t byfield on Sat, 3 Apr 1999 23:13:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Marginalization of Scarcity (fwd)

     [<http://agalmics.nu/>, from a pointer on slashdot
      needful to say, to forward isn't to endorse. --tb]

The Marginalization of Scarcity by Robert Levin

Thanks to all who have commented thus far. The comments from
working economists and sociologists were of particular interest,
and I can see that they are going to produce some changes in the
essay. In particular, gentle reader, realize as you read that I
do not consider agalmias to be gift cultures per se; traditional
gift cultures are largely pre-industrial, and based as much on
scarcity as any modern technological state.

Also, when you read my games-theory comments, don't infer that I
believe economies are zero-sum games. While one or both "legs" of
an economic transaction can most conveniently be expressed as a
zero-sum game, that does not extend to economies as a whole, nor
even necessarily to a single complete economic transaction. I'll
plan to discuss these points in more detail in follow-ons to this


The recent growth of interest in Linux and "open source" or
"free" software raises questions about the nature of the "gift
culture" of the Internet. Why do people give away information?
What do they hope to gain? How can the Internet continue to work,
in a world in which politics based on shared ownership has
serious, demonstrated problems?

The cooperative spirit of the Internet is not a historical fluke.
If human beings allowed their aggressive, suspicious sides to
dominate, we'd live in a world in which people took things by
force instead of buying them. And how would anyone trust the
printed word? How could education occur in the absence of
cooperation? All over the world, students listen and educators
teach. In a largely unrestricted market of record size,
individuals freely trade goods and services for other goods and
services of their choice. Ownership of private property remains
largely undisputed by men with guns. We live in the cooperative
state known as civilization.

Not every human activity is cooperative. Wars still occur. And
the existence of laws implies that people do disagree about when
cooperation is a good thing. But it's clear that voluntary
interaction serves important human needs. The most successful
economic systems on the planet are based on voluntary
interaction. Variants of the "free enterprise" model have
produced wealth and plenty on a vast scale. Political systems
based on involuntary interaction, such of those of the Soviet
Union and various Third World nations, have not been nearly so
successful at meeting the needs and desires of their citizens as
have systems which emphasize freedom.

But will technology change the way human beings interact over the
coming decades? What trends do we need to understand in order to
see where things are going? One clear trend in a technological
society is the marginalization of scarcity. As time goes on, the
technology of agriculture and manufacture teaches us how to
produce goods with more efficiency, at less cost. The trend in
technology is an exponential improvement of knowledge and
capabilities. Make anything cheap enough, and it will no longer
be scarce enough to be considered an economic good.

Contrary trends operate in the marketplace. Intellectual
property, a system of law in which access to inventions and
creative output is limited in order to reward their creators, has
a powerful conservative influence on the market, slowing the
adoption of new ideas and inventions. Patent law rewards
inventors for coming up with useful technology; but the reward
often comes in the form of purchase of the right to control who
may use that technology. Large corporations, with large legal and
accounting staffs and access to capital, have an extraordinary
advantage in accumulating exclusive rights to new technologies.
The nature of such organizations is to hold onto these assets
tightly and release them slowly, so that the most efficient
return on investment can be achieved.

But technological change continues to occur, in part because
competing organizations often need the competitive advantage
which new technology can provide. So we can be certain that, over
time, more and more basic goods will become less and less scarce.
With these changes, it becomes increasingly important to
understand how human beings allocate non-scarce goods. Indeed, a
sort of "economics" of non-scarcity becomes an important study.
But economics is the study of the allocation of scarce goods. We
need a new paradigm, and a new field of study. What we need is


agalmics (uh-GAL-miks), n. [Gr. "agalma", "a pleasing gift"]
The study and practice of the allocation of non-scarce goods.

agalmic actor, n.
An individual or organization engaged in agalmic activity.

agalmic software, n.
Computer software written and distributed as an agalmic activity.

agalmia, n.
The sum of the agalmic activity in a particular region or sphere.
Analogous to an "economy" in economic theory.


To understand human behavior, we must find clear examples to
study. Agalmic behavior involves the exchange of non-scarce
goods, goods which can be found in the modern free software
community. As we examine agalmic behavior, we'll frequently use
examples involving free software. We can observe the following
characteristics of agalmic activity:

1.   It is transfinite. Economic trade is finite; when I give
you a dollar I have one less than I did. Agalmic activity
involves goods which are not scarce, so I can give you one
without appreciably diminishing my supply.

2.   It is cooperative. Economic activity often involves
competition. Buyers must allocate their limited funds to the
supplier who best meets their needs. Since it doesn't involve
scarce resources, agalmic activity rarely involves competition.
Efficient agalmic actors know how to encourage cooperation and
benefit from the results.

3.   It is self-interested. Agalmic activity advances personal
goals, which may be charitable or profit-oriented, individual or
organizational. An agalmia typically contains both individuals
and organizations, with a broad mix of charitable and
profit-oriented goals. Agalmic profit is measured in such things
as knowledge, satisfaction, recognition and often in indirect
economic benefit.

4.   It is self-stimulating. Examples can be seen in free
software communities, in which new programmers, documenters and
debuggers come from the ranks of free software users.

5.   It is self-directing. Free software users provide feedback
to developers in the form of bug reports, patches and requests
for new features. Software projects can be forked by users when
an existing developer group is not responsive to their needs.
Maintainers are then free to adopt the new work or go their own

6.   It is decentralized and non-authoritarian. In a free
software community, developer groups maintain their positions
only as long as they are responsive to their user bases. No one
is forced to participate in a project, and the projects people
participate in are the ones in which they are interested.
Involuntary activity places limits on exchange and creates
scarcities. As such, it is non-agalmic. A particular agalmic
group may be organized in a top-down fashion, and non-agalmic
groups may act agalmicly. But alternatives are available and
participation is voluntary. Authoritarian systems remove personal
incentives for agalmic behavior.

7.   It is positive-sum. In games theory, a 'zero-sum game' is
one in which one player's gain is another player's loss.
Conventional economics often describes zero-sum games. When two
suppliers compete for the dollars of a single customer, or when
two government agencies compete with each other for fixed budget
dollars, a zero sum game is played. A 'positive-sum game' is one
in which players can gain by behavior which enhances the gains of
others. Efficient agalmics is a positive-sum game. For example,
when a free software programmer gives his source code away, he
gains a large population of users to report bugs; the users gain
the use of his programs. By awarding the other players points,
the player gains points.

8.   It is not new. Gift cultures have existed during much of
human history, and other, non-gift cultures have clear agalmic
influences. Religious communities have engaged in agalmic
behavior, as have governments, businesses and individuals.
Charities, standards organizations and trade associations often
act agalmicly. It may be argued convincingly that civilization
itself is an agalmic activity.


The behavior of agalmias gives us useful information about the
ways that societies can change and grow. Open source and free
software communities provide us with excellent modern day
agalmias for study, as does the Internet itself. But long term
trends in technology suggest that material scarcity will likely
become less common, and agalmic behavior more common. In studying
the behavior of agalmias we can see intimations of our
technological future.

Robert Levin
Woodland Hills, California, US
30 March 1999
Email: levin@openprojects.net
Online: lilo at Open Projects Net IRC
v2.2-Tue Mar 30 16:01:26 UTC 1999

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