the hi-tech gift economy

The Net as Really Existing Anarcho-Communism

Despite originally being invented for the U. S. military, the Net was constructed around the gift economy. The Pentagon initially did try to restrict the unofficial uses of its computer network. However, it soon became obvious that the Net could only be successfully developed by letting its users build the system for themselves. Within the scientific community, the gift economy has long been the primary method of socialising labour. Funded by the state or by donations, scientists don't have to turn their intellectual work directly into marketable commodities. Instead, research results are publicised by 'giving a paper' at specialist conferences and by 'contributing an article' to professional journals. The collaboration of many different academics is made possible through the free distribution of information [9].

Within small tribal societies, the circulation of gifts established close personal bonds between people. In contrast, the academic gift economy is used by intellectuals who are spread across the world. Despite the anonymity of the modern version of the gift economy, academics acquire intellectual respect from each other through citations in articles and other forms of public acknowledgement. Scientists therefore can only obtain personal recognition for their individual efforts by openly collaborating with each other through the academic gift economy. Although research is being increasingly commercialised, the giving away of findings remains the most efficient method of solving common problems within a particular scientific discipline [10].

From its earliest days, the free exchange of information has therefore been firmly embedded within the technologies and social mores of cyberspace [11]. When New Left militants proclaimed that 'information wants to be free' back in the Sixties, they were preaching to computer scientists who were already living within the academic gift economy. Above all, the founders of the Net never bothered to protect intellectual property within computer-mediated communications. On the contrary, they were developing these new technologies to advance their careers inside the academic gift economy. Far from wanting to enforce copyright, the pioneers of the Net tried to eliminate all barriers to the distribution of scientific research. Technically, every act within cyberspace involves copying material from one computer to another. Once the first copy of a piece of information is placed on the Net, the cost of making each extra copy is almost zero. The architecture of the system presupposes that multiple copies of documents can easily be cached around the network. As Tim Berners-Lee - the inventor of the Web - points out:

"Concepts of intellectual property, central to our culture, are not expressed in a way which maps onto the abstract information space. In an information space, we can consider the authorship of materials, and their perception; but ... there is a need for the underlying infrastructure to be able to make copies simply for reasons of [technical] efficiency and reliability. The concept of 'copyright' as expressed in terms of copies made makes little sense." [12]

Within the commercial creative industries, advances in digital reproduction are feared for making the 'piracy' of copyright material ever easier. For the owners of intellectual property, the Net can only make the situation worse. 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 [13].

In France, the nationalised telephone monopoly has accustomed people to paying for the on-line services provided by Minitel. In contrast, the Net remains predominantly a gift economy even though the system has expanded far beyond the university. 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. Although the circulation of gifts doesn't necessarily create emotional obligations between individuals, people are still willing to donate their information to everyone else on the Net. 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.

"... the Net is far from altruistic, or it wouldn't work... Because it takes as much effort to distribute one copy of an original creation as a million ... you never lose from letting your product free...as long as you are compensated in return ... What a miracle, then, that you receive not one thing in value in exchange - indeed there is no explicit act of exchange at all - but millions of unique goods made by others!" [14]

Despite the commercialisation of cyberspace, the self-interest of Net users ensures that the hi-tech gift economy continues to flourish. For instance, musicians are using the Net for the digital distribution of their recordings to each other. By giving away their own work to this network community, individuals get free access to a far larger amount of music in return. Not surprisingly, the music business is worried about the increased opportunities for the 'piracy' of copyrighted recordings over the Net. Sampling, DJ-ing and mixing are already blurring property rights within dance music. However, the greatest threat to the commercial music corporations comes from the flexibility and spontaneity of the hi-tech gift economy. After it is completed, a new track can quickly be made freely available to a global audience. If someone likes the tune, they can download it for personal listening, use it as a sample or make their own remix. Out of the free circulation of information, musicians can form friendships, work together and inspire each other.

"It's all about doing it for yourself. Better than punk." [15]

Within the developed world, most politicians and corporate leaders believe that the future of capitalism lies in the commodification of information. Over the last few decades, intellectual property rights have been steadily tightened through new national laws and international agreements. Even human genetic material can now be patented [16]. Yet, at the 'cutting edge' of the emerging information society, money-commodity relations play a secondary role to those created by a really existing form of anarcho-communism. For most of its 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.

"This informal, unwritten social contract is supported by a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives and ephemeral affiliations. It requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something. ... I find that the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others; a marriage of altruism and self-interest." [17]

On the Net, enforcing copyright payments represents the imposition of scarcity on a technical system designed to maximise the dissemination of information. The protection of intellectual property stops all users having access to every source of knowledge. Commercial secrecy prevents people from helping each other to solve common problems. The inflexibility of information commodities inhibits the efficient manipulation of digital data. In contrast, the technical and social structure of the Net has been developed to encourage open cooperation among its participants. As an everyday activity, users are building the system together. Engaged in 'interactive creativity', they send e-mail, take part in listservs, contribute to newsgroups, participate within on-line conferences and produce Web sites [18]. Lacking copyright protection, information can be freely adapted to suit the users' needs. Within the hi-tech gift economy, people successfully work together through "... an open social process involving evaluation, comparison and collaboration." [19]

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 [20]. Instead of being marketed by a commercial company, this program is shareware [21]. Like similar projects, this virtual machine is being continually developed by its techie users. Because its source code is not protected by copyright, the program can be modified, amended and improved by anyone with the appropriate programmingskills. When someone does make a contribution to a shareware project, the gift of their labour is rewarded by recognition within the community of user-developers.

The inflexibility of commodified software programs is compounded by their greater unreliability. Even Microsoft can't mobilise the amount of labour given to some successful shareware programs by their devotees. Without enough techies looking at a program, all its bugs can never be found [22]. The greater social and technical efficiency of anarcho-communism is therefore inhibiting the commercial take-over of the Net. 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-proprietary operating system: Linux. For the first time, Windows has a serious competitor. Anarcho-communism is now the only alternative to the dominance of monopoly capitalism.

"Linux is subversive. Who could have thought even five years ago that a world-class operating system could coalesce as if by magic out of part-time hacking by several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only by the tenuous strands of the Internet?" [23]

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