Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

The High-Tech Gift Economy

By Richard Barbrook

This article originally appeared in 'First Monday' and is reprinted here with the author's permission

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.



The Legacy of the New Left
The Net as Really Existing Anarcho-Communism
The 'New Economy' is a Mixed Economy

The Legacy of the New Left

"... when ... [Ben Slivka] suggested that Microsoft consider giving away its browser, à la Netscape, Gates exploded and called him a 'communist' ..." [1].

The Net is haunted by the disappointed hopes of the Sixties. Because this new technology symbolises another period of rapid change, many contemporary commentators look back to the stalled revolution of thirty years ago to explain what is happening now. Most famously, the editors of Wired continually pay homage to the New Left values of individual freedom and cultural dissent in their coverage of the Net. However, in their Californian ideology, these ideals of their youth are now going to be realised through technological determinism and free markets. The politics of ecstasy have been replaced by the economics of greed [2].

Ironically, the New Left emerged in response to the 'sell-out' of an earlier generation. By the end of the Fifties, the heroes of the anti-fascist struggle had become the guardians of Cold War orthodoxies. Even within the arts, avant-garde experimentation had been transformed into fashionable styles of consumer society. The adoption of innovative styles and new techniques was no longer subversive. Frustrated with the recuperation of their parents' generation, young people started looking for new methods of cultural and social activism. Above all, the Situationists proclaimed that the epoch of the political vanguard and the artistic avant-garde had passed. Instead of following the intellectual elite, everyone should instead determine their own destinies.

"The situation is...made to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive...'public' must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors but rather... 'livers' must steadily increase.' [3]

These New Left activists wanted to create opportunities for everyone to express their own hopes, dreams and desires. The Hegelian 'grand narrative' would culminate in the supersession of all mediations separating people from each other. Yet, despite their Hegelian modernism, the Situationists believed that the utopian future had been prefigured in the tribal past. For example, tribes in Polynesia organised themselves around the potlatch: the circulation of gifts. Within these societies, this gift economy bound people together into tribes and encouraged cooperation between different tribes. In contrast with the atomisation and alienation of bourgeois society, potlatches required intimate contacts and emotional authenticity [4]. According to the Situationists, the tribal gift economy demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. After the New Left revolution, people would recreate this idyllic condition: anarcho-communism [5].

However, the Situationists could not escape from the elitist tradition of the avant-garde. Despite their invocation of Hegel and Marx, the Situationists remained haunted by Nietzsche and Lenin. As in earlier generations, the rhetoric of mass participation simultaneously justified the leadership of the intellectual elite. Anarcho-communism was therefore transformed into the 'mark of distinction' for the New Left vanguard. As a consequence, the giving of gifts was seen as the absolute antithesis of market competition. There could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would completely supplant the commodity [6].

In the two decades following the May 1968 revolution, this purist vision of anarcho-communism inspired community media activists. For instance, the radical 'free radio' stations created by New Left militants in France and Italy refused all funding from state and commercial sources. Instead, these projects tried to survive through donations of time and money from their supporters. Emancipatory media supposedly could only be produced within the gift economy [7]. During the late-Seventies, pro-situ attitudes were further popularised by the punk movement. Although rapidly commercialised, this sub-culture did encourage its members to form their own bands, make their own fashions and publish their own fanzines. This participatory ethic still shapes innovatory music and radical politics today. From raves to environmental protests, the spirit of May '68 lives on within the DIY culture of the Nineties. The gift is supposedly about to replace the commodity [8].


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 commu nity, the gift economy has long been the primary method of socialising labour. Funded by the state or by donations, scient ists 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 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 inst ance, 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 m ixture 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 alt ruism 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 e valuation, 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 e mpire: 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]


The 'New Economy' is a Mixed Economy

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, almost nobody still believes in the inevitable victory of communism. On the contrary, large numbers of people accept that the Hegelian 'end of history' has culminated in American neo-liberal capitalism [24]. Yet, at exactly this moment in time, a really existing form of anarcho-communism is being constructed within the Net, especially by people living in the U. S. When they go on-line, almost everyone spends most of their time participating within the gift economy rather than engaging in market competition. Because users receive much more information than they can ever give away, there is no popular clamour for imposing the equal exchange of the marketplace on the Net. Once again, the 'end of history' for capitalism appears to be communism.

For the hi-tech gift economy was not an immanent possibility in every age. On the contrary, the market and the state could only be surpassed in this specific sector at this particular historical moment. Crucially, people need sophisticated media, computing and telecommunications technologies to participate within the hi-tech gift economy. A manually-operated press produced copies which were relatively expensive, limited in numbers and impossible to alter without recopying. After generations of technological improvements, the same quantity of text on the Net costs almost nothing to circulate, can be copied as needed and can be remixed at will. In addition, individuals need both time and money to participate within the hi-tech gift economy. While a large number of the world's population still lives in poverty, people within the industrialised countries have steadily reduced their hours of employment and increased their wealth over a long period of social struggles and economic reorganisations. By working for money during some of the week, people can now enjoy the delights of giving gifts at other times. Only at this particular historical moment have the technical and social conditions of the metropolitan countries developed sufficiently for the emergence of digital anarcho-communism [25].

"Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production." [26]

The New Left anticipated the emergence of the hi-tech gift economy. People could collaborate with each other without needing either markets or states. However, the New Left had a purist vision of DIY culture: the gift was the absolute antithesis of the commodity. Yet, anarcho-communism only exists in a compromised form on the Net. Contrary to the ethical-aesthetic vision of the New Left, money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis. On the one hand, each method of working does threaten to supplant the other. The hi-tech gift economy heralds the end of private property in 'cutting edge' areas of the economy. The digital capitalists want to privatise the shareware programs and enclose the social spaces built through voluntary effort. The potlatch and the commodity remain irreconcilable.

Yet, on the other hand, the gift economy and the commercial sector can only expand through mutual collaboration within cyberspace. The free circulation of information between users relies upon the capitalist production of computers, software and telecommunications. The profits of commercial Net companies depend upon increasing numbers of people participating within the hi-tech gift economy. For instance, Netscape has tried to realise the opportunities opened up by such interdependence from its foundation. Under threat from the Microsoft monopoly, the company has to ally itself with the hacker community to avoid being overwhelmed. It started by distributing its Web browser as a gift. Today the source code of this program is freely available and the development of products for Linux has become a top priority. The commercial survival of Netscape depends upon successfully collaborating with hackers from the hi-tech gift economy. Anarcho-communism is now spon sored by corporate capital [27].

""Hi there Mr CEO [Chief Executive Officer] - tell me, do you have any strategic problem right now that is bigger than whether Microsoft is going to either crush you or own your soul in a few years? No? You don't? OK, well, l isten carefully then. You cannot survive against Bill Gates [by] playing Bill Gates' game. To thrive, or even survive, you're going to have to change the rules ..."" [28]

The purity of the digital DIY culture is also compromised by the political system. The state isn't just the potential censor and regulator of the Net. At the same time, the public sector provides essential support for the hi-tech gift economy. In the past, the founders of the Net never bothered to incorporate intellectual property within the system because their wages were funded from taxation. In the future, governments will have to impose universal service provisions upon commercial telecommunications companies if all sections of society are to have the opportunity to circulate free information. Furthermore, when access is available, many people use the Net for political purposes, including lobbying their political representatives. Within the digital mixed economy, anarcho-communism is als o symbiotic with the state.

This miscegenation occurs almost everywhere within cyberspace. For instance, an on-line conference site can be constructed as a labour of love, but still be partially funded by advertising and public money. Crucially, this hybridisation of working methods is not confined within particular projects. When they're on-line, people constantly pass from one form of social activity to another. For instance, in one session, a Net user could first purchase some clothes from an e-commerce catalogue, then look for information about education services from the local council's site and then contribute some thoughts to an on-going discussion on a listserver for fiction-writers. Without even consciously having to think about it, this person would have successively been a consumer in a market, a citizen of a state and an anarcho-communist within a gift economy. Far from realising theory in its full purity, working methods on the Net are inevitably compromised. The 'New Economy' is an advanced form of social democracy [29].

At the end of the twentieth century, anarcho-communism is no longer confined to avant-garde intellectuals. What was once revolutionary has now become banal. As Net access grows, more and more ordinary people are circulating free information across the Net. Crucially , their potlatches are not attempts to regain a lost emotional authenticity. Far from having any belief in the revolutionary ideals of May '68, the overwhelming majority of people participate within the hi-tech gift economy for entirely pragmatic reasons. Sometimes they buy commodities on-line and access state-funded services. However, they usually prefer to circulate gifts amongst each other. Net users will always obtain much more than will ever be contributed in return. By giving away something which is well-made, they will gain recognition from those who download their work. For most people, the gift economy is simply the best method of collaborating together in cyberspace. Within the mixed economy of the Net, anarcho-communism has become an everyday reality.

"We must rediscover the pleasure of giving: giving because you have so much. What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see - whether it likes it or not! - when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift." [30]


This article is a remixed extract from The Holy Fools: a critique of the avant-garde in the age of the Net which will be published by Verso Books early in 1999.


About the Author

Dr. Richard Barbrook was educated at Cambridge, Essex and Kent universities. During the early Eighties, he was involved in pirate and community radio broadcasting. He helped to set up Spectrum Radio, a multilingual station operating in London, and published extensively on radio issues. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Richard worked for a research institute at the University of Westminster on media regulation within the EU. This research was later published in Media Freedom: the contradictions of communications in the age of modernity (London: Pluto Press, 1995). Richard is the coordinator of the Hypermedia Research Centre at the University of Westminster . In collaboration with Andy Cameron, he wrote "The Californian Ideology" which was a pioneering critique of the neo-liberal politics of Wired. A selection of his other writings is available on the Hypermedia Research Centre's Web site.




