October 20, 2022

Michel Bauwens on challenging presuppositions, meta-curation, changing paradigms, and creating narratives (Ep37)

“I will be triggered by something that challenges ideas, assumptions, hypotheses that either I have, or that the wider world has. It makes you think, and that’s the only thing I want, I want to make people think, and have a deeper integration by challenging their assumptions.”

– Michel Bauwens

Tim O'Reilly

About Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is the founder of the P2P Foundation working in collaboration with global researchers in exploring the potential of peer production. Michel travels extensively giving workshops, and lectures on P2P, commons, and the opportunities of a post-capitalist world.

Website: P2P Foundation

LinkedIn: Michel Bauwens

Twitter: Michel Bauwens

Facebook: Michel Bauwens

What you will learn

  • What is the best daily habit upon waking up? (02:10)
  • How to select books and essays to start your day (09:58)
  • How to challenge your preconceptions (13:25)
  • How do you assess what is worth sharing or not worth sharing? (16:48)
  • What is the process of creating that taxonomy as a framework to clarify what the nature of peer-to-peer is? (21:02)
  • What is a way to be integrative, synthesize, and pull together disparate ideas? (26:42)

Episode resources

Episode images

Lecture delivered by Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation, September 2022, at Uppsala University


Ross Dawson: Michel, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Michel Bauwens: Thanks Ross.

Ross: You live in a world of information, you find interesting things, you are piecing together how the world is working and what it could become, so I’d love to hear what’s your starting point. What do you do? Let’s start with your daily practices. When you get up, what do you do?

Michel: The first thing I do is actually read. I have this broad idea that you have to be immersed in different temporalities at the same time. So the web is now, the zeitgeist, it’s trends and patterns that emerge, and then you have to feel whether it’s going up or down. But this is now, right? It’s embedded in more long-term patterns and structures. For that, I read essays. You write an article for the web, you probably spend a day or two, or maybe a week on it; if you write a more formal essay for a magazine, a journal, or even a peer-reviewed journal, it’s going to take you months, sometimes a bit more. It’s going to be like a synthesis of a lot more thinking and more time when you do that. But then the books for me are the ultimate. The book is the long duree, the really long flow of time.

My idea is you have to mix all three all the time. I do that in a structured way. I start with reading for one hour and a half, which may not seem that much, but if you do it every day for dozens of years, it shows. Then I do half an hour of reflection on reading because I believe in anchoring. I work with questions. There are things I want to know that I don’t understand so I’ll read up to it until the moment I feel okay, I’m satisfied that at my level, at this moment, this is a good enough answer, and then I’ll move to something else.

I take notes on paper. I have one of them here. This is just like a notebook and I have probably 35-40 of them. So I take notes. I have the pleasure of living in a nice village kind of environment in Northern Thailand. I can see the mountains. I just lay down in a long seat and I say: “Okay, what have I learned this morning? Is there anything that I’ve read challenging some of my presuppositions?” The reason I do that in the morning is just experience. When I start with a web, after maybe two hours, my brain just loses its capacity to focus. I feel if I wait to read as I used to do later then it’s just something that happens at an almost chemical level in my brain that just doesn’t absorb it in the same way.

Okay, so that’s my morning. Then I spend three hours doing curation. That’s basically not very scientific. I’m mostly concentrating on Facebook. I manage six different forums and one is called p2p. I’m pretty systematic and maybe absolutist, so anybody who sends me anything, I open a tab. At any time I have four windows with 2000-3000 tabs, and of course, I get more tabs than I can handle. This might seem weird, but in a way, it’s a meta-curation. Why? Because I’m an influencer and I influence other influences, so most people connected with me are themselves at some level already, at a somewhat higher level than the average person in terms of how they deal with information. It’s not scientific, it’s not satisfactory, but I used to do blogs, I used to do this, and whatever you do, it’s always too much anyways.

