpose by the Firefox search engine, to be installed in each user’s computer, which made it possible to transform the “Search inside the book” function that Amazon.com offered to all users on its Web site to “browse” through the book by using the search words chosen by the user. In this way, over 3,000 books were downloaded and distributed via P2P networks (Gnutella/G2, BitTorrent, FastTrack, ed2k) between April and October 2006. What is most interesting about this initiative is that the authors of this application did no more than enhance a service provided by Amazon.com bookstore itself. That is, a restrictive system was used and subverted to enable downloads of the complete work.

Another well-known project related to forms of piracy against Amazon.com is Pirates of the Amazon (2008) created by two students at the Piet Zwart Institute of Rotterdam. It was also based on a Firefox application that enabled changing the Amazon.com page format on the user’s search engine, by placing a button that read “Download 4 Free” over each product, CD, DVD or book for sale. The application included links in each button to “free” copies of each product available on The Pirate Bay . Thus, it was possible to make purchases on Amazon.com without paying anything. This “add-on” did not download any files of its own, given that it was a simple interface between the Web pages of Amazon.com and The Pirate Bay, it being the user’s choice whether to make the free (and illegal, according to the laws of many countries) download of the file.

In sum, as opposed to those who conceive of P2P networks as a way of democratizing access to cultural contents, others see them as merely swarms of users grouped together solely out of their interest in downloading films and music for free. However, those two positions take into account only a tiny part of the multitude and complexity of aspects at play in the dynamics inherent to peer-to-peer networks. Therefore, other perspectives must be included in this debate, which is at the forefront today, that make it possible to reflect more broadly on P2P networks, transcending mere diatribes as to the legality or illegality of the uses that can be made of them. The proposal would be to talk less about P2P networks and more about social and production processes based on the P2P network model.

Therefore, what is proposed is to broaden the terms of discussion with special emphasis on the huge social potentials of the systems and processes in networks based on P2P structures, looking at their capacity to consolidate voluntary social organization forms to develop participatory social processes and collective cooperation in networks in all areas of human activities.

Certainly, there are many hugely interesting elements that characterize P2P networks and are perfectly applicable to the development of forms of social and productive relations both in and out of the Web. Firstly, the lack of a specific structure of P2P networks makes them immensely adaptable and flexible. Order in them arises not out of organizational development but rather from a permanent mixture in an intensely alive chaos motivated by each participant’s actions in generating dynamics of exchange and production of contents. And we must remember that structures close to the transition to chaos are usually very fertile for the generation of fruitful changes and evolution on all levels of culture.

We must also mention some of the most significant elements of the P2P model: the fact that there is no a priori selection for participation. As stated by Michel Bauwens, “The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself” , given that validation is provided by the community in this type of organization model, where participants are filtered “a posteriori”. This does not mean that the P2P network model has no hierarchy, but rather that it is formed by flexible hierarchies based on merit, which is also always considered as a necessary catalyst for participation . The P2P philosophy depends to a large extent on a meritocracy system that awards the most privileges and the fastest access to more content to those who share the most (the BitTorrent protocol, for example, is based on this principle; the system awards those who share the most, making the highest number of connections to download nodes available to them).

P2P networks have mechanisms for their operation that are ideally based on social relations that make publicly available a set of what are considered universally common goods, resources that are not subject to price or market systems. However, the fact that the production model based on P2P architectures is not based on economic compensation does not mean that the model turns its back on the market. It proposes the possibility of an economy whose central axis is principles of the commons, in an attempt to reduce the dominance of proprietary strategies. If supply and demand is the major motivating component of the market economy, here the motivations are quite varied and different. The result of peer-to-peer production is a collective good, the commons. Therefore, “losing” something can only be understood in this context as remaining outside of any possible exchange relationship.

Undoubtedly, the GPL licence, open source initiatives and Creative Commons constitute some of the fundamental conditions of production forms based on P2P networks. These possibilities are gaining significance in relation to concepts such as “P2P production”, “P2P property” or “P2P governance”.

We must also remember that P2P networks make it possible to regulate interactions among participants which do not, however, restrict the heterogeneity of their members. That is why the P2P theory has unity in diversity as its core theme, which could also be called “a Post-Enlightenment universalism” .

The P2P model leads toward a reformed market that opens up new ways of determining the value of things. It arises out of the need for alternative systems in many areas in which the logic of economic exchange based on that of the market is either not suitable or completely inappropriate, as inferred by the possibility of paying for ideas with other ideas, for example. It is very important to point out that P2P economies are based on the value of the use of things. The intention is to make the value of use freely accessible universally (a value that must emerge without the intermediation of companies or corporate agents of production or distribution).

