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[Nettime-bold] Bearing Gifts, They Come From Afar

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Bearing Gifts, They Come From Afar
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
December  21, 2000

For Christmas, she wants a "CD burner." She will jack this thing into her
computer, she explains. And voilý, she will be able to make her own
records. She will simply copy all the Napster music she has downloaded off
the Net for free. "Daddy, will you get me one for Christmas?" she begs,
tossing her tawny brown hair and striking dance poses. "Please please
please? My friend Elizabeth says it's changed her life. It will save us a
bunch of money. I'll never have to buy music again." Encapsulated in that
pre-Christmas exchange is a whole new world. Christmas gifts of course are
as old at the Three Wise Men. But grabbing everything off the Internet for
free? Plugging into a global network of gifts? This goes to the very heart
of our strange new age. Remember, the Net from first creation was not built
by greed. Instead, it was built by individuals openly offering wisdom and
information for free. Their legacy is all around us. Look at the results to
any question you ask of your computer's search engines. Most of the answers
that pop up clearly were put there by people with no hope of immediate
financial gain -- pictures of the beach on the island of Bequia, hymns to
antique Harley Davidsons in German, the warning signs of frostbite, the
botany of mistletoe, short stories by Anton Chekhov. It's endless. Now the
Next Big Thing in our lives is supposed to be millions of us freely sharing
the very guts of our own computers -- both the content and the processing
power -- individual-to-individual, peer-to-peer. Napster is just the
beginning. All the trendy trade magazines like Red Herring and Wired are
putting this breakthrough on their covers with descriptions like "an
application whose scope is unparalleled in the short history of the
Internet." Not too surprisingly, the market-economy types are trying to
figure out how to make money on this burgeoning gift economy. They're
having a hard time.

The Gift Economy

Everybody knows the best kind of Christmas present. They are the ones that
show how well you understand the other person. "It's the stuff you secretly
care about -- that honors your spirit," says Lewis Hyde, author of "The
Gift," the modern classic on the subject. "There's a sign of connection in
the way the gift is given." It's this creation of a human bond that is at
the heart of gift-giving. That's also why it is almost impossible to give a
gift with no hope of getting anything at all in return. "What marks gift
exchanges in small groups -- tribal peasant societies -- is that there are
always obligations. You're expected to express relationship and gratitude
and indebtedness," observes Hyde, a 1991 recipient of the MacArthur
Foundation "genius" grant. What's new, however, is the notion that you can
build an economy around gifts. "What we idealists often like to call a gift
economy -- 'the selfless offering of value without expectations of direct
returns' -- is a rather modern concept," says Jim Mason, a cultural
anthropologist from Stanford who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua
New Guinea. "It is an open engagement with a community. The question of how
this interacts with a market economy is one we clearly have no answer to."
"It's work-as-gift rather than work-as-commodity," says Richard Barbrook,
of the Hypermedia Research Center at the University of Westminster in
England. "At no time since the invention of money have gifts ruled like
they do now," Hyde says.

An Unusual Calling

It may be fiendishly difficult to construct a business plan that works on
the Web, but some people have found meaning and focus in constructing a
gift plan. Sister Mary Elizabeth, who in 1988 took her vows as an
Episcopalian nun, has for a decade run the largest HIV/AIDS database in the
world. Called the AIDS Educational Global Information System, the AEGIS.com
Web site contains more than 700,000 documents, all cross-referenced and
searchable. Her voyage started in 1990. Her community had inherited a herd
of cows in Missouri, "so I went off to Missouri to herd cows." There she
met two people suffering terribly. Their disease turned out to be AIDS.
"They were very frightened, very isolated." The nearest medical center was
80 miles away. She sold the herd and returned to California with her new
calling -- helping similarly isolated people. She focuses now on extending
her mission to Africa, where computers are few, but those that do exist are
of immeasurable worth because they are a lifeline to information that is
even more scarce. Sister Mary Elizabeth, 62, who updates the site hourly,
half-kids that she has been "cloistered" in her computer room 14 hours a
day, seven days a week, for the last 10 years. The computer room is the
living room of her parents' home in Orange County, Calif. They are both in
their late eighties, legally blind and disabled. "They didn't use the
living room anymore to entertain," Sister Mary Elizabeth says with a laugh.
"They entertain in the family room. So why not close it off." There are now
three metal racks holding eight computers in that living room. The
computers receive at least 10,000 use sessions a day from around the world.
That adds up to 4.5 million pages viewed per month. She does this on a
budget of only $180,000 a year, provided by donations. "I never dreamed I
would be doing this for the rest of my life," Sister Mary Elizabeth says.
"But when I saw the need, there was no looking back."

