Peer-to-Peer and the Promise of Internet Equality – Phil Agre

Long before there were blogs, Phil Agre was publishing a great read-only mailing list called Red Rock NewsEater which regularly commented on a mix of technological and social issues and was an outlet for new drafts of Agre’s papers. Agre is a fascinating character – he has a PhD in artificial intelligence studies from MIT, but seems to have spent most of his professional life in  library studies, and information and organizational dynamics. The mailing list changed focus with the new american administration and subsequent events,  and eventually traffic seems to have dropped right off. But as I always valued the insight Agre brought, I dropped by his website today to see what he had been up to, and found this very relevant paper.

The paper sets out to “explore the tension between the engineering story of rationally distributed computation and the political story of institutional change through decentralized architecture…In the case of peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies, the official engineering story is that computational effort should be distributed to reflect the structure of the problem. But the engineering story does not explain the strong feelings that P2P often evokes. The strong feelings derive from a political story, often heatedly disavowed by technologists but widespread in the culture: that P2P delivers on the Internet’s promise of decentralization.

It was with profound relief that I read these opening sentences in the paper. I have been witnessing a number of projects adopting p2p or ‘decentralized’ or ‘distributed’ architectures for problems that computationally didn’t seem to call for them – if anything, in some of these cases this architecture seemed to add a layer of unneeded complexity. And since the people implementing these systems are typically very smart people, there must be some other motivation for adopting these models. And there are – what  Agre here calls the “political story of institutional change through decentralized architecture.” Yet what troubled me was the seeming claims in this ‘political story’ that change is bound to these technologies, as it has never seemed obvious to me that the two are inextricably bound – you can have systems with centralized architectures that promotes change, and decentralized ones that don’t.

I think this paper reaches a similar conclusion. As Agre puts it: “The peer-to-peer movement understands that architecture is politics, but it should not assume that architecture is a substitute for politics. Radically improved information and communication technologies do open new possibilities for institutional change. To explore those possibilities, though, technologists will need better ideas about institutions.

So maybe it’s just the case of many of these projects using the technology as a lever to shift the institutions and realizing that more than just the technologies will need to change. Or maybe we have reached father than we grasp. We shall see. – SWL

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Peer-to-Peer and the Promise of Internet Equality – Phil Agre