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Re: <nettime> Rhizome's revenge
Jim Carrico on Fri, 31 Jan 2003 04:44:02 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> Rhizome's revenge


On Monday, January 27, 2003, at 01:13 AM, Morlock Elloi wrote:

> The difference between "money" currency and "social-ties" currency is 
> the
> owner, or mint. The former is owned by the local force monopoly; the 
> latter is
> owned by the individual.
>
> Modern technology offers something that would cause even greater panic 
> than
> providing sex services for "money" - self-minting of currency (to avoid 
> long
> explanations, think of it as circulating personal checks that are never 
> cashed
> in the force monopoly's bank.) All components are available (digital
> signatures, Chaum's or Brand's e-cash, or Wagner's patent-free 
> replacements),
> even software is there (mojo nation contained all minting code.)
>
> Yet it still seems unacceptable to reproduce social-ties currency in
> technology/software.
>
> This means that the social-ties currency remains unchanged and exists 
> only in
> the realm of our wetware. We are total owners of it, without intervening
> technology, and limited with our social outreach capabilities. On the 
> other
> hand, "money" is getting developed, refined and globalised. This 
> widening gap
> between the two (for the small people) can be solved only by somehow 
> applying
> technology to the former.
>


It seems clear that the reason for the non-appearance of any type of
'electronic cash' is that the institutions which in a saner world may have
taken responsibility for its development - ie. banks and governments -
have *no interest* in doing so.  They have shown themselves to be
actively, structurally opposed to any such thing - with good reason, as
this 'self-minting' of currency forshadows their eventual decline into
irrelevancy.

With the observation that in a world of ubiquitous networks, it would be
impossible to stop the unmetered transmission of all things digital, we
found ourselves faced with two possible future scenarios:  (1) the
development of a tightly controlled network architecture in which all data
transmission was centrally monitored, along with the outlawing of all
other network architectures, backed with totalitarian levels of
enforcement; or (2) the development of business models, actually *social
models*, which accepted and built upon this "frictionlessness", rather
than fighting against it.  Needless to say we are drifting rather
alarmingly toward the former, while still lacking any noticeable progress
toward the latter.

The reasons for this, while hardly simple, may be related to a general
resistance to the notion of a "gift economy" of cultural products.  Part
of this resistance is due to an incorrect understanding of a gift as a
purely non-reciprocal exchange.  The most important point made by Mauss in
his classic work is the reciprocal and cyclical nature the gift - that a
gift which is not repaid becomes poisonous.  A potlatch is not
"altruistic" - hosts of a potlatch can always count on being hosted in
turn - its just that the demands of honor require that this reciprocation
take place at a later date.  Seen from a distance, this isn't so very
different from the '90 day net' approach to providing services first, and
billing afterword - the point in both cases is that it is the reputation
of the recipient which creates the confidence necessary to be willing to
forgo immediate payment or reciprocation.  And in both cases the goal is
to form and strengthen ongoing relationships, increasing the mutual esteem
of the parties involved.

And so it seems that one potentially fruitful line of inquiry may be to
consider how to de-couple the 'gift' of intellectual and cultural
production from the 'reciprocation' - to enable and encourage repayment
without immediately demanding it. Lawrence Lessig points out that the
economics of 'non-rivalrous' goods, that are not destroyed by use nor
depleted by distribution, is based on the problem of *provisioning* - the
problem being, how to ensure that these types of resources are created in
the first place.  There is no 'free rider' problem here - it simply
doesn't matter how many people make use of something without repaying the
creator, as long as the process of creation can somehow be induced.  The
RIAA and other "copyright maximalists" would have us believe that without
an enforced "per-copy" fee associated with every use of a digital product,
there will be no incentive to create and hence no creation.  But taking a
look around the internet, or associating in any way with creative
individuals, we see that this is manifestly untrue - creativity is
irrepressible, an abundant and eternal spring.  The only economic
impediment to creation is the need to make ends meet - artists will
subsidize their own production, by driving cabs or whatever is necessary.  
Many are drawn toward the promises of institutional support - a major
label deal, an arts grant - but in general this is not the prime
motivation or inspiration for *being creative* in the first place, it's
just that these institutions have been the only means for providing "quit
your day job" levels of support for creators, especially those with
families and other responsibilities.

Until recently: enter Benkler's "commons based peer production".  This is
most clearly understood in terms of software and academic publishing, both
areas in which a natural "cooking pot market" is apparent: the amount one
'gives up' by releasing one's effort into the commons is repaid a
thousand-fold by having access to the accumulated efforts of everyone
else.  And the 'altruism' of this gesture is reinforced by a reputation
economy in which major contributors earn the respect of their peers - a
respect which is generally parlayable into paid positions.  It's less
clear how this concept translates to other forms of cultural production.
Richard Stallman makes a distinction between a tool, which is appropriate
to modify according to one's needs, and an expression (eg. "what i did on
my summer vacation") - which may not be appropriate for anyone else to
modify.  So immediately one of the prime 'reciprocating engines' of free
software is lacking in this area.  (In general - obviously sampling and
collage-based forms fit in well here - the point is, it's not an incentive
for a musician to release work in order to hear what the remix will sound
like, in the way it is for a software developer to 'release early, release
often' in order to take advantage of the enhancements and bug fixes
provided by other developers.)

