October 24, 2011

gifts.jpg One of the pleasures of having a daughter study your subjects at under graduate level is that you get asked interesting questions and to rediscover authors and ideas you had forgotten. Someone new to a field asks naive questions that, if you are open, challenge entrained patterns of thinking. Too many lecturers don’t avail themselves of this and instead focus on transmission without reciprocation. Net result of this saw me up in the early hours of the morning to provide a sounding board on the subject of gifts via an extended Skype conversation and that in turn gave rise to this post.

Now any discussion on gifting normally starts with Mauss’s book of the same name. For Mauss a gift cannot be free as a part of the giver is contained within the gift and creates an obligation to reciprocate on the receiver. Failure to reciprocate results in a loss of hour and status. Gifts then provide for the creation and maintenance of social relationships and there are three associated obligations: giving, receiving and reciprocating. Because a part of the giver is contained in the gift its ownership is never fully transferred and the evolving obligations of receiving and reciprocating in turn create social bonds and cohesion.

Now I remember when I first studied this stuff, over thirty years ago, that I was attracted to it and frustrated by objections that argued the position that free gifts (money to beggars, food to the poor) entirely focused on reciprocation between individuals rather than reciprocation within an emerging social context. This was not surprising, I have never liked theoretical (or practical) positions which start from the notion that any human society is an aggregation of self-interests and has to be explained as such. I have always thought that identity arises from social interactions over time rather than being tied to the individual per se.

In the modern age the whole open source movement has generated a renewed interest in the anthropology of gifts. What motivates contributions to open source code, or generates the energy to edit the wikipedia (something to which I must return having taken a two month break)? Equally what motivates some to take advantage of gifts without reciprocation? When Cognitive Edge was set up we wanted to create an open source movement around methods. Many used the material, some contributed but then there was a small class who took the ideas, repackage them with their own brand and made no reciprocal contribution to the commons. I must admit to an ironic smile when one of those individuals subsequently complained of his own heavily if not wholly derivative material being taken in turn.

Now the way I have always explained that behaviour is to reference the commoditisation of everything which is a characteristic of our society. We have elevated money from a means for the exchange of goods to an eroticised and totemistic symbol of something that lies beyond human interaction and to which humanity is subordinated. Riches these days come not from the production of goods, but from trading in an artificial and virtual world of money. In this world betting on failure (a put option) is elevated to the level of the sacred despite the simple fact that it encourages people to force failure on others, to destroy society. Value should surely be based in production of goods that benefit the tribe?

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