miércoles, 30 de septiembre de 2009

P2P and the Role of Exclusion I: Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Even though that exclusion is present in P2P (e.g. Wikipedia) it can be argued that it is not its cornerstone. It is non-rivalry rather than exclusion what lies at the foundation of what P2P is. Weber (2004, p.154) went further introducing the concept of "Anti-rival" goods

"Call it a network good, or antirival good (an akward, but nicely descriptive term). In simpler language, it means that the value of a piece of software to any user increases as more people use the software on their machines and particular settings. Compatibility on the standard sense of a network good is one of thee reasons why this is so."

Interestingly this implies that for any user, either contributor either free rider the mere use implies a contribution:

"The point is that open source software is not simply a nonrival good in the sense that it can tolerate free riding without reducing the stock of the good contributors. It is actually antirival in the sense that the system as a whole positively benefits from free riders."

There are of course limits to this, "This arguments hold only if there are a sufficient number of individuals who do not free ride (...)". Thereby in as much as there is a sufficient number of contributors free riding results in a positive effect.

(for a review see David Mejías)

The technological revolution has lowered the transaction costs of cooperation enabling new forms of production of the "Networked Information Economy" (B. 2006, p.106-116) such as P2P. Peer-to-peer is based on collaboration, on the capacity of its architecture to allow cooperation, to integrate and aggregate rather than exclude, it is inclusive rather than exclusive (B. 2006, p.99-116).

"Cooperation in peer-production processes is usually maintained by some combination of technical architecture, social norms, legal rules, and a technically backed hierarchy that is validated by social norms." (B.06,p.104).

Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Antirivalry has changed the problems that free-riding used to pose on commons enterprises. Free riding is usually considered as a drawback in collective action (Olson 1965 and Hardin 1968). Both Olson´s conjecture and Hardin's classic "Tragedy of the Commons" come to say that, paradoxically collective action hinders the consecution of collective aims. Olson (1968) conjecture establishes a negative relationship between group size and the ability to obtain collective goods due to free-riding. These however does not hold in the presence of antirivalry, contrary it happens the other way around, size becomes a positive factor in obtaining the collective good.

"The key concepts of the argument -user-driven innovation takes place in a parallel distributed setting, distinct forms and mechanisms of cooperative behaviour regulated by norms and governance structures, and the economic logic of `antirival´ goods that recast the `problem´ of free riding -are generic enough to suggest that software is not the only place where the open source process could flourish" (Weber 2004, p. 225)

Krishnan et al (2004) argue that free-riding does not undermine P2P processes, "free riding is sustainable in equilibrium and in some cases occurs as part of the socially optimal outcome". The architecture of P2P processes seems to be so that even free-riders might make a "passive" contribution. In "The Cathedraal and the Bazaar" E. S. Raymond recasts the term of free-riders into "outriders":

"Even at a higher level of design, it can be very valuable to have lots of co-developers random-walking through the design space near your product. Consider the way a puddle of water finds a drain, or better yet how ants find food: exploration essentially by diffusion, followed by exploitation mediated by a scalable communication mechanism. This works very well; as with Harry Hochheiser and me, one of your outriders may well find a huge win nearby that you were just a little too close-focused to see." (Raymond, 2000; p.15).

The condition for this to be so is that there must be a sufficient number of contributors (non-free riders). Benkler (2002, section III,A) lists reasons why there will always be a share of users that behave altruistically. Moreover, there might be non-altruistic reasons that might push users to contribute,

"(...) sharing could reduce congestion on these networks, which may increase an individual peers utility of using the network providing a rationale for sharing even in the absence of `altruism.´”(Krishnan et al 2004, p.5).

P2P architecture might force users to "passively contribute" as in file-sharing services such as Bit Torrent which "(...) forces users to share the parts of files that they already own while they download the remaining bits" (Strumpf, K and Oberholzer-Gee, 2009, p.10).

In a setting where antirivalry is present free riders make a positive contribution, hence exclusion would have a negative role limiting access and reducing production. There would be then a positive relationship between group size and production of the common good. The set of social norms, legal rules and technical architecture that allows for cooperation in peer-production processes seems to result in a setting which can be characterized by antirivalry. In such a setting, where even free riders contribute to the production of the common good, it is inclusion rather than exclusion the most reasonable policy.

jueves, 13 de agosto de 2009


Maghribi traders organization system is similar to current P2P processes, maybe similar enough to consider them P2P pioneers (Maghribis I). However Maghribis suffered from intrinsic disadvantages that deterred their expansion and success (Maghribis II). Maghribis succumbed to history while Genoese, a proto-capitalist society survived stabilising the foundational stones of capitalism.