It must be made very clear that the P2P model consists of creating and sharing common goods, not in turning what belongs to someone else into common goods. If the piracy operating on P2P networks is circulated as a common good, that is, something that belongs to us all, but was not conceived as such, then that “commons” is created by illegally freeing a private good. This process -regardless of whether it is illegal or desirable, or not- should not be considered an example of the P2P action model. The social and productive model based on the structure of P2P networks does not consist of this. Its ways of producing the commons must always be based on free and open production, not on acts of liberating what has not been liberated by its authors or owners.

Thus, the artistic-activist proposals which reflect on the P2P model use as an argument the emancipatory potential of certain aspects immanent in the connected mob, especially as related to the principles of “panarchy” and network government, showing a large variety of work lines related to the immobilization assumptions of the economic colonization of telecommunications networks. For example, some recent proposals like don-x-change (2009) by Laura Bey, that aim to show the social possibilities of P2P networks and processes, point to the ideals on which these networks are based: free cooperation among peers, equality among participants, placing or forming goods considered commons in circulation, the participation and communication of many to many, etc., revealing the affirmation of P2P logic as a political programme of its own. Bey’s project shows very clearly that the P2P model consists of non-reciprocal community participation , that is, P2P is not a system of reciprocity. Indeed, in the P2P model, each person contributes and receives, not in terms of equality but rather each contributes according to his or her abilities and wishes, and takes according to his or her needs . This work by Bey, a fictional programme for the Gnutella2 network, uses a subtle display of metaphors and language games with the user, to show the need for users of P2P networks and protocols to be more than mere swarms of persons whose only common interest is each person’s own interest in downloading films or music. Certainly, P2P networks must reach a stage of real community, in which participants manage to consolidate forms of voluntary social organization, where the goods placed in circulation act intensely as mediators for specific social relations, and do not only satisfy common interests or needs.

Other projects focused on P2P dynamics are centred on what Alan Page Fiske presented in Structures of Social Life as a universal grammar of human relations. These forms of exchange that have co-existed historically over thousands of years, although some always prevailed over others. The point was to try to show how some of them are being reactivated or intensified today, characterized as new and in other terms, such as the social and productive model based on P2P logics. The irony characteristic of some projects, such as P2P Applied (2009) by Rene Zangl, suggests interesting ideas about how to recover on digital networks some of the exchange forms that constituted the essential bases in anthropological studies since their beginning. Some of the fundamental notions on which they operate are: plays of equality (I should give something of equal value for what I have received to maintain the same status); systems inherent to price (exchange of the same value); communal sharing (donation to form part of a collective resource; and so on.

Explorations of what is called “commons-based peer production” , “open manufacturing”, or “wikinomics” are recurring features of many new projects of network art. On occasions, these explorations are specified in a production model based on the cooperation of autonomous agents, the coordination of the creative energy of a huge number of people, joining the efforts and enjoyment of a multitude of singularities, in which each of the members has different abilities, quite diverse knowledge, different “properties” that are added together and creatively complement the others’. Projects such as Perry Bard’s work titled Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake (2008), a collaborative development of a recreation of the well-known film made by Vertov in 1929, are good examples of this type of extreme approach to “open work”.

The range of network art proposals operating on the dynamics of the P2P model also included those initiatives specifically focused on concrete uses of P2P networks and clients, two lines of work that have barely been developed. The first consists of projects using P2P networks as the only possible context for the existence of the work, in which the work is subject to the operating dynamics of the Web. Good examples of this work line are the video projects carried out since 2006 by Anders Weberg , which exist only as long as other users share them on P2P networks, or those projects whose main axis for reflection are specific actions in the use of these networks, which occurs in works like N.A.G. Network Auralization for Gnutella (2003) by Jason Freeman, centred in the file search process on the Gnutella network.

The second is much more developed at present, composed of projects that study alternate forms of surfing and visualizing data flows on these networks. These initiatives are proposals for the development of interfaces that are completely different from the usual ones, such as Minitasking (2002), a free client to search the Gnutella network, or Torrent Raiders (2007) by Aaron Meyers, a project based on dynamic visualizations of BitTorrent users’ activity which, through aesthetics much like a video games arcade, brings up interesting questions related to privacy, surveillance and piracy on P2P networks.”

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