The gift economy at the heart of open source


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I have always been skeptical of the notion that value can or should be “captured”. What people call “property” seems more like a delusion which exists in a vain attempt to fix flows in place.

As much as I love open source licenses, I have been on and off trying to draft a new license which is fundamentally “un-ownable”, that the products of it are not owned or controlled by any human agency. They function as water or sand through one’s grasping fingers.


Or an effort to alienate a thing from the relationship where it exists? Land being used for generations as a family tenant farm. We could receive income if we enclosed it and some others for grazing sheep and selling wool. We need to alienate the land from its prior use and convert it to a new use.

Coding? How in the world did coders ever buy in to the idea that anything could ever be done “out of the box” instead of paying a coder to code? Alienating coders from their own skillset is a phenomenon you couldn’t write about credibly in a science fiction novel.

And yet, here we are.


Why use the term gift economy instead of shared economy? No one is really giving a disconnected, separate thing from one person to the next. We are in relationship sharing economic problems, analysis and fixes.


That sounds like a the same sort of problem. Is “income” a demonstrable relationship? How do I know that a family is truly using the farm in comparison to another family, or the sheep, or the plants grown that the sheep eats? The “plot” of land I am on now is inhabited by billions of organisms - so how are only several of them self-qualified to exert some form of supposed “control” over it? And if it is not a direct, practical control that can be audited beyond a purely symbolic level, what obligation does anyone else have to recognize this ownership?

The fundamental problems appear to be framing only certain organisms or groups as meaningful actors or agents, and then that of presuming some implicit transactions between them.

This is the kind of implicit assumption I am talking about. How does one negotiate what this “box” involves? What sort of transaction is involved with paying? This turns a technological and social problem into a series of limited personal problems. It implies a game theory without explicitly defining this game. The notion of compensation depends upon belief in translating subjective values between people. How does a coder know which projects are more worth doing? Or if they should apply themselves towards it, or if somebody else should instead. Is the functional code, like any other work, its own “reward”? Or else how does one decide how to credit the subjectivities others may associate with it? What sort of systemic frameworks must one internalize to make being “paid” possible? And how does one know if it truly matters how much one is paid, or whether or not one is paid?

Pretty much all discussion of economics I encounter is predicated upon such deep networks of (presumably) implicit assumptions. But I think they need to be explicitly examined, because not all people share them.


I think this is an excellent and interesting set of questions. To answer, I need to ask one or three about procedure for this particular conversation.

Can we bracket some of the questions and mutually choose one or two questions to prioritize together?

So unless and until we agreed on a set of priority quesitons, we would acknowledge that we are — so far — unable to figure out an acceptable procedure for choosing one of them to answer and/or committing to what the question means, even for the sake of discussion?

And one such priority question I would nominate for consideration is whether we’re able to agree to a set of conventional definitions for some of our terms — for the sake of the conversation only?

By conventional, I mean we’d use dictionary definitions, or we could explicitly state a more technical definition if we needed it. And the more technical definitions would only introduce distinctions helpful for answering the question under consideration, not hypothetical questions.

So — to be clear — our agreement would also embody the recognition that we are unable to fix those definitions we’re using except in a tentative, temporary way for the purpose of commenting on an email thread.


I will never again look at Tim O’Reilly in the same light after having read The Meme Hustler by Evgeny Morozov.

Here’s a taste …

“While Washington prides itself on Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who rebranded “global warming” as “climate change” and turned “estate tax” into “death tax,” Silicon Valley has found its own Frank Luntz in Tim O’Reilly.”


This piece is an incoherent attack that seems to have landed randomly on Tim O’Reilly the way bees might briefly bother a young boy on a trail to go fishing. The writer also goes out of his way to attack @doctorow. Huh? Try investigating the entitled, xenophobic, venture capitalist, corporate IPO-apologizing man-children wrecking communities in Silicon Valley with their greed.

Whew! Sorry. I didn’t enjoy the article. Maybe I misunderstood it?


I found it fairly coherent, but then I started with free software before it was recast as open source.


What’s the coherent message you found?


Silicon Valley has wrapped itself in a mythology using language and social framing. Examining Tim O’Reilly as one of the high priests of the myth making (or meme peddling), we can deconstruct these myths and find a startling lack of ethics or concern for human rights and a bedazzling amount of snake oil peddling amid the elevation of corporations and economics to a position of supremacy in the social order.


First, thank you for sharing the article. I think the subject is really interesting. I’m sorry I reacted to it and then typed. We can’t see each others’ faces. I’m sorry I came across cranky.

Yes, the idle rich kid culture in Silicon Valley is grotesque. But different grotesque than idle rich kid culture elsewhere? And Tim O’Reilly? Maybe as symptomatic of larger systemic issues, but why attack him?

Why not critique the ideology, for example, that apologized for Steve Jobs privatizing the work done at PARC? Or work by Steve Wozniak during their Homebrew period? Or Bill Gates characterizing Homebrew sharing practices as “stealing” code?

Those examples show the gears of corporate marketing discourse driving the law that legitimizes privatized social gains.

Otherwise how are we not just complaining about annoying ads? Yeah, ads are annoying. Ads were annoying before Tim O’Reilly.


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