The Hi-Tech Gift Economy
Part 3

Many Left intellectuals also believe that the Net will - sooner or later - be replaced by the digital Panopticon. How could the version of computer-mediated communications devised by poor academics and insignificant nerds triumph over the structure championed by wealthy and influential media corporations? [21] Ironically, these gurus disprove their own masochistic predictions when they themselves go on-line. Like everyone else, they don’t primarily use the Net to consume media, but to send e-mails, swap information, conduct on-line research and participate in network communities. While there can be nothing new about more television, interactive collaboration over the Net is novel. The digital Panopticon is a future which is already history.

For the emerging information society is being built according to principles laid down by the scientists who invented the Net. Funded by the state and foundations, academics collaborate with each other by giving away their findings in journals and at conferences. Scientists had no need for on-line systems for trading information commodities. Instead, they built the code of the Net in the image of the academic gift economy. Designing for their own use, they invented a form of computer-mediated communications for sharing knowledge within a single virtual space: the ‘intellectual commons’. [22] Above all, the pioneers of the Net knew that the publication of findings across many different books and journals was hampering scientific research. From Vannevar Bush to Tim Berners-Lee, they developed technologies which could overcome this fragmentation of academic knowledge. The passive consumption of fixed pieces of information would become the participatory process of ‘interactive creativity’. [23]

As the Net spread outside the university, its new users quickly discovered the benefits of sharing knowledge with each other. There has never been much demand for the equal exchange of commodities when people can access the labour of a whole community in return for their own individual efforts. [24] Many non-academics are also striving to overcome the fixed boundaries imposed by the commodification of information. For instance, musicians have long appropriated recordings for DJ-ing, sampling and remixing. [25] The popularity and capabilities of the Net is intensifying these ambiguities within the economics of music-making. The MP3 format doesn’t just make the piracy of copyright material much easier. As importantly, the social mores and technical structure of the Net encourages enthusiasts to make their own sounds. The passive consumption of unalterable recordings is evolving into interactive participation within musical composition. [26]

What began inside scientific research is now transforming music-making and many other forms of cultural expression. Back in the early-1990s, only a few academics and hobbyists could access this open form of computer-mediated communications. A decade later, almost every academic discipline, political cause, cultural movement, popular hobby and private obsession has a presence on the Net. Whether for work or for pleasure, people are creating websites, bulletin boards, listservers and chat rooms. Although only a minority are now engaged in scientific research, all Net users can participate within the hi-tech gift economy. A few hope that network communities are prefiguring the co-operative and ecological societies of the future. Some are convinced that ‘interactive creativity’ is the cutting-edge of modern art. Most simply participate within on-line projects as a leisure activity. Far from being displaced by the digital Panopticon, the ‘intellectual commons’ of the Net continues to expand at an exponential rate. Free speech is a free gift.

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