Thursday, March 4, 2010

Beyond Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something.” It implies an exchange of goods or services that are more or less equal in value. A key underlying assumption in monetary currencies is that once you accept it for something, it will buy something of equal value from someone else who accepts it. Even in a mutual credit system, your balance is a way keeping track of where you are in the quid pro quo game. But, is the quid pro quo game the most efficient way of allocating resources?

Gift economies come in many forms, but usually what we mean by a “gift” is when quid is less tied to quo. Clearly, this is a matter of degree as there are many possible social contracts around gifts.

For gift economies to function properly a certain degree of familiarity and intimacy must exist among the participants. For instance, very few parents keep accounts on how many breakfasts they have given their children with the expectation of equal reciprocity. For parents, caring for their children is its own reward, and we think poorly of parents when this stops being the case.

When you are dealing with people who aren’t as close to you, the quid pro quo game comes more into play. Imagine, for example, two tribes coming together to trade. Each tribe operates with a gift economy inside its membrane, but when trading outside the membrane, there is an expectation of equal reciprocity in trade.

Until the industrial revolution, the majority of economic interactions were in the gift economy. Money has, of course, been around for thousands of years, but most of what people needed was satisfied through the gift economy on the village level. Think barn-raisings, shared child-care, borrowing tools, etc. Only when goods were needed from outside the community did the quid pro quo money game come into play.

Now, we can wax nostalgic about bygone eras, but there are good reasons why this all ended. The biggest reason is that this social architecture has not been able to scale. When a person lives in an urban environment, they tend to lack intimacy and familiarity with most people around them. In place of this intimacy, we make monetary exchanges. It must also be noted that a rich and impressive human culture has been built around quid pro quo social architecture.

However, while the gift economy has not yet been feasible on a large scale, on a small scale, it is actually far more efficient. Imagine how much wealth would be lost if you began to charge your children for breakfast. When and how would that debt be paid off?

What would happen if the gift economy could scale? Would it possibly serve as a far more efficient way to allocate goods and resources? What would it mean to actually live in the much talked about global village?

Quid Pro Quo as a pioneer species

A pioneer species is a species that shows up on new or recently disturbed land. They are quick to arrive, and they create the conditions for other species to thrive. As other species arrive, these pioneers are quickly outcompeted. Pioneer plants will leave their seeds in the soil for when the next disturbance occurs. This kind of succession ecology has worked extremely well for our biosphere.

I would contend that the quid pro quo social contract is a pioneer species in the social realm. Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time. Early interactions with this person are most likely in the quid pro quo space. Perhaps you try to talk for no more than half of the time. Perhaps you alternate who pays for the meals you eat out together. Perhaps you trade a ride to the airport for a day of dog sitting. In all cases, quid pro quo is used because you aren’t familiar with the person yet. As you become more familiar with each other, the ride to the airport probably doesn’t have strings attached, the meals become less formally tracked, and conversation may ebb and flow more naturally. Quid pro quo created the conditions for the other more advanced social contracts to emerge.

So how can we create the conditions for the global gift economy to emerge? What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Future of “Open” Depends on Open Currency

I am going to make a bold claim. If we want the new modes of economic production we’ve seen thus far in the information age to become deeply ingrained in our cultural fabric, we must apply these modes of production to currency itself.

I take as my starting point for this contention a recent post by a musician who’s music I have long enjoyed: DJ Shadow. For those who don’t read his entire critique of music in the age of file sharing, it basically says musicians need to be reimbursed for their work if they are going to keep making good music. And he is right in this assertion. If we want to have a culture where people can specialize in being musicians, we must develop viable ways for musicians (and other artists) to be valued and supported.

One contention of what I will loosely call the “open movement” (even though that is mostly a misnomer), has been that anything information-based tends towards being free because there is virtually no cost to producing it at a large scale, and because information is a “non-rival” good (meaning that if I have it, I don’t prevent others from having it). I believe this logic is correct when it comes to valuing information-based resources in scarcity-based currencies such as the dollar. However, just because a resource such as music is no longer inherently scarce, doesn’t mean these resources shouldn’t be valued.

I fear that we may be accidentally walking into a trap in the crowd-sourcing / wikipedia age of "open." We are correctly realizing that scarce money cannot measure the value of that which is not scarce, but we haven’t yet collectively adopted currencies that can. If we want anything more interesting than the most mediocre culture to survive this transition, we must develop currencies that can enable our collective support of musicians / artists without the need for scarcity as the measuring stick.

Our money forces us into valuing only that which is scarce. I believe the fact that music has stopped being scarce is a VERY good thing, but if we can’t find ways of valuing musicians (and other content producers) in the post-scarcity era, I fear the cost of “open” will far outweigh the benefits.

Already we are seeing a global backlash to this new “open” culture because producers of content of all kinds aren’t being valued. Douglas Rushkoff at a recent web 2.0 convention contended that this culture of “open” (or "free") was largely a way for Google to profit off of the hard work of content producers. In the context of a scarce money system, I am afraid I must concur.

For me, the principles embedded in the “open movement” represent nothing less than the future of human civilization. If we want to see any of the real benefits of this future, we MUST MUST MUST apply the logic of “open” to currency itself. Only then will society have the tools it needs to appropriately value musicians and other content producers.

Societies are complex adaptive networks, and like all complex adaptive networks, that which provides value to the network MUST be reinforced. This reinforcement does NOT have to be done with a scarce currency that forces us into pathological competition with each other. Nor does this reinforcement even have to be done with a quid-pro-quo kind of monetary currency. But the reinforcement MUST occur if we want to encourage the production of value. The time is now for OPEN CURRENCY.