A2K Symposium (Post by Michel Bauwens): From A2K to Guaranteed Access to True Peer-Based Communication Infrastructures

By Michel Bauwens

A2K cannot just mean access to content, but also full capacities to share and build knowledge with one another, and recent events around Wikileaks and in Egypt have shown us how fragile the internet is to governmental and corporate disruption.

What have internet democracy activists been doing in the last few years, and what should they be doing next?

Here is a list of major undertakings, some well under way, some barely begun. All need to be done, are interdependent on each other, but need to be done ‘at the same time’, though there is a certain maturation effect which may need to take place to move from one phase or priority to another. Finding out these interdepencies and choosing amongst those priorities is a matter of debate, strategising, and practical experience.

* use the existing infrastructures for immaterial exchange for personal and social autonomy

We started by creating an infrastructure that allowed for peer to peer communication. Out of this striving came the internet and its end to end principle, web 2.0 and its possibilities for participation, and social media allowing for intense relational interaction, and tools such as wikis which allow for the collaborative construction of knowledge.

The creation of this infrastructure was a combination of efforts of civil society forces, governments and public funding, and private R&D and commercial deployments. It’s an imperfect world full of governmental control, corporate platforms, but also many capabilities for p2p interaction that did not exist before.

My assessment is that this struggle can experience setbacks but can no longer be undone. They have become civilisational achievements that are just as necessary for p2p-commoners than for the powers that be, even if they can impose a ‘dissent tax’

* change those infrastructures itself away from centralized and corporate control

But precisely because phase 1 is an imperfect one and partially if not largely in control of forces which have their own agenda of (political) control and (commercial) exploitation, as lately exemplified so well in the corporate decisions around Wikileaks, we are increasingly realizing the need to control these very infrastructures and insure that they can continue to allow and even expand the possibilities for p2p communication and value creation.

Hence the movements for free software, open standards, independent p2p infrastructures. There are many efforts underway in this area, some successful, some fledlging, some of which will go nowhere and be defeated.

Success on this front also depends on what the ‘enemy’ is doing. To the degree they want to go too far in controlling the platforms, to that degree they will mobilize the counterforces building the counter-infrastructures, and convince more and more users to use them.

* use the existing infrastructrures, and the new p2p-transformed ones, to change the very infrastructure of production of material goods, making it more sustainable in the process

As we get habituated to p2p communication and value creation, and move from open software to open knowledge to open design, p2p communities get involved in redesigning the means of production and making, i.e. open design necessarily needs to a reconfiguration of production processes towards ‘distributrion’. Open design communities moreover have no perverse incentives for planned obsolence or for hindering the sharing of innovation, so the new infrastructures have a bias towards sustainability, but also to relocalized production and a rationalisation of wasteful and unsustainable material globalization.

* change the property structures of the infrastructure and means of production in the process

As the new modalities of open design and distributed manufacturing are deployed, peers discover and experience the many constraints imposed by the old order of production, such as modes of property, the lact of benefit or revenue sharing, compound-interest based capital which is not easily available for them etc … They start building their own platforms, governance foundations, etc …This creates a need to extend p2p practices and modalities to the rest of the economy, with efforts towards forms of peer funding, open money, a revival of cooperatives and mutualism, and many other. Commoners also discover their affinities with other counter-economies such as the solidarity economy, fair trade, and other forms of commons-friendly enterprise and start developing practical and political alliances

* raising of political awareness and expression as a means of overcoming opposition

As all the above processes are undertaken, digital commoners learn about and experience the political and economic forces that are arraigned against them, and become more politically aware, discovering the need for their own modalities of political action and expression. They may also discover affinities with the enemies of their enemies, other social movements, commons-friendly enterpreneurs, etc

* transform the infrastructures so that the abundance of immaterial sharing can co-exist with the sustainability of the planet, and the demands for equity and social justice

Immaterial cooperation rests on a physical infrastructure which is currently part and parcel of an unsustainable mode of production. Commoners learn the importance of recognizing the natural scarcities of the physical world and how knowledge sharing and open design are themselves vital factors to redesign the unsustainable infrastructure, and to transform it into resilient modalities that insure the perenity of the new social practices. Digital commoners ally with those forces that combine an interest in the abundant sharing of immaterial resources, in the context of preserving natural resources, and according to the principles of social equity.

