Part one of a three-part series on gift economies.
I was very interested to learn recently of British model Lily Cole’s, new online venture: Impossible.com. It hasn’t yet launched but from what I can gather it’s an experimental foray into constructing a micro “gift economy”, which will use social media to encourage people to interact and exchange goods and services “non-transactionally” — in other words: giving without expecting anything in return. Just giving for the sake of giving. Slightly more saccharinely (particularly if you’re of a more cynical disposition) she described it as the ”currency of kindness”.
People I’ve discussed this with either guffaw in disbelief at such an idea or nod along, interested, but are not quite sure exactly how such a system would work. Common questions are: “Surely, it’s wide open to abuse? It’ll attract spammers and scammers en masse.” “Do we really need to construct online platforms to do what most people should be doing anyway?” “What’s wrong with making money?”
As the site is not yet live, I’m a little hesitant to make prognostications as to whether it’ll become rapidly populated with fake profiles and malevolent intentions, or not. A more informed, useful discussion can be had around the theoretical underpinnings of the site ie
Why should everything be free?
I suppose context is important here. Cole lives in London, one of the world’s mega-cities, with a population of 8 174 100. If you have ever lived or worked there, you will know the paradoxical truth that it is entirely possible to be constantly surrounded by people and still be alone all the time. In cities of this size and nature, social bonds and communal ties are weak. People barely know the person living in the room next door to them, in the same house (in some cases, even sharing the same room), let alone their neighbours or their community at large (this in the loosest sense). It’s like some kind of warped ant colony, columns of strangers passing each other daily on public transport and in the streets, barely registering the steady stream of faces passing by.
In such a fiercely individualistic society, moments of kindness are rare. On overcrowded public transport, it’s every woman/man/child/dog/cat/rat for themselves, and everyone knows it. You don’t bear a grudge against the person who elbowed you out the way to get the last available seat on the tube — you’d have done it to them. You just shrug and keep a beady eye out for the next opportunity.
I’m exaggerating slightly but you get the picture. A commune in Oregon it is not.
And it can become incredibly lonely and isolating. And in more sensitive souls can engender slightly misanthropic tendencies.
So, what better way to counter-act such self-interested behaviour than with a system where one acts solely for the pleasure of doing something nice for someone other than oneself? Without being able to fully discern Cole’s intentions, this is what I’m assuming she plans to do. When talking about the site she has described “building subtle relationships” between people; that in the simple act of giving without expectation of payment we build emotional bonds that are equally as valuable as monetary gain.
She is not wrong. This is human behaviour 101: cooperation and reciprocity. I have said before that I am sceptical of the concept of ”altruism”, as I believe it to be an entirely artificial, invented religious concept. It is not native to human behaviour, we do things ”for free” because we expect other kinds of rewards: friendship, community, happiness etc.
And so now would be the time to ask the aforementioned question: “Do we really need to construct online platforms to do what most people should be doing anyway?” Or perhaps are doing anyway.
Well, in a place like London … yes. People may need some kind of forum to initialise the process before they are able to do it in a less formalised way.
And, crucially, perhaps, it is only in such an economically dynamic place that gift-giving is possible on such a large scale — where resources are not scarce, and outside of Impossible.com people are not wondering where their next meal is coming from. In economic terms: a post-scarcity society.
It is no coincidence then that those who most commonly ask: “What’s wrong with making money?” are usually from South Africa, where life is less comfortable and people are desperate to get paid.
Is then the idea of a gift economy a hopelessly romantic one? Devised by a millionaire who has forgotten what it’s like to struggle?
Maybe so, but perhaps, also, counter-intuitively, a gift economy is exactly what a society like South Africa needs, especially when the costs of acquiring much-needed skills and knowledge (the usual path to prosperity) are prohibitive to most people? Perhaps we should all be freely sharing these things?
I’m asking all these questions in an open-ended sense for now and not coming to any conclusions just yet. I’ll discuss them in the second part of the series where I’ll also discuss in greater depth whether or not giving in a gift economy is ever really entirely ”for free”. In the third part I’ll look at the nature of the market and whether or not it even needs money to be called ”a market”.
Check back again soon.