I got at some point to a level of popularity where I was just getting too many things from too many people. I want to honor what they send to me, so people are tagging me and saying: Michel, have you seen this? Michel, have you seen that? I feel the least I can do is honor that, look at it, and then re-dispatch it if I think it’s adequate in my own framing. For my framing, I still use Ken Wilber’s four quadrants because it’s non reductionist. You have subjective-objective, collective culture, and collective organizational, technical.

Ross: What’s the title of the book that the framework came out in?

Michel: I’m not sure but I think it’s A Theory of Everything, probably.

Ross: I think so yes.

Michel: I stopped reading him maybe 10 years ago, but I have the collected works, I have eight volumes. I read it in my 20s and 30s. I can critique Wilber and everything but basically, this as a heuristics method is very, very good because we don’t know what’s the chicken and the egg, is it objective material conditions which create certain ideas? But we also know ideas are important, they can change the world. So what is it? I don’t know. What I want to do is just like correlations. We know that when this happens in this area, and we can see at the same time, this is happening in this other domain. What is chicken? What is the egg? I don’t know. But when you create positive feedback loops between them, we know that that is actually paradigm-changing, and that’s enough.

If you’re a change agent like I want to be, then it’s enough to know that, okay, if we can strengthen those links of co-emerging things that seem to have the same underlying logic, that’s good enough for me. The basic idea that I have about change is that we have a relatively stable dynamic complex system. I look at three of them. One is nature, climate, environment, matter, biology, and all of that. The next one is human society and culture. The third one is the constellation of consciousness. How do we look at all those things?

My theory is that they change in parallel, that if you have a change in here, let’s say the objective climate, environmental area, that is a challenge which demands a responsible human society, and at a certain level, the society will fit the problem but then, paradoxically, because it solves a particular level of issues, it actually creates a new level of problems. That then can only be solved if you also then adapt your mental constellations.

Ross: I want to come back to the beginning, because there are actually around 10 different questions to dig into so let’s go back to the beginning where we started, and we’ll come back to where we just got to know. You start with books or essays, how do you choose those books and essays? Do you have a list of them? Is this just part of the curation process that you line those up with? How do you select those essays or books that you start the day with?

Michel: My intellectual development was that I had a big midlife crisis in my mid-40s. This is in the mid-90s. I thought that the world wasn’t evolving in a positive way, all the indicators were red in terms of biodiversity and ecological issues, but also social inequality in that, and I said, Okay, what can we do about it? My first step was to take a two-year sabbatical and look at transitions. From that, I decided that the key today was around peer-to-peer in the comments. The capacity we have today, through digital means to self-organize at a non territorial level, that’s the p2p part.

The second part is the capacity that we have to mutualize knowledge and human organization doing that. So those two things, in my opinion, are the seeds of the future. So I look at seed farms. Then in my second step, I looked at, okay, what is happening around this today? I look at open source, open design, and open hardware, then I looked at urban commons, then I looked at emerging new systems of monetary organizations like Bitcoin and the blockchain and etc. The thesis is that there is a geographic world but we are adding a new layer, the newest ferric layer, which has its forms of non territorial organization, and how are these two mergings converging and adapting or not adapting to each other? That’s the theme.

Then I felt, this is more recent, actually, with COVID that, okay, I have to go back to the basics a bit more, because what I’m seeing is that there is not going to be a smooth transition. It feels like we are in decay, in decline, institutions are losing trust, and are working less and less efficiently. I did a second round, and I call this civilization analysis. I have a list. I’m systematically going through the macro-historians, Oswald Spangler, Toynbee, Carroll Quigley, Jean Gebser, Joseph Campbell, it’s a very long list, I will die before I’m finished, let’s put it that way, it’s an impossible task.

Ross: So you start with a theme or what sounds in a way posing question. There is a question or set of questions from which you find the essays from all of human history.

Michel: Yes, so the key question for me today is, okay, what were transitions like in the past? Is there anything we can learn today from those patterns that can help us find our way in the current transition? Have at least some idea of where we are going? That’s it? That’s the question.

Ross: It’s a nice big question.

Michel: I know, yes. It’s impossible to answer but the path is the way.