The above efforts should be set in the context of achieving ‘truly distributed’ p2p communication infrastructures, which are minimally subject to disruption. How do we define such an infrastructure:

1) A P2P communications and cooperation infrastructure is a technological and social infrastructure which allows any individual to voluntarily aggregate with others for purposes of communication or the creation of common value

2 )A P2P technological infrastructure allows any agent to initiate actions from any point within the network, on the basis of equality of communication (network neutrality) and without any censorship impeding free speech and the freedom of association and cooperation. It is a distributed infrastructure in which elements of decentralisation and centralisation can only serve the efficiency of the network, and not issues of control or profit.

3) A P2P ownership infrastructure is preferentially owned by the users and producers of value over the network. Private and public ownership of P2P communication platforms can only be justified by superior service provision which does not impede the p2p rights of usage defined in 1 and 2.

4) A P2P governance infrastructure is based on the full rights by communities and participating individuals to govern their own infrastructures and actiivities. Governance by owners of infrastructure is subsumed to the prior usage and cooperation rights of users, including the right to autonomy and self-governance. The governance of P2P infrastructures recognizes participation by all legitimate stakeholders.

5) P2P revenue infrastructures recognize that value creation is primarily the result of user activities and cooperation, and has benefit or revenue sharing processes in place which recognize this value creation, but do not impede the continuation of peer to peer relational dynamics and value creation over the network.

In conclusion some reflection on the relationship between peer to peer communication and social mobilisations, uprisings, and revolutions, as we recently witnessed in Tunisia or Egypt:

Every time we are witnessing a massive mobilization of social movements, a social uprising or even a true social revolution, we can be sure to witness a new round of debate between those that insist on the crucial role of social media, sometimes even calling it a Twitter Revolution, and those dismissing this and even warning for the dangerous role of trusting or highlighting their role.

Here is my own contribution to this debate.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between two meanings of the concept of Revolution.

The deep meaning of Revolution is one of phase transition from one social system to another, and it is important here to distinguish the long course of history, and its sometimes explosive accelerations, when a long term quantitative development becomes a qualitative leap.

I have not the slightest doubt that the invention of peer to peer communication, i.e. the internet, the web and its social media derivatives, by allowing direct, cheap and ubiquitous communication between peers, is a true and deep social revolution, as important as the invention of writing and of print once were. Literally, as with writing and print, the change in communication infrastructures, the new socialization and balance of power it permits, changes every field of social activity, not just gradually, but eventually leading to a new social system working on different premises. But it is important to realize that such deep phase transitions take time, generally speaking more than one generation, though we do expect that one of the effects of p2p technology is undoubtedly an acceleration of historical processes.

Having said this, we are not saying that technology is the only factor, but it is a major and important factor, with very deep social effects. Once print was invented, the monopoly of truth of the feudal system and the Catholic Church was broken, this is undeniable. Nevertheless, technological affordances are part of an integrated set of change factors. We are also not saying that new technology has only emancipatory and liberating effects. It has some, and they are very important for social forces seeking freedom, justice and equality, but technology is always a tool of struggle and contention, and will be used by opposing social forces, each seeking to use it to their advantage. But what is certain, is that a new communication infrastructure changes the balance of forces, and has democratising effects. If the privileged want to remain dominant, they have to seek new ways, advance a new social contract.

Today, we can except that peer to peer communications, and their new forms of horizontal socialization, and the new tools it offers to citizens to organize around common value, will also have a deep seated influence on social structures, BUT, this will take time. At the P2P Foundation, we expect first a reformulation of capitalism, but we also expect, in about a generation, a fundamental phase transition towards a new form of society.

Now we come to the second meaning of Revolution, as a specific political revolution or uprising leading to a change in regime. Here also, peer to peer media (a much broader category than social media), have an important enabling effect, but we must distinguish different temporalities. First of all, there is again a deep temporality, favouring horizontal socialization and the creation of a new type of affinity communities based on shared values. This socialization prepares for a stronger civil society, which gradually undermines the control of authoritarian regimes whose control is based on the use of previous forms of mass media. Yes, we do believe that in the longer term, even as authoritarian governments learn to control and use the internet to their advantage, that it does give more advantage to civil society forces, who learn to extend their own autonomy and spheres of freedom.

