[iDC] Conversation on p2p architecture with polymath Eric Hunting

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Sat Sep 13 09:33:23 UTC 2008

This is the start of a fascinating
interview with polymath Eric Hunting. In the first question, while
reviewing his interest in sustainable building, he mentions a number of
modernist antecedents, while the second question is the occasion for a
more lengthy disgression on the p2p aspects of traditional community
Question: I have been impressed by your deep knowledge of
shelter and housing, and know you are very interested in open design
practices, perhaps you could start by summarizing how this interest
originated, so that our readers can know a little bit of your
Eric Hunting:
“I’ve long had an interest in such futurist personalities as
Buckminster Fuller and Paulo Soleri, in the subject of environmental
sustainability, and a fondness for Modernist design as well as the more
unusual design disciplines (such as the multi-faceted field of organic
design), but my concerted study of alternative architecture originated
with a very practical need. As an MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity
syndrome) patient I have had a critical need for low-toxic housing
-housing free of latently toxic materials that minimize the
accumulation of indoor air pollution- but discovered that a general
ignorance in the homebuilding industry of the nature and origins of
materials commonly in use made obtaining such housing in the US a
virtually insurmountable challenge. Though it is possible to build
conventional housing with a simple substitution of safe materials for
those of dubious safety and a return to some pre-WWII building
techniques, the relative scarcity or increased labor/skill overhead of
such substitutions can radically increase the costs of a home. Most of
the sufferers of MCS, and the often considered related Gulf War
Syndrome, are extremely economically challenged due to an inability to
tolerate most work environments and so affording even low-cost
conventional housing is difficult, let alone any housing that might
cost far more than normal. This being my own situation, I was compelled
to begin exploring the full spectrum of home and industrial building
technology and design in the hopes of finding means of both realizing
non-toxic housing and greatly economizing on its cost compared to
conventional housing without any sacrifices in standard of living.
Overlapping as it does the fields of industrial technology,
environmentalism, renewable energy, architecture, relief/aid
technology, and more, through this research I was exposed to not only a
remarkable variety of overlooked building methods from the ancient past
to the near-future but also a largely overlooked history of
architectural and industrial design. I was particularly intrigued by
the long obsession with modular architecture among the classic
Modernists and the question of why virtually all attempts at making
this work for mainstream building have failed despite a century of
truly remarkable invention. I also became interested in the curious
evolution of the sustainable technology and renewable energy movements,
which originated with the likes of Fuller as a very progressive
high-tech-oriented, movement, changed after the late 70s Energy Crisis
into a soft-tech movement with a very anti-technology, anti-Modernist
stance, and in recent times has returned again to a high-tech approach
riding on the coat-tails of New Modernism. (an evolution mirrored in
the environmentalist movement in general) This all led me to the
discovery of the mid-century Post-Industrial movement, how it related
to people like Fuller and Solari, how it once split over the prophesies
of cultural revolution and Total Automation (the first incarnation of
the idea of Singularity), and how it has been reinvented/reinterpreted
over the turn of the century by writers like the Swiss activitst/author
P.M. Alvin Toffler, Chris Anderson, Ray Kurzweil, Kim Drexler, Terence
McKenna, etc., in the emerging Maker movement, the Open Source software
movement, in the nanotechnology development community, in the
transhumanism community, and among the new generation of Diamond Age
science fiction writers. I came to notice and was intrigued by how so
many people coming from so many completely different directions were
arriving at convergent views of the underlying trends of the present
and common vision of the future they point towards.”
QUESTION TWO: In my understanding, peer to peer is
the voluntary self-aggregration by humans in order to create common
value. This takes place through the use of open and free raw material
(i.e. the intellectual basis for cooperation to occur), participatory
process of development of the common knowledge, and a ‘commons’
oriented output, so that the result is universally available to all and
can serve for further levels of refinement. It is my conviction that
such peer production practices are morphing from their use in the
creation of content and free software, towards the open design of
physical production, and I would include in that the production of
shelter and housing, and rural or urban space in general. So it is
something that, as a non-expert, would like to discuss with an expert
such as yourself.
In terms of my description above, i.e. the three new paradigms, or
any correction that you feel you need to add to that yourself, do you think there is today an actual or potential emergence of something that we could call ‘peer to peer’ architecture.
If the question is too complex for one reply, perhaps we can start one
paradigm at a time. Is there something like an open and free
architecture today?

