This post is part of a series on tribal gift economics.
In the last post I looked at how the internet will grow to reflect some aspects of tribal reciprocal gift economics - relative trust. In this post it is the turn of egalitarian gift economics. In order to explore that we first need to explore why the internet as it is today will grow into a full economic system.
The internet is already used for many economic transactions in the free market economy, however it is just seen as a tool to facilitate the transaction. There are many other kinds of transaction that also happen on the internet such as participating in social networking sites or the uploading of media for others to consume, such as photo sharing or open source software.
As far as the internet is concerned there is no real difference between these types of transaction; they are all just numbers attached to different peoples on-line identities. The account balance on your banking site is no different from the number of people who liked your photo of a cute kitten. The reason they are different is not technological but sociological. This is a recent phenomena that only became possible with the internet. It is not since the times of egalitarian gift economics that these different kinds of transactions can happen using the same technological medium.
If we look back to hunter gather tribes, they had no money, no concept of money and sometimes not even the ability to count, yet they still exchange value.
When a man finds a woman attractive and he gives her an appreciative look, value is exchanged. When the old mans bones ache and he declares a storm is coming, the tribe batons the hatches down; value is exchanged. When advice about how to get to the best hunting ground is given; value is exchanged. When an an animal is caught it is shared with the whole tribe; value is exchanged.
Today, when you give someone in the street directions; value is exchanged. If a friend asks if their bum looks good in their new outfit; value is exchanged. A neighbour asks you to feed their cat; value is exchanged. Yet you don't charge money for any of these actions. Some exchanges are considered to be of financial value whilst others are not.
Part of the answer lies in scale. Today, most of the values we exchange for free only cost us a few moments of time and are not worth the hassle of haggling over. This does not fully explain it though: Your friend will give you the phone number for a local service for free without question, whereas ringing directory enquiries will cost you. For friends we will do a lot more without expecting financial reward.
Money did not appear in society overnight, it developed over thousands of years and the concept of what money is developed with it. At first common commodities were used such as grain and only large transactions would be worth the time spent measuring it, judging its quality and carting it around. Gold bars started to be used in about 4000BC, but only for large amounts. Coins didn't appear until about 600BC, paper money only in the last few hundred years.
As technology has progressed, the cost of making monetary transactions has come lower and lower, however the very act of making a transaction conveys a particular social message and so we often still exchange with friends in the same way that we did in the times of hunter gatherers - we give it freely, knowing that the friend will appreciate and either they or another friend will give us something that we need at some point in the future.
The internet changes this for two reasons, firstly because the act of making a transaction becomes the same physical act; a few key presses and a click of the mouse and secondly, that due to the almost instant calculability of even small transactions, technological methods of overcoming the Dunbar limit are made possible, meaning that we can once again reliably give away items with a high value knowing that we will receive benefit in kind.
The world is not going to change overnight. It will take time for a full economic system to be realised from it. However, for the first time it will become technically possible for someone to obtain a house using the same system they use to agree with a friends sentiment that the video they are watching is the funniest thing they have seen in 20 minutes.
This has vast ramifications. It challenges the whole concept of a consumption based free market economy and it provides solutions to the problems that a free market economy has created such as resource depletion and climate change. Intrinsic solutions that are not tacked on and prone to corruption, as all solutions to these problems in a free market are. I'll be exploring these changes in depth once I have finished the historical perspective.
In the next few posts we are going to return to the past to look at the dark side of tribal life, and an important lesson for today before leaving the tribe behind and marching into agrarian society.