Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Michael Bauwen’s “The Political Economy of Peer Production” provides the theoretical framework for peer-to-peer (P2P) processes as a "new human dynamic in a global moment where political, economic and social systems are transforming themselves into distributed networks." The P2P conceptual framework enables third modes of production, governance, and property with potential to “overhaul” existing modes of political economy.  P2P is specific to processes of distributed frameworks that are designed to “increase the most widespread participation by equipotential participants.”  

Bauwen states that P2P produces use-value for a community of users/participants, rather than market exchange-value, as a third mode of production; this is accomplished through free cooperation of producers with access to what Bauwen describes as distributed capital.  P2P is governed by producers themselves, a third mode of governance that does not operate within a corporate hierarchy or by market allocation. Further, P2P creates a third mode of ownership by making use-value open or accessible on a universal basis via new common property regimes.  Here, P2P involves neither market pricing nor managerial command to make decisions on allocation services, rather, it aims to mobilize full participation and reciprocity.  

In order for P2P to exist and operate, there are several infrastructure components needed.  P2P requires technical infrastructure that “enables distributed access to ‘fixed’ capital.” According to Bauwen, computers are an example of this kind of infrastructure, as they facilitate internet use (as a point to point network controlled through distributed governance rather than a dominion of private and state entities) that can circumvent use of obligatory hubs. This technological infrastructure sets the need for “alternative information and communication systems which allow for autonomous communication between cooperating agents.” The web enables “universal autonomous production, dissemination, and ‘consumption’ of written material” that can be distributed without traditional intermediaries of publishing/broadcasting.  Bauwen notes that this aspect is not guaranteed and can potentially be mediated via new forms of intermediaries.  In order for autonomous global cooperation to exist, P2P depends on software infrastructure such as collaborative blogs and wiki’s that create trust and social capital to produce use-value without intermediaries.  P2P is protected from private appropriation via legal infrastructure, for example, the GPL (General Public License) “prohibits the appropriation of software code.” These legal infrastructures protect common use-value and spread through viral activity–although Bauwen notes that this is only in the case of projects that adapt source codes in public domain.

What I find particularly interesting in Bauwen presentation of the P2P conceptual structure is his illustration of its cultural properties as a consideration of the ontology of mass intellectuality–a way of feeling and being–in addition to its epistemology and axiology.  In this way, P2P exists as a multidimensional, autonomous, and dynamic being of cooperative individualism.  Bauwen also explains the inter-subjective relational mode of P2P, following a non-”a priori selection to participation,” wherein participants’ skill and “capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself.” In other words, participation is based on a value of trust and doing, rather than based on the presentation of qualifications/credentials of traditional peer models.  The axiology of P2P is conceptualized through its “holoptic” versus “panoptic” or hierarchical design.  Here, holopticism exists in the horizontal, open access to information and the vertical dimension of the whole of the project’s “aims, metrics and documentation.” As a communication model, feedback/knowledge is systemically mobilized within the protocol of the cooperative system itself.  

I found that Bauwen's articulation of P2P echoed our recent class discussions regarding corporate crowd-surfing of mass intellectuality, through which we all participate as unpaid laborers in the profiting of corporate entities (such as consumer review participation on Amazon); Bauwens defines this kind of strategy as ”netarchical capitalism;” in this mode, capitalism becomes systemically dependent on P2P as a mode of “cognitive capital” that is marked by “the primacy of intellectual assets over time.” Bauwens claims that in order for P2P to expand into the larger social domain, a universal basic income–”the independence of work and salary”– would need to be implemented.  I’m interested in his proposition of universal basic income as a structure that enables human potential and addresses poverty and quality of living under conditions of neoliberal governance.  Additionally, he presents this model as a possibility for transcending the limits of the global for-profit political economy. At the same time, given my limits in understanding the detailed schematics and operation of our existing telecom/internet dynamics, I question whether it is actually possible for P2P to exist. Can IP protocols, software coding, etc. operate freely from corporate surveillance or panopticism? I think he notes that adapting IP sources is one way to accomplish this, in addition to circumventing internet hubs, but is there actually full protection of P2P processes? Additionally, don’t corporate entities own internet/digital/telecom capital that is required for P2P infrastructure?

Lastly, Bauwen contributes a significant portion of the piece to acknowledging P2P’s interdependency with capitalism as part of its design politics; regarding individual participants’ dependency on market income, he offers the idea of universal based income as an address to the issue.  I’m curious to learn how students read/interpreted Bauwen's  articulation of the P2P theoretical infra/structure.  Does anyone think the proposition is too utopian or idealistic to actually work or be realized? Also, am I overlooking the larger self-interest/politics/agenda embedded in the P2P argument?

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