Those Who Give

A gift economy is indeed an economy -- you can rationally expect that if
you tender a gift, sooner or later you will receive some kind of return.
But the return is indirect. And expectation of a return can be idealistic,
even mystical. The Bible is full of examples. "Cast thy bread upon the
waters," the book of Ecclesiastes commands. In the New Testament, five
loaves and two fishes offered freely by Jesus and His disciples not only
feed the multitude, according to the book of Matthew, but the leftovers
fill 12 baskets. The deep structure of the Internet has an undeniably
utopian cast. "E-mail is the oddest thing," says gift-scholar Hyde. "All
the computers and servers and connections -- it has a gift economy feel to
it. Unlike the telephone, there's not somebody there charging me when I'm
using it. And I don't know the anonymous benefactors who have made it
work." "The Net is haunted by the disappointed hopes of the '60s," says
England's Barbrook. From the earliest days, with the battle cry
"Information wants to be free," the Internet was seen as a space where
people could find ways to collaborate without the need for either
governments or markets to mediate social bonds. And indeed, it has worked
out that way. To this day, it is notoriously difficult to charge for
anything on the Net, because there is so much of value there for free. Look
at the endless self-help sites -- like those for widows and widowers. They
aren't "run" by anybody. People there cluster spontaneously around their
needs and desires, as do the devotees of the Gilbert and Sullivan site,
with almost 700 members including a group in Brussels and a decidedly
strange Italian who lives in Argentina. Untold numbers of doctors who
specialize in exotic diseases participate as volunteers in support groups.
Many are the grieving groups that sport their own psychologists.  Tim
Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, gave away his discovery. "One thing
that was clear to him was that if it was going to be successful, he would
have to give it away," Hyde says. "The irony is that to become a
commercially viable medium, it had to begin with a public domain action."
"Few of the pioneers became wealthy," note Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon in
their book "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet." One
of them, Jon Postel, believed "decisions he had made in the course of his
work over the years had been!
 for the good of the community, and that starting a company to profit from
those activities would have amounted to a violation of public trust." Their
forebears can be found not just in the Bible but in scientific research.
"The universities have traditionally been a gift economy," says Pamela
McCorduck, author of "Machines Who Think" and other books on the social
impact of technology. "They give away knowledge as fast as they can
accumulate it. In fact, you earn points for that. Some people might wonder
why having something named after you -- like Fallopian tubes or Alzheimer's
disease -- is good enough reward for all that work, but the ethos of
science has always been so." After all, as Hyde observes, "The task of
science is to describe and explain the physical world. Ideas are treated as
gifts because the task of assembling a coherent whole clearly lies beyond
the powers of a single mind or even a single generation. All such broad
intellectual undertakings call for a community of scholars. A sort of
'group mind' develops." "When you don't know who will be receiving your
gift, in some ways that's a purer form of altruism," Hyde says. "You hope
you will live in the kind of world where others will do this. There's that
old joke, 'If you don't go to other men's funerals, they won't come to
yours.' It's an act of faith. And if enough people make that gesture, you
will have that kind of world." No wonder the Nasdaq is in the tank. The
Internet is proving to be a difficult place to make a profit. It was
created as a gift economy.

'An Incredible Gift'

Even at the very heart of the marketplace at Amazon.com, the gift economy
is central. Harriet Klausner, 48, of Morrow, Ga., has written 1,314 book
reviews for the Web site -- more than any other person. She writes them for
free. Why? "The best, most truthful answer is I need to. I take no money
from them. Never have, never will. I just want to share my joy of books
with other readers, and Amazon reaches the widest audience. "I got a letter
from a little girl who was writing a book report. She wanted to quote one
of my book reviews. That was like worth a million dollars. Because she
thought it was good, and had information that could help her in her report.
Without knowing it, I ended up helping somebody," says Klausner. "And that
means a lot. If I could write a review and make it as interesting as
possible, I might get a person to read." What's more, says the retired
librarian, "I like to do it. It's fun. You share your joy of the book with
other people. And Amazon is the biggest vehicle that lets you do that.
Amazon has given me an incredible gift. An incredible gift." She wouldn't
dream of taking money. "When people asked if I got paid, I thought that was
kind of funny. It seems so unethical to me. I believe if you do good, it
comes back to you." At the core of the resolutely commercial Amazon, there
are more than 2 million book reviews provided by customers for the benefit
of other customers, as gifts.

