Note on Homesteading the Noosphere

I've been re-reading "Homesteading the Noosphere" and came upon the chapter about gift culture. I've remembered how it rang false even when I read it for the first time, years ago. This time I've decided to write this short note to explain what's wrong with it.

Now, don't get me wrong. Homesteading the Noosphere is a great piece of writing and deserves recognition, if for nothing else, then for doing what nobody else did, namely, for looking at open source community from anthropological perspective.

That being said, comparing open source to gift culture is wrong. It would have not been wrong if this was a newly-coined term: Hackers surely do give gifts to community etc. However, if you invoke the term "gift culture" in anthropological context, as ESR clearly does (he even specifically mentions Kwakaka'wakw customs), it has a very specific meaning.

Let me give you an example. It will be familiar to everyone who lived in a village and those who haven't may have encountered similar behaviour within their network of friends.

Say, you need a table saw to prepare firewood for the winter. You don't have one so you visit your neighbour and ask him to lend you his saw. You propose to pay for it. The neighbour laughs and says that you can take it for free. "We are neighbours, after all." So you do and that leaves you with a dept of kinds to your neighbour. A week later you are baking cookies so you give some to the neighbour. Also, if he asks you for something it would be extremely rude to ask for money — hey, he lent you his table saw for free, right? Once you reciprocate, the neighbour in turn is in debt and tries to find out a way to give back. And so the cycle continues.

Note that each part of the cycle is more or less forced: If one refuses to give they'll get the reputation of being selfish. If one refuses to receive (e.g. by insisting on paying for the gift) they'll offend the giver.

Gift economy, in the anthropological sense, is a society based on this kind of sustained reciprocal exchange. In a full-blown gift economy all aspects of social life are governed by a complex system of circular exchanges of the above kind. They involve goods, women, special items used solely as gifts, spirits, dances etc. Also, unlike in the village example, where you'll be at worst scorned for not reciprocating, a failure to engage in the system can lead to actual violence.

When you look back at the open source community, it isn't really involved in this kind of gift culture. One does give a gift "to the community" and gets credit for doing that but receiving the gift (i.e. using the software) doesn't result in obligation to reciprocate. Unlike with true gift cultures, the gift is not to a particular person or group. It is given to "the community" or, more precisely, left at a publicly accessible place for anyone to take. This prevents the creation of a tie, a debtor/creditor relationship, which, one may say, is the principal goal in a true gift economy. Complementarily, refusing the gift, i.e. not using the software, is a perfectly acceptable behaviour.

One may argue that copyleft licenses introduce this kind of reciprocation, but the argument is not well supported by reality. The fact that copyleft license applies only in a very specific cases (redistribution) implies that instituting an actual gift culture is not the goal. Permissive licenses carry this argument even further by removing the obligation to reciprocate even in the case of redistribution.

In short: Labeling open source communities as gift cultures is not helpful. It just muddles the understanding of what's actually going on. However, given that they are not exchange economies either, they probably deserve a name of their own, say, "reputation culture".

Martin Sústrik, July 5th, 2017

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