Jim Carrico on Tue, 21 Aug 2001 03:23:08 +0200 (CEST)

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Potlatch (was: Re: <nettime> Garcia/Lovink: The GHI of Tactical Media)

Hi folks -

excuse my poor form in posting before properly introducing myself. 
I'm a web developer, among other things, based in Vancouver BC.  I 
was in Berlin a few weeks ago, where I met Pit Schultz, who pointed 
me in the direction of nettime, which I've managed to remain ignorant 
of for all these years. Our conversation revolved around the need to 
establish a movement in culture which parallels the "free software" 
movement, in other words an aggressive "viral" initiative to 
establish a vibrant public domain in culture. My position is that 
this won't be possible without an alternative system of rewarding and 
sustaining creators without forcing them to rely on scarcity-based 
marketing. For the last few years, I've been advocating for the 
development of a payment system for "abundance-based" digital 
products, under the umbrella term "Potlatch" - http://www.potlatch.net

Andreas Broeckmann <abroeck@transmediale.de> wrote:
>ab: Geert, in a new text called The New Actonomy which you wrote together
>with Florian Schneider, you describe the new possibilities of media
>activism that are emerging, but you also point to the potential dangers
>that people have to be aware of. The Internet as the master medium of the
>1990s has, in the last two or three years, fallen into what looks like a
>depression. Some say that the party and the hype are simply over, others
>that we are entering into a more realistic stage where the importance of
>the Net as a medium will continue to grow, while the utopian hopes subside
>in the face of all sorts of critical reality checks. These reality checks
>are also closely tied to a crisis of the general belief in globalisation
>and the fast-aging 'new economy'. Does this crisis create room for
>tactical media practices, or does it make the life of media activists more
>gl: It is indeed true that advanced net activism (not the adolescent
>'hacktivism') is much closer to dotcom business than many would suspect.
>The new actonomy is open for business, constantly searching for funds,
>just as tactical media no longer fully depend on state funding. For a good
>reason: there is a common interest in innovative net concepts, software,
>interfaces, usage of streaming media, free software and open source etc.
>This might mean that the current wave of net activism will face a setback
>in a little while because it's just behind the dotcom wave. The stagnation
>of bandwidth is a real concern, for example, also for activists. The same
>counts for the e-cash crisis and the absence of a functioning micro
>payment system. Activists, sitting on their explosive content, would
>really benefit from alternative e-commerce systems, not based on credit
>cards. It is of course good for social and political work on the Net that
>the cyberselfish robber mentality of the dotcoms has gone. But do not
>forget the flip side of this. With libertarianism losing its hegemony
>there is also the danger of throwing away the baby with the tub water and
>giving away the cyber freedom to corporations and the state. That should
>never happen. It is also up to activists to fight against censorship,
>lobby against the flood of desastrous legislations etc.

The lack of a functioning system of micropayments or electronic cash 
is no accident. The institutions which should have been establishing 
standards in this area - ie. banks and governments - have shown no 
interest in doing so, in fact they have been downright hostile. This 
is disappointing, but hardly surprising, given the fact that interest 
payments and taxation are highly lucrative "frictions", which would 
tend to be eliminated by a more rational "frictionless" economy.

If we want an alternative e-commerce system, not based on credit 
cards, we're going to have to build it ourselves. I don't think this 
is as far-fetched as it sounds.

My basic premise is this: knowledge is not diminished as it spreads - 
in fact it is increased. Yet our economic system is based on 
scarcity, eg. the "law" of supply and demand which states that 
infinite supply equals zero value.  The phrase "information economy" 
suggested opposing vectors on a collision course: the collision is 
happening right about now. One of two things must happen: either we 
make digital objects uncopyable (and hence scarce) which has been 
compared to "making water not wet", or we start playing around with 
the idea that abundant resources may be valuable, and see where that 
takes us.

The point is, it is very difficult to prevent people from copying and 
sharing digital goods, and it is nearly impossible to *force* them to 
pay for them if they don't want to. Elementary psychology suggests 
that rather than using increasingly draconian enforcement, we should 
be dreaming up ways of making them *want to pay*. Guilt trips are 
unlikely to be successful, what we need is a game-like system in 
which there are tangible gains for participating.  The potlatch was 
an elaborate social game in which the winners were the one's who 
*gave the most* - it was very competitive, even hostile at times, 
because one's rivals were challenged to be more generous in return. 
The net result was an economy of abundance, in which all wealth was 
constantly in circulation.

Our current economic system is no less a game, it's just that it's a 
game that very few people can really play. It's down to the last few 
players now - I think maybe it's time to declare a winner, 
congratulate everyone on a hard fought battle, and set the pieces 
back up.  Ha ha.

Anyway, a few of us have been considering some possible solutions to 
this dilemma, focussed of necessity on overcoming what may be the 
fundamental scarcity of the modern world - a consensual hallucination 
called money. My contribution to the debate is the idea that 
digitally signed promissory notes, backed by the reputation of the 
issuer, could be the basis of a quick-and-dirty micropayment system. 
A first draft "potlatch protocol" document was posted in March at 
http://potlatch.net/protocol.01.html . There's a 'version 0.2' which 
should be posted soon. Comments are welcome.

Jim Carrico

PS - My Berlin contacts also mentioned the WOS conference in October 
http://www.mikro.org/Events/OS/wos2/index-e.html and that it may be a 
good opportunity to discuss some of these ideas.  Anyone interested 
in a "potlatch" session?

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