Monday, 19 November 2007

P2P Breakfast

To Islington, this morning, for a Hub Breakfast with Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. He's a very impressive guy, from a high-level corporate background (but with a Marxist heart beating somewhere in there), who's both drawing together information on the range of peer-to-peer projects in different fields and attempting to create a narrative of how P2P production could displace capitalism-as-we-know-it.

He's very alert to the potential critiques of this - in particular, the difference between P2P knowledge production and applying the same approach to production of material goods. My favourite soundbite was this: "Today, we act as if material resources were infinite and immaterial resources [i.e. music, writing, software] were finite, when really it's the other way round!" (Easy to say, hard to change, of course.)

As I said to him afterwards, for someone who likens the movement he's involved in to 19th century socialism, he seems very optimistic. (He replied, reasonably enough, that the labour movement did much to improve the quality of life - and he's not a utopian.)

What did strike me was a certain slippage which is, perhaps, inevitable when offering narratives of successive economic eras. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism, Michel said, so P2P production will (possibly) replace capitalism "because it's better". But to what kind of "good" does this "better" refer? Economic or ethical? In fact, this kind of narrative tends to collapse the distinction. But surely we can imagine a situation in which one way of living is economically better, while ethically worse?

When challenged on his optimism, Michel said that, of course, it is possible the human race will commit collective suicide, but it seems unlikely that people will choose to do so if there are other options available. If I am (relatively speaking) a pessimist, it is because of a suspicion that our demise may come about, not as an act of suicide, but as the kind of unintended overdose to which addicts are prone.

(I'm actually a rather hopeful kind of pessimist, but I don't place my hope in narratives of progress.)


Craig Barnett said...

Simone Weil wrote that 'revolution is the opium of the people' because history is not a 'machine for the production of Good'.
Happy birthday by the way!

Dougald Hine said...

Hi, Craig!

Every time someone quotes Simone Weil to me, I'm more surprised with myself for still not having read her. Thanks for the reminder.

And thanks for the birthday greetings! So far, being 30 is great - though there is a strange sense of responsibility, like things are getting serious - there's no more pretending that one day you'll be a grown-up...

maria said...

Hey Dougald, thanks for sharing your notes and thoughts on the Hub Breakfast. Just to add a tiny thing in relation to 'p2p modes of organising will make capitalism change because it's better'. From the videos of Michel on youtube I think that what he means is that because p2p is a more efficient and productive system. That's why windows is suffering with so many other open source, p2p operating systems and browsers out there who are made by the atomic work of thousands of people contributing with their skills and passion. It will always be more agile and efficient than a corporation like windows, who couldn't maintain such a system.

Really inspiring way of starting the week! Why don't we invite Charles Leadbeater next?

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