Ross: You said that after you read, you lie down, then sit back and think about anything that challenges your preconceptions? That’s what not that many people are very good at. Is there a way that you just sit with this and say, is there something there, which meshes or doesn’t mesh? Do you take notes about that? How do you integrate that?

Michel: The hardest thing for me, and sorry, it’s a bit controversial, but before 1789, everything was religious. If you wanted to change the world, you would come up with some religious argument that the Bible says this or the Bible says that or the Buddha said this or the Buddha said that. That was the framing of any debate. After 1789, it becomes political. It’s basically the left and the right. In different iterations, they’re not the same all the time, but they remain as those two polarities. I’ve come to the conclusion that this polarity is no longer functioning. In other words, we need to go to an integral and an integrative point of view. The problem is that the transition is just the opposite that happens.

Imagine this, you have an ideational glue that holds the system together, and then you either have a loss of capacity of the system to handle an existing level of complexity or a new level of complexity that it can’t handle. For example, new medium like print or the internet, that just overwhelms the capacity of the system to hold things together. Then you get fragmentation, and then you get polarization. You have the Christians versus the Pagans, the Reformation versus the Catholics, and now it’s the culture war.

The problem for me, and it’s very hard to live that, is that at the very moment, I want to go in integration, the world is going in the opposite direction. I was a leftist all my life, I was committed to this particular set, and I’m saying, well, it seems like no, this is not working and this is actually degrading, and the other side is also missing something so can we create some kind of environment in which we can talk about the relative truth value of progressive leftists’ convictions but also on the right? It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a very controversial thing to do because we’re back into the index times, where there are forbidden books, there are forbidden people, and there are forbidden ideas. It’s very hard to do this but you have to think about what’s next. Right now, it’s counter-cyclical, but it’s the only way out of a bad situation. You have to go beyond those antagonisms because the new will be some combination of the old and then stuff added to it.

Ross: This seems to be, in a way, a link between as you say, you start with the reading, the ingestion, you’ve got the fundamental ideas and questions, looking for the deepest ideas you can find to be able to feed that into question and to build your models, but then it’s going into the curation, which is the sharing. This is part of where you are finding, uncovering the ideas which within the community can then go out. You have thousands of tabs you said, so lots of things are thrown at you. So what are the filters? What are the ways in which you say, this is worth sharing, this is not worth sharing? How do you assess that? Is there a frame of mind? Is there a criterion?

Michel: Remember four levels in Wilber, the four domains. I start with the idea that I’ll have three from each, so only 12. That’s the idea, minimum 12 items that are the most significant in those domains. The first thing, and I cannot explain this, this is something that happens in my brain. It’s like “Is this article crossing a threshold that it’s actually worth talking about?” 80% of what I see, I just don’t do anything with it, because I feel it’s repetitive, it’s the same old, doesn’t bring anything new, okay, don’t pay attention to it. But I will be triggered by things, so okay, this is something that challenges some ideas, assumptions, hypotheses that either I have, or that the wider world has. It makes you think, and that’s the only thing I want, I want to make people think, and have a deeper integration by challenging their assumptions.

I do that in my Facebook groups and that, of course, is ephemeral, people don’t go back to the archives. Then I have my wiki. My wiki has 23,000 articles divided into a few dozen sections, and there we’ll have an encyclopedia because a tag in a wiki creates its own directory, and then I will have the section page that is like an ongoing synthesis, that makes sense of the database. If you want to know p2p in the commons, in transportation, in health, in my wiki, you’ll feel kind of like a preliminary synthesis of what is happening. Then every year, I write some kind of report that takes some area.

I did one on urban commons. What’s happening around urban commons and public policies around urban commons? I did one on new firms of accounting, post-capitalist accounting, environmental accounting, and all those things. I did one on the thermodynamics of peer production. How can we use virtualization and peer-to-peer to bring down our usage of matter and energy? Every year, we’ll take something of that nature and then make a synthesis. And that’s the body of my work. Then I have this service orientation where if somebody makes a comment, at the very least, we’ll like it, or say thank you, or, say I will check your reference so just making sure that people feel that it’s not an empty bucket in which they’re reacting but there’s a gardener behind the scenes that keeps the whole thing moving.

