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The Hi-Tech Gift Economy
part 7

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the contemporary avant-garde must substitute itself for the missing political vanguard. The techno-nomads therefore remix Leninism into Deleuzoguattarian discourse: subversive theory-art ‘deterritorialises’ the semiotic ‘machinic assemblages’ controlling the minds of the majority. Lenin is morphed into Nietzsche. In the late-Nineties, revolutionary elitism can only be expressed in the words of May ‘68. Yet, important pioneers of the New Left were highly critical of this tradition of cultural elitism. For instance, the Situationists advocated transforming the social context of cultural production rather than the aesthetics of art. Instead of following the avant-garde elite, everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves. [27]

Above all, the Situationists looked for ways of living which were free from the corruptions of consumer capitalism. Despite their Hegelian modernism, they claimed that anarcho-communism had been prefigured by the potlatch: the gift economy of Polynesian tribes. Within these primitive societies, the circulation of gifts bound people together into tribes and encouraged cooperation between different tribes. This tribal gift economy demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. However, the Situationists believed that here could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would completely supplant the commodity. [28]

Following May ‘68, this purist vision of anarcho-communism inspired a generation of cultural activists. Emancipatory media supposedly could only be produced within the gift economy. During the late-Seventies, pro-situ attitudes were further popularised by the punk movement. From then to the present-day, the ‘cutting edge’ of music has remained participatory. Crucially, every user of the Net is now also participating within a gift economy. Without even thinking about it, people continually circulate information between each other for free. They cooperate together without the direct mediation of either politics or money. Far from being the privilege of intellectuals, anarcho-communism is the mundane activity of ordinary people within cyberspace.

From the beginning, the gift economy has determined the technical and social structure of the Net. Although funded by the Pentagon, the Net could only be successfully developed by letting its users build the system for themselves. Within the academic community, the gift economy has long been the primary method of socialising labour. Funded by the state or by donations, scientists publicise their research results by ‘giving papers’ and by ‘contributing articles’. Despite the dispersed nature of this educational gift economy, academics acquire intellectual respect from each other through citations in articles and other forms of public acknowledgement. The collaboration of many different scientists is only possible through the free distribution of information. [29]

From its earliest days, the free exchange of information has been firmly embedded within the technologies and social mores of cyberspace. Above all, the founders of the Net never bothered to protect intellectual property within computer-mediated communications. Far from wanting to enforce copyright, they tried to eliminate all barriers to the distribution of information. Within the commercial creative industries, advances in digital reproduction are feared for making the ‘piracy’ of copyright material ever easier. In contrast, the academic gift economy welcomes technologies which improve the availability of data. Users should always be able to obtain and manipulate information with the minimum of impediments. The design of the Net therefore assumes that intellectual property is technically and socially obsolete.

Even though the system has expanded far beyond the university, the Net remains predominantly a gift economy. From scientists through hobbyists to the general public, the charmed circle of users was slowly built up through the adhesion of many localised networks to an agreed set of protocols. Crucially, the common standards of the Net include social conventions as well as technical rules. The giving and receiving of information without payment is almost never questioned. Even selfish reasons encourage people to become anarcho-communists within cyberspace. By adding their own presence, every user contributes to the collective knowledge accessible to those already on-line. In return, each individual has potential access to all the information made available by others within the Net. Everyone takes far more out of the Net than they can ever give away as an individual. [30]

Despite the commercialisation of cyberspace, the self-interest ensures that the hi-tech gift economy continues to flourish. For most users, the Net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics. Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas.

The hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development. For instance, Bill Gates admits that Microsoft’s biggest competitor in the provision of web servers comes from the Apache program. [31] Instead of being marketed by a commercial company, this program is shareware. Because its source code is not protected by copyright, Apache servers can be modified, amended and improved by anyone with the appropriate programming skills. Shareware programs are now beginning to threaten the core product of the Microsoft empire: the Windows operating system. Starting from the original software program by Linus Torvalds, a community of user-developers are together building their own non-proprietory operating system: Linux. For the first time, Windows has a real competitor. [32]

 
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