The Eighth Wonder

In the past 2,000 days, since the Web was born, the world has built some 3
billion Web pages readily available to the public. That's 1.5 million a
day, one for every two humans on Earth, and growing exponentially. This is
a construction feat that would impress the pharaohs. Who paid for it? asks
Kevin Kelly, author of "New Rules for the New Economy." Where did the money
come from? Or to put it another way, if some government had tried to order
this vast project into existence, what would it have cost? "There is not
enough money in the world to do this," Kelly says. "This is an impossible
thing we've done. It's a remarkable human achievement of Renaissance
proportions in 2,000 days. "It's unbelievable. Americans send 600 billion
e-mails a year. This is transformative, the scale and speed with which we
have made this. That is the gift economy. It's an act of faith. A holy act.
This gift exchange is socializing us to a degree not seen before. The
typical person today is engaged in more relationships with more people in
more dimensions than ever before. It's amazing given the number of people
involved. "I'm not so naive as to think the gift economy is going to
replace the market economy. But I do think the gift economy is an essential
underpinning of the market economy." Kelly admits, of course, that on the
Net, "nobody can figure out how to make a profit. To me that has to do with
the value that you add on top of the ordinary exchanges of gifts. Doing
that is quite difficult, and not very formulaic. "One hundred years ago,
the way a woman got a recipe was from her grandmother, for free. Now if you
told someone back then that selling recipes would be a multibillion-dollar
business -- that cookbooks keep some bookstores alive -- they would have
thought you were nuts. Why would anybody buy a recipe when you can get them
for free? "So what happened? Recipes are still exchanged for free. But
people learned to package and provide service of value." What's the
solution? Kelly's hunch involves transforming our ideas of what should be a
gift and what might soon be seen as a profitable service. He calls it
"Following the Free." Kelly personally put this into play when he put the
entire text of his first book, "Out of Control," on the Web when it came
out in 1994. Anybody could read it, print it out, download it for free. He
gave them permission. But on his Web site he also said that for $15, he
could save people some trouble. He would ship them a "nice bound printout"
from Amazon. He called it a "book." "Fifteen bucks for a book is a lot. But
as a printing service, it's cheap." He believes that argument sold a lot of
copies. "I think people inherently want to communicate," says Hal R.
Varian, dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the
University of California at Berkeley and co-author of "Information Rules: A
Strategic Guide to the Network Economy." "That's why there is so much good
stuff on the Net that you can get for free. Very, very few people make a
living off writing. Most people just want to be heard. People are social
animals. Every human being has a desire to communicate. That's something
that's an inherent part of human nature. The scarcity is not speakers but

Spirit of Giving

Gifts are at the heart of Christmas. The Rev. William J. Byron, former
rector of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University, is an economist
who is serving on an Internet advisory committee. As a pastor, he has often
had to explain the spirit of Christmas. One time he asked some children,
"What's a gift?" The predictable answer was -- something somebody gives to
you. How about if I had borrowed a dollar from you, he asked, offering a
lesson in market economics. Now I'm returning it. Is that a gift? The kids
allowed the answer was no. Okay, Byron said, so what's a gift? Silence.
After a long moment, another youngster spoke up. "A gift is when you get
something you don't deserve." Byron loves that story and repeats the punch
line eagerly as a setup for his beliefs about the meaning of Christmas. The
gift of salvation, he believes, is not something we merited on our own. The
Christian message is about the ultimate connection. Jesus is the
incarnation that allows us to connect with the universal truth and the
cosmos. Jesus came and offered a different way of living. His gift is how
people can come together in groups and create the kingdom of God on Earth
right now. The celebration of Christmas, therefore, is about when you get
something you don't deserve. One Sunday earlier this month, Byron
says,there was a "toy Sunday" at Holy Trinity Church, where he is pastor.
Children brought in toys to give to the poor, in the spirit of putting the
interests of others ahead of your own. "It was beautiful. The children
bring them up at the offertory procession. The deal is you don't give
broken toys. They not only have to work, but they have to be toys that the
child really likes. You wouldn't believe it, the way the toys were piled
up." The pile was not what impressed Byron, though. What stuck in his mind
was one little boy whose reward might be great, if reward can be measured
by the quality of what one gives away. "One kid turned and waved goodbye to
a teddy bear," said Byron. "It was a favorite of his."

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