Ross: There’s so much to dig into relevant to thriving on overload. One of the things is frameworks, and so I would suggest that your categories or your structure or taxonomy for the P2P foundation site is a framework. I presume that that has evolved. It’s not as if you in one moment came up with that. So touching talk a little bit about the process of creating that taxonomy as a framework for elucidating what the nature or the aspects of peer-to-peer is.

Michel: Right. The base level will just be looking at different domains and what’s happening in a different domain. That’s the base level, so health, spirituality, and I do everything, and that’s not given to everybody to do that. It’s maybe because of my life history, I was a leftist militant, I did a lot of human potential work, I studied spirituality, I was into Western esoteric stuff, then I was a startupper so I know the business world, I had two companies that I started, I made a movie, I was editor-in-chief, so there are not so many people that can hop from one world to another. Now, I’m not saying I know everything, of course not but most people have one or two domains, and I have a bit more than them so that allows me to have this bigger-picture approach.

The next level would be either the four quadrants of Wilber or the three complex systems that I just explained. We have an objective world, I believe; I’m a bit of pre-postmodern in that, I believe there is something out there. Then there is a human society that in different ways, according to its civilization values tries to cope with what it is given. Then there is whether our ways of approaching it are actually appropriate or not at a particular time. So there are times when people reacted more magically, there are times when people reacted more mythologically, and there are times when people acted more rationally, and maybe now we’re ready for something else. Because I think we are, this is Jean Gebser, the basic idea that we are now in a deficient rational mode, that the calculating mode has taken over everything, and that we are no longer able to see quality and subjectivity so we have this technocratic machine that is waltzing over everything and denying most of our realities out of efficiency-driven, profit-driven motivations.

We’re going in a wall, that’s my profound conviction that we’re going into the wall, and there’s nothing we can do about going into the wall but we can start thinking about what’s on the other side of the wall, and how can at least the maximum amount of people go through this huge transition. It’s the most difficult transition we had because civilization was a response to climate change. You have the post-Ice Age and that’s what flooded the plains of Egypt and Mesopotamia and dried out Northern Africa, and that created civilization, people decided, no, we want to stay here so we need to dominate nature. Civilization has always been about dominating nature. Now, we are at a stage where we have to find some other paradigm to deal with nature because we overcompensated as humans. Basically, we have 10,000 years of mental structures that have to be overridden, and that’s extremely difficult. I don’t even claim I can do it. I’m just like everybody else, I’m a product of my time.

Ross: We are, necessarily.

Michel: Yes, we cannot be anything else. So how do we do that? I look at the past and, for the moment I’m very interested in monasteries like the Romans in the Roman Empire completely destroyed local agriculture. Then you have a bunch of people like St. Benedict or St. Bernard, and they create one little thing that becomes viral and spreads in 70 years all over the continent. What’s the equivalent of this today? I don’t know. But looking at all the people trying this, that’s my job, it’s observing what today pioneers are doing. When a system is in crisis, the solution is not going to be in the same paradigm as the system in crisis. What’s the underlying paradigm and logic of the people trying to solve these fundamental issues in a new way? What is working? What is not working? That’s my approach. I don’t have the answer but I try to learn from people who are experimenting in finding the answer.

Ross: We have to explore in order, go ahead and explore and find that. The fifth of what I call the five powers of thriving on overload is synthesis, and we talked about synthesis, integration, and as you say, in a world, fragmentation of ideas, societies, the cultures, that we need to integrate into all of those levels. What advice can you give to those who are wanting to be on that path of being integrative, to synthesize, and to be able to pull together disparate ideas? What have you learned? Or what is it that you can share that others can learn from, that attitude, that propensity, that capability?