Maghribi traders organizational system had intrinsic disadvantages that deterred its expansion and success.

How far is this applicable to current P2P?

Lets see first which are the fundamental differences between the Maghribis and "modern" P2P.

In comparing Maghribis organization with P2P (Magribis I) there was only one slight divergence: equipotency, one of the three characteristic of P2P listed by Michel Bauwens. Equipotency´s definition required that "there are no formal rules to prohibit anyone from participation". In defence of the hypothesis of Maghiribis traders as a P2P-pioneers it was argued that most "known P2P-systems also ban/block certain users due to their anti-cooperative behaviour" posing Wikipedia as an example.

It was however exclusion what undermined Maghribis possibilities of expansion, it was this closure what inhibit the model to expand beyond its ethnical-cultural group. It was also this exclusion what allowed the reputation model that in turn enabled the whole system to be comparable with a P2P. Hence exclusion of non-trustable members is the cornerstone of the architecture of the Maghribis organizational system.

The "principle of exclusion" is also present in P2P:

"This necessity for cooperation requires peer-production processes to adopt more engaged strategies for assuring that everyone who participates is doing so in good faith, competently, and in ways that do not undermine the whole, and weeding out those would-be participants who are not." (Benkler 2006,p.13-14).

"Standard" P2P also shows a strong dependence on the architecture that enables cooperation:

"Cooperation in peer-production processes is usually maintained by some combination of technical architecture, social norms, legal rules, and a technically backed hierarchy that is validated by social norms." (B.06,p.104).

Nevertheless it can be argued that even though the principle of exclusion is also present in standard P2P processes, it is of a different nature and it is definitively not its cornerstone. P2P as we know it is based on the capacity of its architecture to allow cooperation, to integrate and aggregate rather that exclude. It is openness rather than exclusion what makes it different. The relative difficulty to undermine its process does not depend on trust or punishment, It depends on the ability of the architecture to organize, filter and engage individuals into cooperation rather than on its power of punishment, or on the power to exclude.

Greif (1994) argues that cultural beliefs are the essence of the difference between Maghribis and Genoese. Differently in the case of P2P vs. industrial production, the argument is usually technological, it does not belong to the realm of the belief but to the material world:

"We need to assume no fundamental change in the nature of humanity; we need not declare the end of economics as we know it. We merely need to see that the material conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange as a modality of economic production." (B.06;p.94).

A broad capacitation of individuals is what enables them for cooperation,

"The declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world's population" (B.06;p.4).

Necessarily Maghribis also needed to be able to cooperate, to posses the material means that capacitate them. Shipping technological development facilitated trade, "shipping was available even to a small merchant, who could rent storage space on a ship" (G.89, p.860) providing the technical capacitation needed for cooperation. Despite technical capacitation is obviously a necessary condition it was not technical capability but cultural beliefs as Greif (1994) defends the responsible of the Maghribis organizational system.

In the context of the expansion of the commercial revolution "Maghribis could not overcome the intrinsic limitations that the architecture of their net imposed." Exclusion imposed costs that inhibit their expansion and facilitated their disappearance, "we have to take into account the costs involved in operating the various social arrangements (...), as well as the costs involved in moving to a new system." (Coase1969, p.23). Maghribis cultural beliefs could not deal with material limitations.

The digital revolution has radically altered the "material conditions of production": while P2P is a result of technology, Maghribis organization is based on beliefs. Maghribis´ system is rooted, enabled and limited by exclusion, on the contrary, P2P is based on integration and aggregation. There are underlying fundamental differences in the organizational architecture of "current" P2P processes and Maghribis trading system. In as much P2P architecture is based on integration rather than on exclusion, it will not depend on beliefs but on technology and Maghribis´ limitations won't apply to P2P. If the architecture reaches its limits (if there are) and no further integration/aggregation is feasible, cooperation will be sustained by beliefs (instead of technology), there will be exclusion (at least what can not be integrated) and Maghribis´limitations might apply.

Is it possible still to argue that Maghribis where P2P pioneers?

