(originally published in December 1998)


  • Richard Barbrook




This paper is included in the First Monday Special Issue #3: Internet banking, e-money, and Internet gift economies, published in December 2005. Special Issue editor Mark A. Fox asked authors to submit additional comments regarding their articles. How has the hi-tech gift economy evolved since 1998, when the paper was written? This article was a product of its time. When I originally wrote The Hi-Tech Gift Economy, the Net was still a novelty for most people even in the developed world. Nearly 8 years later, using this technology is no longer something special. This means that it is impossible to understand my article without remembering the bizarre moment in the late-1990s when so many pundits believed that the Net had almost magical powers. Led by Wired, dotcom boosters were claiming that the Net was creating the free market only found up to then in neo-classical economics textbooks. Inspired by post-modernist gurus, new media activists were convinced that humanity would soon liberate itself from corporate control by escaping into cyberspace. What intrigued me at the time was how these devotees of irreconcilable ideologies shared a common faith in McLuhan-style technological determinism. The Net – not people – was the subject of history. This demiurge promised the final victory of one – and only one - method of organizing labor: the commodity or the gift. When I was writing this article, my goal was to attack these almost totalitarian ideologies. The sharing of information over the Net disproved the neo-liberal fantasies of Wired. The leading role of capitalist businesses within the open source movement was incompatible with the anarcho-communist utopia. I wanted to argue that the choice wasn’t the commodity or the gift. On the Net, the same piece of information could exist both as a commodity and a gift. Nowadays, this conclusion is hardly controversial. My ideological opponents have long ago left the theoretical battlefield. We won’t hear their arguments again until the next wave of innovation within the information technologies creates the conditions for another revival of McLuhanist prophecy. In the meantime, it is common sense to describe the Net’s economy as a mixed economy. Information is shared and sold. Copyright is protected and broken. Capitalists benefit from one advance and lose out from another. Users get for free what they used to pay for and pay for what they used to get for free. In 2005, the dotcom commodity economy and the hi-tech gift economy are – at one and the same time – in opposition and in symbiosis with each other. What are some current examples of the hi-tech gift economy in action? Over the past decade, the hi-tech gift economy has moved from the fringes into the mainstream. When I was writing The Hi-Tech Gift Economy, the open source movement was the iconic example of non-commercial production over the Net. In the intervening period, blogging has become the public face of this new way of working. What was once the preserve of a small minority is now a mass phenomenon. Crucially, just like their techie predecessors, the participants in this enlarged hi-tech gift economy don’t have to think about the political implications of their method of working together. Free market fanatics can happily give away their blog-making labor without realizing they’ve become cyber-communists! This ideological inconsistency has hidden the social impact of the hi-tech gift economy. Allowing people to download your photos for free from Flickr doesn’t seem very radical. Putting up your latest tunes on-line can’t really be a threat to the music moguls. Making your own website doesn’t look like attack on the media corporations. Yet, when large numbers of people are engaged in these activities, commercial self-interest is checked by social altruism within the mixed economy of the Net. Before buying information, every sensible person checks whether you can download it for free. What are the impediments and what are the driving forces of the hi-tech gift economy? Is it possible to distinguish between the two? Long ago, Karl Marx pointed out that socialists had been forced to define their own political position to counter attacks by their liberal and conservative critics. It seems to me that we could make a similar observation today about the two sides in the copyright debate. During the past few decades, American and European politicians have steadily increased and extended the legal privileges of the media corporations. Entranced by the neo-liberal version of the McLuhanist prophecy, they’re convinced that the knowledge economy will be built around the buying and selling of intellectual property – and the state must punish anyone who threatens this new paradigm. In the digital Panopticon, Big Brother will spying on you to make sure that you don’t have any illegally copied files on your hard drive. Since the mid-1960s, the ideological appeal of the post-industrial future has protected the interests of the copyright owners. According to neo-liberal pundits, the global marketplace is founded upon the North exchanging its information commodities for the South’s manufactured goods. Economic prosperity now depends upon the World Trade Organisation imposing copyright protection as a universal obligation. Ironically, by proclaiming their global ambitions, the media and software corporations have exposed the weakness of their economic position. Across the developing world, governments know that copyright laws are unenforceable. Only the rich can afford to pay Northern prices in the South. If piracy can no longer be tolerated, alternatives must be found. In Brazil, the ministry of culture is promoting open source software as not just a more affordable product, but also an opportunity to create local employment. At the international level, they’re advocating the replacement of rigid copyright protection with flexible copyleft licenses. Inspired by this good example, other governments in the South are launching their own open source initiatives. In the developing world, participating within the hi-tech gift economy is a necessity not a hobby. During the last year, the American movie and music industries have forced the leading file-sharing services to limit unauthorized copying by their users. But, as soon as one threat is seen off, another arises. In 2005, over three-quarters of online music is still distributed for free. By forcing the issue, the owners of intellectual property have proved that the hard-line definition of copyright is as anachronistic in the North as in the South. Up-and-coming bands long ago learnt that giving away tunes attracts punters to their gigs and – in due course – sells their music. Yet, in contrast with the South, few politicians in the developed world have accepted the copyright laws need updating for this new dispensation. But, eventually, legislation must match social reality. The dotcom commodity economy can’t displace the hi-tech gift economy. Miscegenation is the epitome of the Net. During the Sixties, the New Left created a new form of radical politics: anarcho-communism. Above all, the Situationists and similar groups believed that the tribal gift economy proved that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. From May 1968 to the late Nineties, this utopian vision of anarcho-communism has inspired community media and DIY culture activists. Within the universities, the gift economy already was the primary method of socialising labour. From its earliest days, the technical structure and social mores of the Net has ignored intellectual property. Although the system has expanded far beyond the university, the self-interest of Net users perpetuates this hi-tech gift economy. As an everyday activity, users circulate free information as e-mail, on listservs, in newsgroups, within on-line conferences and through Web sites. As shown by the Apache and Linux programs, the hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development. Contrary to the purist vision of the New Left, anarcho-communism on the Net can only exist in a compromised form. Money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis. The 'New Economy' of cyberspace is an advanced form of social democracy.




How to Cite

Barbrook, R. (2005). (originally published in December 1998). First Monday. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v0i0.1517