Michel: Well, for me, the most important now is that we need to make sure we have a plural information basis. Before, we were all happy to watch television, and we had a pretty much-controlled environment. Then we got this explosion of the internet, and all kinds of people come out of the woodwork and have a voice. The way I feel the system is reacting to it now is, one is by reducing the narrative to a massive narrative, which is repeated over and over again, whether COVID or Ukraine, you get one story, and it’s just repeated over and over.

Then the second step would be doing algorithmic control, making sure the other voices kind of stay in the background and don’t come up. I don’t know if you’re aware of this but nowadays, you do a Google search, it used to be that you had the most important answers in the beginning, and then you could go down, that’s gone, you should try it. If they just keep repeating the top answers over and over again, they literally disappear the internet, they are actively making sure that you don’t get to see challenging ideas. I’m not saying these challenge ideas are right, I’m just saying that you should make an effort to make sure that you have a broad variety of information sources. You can build it over time if you trust them, if you think that they’re coherent and factual enough, then you keep them independent of how they see the world because you want to know how other people see the world.

Then out of that, I just make my own narrative. I have three simple rules, is it true? That means that you have to be ready to ditch something if you have countervailing facts, like, you believe vaccines work and then surveys and the research comes out, and turns out they didn’t work as well as we thought they were, well, okay, that’s new facts, You adapt yourself to the scientific research. The second level is, with all those facts, what is the most coherent story that I can maintain? That’s the second. Just coherence, nothing else. It’s not full and we all have our level of how much coherence we can build depending on our flexibility and knowledge.

The third level is how much hope can we create out of this. Because whether the hope is real or not, I’m always reminded of the story of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, where he said in the concentration camps, only two groups of people survived, the Catholics and the communists because anybody else who could not project outside of the hell they were living in let themselves die because if this is life, it’s not worth living and I’m going to die anyway so I might as well suffer less long. Those people were able to project either to the next world or to the next physical world as an utopia, and because they share their ideas, the second level advantage was they could organize together, so they became a counterpower.

Then he also says, this is very interesting, he says, if you’re a pilot, and you want to go from A to B, and for B, you will never get there, because the wind will push you away, you always need to aim for C even in order to get to B. So I think hope, active hope, it’s not a guarantee, I don’t know if we will succeed or not, but the realistic hope is something that mobilizes your energy and that it will give you more chance to survive and thrive than if you don’t have it. But it has to be grounded. I’m for a “nonutopian” utopia in a way. That’s why I focus on concrete utopias. People are trying out things so you know that this is real, this could work, it works for them, it might work for other people. That’s the kind of idea. Let’s look at all the good stuff that people are doing today amongst this sea of bad news and disintegration.

Ross: I absolutely agree. For me, hope as in the sense of yes it is possible to create something better, let’s find how. It has to be the foundation of how we approach our lives. Hope is probably a pretty good concluding piece there. You could spend forever in delving deep because there is great depth to your structures and your thinking, but if people want to find your curation and the things that you share, and you write, where’s the best place for them to go?

Michel: Okay, so the central group is on Facebook. It’s called Open p2p. If you do that in the search box, you’ll find that. Then the second is wiki.p2pfoundation.net. They are on the main page, so the wiki will see our structure. The middle layer has all the topics that we cover in the wiki. Then I wrote quite a few things so if you’re interested, you just look it up on Google under my name, you’ll find various reports: the thermodynamics of peer production, p2p accounting for planetary survival, neutralizing urban provisioning systems, so I have these synthetic reports that you can look for.

Ross: Yes. Fantastic resources that you have compiled and shared and created. Thank you for your contributions, Michel.

Michel: Yes, thank you, Ross. Thank you for interviewing me and reconnecting. We’re more or less the same in trying to curate and open up the minds, that’s what you try to do as well, opening of minds, keeping our societies tolerant, that we can learn from each other. Nobody has a truth. We all have part of the truth and the more perspectives we combine, the more light we can shine on an object.

Ross: Absolutely, yes. That’s part of thriving on overload, we live in a world where I’ve learned that thriving is a collective thing, as of course, all of your workbooks. So thank you so much, Michel.

Michel: Thanks, Ross.

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