Are they just another form of collectivism with no particular relationship with the present beyond that it is collectivist? I don´t think so. Some of the definitory features of P2P are common to the Maghribis as it has been argued. Individualism and collectivism were simbiotic, like it happens now in peer processes, as M. Bauwens argues,

"(...) this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’."

Maghribis system fits into Benkler definition of common-based peer production,

"(...) the networked environment makes possible a new modality of organizing production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands." (B.06, p.60).

It is when other definitions are used that the claim weakens. There is only equipotency among Maghribis, non-Maghribis are excluded. But Equipotency, as defined by M. Bauwens, even when it might not be universal must aim at universality:

"(...) everyone can potentially cooperate in a project, that no authority can pre-judge the ability to cooperate, but that the quality of cooperation is then judged by the community of peers, i.e. through Communal Validation. In equipotential projects, participants self-select themselves to the module to which they feel able to contribute."

Lets call this definition of the term that entails universality strict-equipotency. If strict-equipotency is a necessary condition for being considered a P2P process, hence Maghribis are not. If non-strict-equipotency (no universality) is fine then they are.

There is a feeling (which I share) that we are witnessing a shift of paradigm, a revolution (intellectual,participatory, mass amateurization, digital...). P2P is believed to be one of the new born enterprises of this revolution if not the alma matter, the core of the shift of paradigm.

Is this aim of universality a defining, necessary characteristic of the network economies resulting from this revolution? Might exclusion have still a role?

What is at the core of this alleged shift of paradigm?

* Republished at the P2PFoundation.

sábado, 1 de agosto de 2009


There is a tendency to believe peer production to be a better system. Fine with that, the point now is whether it is sustainable or not.

As it was argued in the previous post there is at least ground for considering fundamental similarities between our understanding of P2P and the medieval Maghrebis traders´ system. However Maghribis traders succumbed to history meanwhile Genoese survived, created some of the first banks and shares and thereby established the foundational stones of capitalism.

If P2P system is superior/preferable why did it not succeed?


Lets see first what where the fundamental similarities and differences between Genoeses and Maghribis.

"Genuensis ergo mercator" (Genoese, therefore merchant), says an old proverb. Effectively, large-scale long-distance overseas trade was central not only to Maghribis but to Genoa. Both the Maghribis and the Genoese began trading in the Mediterranean in the eleventh century and in similar conditions:

"The Maghribis and the Genoese faced a similar environment, employed comparable naval technology, and traded in similar goods." (Greif 1994, p.917)

They both faced a similar organizational problem: in order to organize overseas trade, agents are needed abroad to handle the merchandise, but without proper institutions to supervise them reliance in their honesty (asymmetric information) was problematic.

So far these are all similarities, where are the differences?

As it was previously argued the Maghribis were an ethnical/cultural group (coalition) conforming a net of equipotent members -peers- where cooperation of equals was granted. This coalition solved the organizational problem of overseas trade through a reputation-mechanism: free information flows from and through any peer enabling identification of cheating members which are punished with the exclusion of the net. Hence there was a stable system based on trust in which trust was enabled by access to information and exclusion of non-trustable members.

In contrast to this cooperative system with an open approach towards information as a communal good,

"(...) the Genoese seem to have held an opposite attitude regarding information sharing. Lopez (1943) noted the efforts of the Genoese to conceal information and conjectured that the `individualistic, taciturn, and reserved Genoese´ were not `talkative´ about their businesses and were even `jealous of their business secrets´ (p. 168)". (G.94, p. 924)

Maghribis behaved as a common-based peer production,

"(...) the networked environment makes possible a new modality of organizing production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands." (Benkler 2006, p.60)

While for Genoese private property is at the core of their organizational system,

"The core characteristic of property as the institutional foundation of markets is that the allocation of power to decide how a resource will be used is systematically and drastically asymmetric. That asymmetry permits the existence of `an owner´". (B.06, p.61).