Lessig and others have created a series of licences for selectively
dedicating one's rights in a work to the public domain. Software is
beginning to appear which is designed to build upon this - eg. Justin
Chapweske's Open Content Network project, specifically intended for the
efficient distribution of works which have been designated as 'free to
copy'.  What's lacking is an incentive structure that induces the
'provisioning' of this cultural commons, that makes sense to enough people
to make them want to contribute.

One method is to simply ask for support - and the degree to which 'tip
jars' have proliferated in the last two years on community-based sites and
weblogs shows us that much of the stigma of "begging" formerly associated
with this tactic has faded.  Reasonably high-profile sites like Blogger
and Kuro5hin have raised tens of thousands of dollars on short notice, and
one enterprising shopaholic even convinced her readers to pay off her
credit card debt. (savekaryn.com) Currently, most of these donations are
made via Visa or other intermediary (PayPal, etc), which is unfortunate
for several reasons.  These systems require potential donors to have an
account with the intermediary, which may be enough of an unwanted effort
to discourage many from participating.  Also, these intermediaries
invariably set policies of minimum payment and take a substantial
percentage of each transaction, and retain a potentially invasive amount
of data about who is paying what to whom.

Which brings us back around to anonymous electronic cash - aka
micropayments - and the fact that it doesn't yet exist, despite the best
efforts and intentions of Chaum, Brand, and other Very Smart People.  
Which should be reason enough to abandon all hope for this "non-starter"  
idea - as many sensible souls have done - and yet, somehow, it still seems
like a crucial missing piece of the puzzle of how to create a functioning
*non-capitalist market* - clearly if we want this capability we're going
to have to build it ourselves.

Almost two years ago I published a draft 'potlatch protocol' suggesting
that digitally signed promissory notes may be worth exploring as an
alternative to state or corporate backed money - the idea being to create
a decentralized market for aggregation and settlement of these notes, in
addition to providing true micropayment (arbitrarily small denomination)
currency with minimal overhead and the potential for at least
pseudonymous, if not entirely anonymous transactions.  This is essentially
banking without the banks - the question being, how does one inspire the
confidence necessary to convince people to accept payments of this kind,
in the absence of the imposing (though of course, completely misleading)
"solidity" of a bank?  The answer is that these notes must be backed by
the reputation of the issuer, and that this confidence, as such, must be
earned.

In a traditional marketplace such notes do not, admittedly, sound
promising. Who indeed would surrender hard goods or services for 'self
minted currency'?  But in a 'gift marketplace', in which the goods have
already been surrendered to the commons, a "promise to pay" may be
accepted without embarrassment - there is literally nothing to lose. And
then again, in the likelihood (inevitability?) of one or more economic
meltdowns, as "real" money becomes scarce, alternate money may gain some
"currency" after all - eg. Argentina's barter (trueque) networks. Which
brings us back around, if I may be allowed to get myself completely
tangled in this thread, to the revolutionary potential of a
"non-capitalist"  form of exchange - ie. one that is not dependant on
interest-bearing money.  The point is not that people should not be
allowed to "profit" from their ideas and efforts, but that we should wean
ourselves off of the intermediaries, gatekeepers, and other parasites who
profit from the ideas and efforts of others, without actually contributing
anything besides access to the medium of exchange.

The problems inherent in this approach are daunting - but the alternatives
seem much worse. Rather than bemoan the lack of development of
"social-ties" currency, we really should be trying to figure out what this
might look like and how it might work, with practical experimentation.
It's partly a technical problem, but mostly a social problem - failures up
to now may be summed up with the observation that "geeks" with their heads
full of code have produced some very wonderful tools, but tend not to be
particularly good at understanding what the average person wants, or can
comprehend.  Most coders don't even want to think about the user
interface, let alone the larger 'social interface' in which users are
situated.

A lot of good work has been done in the area of "reputation metrics" by
Raph Levien and others - mathematical models for calculating "transitive
trust", ie. how does one calculate the likelihood that a 'friend of a
friend of a friend of a friend' is not really an enemy.  At the risk of
completely misrepresenting their findings, it seems that the answer to
this is to have multiple "paths of trust" to a given individual - that is,
a robust social network is mesh-like. In fact, the imponderable nature of
trust has led some researchers in this area to back off completely from
recommending automated 'transitive introductions' over digital networks,
and instead exploring the concept of "FriendNet" in which connections are
made entirely through people you actually know personally. (eg. the "cup
of tea protocol" by which new nodes are added to the consume.net wireless
mesh, which requires having a cup of tea with an existing node operator.)

Now that the whole "virtual this that and the other thing" mania has
finally collapsed, we can get down to doing what computers and digital
networks are actually good for - not a flight away from "the real world",
but an enhancement to it. Creating social networks "virtually"  is highly
problematic, full of bugs, semantic loops and 'nobody knows if you're a
dog' ambiguities.  Using technology to strengthen and broaden *actual
social networks* may be the most important problem facing socially-minded
technologists and technically-minded social activists today, something we
need to get together on, and fast.

Jim Carrico
potlatch.net






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