1.2 What are P2P and the Commons, and how do they relate?

What are the Commons and P2P, how do they interrelate, and what is their influence in labor, politics, production, carework? How do the Commons and P2P practices affect our present social and cultural value systems?

Commons can be understood from different perspectives, but several principles are mainstays. Author David Bollier describes Commons as a shared resource, co-governed by its user community according to the community’s rules and norms. Things that can be managed as a commons include natural resources (land, water, air), and created assets (culture, knowledge), and can be either inherited or human-made, but “The Commons” refers to the process as a whole — the synergy between the elements of a community, a resource and the rules for its co-governance.

The following four perspectives, according to commons scholar and activist Silke Helfrich, offer ways to both perceive and interact with Commons, which can be seen as:

  1. Collectively managed resources, both material and immaterial, which need protection and require a lot of knowledge and know-how.
  1. Social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships. These form part of complex socio-ecological systems which must be consistently stewarded, reproduced, protected and expanded through commoning.
  1. A new mode of production focused on new productive logics and processes.
  1. A paradigm shift, that sees commons and the act of commoning as a worldview.

It is said, “There is no commons without commoning”. This means that resources (or “gifts”) by themselves do not constitute a Commons. These must be activated by community action and governance. Again, the Commons is neither the resource, the community that gathers around it, nor the protocols for its stewardship, but the dynamic interaction between all these elements.

An example is Wikipedia: there is a resource (encyclopedic entries), a community (the authors and editors) and a set of community-harvested rules and protocols (Wikipedia’s content and editing guidelines). The Wikimedia Commons emerges from of all three. Another example, but in a radically different context, is the Siuslaw National Forest, in Oregon, USA. Managed as a commons, we also find a resource (the forest), a community (loggers, environmental scientists and forest rangers comprising its ‘watershed council’) and a set of rules and bylaws (the charter for sustainably co-managing the forest).

No master inventory of commons exists, as they arise whenever a community decides to manage a resource collectively. The Commons as a whole thrives on the vast diversity of individual commons worldwide, ranging from fisheries to urban spaces, and many other forms of shared wealth.

If “commons” is the “what”, “P2P” could be considered the “how”.

P2P —“peer to peer”, “people to people”, or “person to person”— is a relational dynamic through which people (“peers”) freely collaborate with one another to create value in the form of shared resources, circulated in the form of commons.

Computers in a network can interact with each other; these consensual connections between “peers” in computing systems is perhaps the first well known description of P2P. For example, audio and video file sharing came to be popularly known as P2P file sharing. Similarly, some parts of the Internet’s infrastructure, like data transmission, have also been called P2P.

Let’s assume there are human users behind those computers. These users have a technological tool allowing them to interact with each other easily, even globally, person to person.

So, there are at least two types of relationships described as P2P, potentially causing confusion of definitions and terms, which we would like to clarify. There is an interdependence of the technological infrastructure (computers communicating) and the human relational dynamic (people communicating). But a technological infrastructure does not necessarily need to be fully P2P in order to facilitate P2P human relationships. Let’s explore some examples.

Compare Facebook or Bitcoin with Wikipedia, or other free/open source software projects. They all use P2P dynamics but in different ways, and with different political orientations.

P2P systems are generally open to all contributors and contributions, and permissionless, meaning that a contributor doesn’t need permission from someone else to contribute. The quality and inclusion of work is usually determined after the fact by a layer of editors and maintainers (e.g. Wikipedia).

In summary, P2P networks of interconnected computers used by people collaborating can provide vital, shared functionalities for the Commons. But P2P has far broader reach and application than the limits of the high tech, digital realm. P2P is about non-coercive, non-hierarchic social relations. Its qualities have the potential to profoundly change human society.

P2P and the Commons together create a synergy for collaborations at larger scales and levels of complexity. The combination of P2P technical and social infrastructures can support the creation and maintenance of shared and co-managed resources (commons).

In brief, P2P expresses an observable pattern of relations between humans, while the Commons tell us the specific what (as in resources), who (the communities gathered around the resources) and how (the protocols used to steward the resources ethically and sustainably for future generations) of these relational dynamics.

A commons includes three essential elements: a shared resource, co-governed by its user community, and the community’s rules for governance. “A commons” could include natural resources (water, air), and/or created assets (culture, knowledge). P2P —“peer to peer”, “people to people”, or “person to person”— is a way in which peers freely collaborate with each other to create value in the form of shared resources, circulated in the form of commons. If “commons” is the “what” – the blend of resource, community and rules  – “P2P” could be considered the “how” – methodologies, practices, governance and networks, as examples.