This divergence is also reflected on the predominant contractual forms in each group. While Genoese "(...) mainly used commenda contracts, which were, by and large, established between two parties one providing capital and the other providing work in the form of travelling and transacting overseas." Maghribis "(...) used mainly partnership and `formal friendship´. In a partnership, two or more traders invested capital and labor in a joint venture and shared the profit in proportion to their capital investment. In a formal friendship´, two traders who operated in different trade centers provided each other with agency services without receiving pecuniary compensation (Goitein 1967, p. 214 ff.; Stillman 1970; Gil 1983b, 1:200 ff.)." (G.94, p.928)

Different contractual forms shaped differently each society. Maghribis were a "homogeneous group of middle-class traders" (G.89, p.865), a horizontal net of equipotent peers being any peer both an agent and a merchant. "In contrast, agency relations among the Genoese traders were vertical. Wealthy merchants who rarely, if ever, functioned as agents hired relatively poor agents who rarely, if ever, functioned as merchants (De Roover 1965, p. 51 ff.). Byrne (1916, p. 159) concluded that during the late twelfth century, `as a rule´ the Genoese agents were `not men of great wealth or of high position.´" (G.94, p.928).

Genoese traders are not equipotent at all: either agent (low wealth and social status) either merchant (wealthy and high status), information does not flow (secrecy is predominant) and there is rather competition than cooperation. Genoese's organizational system is basically the opposite of Maghribis.

What is the underlying cause of this divergence? Greif (1994) points to cultural beliefs as the radical difference between both of the groups. But how can a "bunch" of beliefs account for such a divergent differentiation?

While the Maghribis had a collectivist tradition the Genoese were individualist:

"(...) Christianity during that period placed the individual rather than his social group at the center of its theology. It advanced the creation of `a new society based not on the family but on the individual, whose salvation, like his original loss of innocence, was personal and private´ (Hughes 1974, p. 61)." (G.94, p.923)

The eleventh century witnesses a spectacular rise in commerce, it is the preliminary stage of the commercial revolution. It is in this context that Genoa explosively develops as one of the main trading Mediterranean ports. This explosive economic growth attracted immigration. Information acquisition and transmission was costly in the middle ages and incentives and mechanisms are needed for information to be shared. As Benkler (2006, p.100) points out, "core inputs of information production ubiquitously distributed in society is a core enabling fact, but it alone cannot assure that social production will become economically significant."

This is in fact the case,

"If the (...) individual can satisfy his need through self-sufficiency, or through aid from some official source without incurring an obligation, he will do so-and thus fail to add to the social capital outstanding in the community." Coleman (1988, P.S117).

In this context of explosive commercial and economic growth with neither previous structures nor incentives for information sharing an individualist scheme triumphed over more communal alternatives.

"Instead of a few dozen traders who had previously been active in each trade center abroad, hundreds of Genoese began trading. At the same time, Genoa experienced a high level of immigration. For instance, Genoa's population increased from 30,000 to 100,000 between 1200 and 1300. In the absence of appropriate social networks for information transmission, the individualist equilibrium was likely to be selected. Once it was selected, individualist cultural beliefs discouraged investment in information. In the absence of a coordinating mechanism, a switch to a collectivist equilibrium was not likely to occur". (G.94, p.924).

In the other hand, Maghribis´ reputation mechanism was based on trust, information access and exclusion. In a context of explosive growth and overseas commercial expansion the conditions for trust and reputation mechanisms are difficult to be achieved. Different cultural beliefs (collectivist/individualistic), accelerated growth and trade expansion yielded the completely opposite solutions to the common organizational problem of overseas trade.

Trade expansion and transaction costs: the rise of Genoa and the decline of the Magharebis

"Commercially, both groups responded similarly and expanded their trade from Spain to Constantinople. From the perspective of societal organization, however, their responses differed. The Genoese responded in an `integrated´ manner, but the Maghribis responded in a `segregated´ manner. The Maghribis expanded their trade employing other Maghribis as agents." (G.94, p.930).

This difference -integrated/segregated- proved to be fundamental. In order for the Maghribis to maintain their organizational system trust was required. Trust was achieved by establishing commercial relations only within the net, while the Genoese could hire anyone as agent. Genoese were more able than Magherebis in expanding their commercial net.

"As trade with more remote trade centers became possible, a merchant could either hire an agent from his own economy who would sail or emigrate abroad, or hire an agent native to the other trade center. Such intereconomy agency relations are likely to be more efficient than intraeconomy agency relations since they enhance commercial flexibility, and a native agent does not need to immigrate and is likely to possess a better knowledge of local conditions." (G.94, p.931)

Maghribis system radically depended on trust and this one on exclusion. Segregation was the result, and segregation proved to be a constraint for their expansion: the costs of expanding their net would have outweighed the benefits. Benkler (2006, p.59) points out that "Industrial organization literature provides a prominent place for the transaction costs view of markets and firms". This is here the case: expanding Maghribis´ net reported excessive increases of transaction costs, so far that they could not expand the net. The opposite happened with the Genoese: since trust was not essential Genoese could capture the advantages of using native agents.