Eric Hunting:

“I think the P2P movement is rediscovering something that has
existed as a fundamental aspect of true communities since the origin of
civilization but which western culture lost the memory of over the
Industrial Age as it systematically disrupted or destroyed traditional
communities in favor of new macro-communities, reducing human beings to
economic units and cultivating a mass sociopathy. For as long as the
human species has existed, we have come together in groups for the
purpose of cultivating very practical, tangible, survival-critical
resources beyond the means of the individual. And before the advent of
bureaucratic institutional systems, P2P was the only way these
resources could be created because you simply could not force people to
participate in things against their will as long as they had somewhere
else to go. The original and most basic communal resources were most
likely protection, sexual opportunity, productivity, and propriety.
From these derived countless others culminating in the creation of
fixed architecture requiring communal participation to create. One of
the key benefits of the productivity resource -the higher productivity
yield from physical labor shared- is that through group participation
one can construct dwellings of much greater robustness and comfort than
is possible for the solitary individual working alone. But in order to
gain this communal labor in exchange for one’s own participation a P2P
negotiation must be conducted with one’s fellow neighbor-builders in
order to work out equitable dwelling sizes and acceptable designs and
locations. The very organic character of the organization of ancient
villages and cities is a reflection of the fluid nature of property -a
function of propriety- within this P2P process in small groups. This is
still a hallmark of P2P activity today, as demonstrated by the more
organic nature of Open Source code design compared to its corporate
produced counterparts. Ultimately, the architecture of an entire
village and its key facilities is worked-out in this P2P fashion and
over time standards codified as ‘traditions’ are established to
streamline the P2P process across the physical evolution of a
community, culminating in what we today refer to as architectural
‘vernaculars’; region/culture-specific systems of design and methods of

So, in fact, P2P architecture is not new. It was how most people
housed themselves and built their villages and cities for most of human
history and how a very large portion of the world still does it,
wherever true communities have not been supplanted or disrupted by
western economics and people, of necessity, still primarily employ
their own labor in a communal fashion to create their homes. Basically,
wherever pre-industrial and primary cultures still persist in some form
around the globe. Because we have so little functional memory of life
before our all-encompassing all-controlling bureaucratic complexes, we
tend to over-estimate the importance of authority figures in earlier
societies, assuming that there was always some kind of dictatorial
control in communities. But, in fact, the so-called ‘rulers’ had very
specialized and limited roles in early society because their authority
came from group consensus and they simply had no special knowledge or
insight compared to the average person. These people functioned
primarily as mediators and conflict-resolvers, not dictators or even
organizers. Indeed, anthropologists have noted that, no matter who
might be sitting in the chief’s seat, most often the person who really
kept primary culture communities functioning was an especially socially
clued-in older woman with a talent for communication who functioned as
a catalyst of P2P activity and general social harmony. The original,
functional, queen bee. So ‘rulers’ might always have the last word, but
rarely ever the first.

In the west P2P architecture can only manifest itself in the
scarce situations where community can be overlooked or ignored by
bureaucrats and authorities seeking to suppress the expression of it
-especially community that can command any sort of control of real
property and economic resources. So we tend to see P2P architecture
emerge ad hoc, entertainment-oriented, and often temporary in
sub-cultural ’special interest’ communities. For instance, model plane
enthusiasts often build club airports complete with miniature airstrips
and air traffic control towers. This is sometimes taken to the scale of
‘fly in communities’ (like the one John Travolta lives in) where
private plane enthusiasts create a communal airport which they build
their homes around, each having a hangar as well as a car garage. Model
train enthusiasts build club train layouts in a shared building
-sometimes of astounding area. Groups like the Society for Creative
Anachronism and the various Civil War re-creationist groups establish
temporary military camps or villages. Artists communities often form
residential communities around the shared facilities like kilns,
foundries, and galleries. Urban gardeners collaborate on the creation
of community farms and gardens in abandoned lots. (which, it’s
interesting to note, American cities such as New York long and
violently resisted throughout the 20th century, police sent in to
destroy such community gardens whenever bureaucrats were made aware of
them as such challenges to official urban planning by mere residents
were not tolerated) And, of course, there’s the Burning Man festival
which is an annual temporary city of P2P managed microvllages that has
become a showcase for some of the latest in prefab and temporary
architecture, itself increasingly the product of P2P projects. (such as
the Hexayurt relief housing project)
But the most functional examples of P2P architecture in the west
-the closest we get to village creation in the manner of those early
societies- may be those Danish-style co-housing communities based on
actual group participation in the very deliberate design of the
community architecture. This is usually done with an architectural firm
(often specialists in co-housing) working as both a source of base-line
design concepts as well as a mediator of group negotiations over
design. However, the ultimate common architecture and aesthetic is a
product of group consensus and, though construction is usually
primarily performed by conventional contractors and everything paid for
by conventional mortgages, sweat-equity investment is common as a means
of reducing housing costs through group effort. The limitation, of
course, is that because of the reliance on ‘professionals’ to design
and build the finished architecture as well as conventional mortgage
financing, later evolvability of the architecture is precluded or
severely diminished which, for a functional small community that is
architecturally divergent from the conventional forms around it, is
eventually a death sentence for the community as a whole.
Interestingly, this concept has been far more successful in the more
culturally progressive regions of Europe like Scandinavia than in the
US. Here, where the lack of heritage made the Industrial Age
suppression of even the real memory of community more complete (largely
supplanted by the fantasy communities of Bedford Falls, Mayberry RFD,
and Walnut Grove…), the fundamental lack of social negotiation skills
produces very protracted periods of organization and negotiation in
co-housing development. It typically takes several times longer to
organize a co-housing project here than anywhere else on the globe and
there is a far higher rate of project collapse. The concept has been
more successful here in the form of ‘master planned’ co-housing
communities instigated by architects that people simply buy-into
after-the-fact, the design left to the ‘experts’ and the P2P portion of
the development process -with all that distasteful face-to-face human
interaction- largely eliminated.

