OFFICE HOURS: The Gift Economy of the Internet

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On the internet, conventional wisdom about ownership and property seems to be turned upside down. Very early on, partly under the influence of the then-popular theory of cybernetics and its arguments in favor of the free circulation of information, the file transfers and e-mail protocols essential to the internet were given away for free by the programmers who developed them. The Unix operating system was initially created by AT&T and subsequently passed on at no charge to the computing community to comply with anti-trust legislation. It was then continuously improved by programmers the world over, resulting in the myriad versions of Linux.

The culture of sharing promoted by the early computing community influenced commercial companies such as Netscape, which was the first to offer its navigator for free. The offer of free goods is such a powerful competitive advantage that all other players must align. And sure enough, all of the major developments that have emerged subsequently — Google and Facebook, to name a few — offer their services at no charge to the user. The contribution culture that is so prevalent on the internet has spilled over the business world and pushed a new model we might call a “gift economy.” Wikipedia is the perfect illustration of this trend: With people contributing for free and using it for free as well, the site thrives and triumphantly belies the “tragedy of the commons” theory — the idea that whenever anything is available at no charge, some people will overuse or otherwise deface the resource and deplete it.

So why do people care enough to edit a Wikipedia article or create a killer app that will very likely not pay its own way? Why do they bother to rate hotels or review books on Amazon? Why do they devote so many hours to writing blogs and responding to reader comments?

Saint Augustine wrote that people can only have three motivations for action: money, glory, or love. But back in the early days of the mass use of the internet, I perceived something quite different in this urge to give to the community. What I saw was a utopian impulse at work, the impulse of reversal. Utopia upends the world as we know it to point the way to a better world, in this case, to point the way to a more equal world, where anonymous programmers can write code alongside some of the most famous computer scientists and see their contributions receive equal attention and treatment. A gift economy offers a utopian pathway towards egalitarian relationships.

The gift economy also gives rise to powerful social and political dynamics: the trend towards more participation can be seen in the growth of rating activities on commercial sites, or in the informed and relevant comments to blog entries. However, the drive to participation is most flagrant in the veritable tide of suggestions and comments made by ordinary citizens to politicians about issues of all kinds. When politicians listen, as they increasingly do, citizens become co-creators of public policies. This participation in public debate turns them into stakeholders and reinforces feelings of belongingness to the polity. What some have called “Wikicracy” is fraught with the dangers of populism and demagogy, but its reliance on participatory politics deepens and strengthens the people’s involvement in public issues — certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished.

There is no obvious link between programming prowess and economic transactions. Yet the sharing culture of the early days of the internet has had a deep influence on the economy at large. Whereas a market economy organizes scarcity so as to create want, a gift economy rests on abundance, on the free circulation of a cornucopia of goods. Think of torrents circulating films and music, or of Google digitizing entire libraries. Anything that can be copied is provided for free or at a very low cost. Here again, I can see the utopian force of reversal in full swing, negating the notion of ownership of cultural goods, prizing instead the notion of sharing and transforming an entire industry along the way. The aftershocks of the gift economy concept are still being felt, and it is certainly urgent to devise a new, fairer way of remunerating all creators of cultural goods. But the transformation of cultural goods into public goods seems well on its way.

For all the emphasis on the sharing culture, the internet has generated huge profits. In such a context, does the gift economy concept still make sense?  Or has the gift economy merely morphed into yet another way to exploit a helpless public? Whatever the answer might be, the utopian drive to give and participate is going strong, and its consequences are quite literally incalculable.

Photo Credit: striatic