"(...) the primary reason to choose among proprietary and nonproprietary strategies, between marketbased systems—be they direct market exchange or firm-based hierarchical production—and social systems, are the comparative transaction costs of each, and the extent to which these transaction costs either outweigh the benefits of working through each system, or cause the system to distort the information it generates so as to systematically misallocate resources." (B.06, p.107).

The proprietary scheme of the Genoese was more able to expand than the communal approach of the Maghribis: Genoese had a comparative advantage in terms of transaction costs over the Magharibis.Maghribis could not overcome the intrinsic limitations that the architecture of their net imposed. When the net needed to be expanded the structure, the underlying architecture proved to be too rigid. The inability of the Maghribis to expand their net limited commercial expansion and prevented the survival of the model once trade was forbidden to the Maghribis.

"That this segregation is endogenous is reflected in the Maghribis' later history, when, toward the end of the twelfth century, they were forced by the ruler of Egypt to cease trading. At this point they integrated with the Jewish communities and vanished from the stage of history." (G.94, p.930)

Even though it can not be ascertained that the disappearance of the Maghribis´ system was due to intrinsic limitations it is however clear that they had strong intrinsic constraints and disadvantages in the context of trade expansion while the Genoese system did not.

Saint George Palace (Genoa)

How far can this be applied to "modern" P2P?

The underlying architecture of Maghribis´P2P organizational system had intrinsic disadvantages that prevented its expansion while proto-capitalism appeared, expanded and became the dominant system.

Will a similar story happen all over again? Is P2P architecture different?



Greif, A.; "Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence on the Maghribi Traders" (1989)

Greif, A.; "Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies" (1994)

Benkler, Y.; "The Wealth of Networks" (2006)

Coleman, J. S.; "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital" (1988).

*For a discussion on the right interpretation of the original sources see:

Edwards, J. and Ogilvie, S. “Contract Enforcement, Institutions and Social Capital: the Maghribi Traders Reappraised” (2008)

Contract Enforcement and Institutions among the Maghribi Traders: Refuting Edwards and Ogilvie Avner Greif (2008)

**Re-published at the P2P Foundation

martes, 21 de julio de 2009


Within the digital revolution P2P processes have aroused as something radically new, a new form of production, a new paradigm that could outset more traditional productive models. Is this the case?

Well, once upon a time, in the eleventh-century, some Mediterranean traders conformed a peer organization. Members of this organization provided each other with trade-related services creating a net of overseas traders: traders were mostly sedentary, and would trust other (sedentary) traders to handle business abroad. These agency services would start by agreement and could be terminated by either party at any time and information (mostly trade related but not only) would flow freely and became public (within the organization). Traders were peers within this organization being flexibility the norm. Cooperation was synergistic so all the traders of the organization resulted benefited from cooperation by reducing costs of trade.:
The evidence indicates that eleventh-century Mediterranean traders arranged agency relations through a peer organization that may be referred to as a coalition. Members of the coalition provided each other with agency services that increased the value of a member's capital. Greif (1989, p.859)
"Agency relations among the traders were characterized by flexibility. Sedentary traders served as agents for those who traveled, and vice versa. Wealthy merchants served as agents for poorer ones, and vice versa. Usually a trader served as an agent for several merchants, while receiving agency services from them or other traders." (G.89, p.739)

A priory, this sounds like there is a P2P process operative within this "coalition". Lets see how can P2P be defined:
"It is a specific form of relational dynamic, is based on the assumed equipotency of its participants , organized through the free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task, for the creation of a common good, with forms of decision-making and autonomy that are widely distributed throughout the network." Michel Bauwen (Peer-to-Peer Foundation)

Well there seems to be equipotency among participants (being a merchant or an agent does not depend on wealth or power, any agent is both a merchant and an agent), there is certainly free cooperation of equals (traders provide each other agency services and free information) and it can be assumed that the resulting synergy from the cooperation is a common good. So lets dig deeper into this "primitive organization", who were they and how has this information survived until today?.

