Towards the distribution of everything

I’m returning from a very productive lecture trip which brought me to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Avignon-Carpentras, Beziers-St. Chinian, and Girona, Spain. It was a renewed occasion to tell the P2P story, and to learn from the people I met.

If there was an underlying theme to the various encounters, then it was the need for a coherent strategy of peer to peer based ‘distribution’.

Perhaps it is useful again to say what we mean by distribution. Two things. First, in the context of distributed networks, i.e. networks where agents are free to connect and interact, and hence, have the ability to do things in common, without having to ask permission, or using, centralized or decentralized decision-makers. This still leaves open the non-visible forms of power, through the invisible architecture of protocollary power , i.e. the design of the software and the rules allowing/ disallowing, or promoting/inhibiting certain behaviours. (Money is best seen as the hidden architecture of the human system as a whole, see below). The second meaning is the slicing up of any task or resource, in tiny slices, so that people can have a low threshold access to them, have ownership or sovereignity over their owns means of production, and can self-select tasks, and autonomously decide on adding their own resources to it. It is the second type of distribution which enables the first.

Distributed networks, or peer to peer, rarely come in pure formats, and usually will be hybrid, containing decentralized and centralized elements. Pure peer to peer networks are not necessarily more efficient, but they are a better guarantee against interested entities exercising control over the network. For example, the fact that everyone is using Google, for search and now increasingly for collaborative online working, gives them a lot of power and control over our online resources. Such a centralization of the sharing platforms has given form to the various Web 2.0 business models (YouTube, MySpace), etc… If we want a world with more free cooperation, further distribution of the means of production is an important part of the trends we should support and aim for.

First the distribution of the means of expression, i.e. the media.

We have made great strides, and I still consider Web 2.0 models an important advance, because, in practice, people can now produce and distribute their own media, even if their ‘attention’ is being monetized and their experience ‘mediated’ and limited through proprietary protocols. But we can go further and design for more autonomy, diversity and participation. In fact, many people are working on such projects, as I discovered. In Paris, I met Olivier Auber, who created the Overcrowded platform, supporting distributed projects such as Sollipsis, a true peer to peer and open virtual world, unlike the proprietary Second Life platform. We also met Anh-Tuan, the young developer behind Peerple . The logic of peerple is that all our creative material stays on our hard disk, while also being copied in a p2p network (and hence, it cannot be concentrated by any party). If a member is offline, his/her material is still available, but because there is a personal copy, no material is lost to the creative individual who produced it. Earlier, we had met the Open Search crew in Amsterdam, which is building an alternative to Google. The University of Amsterdam is graced with a very dynamic teaching and learning (by Rik Maes and others) of information management, and I discovered a very p2p-oriented crew of present and past students. For example, Abdur-Rahman Advany, who works on the management of self-organizing systems, and Vasilis Kostakis who is working on a “laser theory of social change” . Bas Reus, editor of our dutch blog, is from the same stable. We also
had an in-depth discussion of peer governance with TU Delft researcher George Dafermos.

Second, the distribution of financial means of production, i.e. money

In Avignon/Carpentras, I had the chance not only the meet Francois Rey and Marc Boucher of the Open Xchange project, but also the authors of a Declaration for the Universal Right of Monetary Creation but also Jean-Francois Noubel, the author of the landmark essay on Collective Intelligence , who is collaborating with Bernard Lietaer on monetary reform issues. I’ve always sensed that Open Money projects were so closely related to our own p2p concerns, but my understanding that money is itself is the main protocol governing human behaviour, has increased. I know realize better how crucial it is that money is subjected to direct social production, and we can hence choose our own rules, instead of solely through interest-bearing credit. Reading the galleys of On Human Wealth by Bernard Lietaer et al. while I was there, I was struck how essential non-interest bearing money was for the thriving economy of the first medieval Renaissance. I did not realize that people worked 6 hours a day, had a five day week, and between 90 and 170 days of holidays. Skeletons of the period (in London) show that women of that age were as tall as today, and thus taller than in the intervening period. Without the possibility of endless accumulation, and with money that lost value when not used , people were investing in the productive system, creating waves of innovation. The book also mentions the experience of Egypt, and the system still existing in Bali. Noubel talked about the different kinds of wealth , and how the Wealth Acknowledgement System project (being developd as of now) will allow non-tradable and non-measurable wealth creation to play a greater role. All of this is part of a trend towards the building of a P2P infrastructure of human exchange , which will enable, from the bottom-up, all kinds of exchanges, monetary or not.

The distribution of energy resources

We’ve also already talked in our blog about the necessary distribution of energy resources .

As a reminder, here is a key citation explaining its importance as part of a strategy of distributing power, by Jeff Vail :

“A quick review of economic relationships will demonstrate the central role of energy choices in an economy. Control over economic activity translates directly into political power (politics being generally defined as the decision process of how to distribute finite resources within a context of infinite desires). Similarly, control of certain energy resources needed to engage in economic activity translates directly into control over economic activity, which translates into political power.

Certain energy, for example small-scale wind turbines or solar-conscious home designs, are inherently decentralized. They are produced and controlled by the end consumer, and inherently focus political power and economic efficacy in the hands of the individual. Other energy resources, such as petroleum-derived energy, and especially nuclear power, do just the opposite — they take that control away from the individual and focus it in the hands of large corporations and central governments.”

All of this is part of a more general trend towards a distribution of the means of production. Part of it is a natural technological trend towards miniaturization; but the other part is political and social, it is dependent on how, and with what intent, we will be using these new distributed means and how we skillfully evade and oppose protocollary and proprietary restrictions. Our brains and computers are already fairly well distributed, at least amongst the cognitive workers in the Western world, and we now have access to many more means of distributed expression and cooperation of such connected minds. But much remains to be done so that we can go beyond a the proprietary centralization of sharing (through Web 2.0 platforms).
Our trip ended with a seminar in Girona Spain, in a retreat organized by the Dutch Center for the Experience Economy, and it was a great occasion to meet very dynamic individuals active around participation. We listened to the story of the Lego Factory bv Mark Hansen, and met the amazing Danish creator of the Kaospilots, Uffe Elbaek, with whom we talked about the necessity of creating a European policy network around the 3 emerging paradigms (open/free, participatory/p2p, commons).

1 Comment Towards the distribution of everything

  1. Pingback: Disorder, centre and distribution » P2P Foundation

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