Ironically, eco-villages -similar as they sometimes are to
co-housing and often confused with them because there is cross-over of
sustainable building methods and renewable energy technology- rarely
employ consensus architecture development in the manner of Danish
co-housing and rarely use common architectural designs or deliberate
community pre-planning except where imposed upon them by the master
plan of an architect. This may be explained in that eco-communities not
instigated by architects rarely actually employ architects and when not
architect-designed rarely employ the sustainability-appropriate
village/urban densities that necessitate concerted P2P collaboration.
The lack of cultural memory of functional community architecture may
also have something to do with this. A lot of environmental
‘enthusiasts’ tend to think sustainability is all about straw bale and
rustic woodwork, harbor notions of community that seem to derive more
from JRR Tolkien than anything in real human history, and seek
eco-community creation as a means of ‘escape’ from everything
symbolically urban. So the end result is sometimes ‘eco-villages’ built
ad hoc in once pristine wilderness that are about as sustainable and
community-oriented as a suburban cul-de-sac of McMansions with Hummers
parked in their driveways. It’s ironic that eco-communities, so often
predicated on the objective of demonstrating community ideals, so
rarely embody an expression of community in their architecture while
co-housing, largely predicated on simply making a better form of
suburbia than the market will offer (often for the sake of
child-rearing), is often much more functional as community because is
has practical, rather than idealized, reasons for socialization and
deliberately crafts habitat to accommodate that with the aid of
designers versed -at least- in the ergonomics that requires.”

We continue our fascinating conversation with polymath Eric Hunting (for the first part, see here).

Based on that prior question, I formulated my third question thusly:

First of all, I’m not sure I understand the distinction you
make between property and propriety? Perhaps you could elaborate.
Second, do you have any ideas about a possible integration of what you
call the soft-tech (if not anti-tech) sensibility of the ecovillage
movement, and the more pro-high tech approaches, such as you mention,
and I have also seen at work in the Viridian movement of Bruce Sterling
and the people behind worldchanging.org.

Eric send me a long reply, here’s the first part that continues to
dwell on the pre-industrial past first, starting with distinguishing
between fixed property and the more fluid forms of propriety that
existed and permitted a more organic architecture.

Eric Hunting:
“Property is a function of propriety. There are no unalienable
human rights in nature. There are only the principles of physics,
biology, and instinctual animal behavior. So the right to property is a
social convention that exists only so far as that society is willing to
recognize and defend it by force where necessary. It is a form of
propriety in the same manner as the exclusivity of a sexual
relationship or notions of religious taboo. Thus property does not
exist outside the context of community -as the many refugees we have
created today have learned in tragic fashion. We have today
bureaucratized the disposition of property rights to such an extreme
that people often pretend these rights are laws of nature -until they
personally confront the casual disregard for these rights by government
authorities and discover how limited their options for recourse really
are. In early societies property rights were much more fluid, much more
negotiable, because social equity was critical to community stability.
The extremes of social and economic inequity common in todays
bureaucratic macro-communities could not exist in the small communities
of the past because there were no mechanisms to shield individuals from
the social repercussions of greed and nothing to stop the majority from
simply taking property from individuals by force where needs demanded
and those individuals resisted their ultimate responsibility to the