Avner Greif analyzes in several papers a certain group of Mediterranean traders known as the Maghribi traders
"These were Jewish traders who lived in the Abbasid caliphate (centered in Baghdad) until the first half of the tenth century, when they emigrated to North Africa (a part of the Maghrib, the Muslim world's West), mainly to Tunisia. This region was prospering at that time under the rule of the Fatimid caliphate." (G.89, p.861).The Mahhribis "were involved in large-scale, long-distance trade all over the Muslim Mediterranean" (G.94, p.917).

In his research Greif exploits rich the information contained in the Cairo Geniza Documents,
"geniza is a place where Jews locked away writings on which the name of God was or might have been written. From about the ninth century on, a geniza room was located in a synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo), where for centuries tens of thousands of documents were deposited. The room and its contents were eventually forgotten until the end of the last century, when the treasure was rediscovered." (Greif 1989; p.859).

Greif uses the Geniza documents to reconstruct commercial, economic and social relationships of the Maghribis:
Although the emigrants "were musta´ribun, that is, non-Muslims who adopted the values of the Muslim society" and there were Jewish communities in the Maghrib, "although the Maghribi immigrants integrated into existing Jewish communities, they also retained a strong sense of identity and solidarity among themselves" remaining as a separate group. (G.94; p.922).

They conformed what Greif calls a "coalition" in which all of them were trading-peers:
"the Maghribi traders group was a homogeneous group of middle-class traders and each of them operated as a merchant and as an agent at the same time". "Whenever a partner utilized the partnership's capital, he acted as an agent for the partnership. Henceforth the term `merchant´ denotes an individual who receives the residual revenue after the agent receives his compensation. The term `trader´ refers to both agents and merchants" (G.89, p.865 & 874).

In their trading relationships there is obviously asymmetric information (since the merchant is overseas he does not know whether the agent is misreporting the common revenue), besides "in the eleventh century the legal system failed to provide a framework within which agency relations could be organized" (G.89, 866). The Maghribis solved this problem through what Greif calls a reputation-mechanism:
"the merchant must create a gap between the expected lifetime utility of an agent employed by him and the agent's best alternative elsewhere. To do so the merchant has to provide the agent a premium; for example, he can pay him a wage premium. Of equal importance is the implicit contract established between merchant and agent, under which the merchant threatens to fire the agent and never operate through him again if he discovers that the agent has ever cheated" (G.89, p.867). When a "Maghribi trader wanted to impose social sanctions against another trader, he made a public appeal to the Jewish communities" (G.89, p.863) The cheater punishment would be the exclusion from the community (no agency services, no commercial information). The resulting synergy from this cooperation is that "this implicit contract improves upon the simple reputation mechanism. It reduces the optimal premium that a merchant has to pay an agent to keep him honest" (G.89, p.867).

Basically, agent and merchant share the profits of a partnership at the lowest cost (note that any trader is at the same time merchant and agent). Since information freely flows within the community whenever a trader reports another trader to have cheated the later is condemned to social and commercial ostracism.

Fine with history, coming back to nowadays reality, what does it has to do medieval ships and traders with P2P, what are the characteristics of P2P processes so it can be assessed whether is there really a P2P processes in the Maghribi coalition trading system?

Michel Bauwens in an excerpt from the manuscript "Beyond Formalization, Institutionalization, Commodification" defines the characteristics of P2P as being:

  • equipotency: there are no formal rules to prohibit anyone from participation, a characteristic that could be called 'anti-credentialism'. Validation is a communal intersubjective process.
  • de-institutionalization: P2P processes are not structureless, but most often flexible structures that follow internally generated rules.
  • de-commodification: with ‘commons-based peer production’ or P2P-based knowledge exchange more generally, the production does not result in commodities sold to consumers, but in use value made for users.
There is de-institutionalization (flexibility is the norm and punishments are decided by the community), and there is de-commodification as well (a flow of information is produced, this information is free and it creates value for the users creating or/and facilitating trade; besides, the existence of this information allows traders to be both merchants and agents). What about equipotency? The agents are equipotent, however the reputation-mechanism allows to prohibit cheaters (anti-cooperative agents) from participation. The system bans anti-cooperative peers (nothing is said about the free-riders); fine, known P2P-systems also ban/block certain users due to their anti-cooperative behaviour (Wikipedia, for instance). Furthermore the reputation mechanism is a "communal intersubjuctive process". Hence, if my reasoning is not wrong, It does not seem then that this definition of equipotency should deter considering P2P processes within the Maghrebis.

