Abstract of the paper presented by Andrew Whelan at the 4th Inclusiva-net meeting, July 10th.
As a model of resource distribution, social interaction, and collective content management, peer-to-peer technologies (p2p) offer unprecedented insights into the contemporary organisation of information and the limitations of the legal, cultural, and institutional frameworks under which this organisation is currently managed. The utopian ideal of p2p music distribution, for instance, imagines the largest collectively and voluntarily maintained, decentralised (and thus easily accessible), and free archive of recorded sound in human history. P2p is often associated with open source, hacker, creative commons, and general collaborative approaches to content production and distribution, and with the dissemination of a number of niche genres which would otherwise have remained largely unknown (or, indeed, might never have developed at all). Taken in its broader environment, p2p has also arguably been instrumental to the emergence of netlabels as distributive and cultural phenomena. It cannot be doubted that the impact of p2p on the established music industry, the legal framework in which it operates, and the practices of artists, fans and consumers has been profound, and it can also be argued that p2p in some ways contributed to the ground for the user-generated content and participatory nature of ‘Web 2.0’.
For some time, it has been popular to conceptualise p2p with frameworks drawn from anthropological economics, which bypass the normative catallactic assumptions about market behaviour associated with neoclassical economism (the ‘rational’, means/end calculating, self-interested market agent and so on). In particular, the array of concepts around the economy of the gift, derived variously from Mauss, Malinowski and others, have been deployed to account for the ostensibly ‘irrational’ altruism and reciprocity which seem to characterise so much p2p activity. However, it may be that this use of theories of the gift tend to exaggerate and romanticise the benevolence of p2p behaviour, and unwittingly enforce the utopian idealism associated with p2p as a social practice with political implications, and as an alternative model for the equitable distribution of cultural goods.
For the purposes of this paper, I would like to suggest that there are good grounds for considering p2p in broader terms, considering its excessive and ‘destructive’ as well as ‘constructive’ aspects. Such consideration could contribute productively to the critical assessment and invigoration of accounts of p2p as an exercise in consumer sovereignty, collective solidarity, participatory culture, and political action. To this end, I suggest a perspective informed by the ‘accursed share’ of Bataille’s general economy, in which superabundance and excess are inherent, inevitable and yet nonetheless continuously threatening to the status quo. In this way I hope that both the excessive and problematic tendencies of p2p culture (which it is sensible to enumerate), and the bizarre over-reactions to it, can be elaborated and better contextualised. Bataille’s general economy effectively collapses the isolation of ‘economy’ as a form of cultural flow, and thus perhaps one of the most significant benefits it offers is an interest in circulations otherwise not usually considered: the musical and cultural forms which p2p users themselves gift to the content industries and society at large. Rather than persisting in valorising the potentials of p2p and contrasting it with the market’s ongoing assimilation of the commons into private hands, this paper proposes a devil’s advocate critique of p2p culture, grounded in observations concerning its current forms and directions, the limits to its use arising from the identitarian preoccupations and practices of many of its users, weaknesses in the system which derive precisely from its populism, and the very real problem of superabundance of cultural content.