As I suggested, this earlier fluidity of property rights is
reflected in the very organic architecture of ancient and contemporary
primary culture communities. Today the disposition of real estate is
based on a bureaucratic virtualization of the landscape -the imposition
of quadratic (and earlier ad hoc free-form divisions keyed to natural
landmarks) grids on the national territory which allow a nation-state
to parcel-off land as a commodity and distribute it in various ways.
But in the past the physical territory of a community was defined by
the scale of the population and the productivity of group labor. There
was no virtual grid on this territory and no fixed boundaries or
locations of homes. Territory was defined by the actual use of space.
Villages would tend to be defined in general structure by central
public activity spaces -plazas, atriums, etc.- and perimeter enclosures
(intended primarily as defense against wild animal intrusions) with
dwellings tending to be organized in rings along this enclosure and
surrounding in turn the central communal open space. Where a person’s
home would be within the village and how much space it could have was
determined by group consensus and limited by the precedent of earlier
homes and the community’s available labor pool. You could negotiate for
as much space as the labor pool at any time could afford -since the
individual contribution of labor per person would be roughly the same
per new home added. But precedent in size of previous homes and the
free area left in an outer enclosure limited how far you could push
that, because existing residents would want just as much space to be
fair and maintaining equity with increases in size could mean
reconstruction of much of a village. The less freely adaptive the
construction method the more vernacular traditions on size and design
of dwellings tended to be worked out across a generational perspective
-what one’s needs were most-likely to be across the human life-cycle in
respect to marriage, procreation, and so on. The creation or
reconfiguration of homes in a village was typically associated with
marriage and the expectation of children that would produce.

Type of building technology could also influence the nature of
this P2P negotiation, the nature of communal labor, and ultimately
notions of property and propriety. The two oldest forms of construction
-both going back at least 10,000 years in the archeological record-
were masonry construction (adobe, cob, earth block, rubble, piled
stone, cut stone) based on earthen materials and pavilion or pole
structures based largely on organic materials. Both technologies were
largely ubiquitous but the former (often in hybrid forms) dominated in
the northern hemisphere, the latter in the southern hemisphere owing to
the differences in predominate climate and materials resources. This,
of course, is why the archeological record is far more robust in the
northern hemisphere. Masonry structures tended to be very resilient and
thus very permanent and they are extremely labor intensive to build.
The labor intensiveness favored architecture with shared walls as this
saved some labor in expansion -and in many of the climates where this
was used would also help conserve thermal energy. So contiguous
structure was common. They also tended to favor contiguous monolithic
wall structures as a means of limiting insect/animal intrusion and
potentially as defense against human attackers or a means of limiting
their routes of intrusion during fighting. Such heavy structures took
longer to build, were more labor intensive to modify, and tended to be
easier to expand than to demolish and rebuild and so tended to favor
incremental expansion over whole adaptation. They also offered very
high degrees of personal privacy by providing good visual and sound
barriers. Thus communities evolved at much slower, generational, paces
and P2P negotiation over community construction was more protracted and
eventually formalized. This may partly account for the cultures of the
northern hemisphere having much more rigid concepts of property and
propriety. Structural permanence leads to notions of long term
investment and ultimately multigenerational legacy, which in turn lead
to concepts of regional or ‘national’ identity. People in the northern
hemisphere venerate ancestors for what they leave behind. People in the
southern hemisphere tend to venerate ancestors for what they are
theoretically still doing in the present day -in that back-stage other
world where mysterious ancestral spiritual engineers pull the strings
and press the levers of phenomenon in our world we don’t understand the
causality of.
Pavilion architecture was not as resilient as masonry owing to
the nature of organic materials. Buildings would have to be renovated
or completely replaced every few years to a few decades. Height was the
general strategy for the control of animal intrusion and flooding was
also a common problem, and so use of hanging fixtures like baskets and
hammocks and raised floor systems were the norm. The predominate
climate worked against the use of permanent walls and temporary walls
any more robust then woven reeds and textiles while masonry
construction, due to a scarcity of materials and the effects of water,
tended to be based on piled or cut stone and restricted to perimeter
enclosures and terracing. This kind of architecture presents a
situation where there is far more rapid evolution of a community’s
architecture, far more frequent P2P negotiation over communal
construction, and far less physical individual privacy. Individual
pavilion structures tended to increase in scale with population but
just one such structure generally formed the basis of housing for an
entire extended family -if not the whole community at the start.
Collective personal property tended to be limited to what one person
might carry, notions of property were much more fluid, there were far
stronger and more personal social systems of propriety to insure
community cohesion (taboo systems, honor systems, ohana), and notions
of cultural identity were more associated with intellectual property
-songs, dances, body art, craft technique- than architecture and
regional territory. The architecture of the southern hemisphere may
have typically been less resilient than those of the northern
hemisphere but their cultures were often more so. Australian aborigines
may have the most materially light cultures of all existing people
-they didn’t even develop any form of permanent architecture- and held
that system together largely unchanged for at least 40,000 years.”

(online access through http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/eric-hunting-on-the-historical-origins-of-peer-to-peer-architecture-part-two/2008/08/24)

 The P2P Foundation researches, documents and promotes peer to peer alternatives.

Wiki and Encyclopedia, at http://p2pfoundation.net; Blog, at http://blog.p2pfoundation.net; Newsletter, at http://integralvisioning.org/index.php?topic=p2p 

Basic essay at http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499; interview at  http://poynder.blogspot.com/2006/09/p2p-very-core-of-world-to-come.html; video interview, at http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2006/09/29/network_collaboration_peer_to_peer.htm


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