Don Tapscott names in Wikinomics four conditions for Peer Production works at its best:

  1. The object of production is information or culture, which keeps the cost of participation low from contributors.
  2. Tasks can be chunked out into bite-sized pieces that individuals can contribute in small increments and independently of other producers (i.e. entries in an encyclopedia or components of a software program). This makes their overall investment of time and energy minimal in relation to the benefits they receive in return.
  3. Benefits of participation are articulated, i.e. content is improved and contributors are compensated.
  4. The costs of integrating those pieces into a finished end product, including leadership and quality-control mechanisms, must be low"
Once again these eleventh-century traders seem to meet the conditions, 1) a free-flow of commercial information is produced, 2) individuals provide information and agency services independently of the rest of traders who do not get directly involved in a specific partnership, 3) trading costs are reduced through these system and since any trader is both merchant and agent all traders benefit, 4) Information flows easily since traders within the group are interconnected through -inside- common acquaintances, besides control mechanisms are costless and easy to implement (reports on cheaters flows to any trading-peer within the coalition).

"Frequently the associate also had to collect a trader's revenues (a difficult task in many cases) and then handle them according to the trader's instructions. How greatly such associates reduced the cost of trade is suggested by one trader who wrote to his business associate, `all profit occurring to me comes from your pocket´, while another trader remarked that in trade `people cannot operate without people´.
(G.89, 864).

Coming again to our present time, when wondering why is P2P emerging now, the P2P-Foundation, borrowing from Beckler´s Wealth of Networks, hypothesize that lower capital requirements of information production

1. reduces the value of proprietary strategies and makes public, shared information more important,
2. encourages a wider range of motivations to produce, thus demoting supply-and-demand from prime motivator to one-of-many, and
3. allows large-scale, cooperative information production efforts that were not possible before.

Looks like in the eleventh century a bunch of traders in the Maghreb found how make this very same process to succeed: even though there was no apparent change in the requirements of information related capital, information was made freely available. This resulted in publicly shared information, ambivalent trading position (merchant/agent) and large scale information production (reputation system).

P2P is thought to be based on digital information, Internet and computers, how could it happen that a system that resembles so much to what we now call P2P could operate a thousand years ago? If it was such a good model, how is it that no one knows about them apart of Greif, some scholars, me and now you. How is it that they did not survive?

Avner Greif points to cultural beliefs (G.94) as the underlying reason for "lowered capital requirements of
information production". There was in the same age and area a non-cooperative, non-collectivist (individualist) society, the Genoese traders. The Genoese traders also operated in the Mediterranean, had similar technologies and similar knowledge. They were however completly different from the organizational point of view. They were also very different in the sense that they survived while the Maghribi traders disappeared into the vacuum of history.

Is then P2P such a new thing?
What are the limits of P2P production?
Can it endure now?

Quoted papers from Avner Greif:
Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence on the Maghribi Traders (1989)
Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies (1994)

*This post was somehow inspired by the presentation of Ulises Ali Mejías (Peerless: the Ethics of P2P Netw
ork), researching the edges of the P2P paradigm, during the seminar InclusivaNet.

**republished at the P2P-FOUNDATION.

miércoles, 15 de julio de 2009


China´s Great Firewall might stop the virus of free information but Internet addiction is another business. It is not surprising that when being a workaholic is the only tolerated addiction scape from reality becomes an issue. China is alarmed, the Washington Post says:
"Alarmed by a survey that found that nearly 14 percent of teens in China are vulnerable to becoming addicted to the Internet, the Chinese government has launched a nationwide campaign to stamp out what the Communist Youth League calls "a grave social problem" that threatens the nation."
What else could "threat the nation" when the nation is the "factory of the world" and the factory is suffering a slowdown, than having its workers wasting their time, actually China´s time, in a virtual world.

Bans and clinics, that seems to be China´s recipe. Now one of the "treatments" -electro shock therapy- has risen critics up to the point that it has been forbidden.
"The Ministry of Health announcement followed recent media reports about a controversial psychiatrist in Linyi, Shandong Province, who administered electric currents to nearly 3,000 teenagers in an attempt to rid them of their Internet habit."
There is no better therapy than prevention: freedom, too much freedom, that must be the problem.

And now something -not- completely different: a pioneer in electric-clinical application (en español, de Fogonazos)