It is this longer process which prepares the way for the open source insurgencies that we are now witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia. Based on that longer process of socialization, which happened in the preceding years, this allows at certain moment a rapid and massive mobilization of the people, who become conscious of their power and unity, and indeed, gives them the confidence to confront authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, these open source insurgencies are based on common and general demands, and they can dissolve as soon as either the goal is attained, or the battle is lost, then reverting again to the longer term socialization processes we have just described.

Needless to say, don’t confuse p2p media with corporate social media (though the latter play a very important role due to their popularity), and of course, these same media can be used for identification of dissent and repressive measures, especiallly if the movements are defeated. Intelligent use of such media is a sine qua non, and as we have seen in Egypt, even as people learn to creatively communicate even without it, once the will to change has been established.

But as we said, open source insurgencies can dissolve just as quickly once the common goal, usually general enough to unite everybody, like with the slogan, ‘the dictator must leave’, is achieved. At this point it is important that groups have used social media on a longer term basis, to establish themselves as real communities that can play a social and political role. This does not necessary have to be a traditional political organization as we have known from the previous era, but can be a movement like the April 6 Movement, who has recognized leaders that had organized themselves before.

In other words, no serious social movement who wants to effect deep change, can merely rely on the quick mobilization power of social media, but needs longer term policies of socialization and of achieving consensus around common goals and values. It needs a staying power that social media alone cannot provide.

Recent events around Wikileaks, Tunisia and the total shutdown in Egypt have also given us a valuable lesson into the reliability of corporate social media, and the internet, susceptible to government and corporate control around choke points. This means that at all times, serious activist will be ready not just to apply alternative digital media, but also non-digital media. But in no way am I making an appeal to abandon social media, or the public internet, indeed, this is where the people and the users are, and no social change effort can be successful, if is isolates itself from the mass of the people. Smart social change agents will have a combination of confidential media for their own longer term internal organization, and the judicious and careful use of social media to reach larger audiences.

To come back to the debates we mentioned at the beginning. Yes, peer to peer and social media are deep agents of social change, and essential organizational tools, but they must be part of an integrated strategy, that uses both long term socialization and its short term power of massive and rapid social mobilization. But even if we loose a battle, the deeper social change, will continue unabated, though nobody can predict the exact balance of power, the capacity of social control, and the new social contract that will prevail. But one thing is sure, society, and its ruling classes, cannot stay the same in the context of emerging p2p media, and the larger social forces, that can benefic from further emancipation and democratisation, can also not ignore the great potential for autonomy and self-organization, and the possibilities to use these media to create a more free, just and equal society.

Let’s not forget, the rulers had their own internet at least two decades before us, and didn’t need a expanded public internet. That we now have access to it, even under imperfect conditions and under their control, is a profound game changer, it represents a unique opportunity and a unique tool that we cannot dismiss and leave to our enemies. No social struggle is conceivable today, without the right usage of p2p media. Just as the Reformation crucially relied on books, and the Labour Movement crucially relied on print and newspaper, so must we also crucially rely on peer to peer communication infrastructures as a really crucial component of any strategy for social change.

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. “Open design communities moreover have no perverse incentives for planned obsolence or for hindering the sharing of innovation, so the new infrastructures have a bias towards sustainability, but also to relocalized production and a rationalisation of wasteful and unsustainable material globalization.” — What is the justification for this statement? If open design communities encourage innovation, things will become obsolete rapidly and not so sustainable. A slower pace of innovation, and more design for durability, seems more sustainable; it’s not obvious why open design communities would lead to that outcome. Please explain why the dynamic will proceed as you describe; otherwise the statement sounds like contradictory utopias tacked together.

    2. “Digital commoners ally with those forces that combine an interest in the abundant sharing of immaterial resources, in the context of preserving natural resources, and according to the principles of social equity.” — Do you mean this should happen, could happen, or will happen? If the last of those, what is the justification for the assertion? Maybe many “digital commoners” just won’t care about the material world; after all, many seem to think that ICT is “dematerializing” the economy, when nothing of the sort is happening.

    3. The real challenges for “p2p media” will be not in facilitating revolutionary change, but in sustaining a humane society based on relationships and interactions in the physical world, while also respecting privacy and facilitating the “slow thinking” and reflection necessary for democratic discourse. They still have a long way to go before showing they’ve met any of those. And it’s not at all obvious that they will succeed in doing so.