Responding to Tony Judge on the dark side of peer to peer

Some time ago, we published some critical remarks by Anthony Judge , about the dark side of peer to peer.

The general feel of the different arguments presented is that peer to peer theory inadequately represents the dark side of peer to peer processes, so I want to address that issue first.

I believe that constructing a theoretical framework contains different aspects. First of all, it has to be empirical and respect the facts. I think that anyone who regularly checks our tags or wiki entries will see that we are very careful in the recording of facts, and that we include the critical remarks and questioning about it. The second level is an evaluative judgement. Here an important issue comes up: peer to peer theory is not a value-less scientific theory (if such a thing exists), but acknowledges that it has an emancipatory goal, and that therefore, social practices are evaluated with an ethical framework that has a preferential choice for those that increase the potential for equality and liberty. Our broad judgment is that peer to peer practices have a higher productivity in these aspects. Finally, because we are an advocacy group, we have a praxis to promote such practices. Two things may happen when you take such a stance: 1) you may underestimate the negative aspects of what you are promoting … and I’m indeed hoping we are not doing too much of that; 2) you may choose, because of the strategic point of view of advocacy, to build on the positive elements of human social practice. I think that the second position is legitimate, as long as it is transparent.

Anthony Judge starts his contribution with an emphasis on negative issues surrounding Wikipedia. I want to make the general point that if capitalism replaced feudalism, or the latter replaced the slavery system, then it is not because the new social organization had no problems, but, because, despite those problems, they were more productive than their predecessors. Slave owners that liberated their slaves into serfs, obtained a higher productivity, feudal lords who adopted capitalist practices, overcame their peers who didn’t, corporations who become participatory will win out from those that don’t, and encyclopedias that open up will trump those that don’t. Therefore we conclude that, of course the Wikipedia has problems, but compared to the alternative that is Brittanica, it is evolving as a more useful and competitive resource for those seeking knowledge. So, we must have our eyes totally open to the negative elements of Wikipedia, while at the same time seeking to solve them, but, we will seek to do this by preserving the elements of peer production and governance and property that we favour.

Tony concludes from his remark on the dis-functionalities of Wikipedia:

“Briefly where is the “killer app” that defines the process and ensures runaway acceptance of it?. What makes it stop at certain styles of application? Why do all the apps you cite have peculiar relationships to money which prevent anyone earning a living from it, other than by parasiting on it?”

Well, indeed, there is no killer app, rather, as an object-oriented sociality, peer to peer is a self-organizing approach that seeks solutions starting from the particular goals set by the various communities. We are not aiming at a totalitarian vision where peer to peer is a total alternative for everything. Rather, we should expect dynamics around different polarities: 1) individuals seeking platforms for sharing; 2) communities creating commons-oriented platforms; 3) institutions adapting participatory practices to strengthen their competitive positioning and respond to user demands. This will give rise to a wide rise of hybrid solutions, mixing hierarchy, autonomy and cooperation in different ways. We just stress the general point that in highly complex societies, participation works better, yields more solutions, than no participation. Finding the best mix is partly an empirical question, partially constrained by power relationships.

Stressing that such peer applications are just parasitical is stretching the truth. Many peer projects are collectively sustainable, finding solutions to fund their infrastructure, but have no wish that their ethical economy operates on purely monetary lines. They are directly creating use value, which their communities are constructing and exchanging. On the individual level, this is indeed problematic, but this is not because such individuals create no value, but rather, because our money-only society has not created a mechanism to honour and value their creation. Yes, peer practices are build on the surplus of the capitalist economy, but the counter-truth is just as important, namely that this very same surplus is parasiting on the enormous positive externalities created by social cooperation. Now despite this argumentation, I’d like to point out that peer production is creating business ecologies around it, at least half of the Linux programmers are now paid, for example.

Tony Judge writes:

“I think that P2P works admirably where there are no constraints. But put half a dozen gurus together and there will be problems. They all may flee the context or others may flee any contact with them thru that context. P2P is not addressing the ego problem or is assuming that it will be of no relevance.”

My reply is that peer to peer practices do not ignore ego problems, but have designed social processes based on the congruence of individual and collective interest, and that they also express the maturation of social cooperation and individual development at this stage of history. I have witnessed a number of open space processes (barcamps, unconferences) which went very well, and a few others, which were more difficult. I noted that the latter where the ones not consistently using a peer to peer ethos, and had weak facilitation processes. For peer to peer to work, indeed requires an attention to human dynamics, and a whole field of technical and human facilitation techniques has arisen that creates a collective learning process. I can state with confidence that more and more people are able and willing to moderate their egos for the collective process to work.

Tony Judge writes:

“– why does P2P not work in tougher Middle East type situations, however well it may work under zero threat — by avoiding threat, “I can walk anytime” situations?”

The truth is, peer to peer experiments have been working on a small scale in that region, and haven’t been tried for large-scale social transformation and conflict resolution. I surmise the opposite of Tony’s point, namely, that if they could be tried, they would have a better chance of transforming the Middle Eastern conundrum, than any mixture of realpolitik and bureaucratic negotiation.

Tony then again concludes with a critique of peer-based facilitation processes. It is clear that peer to peer processes won’t solve all the world’s problems, and it is legitimate, and in my view an expression of the logic and world-views of different personality types, to see the glass as half-empty. But it is equally legitimate, to see the glass as half-full, and my premise is that the latter attitude is more fruitful for human progress. Peer to peer is not the ultimate solution to everything, but it is a set of new processes that have a better chance of solving complex problems, than the hierarchical alternatives.

Learning empirically from successes AND failures, is precisely why we are building a knowledge base on the emergence of peer to peer throughout the social field, recording their rich experiences, both positive and negative.

4 Comments Responding to Tony Judge on the dark side of peer to peer

  1. Pingback: Moving to Freedom

  2. AvatarAnthony Judge

    Michel you argue well the counter case and clearly those who find it credible will derive benefits from being so persuaded.

    But do you not think that many groups, persuaded of their own value, could make analogous cases? They might also argue that of course there are some problems with their own approach — but that it is significantly better than previous approaches. Do not the main religions make such a case, regretting that people do not appropriately commit to their system — with the right spirit, eschewing negativity?

    My question is where is the flaw in such logic — with all such groups making their glass half-full argument and regretting those sensitive to the half-empty challenge?


  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Tony,

    I think that you are right on this, and that there is no ultimate solution to all human knowledge being ‘perspectival’. For those on the outside it is matter I believe of being conscious of the perspective of the other, and on the inside of those groups, the self-awareness of the perspectivity is just as critical. In the end, isn’t it about finding a narrative which respects the facts, but at the same time, inspires action for the better, while being aware to the maximum extent possible, of one’s own limitations in achieving this?

  4. AvatarAnthony Judge

    If I am to be associated with the “dark side” as the subject line might suggest to some, I should like to make several additional small points:

    — one is a concern about those who might deliberately seek to pervert P2P and how to be aware of that. I was made conscious of this by someone I had hired who in passing said to me, “Explai9n any system to me and I will tell you how to pervert it”. For other reaons I much later wrote: The “Dark Riders” of Social Change:
    a challenge for any Fellowship of the Ring (

    — I have long campaigned for care regarding falso positivism, hope-mongering and the like: Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: Management challenge of positive vs negative (

    — but I am also aware that there is a long mystical tradition regarding the value of the dark in the enlightenment process, which led me to explore: Enlightening Endarkenment: selected web resources on the challenge to comprehension (

    As to what any of that contributes to the P2P discussion is another matter

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