1. James Wallace, Overdrive, p. 266.

2. For a critique of the neo-l iberal politics of Wired, see Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, "The Californian Ideology."

3. Guy Debord, "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organisation and Action," p. 25.

4. The Situationists discovered the tribal gift economy in Marcel Mauss, The Gift.

5. For the historical antecedents of New Left anarcho-communism, see Richard Gombin, Les Origins du Gauchisme, pp. 99-151. For its later influence on the new social movements, see George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left, pp. 204-212.

6. For instance, in their famous analysis of the 1965 Los Angeles Watts riots, the Situationists praised looting as the revolutionary supersession of money-commodity relations: "... instead of being eternally pursued in the rat race of alienated labour and increasing but unmet social needs, real desires begin to be expressed in festival, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction." Situationist International, "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy," p. 155.

7. See John Downing, Radical Media.

8. DIY stands for 'do-it-yourself'. This slogan is used to emphasise the need for people to tackle social problems through collective direct action rather than to wait for someone else to solve them. See Elaine Brass, Sophie Poklewski Koziell and Denise Searle, Gathering Force.

9. See Warren O. Hagstrom, "Gift Giving as an Organisational Principle in Science," p. 29.

10. This is why the increasing role of private funding can hamper as well as help academic research. See David Noble, "Digital Diploma Mills."

11. See Mark Geise, "From ARPAnet to the Internet," pp. 126-132.

12. Tim Berners-Lee, "The World Wide Web: Past, Present and Future," p. 11.

13. See Neil Kleinman, "Don't Fence M e In: Copyright, Property and Technology."

14. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, "Cooking Pot Markets," p 10.

15. Steve Elliot of Slug Oven quoted in Karlin Lillington, "No! It's Not OK, Computer," page 3. Also see Andrew Leonard, "Mutiny on the Net."

16. For instance, one of the major components of the 1993 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was increased protection for patents and copyrights, especially with agriculture and medicine, see John Frow, "Information as Gift and Commodity."

17. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, pp. 57-58.

18. Tim Berners-Lee, "Realising the Full Potential of the Web," p. 5.

19. Bernard Lang, "Free Software For All," p. 3.

20. Keith W. Porterfield, "Information Wants to be Valuable," p. 2.

21. Shareware is also often known as freeware or open source software. All these names emphasise that the program is a gift to anyone on the Net, especially those who have the skills to improve its code. See the use of these terms in Douglas Rushkoff, "Free Lessons in Innovat ion"; Free Software Foundation, "What is Free Software?"; and Eric S. Raymond, "Homesteading the Noosphere."

22. See Andrew Leonard, "Let My Software Go!."

23. Eric S. Raymond, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," p. 1.

24. See Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History and the Last Man."

25. "Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods." Eric S. Raymond, "Homesteading the Noosphere," p. 9.

26. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 700.

27. See Netscape Communications Corporation, "Netscape Announces Plans to Make Next-Generation Communicator Source Code Available Free on the Net."

28. Eric Raymond describing his pitch on behalf of shareware to commercial software companies in Andrew Leonard, "Let My Software Go!," p. 8. Bill Gates doesn't just believe that free software is 'communism', but even allowing other companies to have access to Microsoft products before their release date! See James Wallace, Overdrive, p. 57.

< P>29. Wired uses 'The New Economy' as a synonym for its neo-liberal fantasies about the Net. See Kevin Kelly, "New Rules for the New Economy."

30. Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, p. 70.



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Andrew Leonard, 1998. "Let My Software Go!," at http ://

Karlin Lillington, 1998. "No! It's Not OK, Computer," Guardian, On-Line Section (April 6).

Karl Marx, 1973. Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Marcel Mauss, 1990. The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.

Netscape Communications Corporation, 1998. "Netscape Announces Plans to Make Next-Generation Communicator Source Code Available Free on the Net," Press Release for 22 January 1998, at http://www.netscap

David Noble, 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: the automation of higher education," F irst Monday, volume 3, number 1 (January).

Keith W. Porterfield, "Information Wants to be Valuable: a report from the first O'Reilly Perl conference," at ht tp:// articles/freesoft.html

Eric S. Raymond, 1998a. "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," First Monday, volume 3, number 3 (March).

Eric S. Raymond, 1998b. "Homesteading the Noosphere," First Monday, volume 3, number 10 (October).

Howard Rheingold, 1994. The Virtual Community: finding connection in a computerised world. London: Secker & Warburg.

Douglas Rushkoff, "Free Lessons in Innovation," Guardian, On-Line Section (April 9).

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Raoul Vaneigem, 1972. The Revolution of Everyday Life. London: Practical Paradise.

James Wallace, 1997. Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace. N. Y.: John Wiley.


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