Bearing Gifts, They Come From Afar

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
December 21, 2000

For Christmas, she wants a "CD burner." She will jack this thing into her computer, she explains. And voilà, she will be able to make her own records. She will simply copy all the Napster music she has downloaded off the Net for free.

"Daddy, will you get me one for Christmas?" she begs, tossing her tawny brown hair and striking dance poses. "Please please please? My friend Elizabeth says it's changed her life. It will save us a bunch of money. I'll never have to buy music again."

Encapsulated in that pre-Christmas exchange is a whole new world. Christmas gifts of course are as old at the Three Wise Men. But grabbing everything off the Internet for free? Plugging into a global network of gifts? This goes to the very heart of our strange new age.

Remember, the Net from first creation was not built by greed.

Instead, it was built by individuals openly offering wisdom and information for free. Their legacy is all around us. Look at the results to any question you ask of your computer's search engines.

Most of the answers that pop up clearly were put there by people with no hope of immediate financial gain -- pictures of the beach on the island of Bequia, hymns to antique Harley Davidsons in German, the warning signs of frostbite, the botany of mistletoe, short stories by Anton Chekhov. It's endless.

Now the Next Big Thing in our lives is supposed to be millions of us freely sharing the very guts of our own computers -- both the content and the processing power -- individual-to-individual, peer-to-peer. Napster is just the beginning.

All the trendy trade magazines like Red Herring and Wired are putting this breakthrough on their covers with descriptions like "an application whose scope is unparalleled in the short history of the Internet." Not too surprisingly, the market-economy types are trying to figure out how to make money on this burgeoning gift economy. They're having a hard time.

The Gift Economy

Everybody knows the best kind of Christmas present. They are the ones that show how well you understand the other person. "It's the stuff you secretly care about -- that honors your spirit," says Lewis Hyde, author of "The Gift," the modern classic on the subject. "There's a sign of connection in the way the gift is given."

It's this creation of a human bond that is at the heart of gift-giving. That's also why it is almost impossible to give a gift with no hope of getting anything at all in return. "What marks gift exchanges in small groups -- tribal peasant societies -- is that there are always obligations. You're expected to express relationship and gratitude and indebtedness," observes Hyde, a 1991 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

What's new, however, is the notion that you can build an economy around gifts.

"What we idealists often like to call a gift economy -- 'the selfless offering of value without expectations of direct returns' -- is a rather modern concept," says Jim Mason, a cultural anthropologist from Stanford who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea.

"It is an open engagement with a community. The question of how this interacts with a market economy is one we clearly have no answer to."

"It's work-as-gift rather than work-as-commodity," says Richard Barbrook, of the Hypermedia Research Center at the University of Westminster in England.

"At no time since the invention of money have gifts ruled like they do now," Hyde says.

An Unusual Calling

It may be fiendishly difficult to construct a business plan that works on the Web, but some people have found meaning and focus in constructing a gift plan.

Sister Mary Elizabeth, who in 1988 took her vows as an Episcopalian nun, has for a decade run the largest HIV/AIDS database in the world. Called the AIDS Educational Global Information System, the AEGIS.com Web site contains more than 700,000 documents, all cross-referenced and searchable.

Her voyage started in 1990. Her community had inherited a herd of cows in Missouri, "so I went off to Missouri to herd cows." There she met two people suffering terribly. Their disease turned out to be AIDS. "They were very frightened, very isolated." The nearest medical center was 80 miles away.

She sold the herd and returned to California with her new calling -- helping similarly isolated people. She focuses now on extending her mission to Africa, where computers are few, but those that do exist are of immeasurable worth because they are a lifeline to information that is even more scarce.

Sister Mary Elizabeth, 62, who updates the site hourly, half-kids that she has been "cloistered" in her computer room 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last 10 years. The computer room is the living room of her parents' home in Orange County, Calif. They are both in their late eighties, legally blind and disabled.

"They didn't use the living room anymore to entertain," Sister Mary Elizabeth says with a laugh. "They entertain in the family room. So why not close it off." There are now three metal racks holding eight computers in that living room. The computers receive at least 10,000 use sessions a day from around the world. That adds up to 4.5 million pages viewed per month. She does this on a budget of only $180,000 a year, provided by donations.

"I never dreamed I would be doing this for the rest of my life," Sister Mary Elizabeth says. "But when I saw the need, there was no looking back."

Those Who Give

A gift economy is indeed an economy -- you can rationally expect that if you tender a gift, sooner or later you will receive some kind of return.

But the return is indirect. And expectation of a return can be idealistic, even mystical.

The Bible is full of examples. "Cast thy bread upon the waters," the book of Ecclesiastes commands. In the New Testament, five loaves and two fishes offered freely by Jesus and His disciples not only feed the multitude, according to the book of Matthew, but the leftovers fill 12 baskets.

The deep structure of the Internet has an undeniably utopian cast.

"E-mail is the oddest thing," says gift-scholar Hyde. "All the computers and servers and connections -- it has a gift economy feel to it. Unlike the telephone, there's not somebody there charging me when I'm using it. And I don't know the anonymous benefactors who have made it work."

"The Net is haunted by the disappointed hopes of the '60s," says England's Barbrook.

From the earliest days, with the battle cry "Information wants to be free," the Internet was seen as a space where people could find ways to collaborate without the need for either governments or markets to mediate social bonds. And indeed, it has worked out that way. To this day, it is notoriously difficult to charge for anything on the Net, because there is so much of value there for free.

Look at the endless self-help sites -- like those for widows and widowers. They aren't "run" by anybody. People there cluster spontaneously around their needs and desires, as do the devotees of the Gilbert and Sullivan site, with almost 700 members including a group in Brussels and a decidedly strange Italian who lives in Argentina. Untold numbers of doctors who specialize in exotic diseases participate as volunteers in support groups. Many are the grieving groups that sport their own psychologists.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, gave away his discovery. "One thing that was clear to him was that if it was going to be successful, he would have to give it away," Hyde says. "The irony is that to become a commercially viable medium, it had to begin with a public domain action."

"Few of the pioneers became wealthy," note Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon in their book "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet." One of them, Jon Postel, believed "decisions he had made in the course of his work over the years had been for the good of the community, and that starting a company to profit from those activities would have amounted to a violation of public trust."

Their forebears can be found not just in the Bible but in scientific research.

"The universities have traditionally been a gift economy," says Pamela McCorduck, author of "Machines Who Think" and other books on the social impact of technology.

"They give away knowledge as fast as they can accumulate it. In fact, you earn points for that. Some people might wonder why having something named after you -- like Fallopian tubes or Alzheimer's disease -- is good enough reward for all that work, but the ethos of science has always been so."

After all, as Hyde observes, "The task of science is to describe and explain the physical world. Ideas are treated as gifts because the task of assembling a coherent whole clearly lies beyond the powers of a single mind or even a single generation. All such broad intellectual undertakings call for a community of scholars. A sort of 'group mind' develops."

"When you don't know who will be receiving your gift, in some ways that's a purer form of altruism," Hyde says. "You hope you will live in the kind of world where others will do this. There's that old joke, 'If you don't go to other men's funerals, they won't come to yours.' It's an act of faith. And if enough people make that gesture, you will have that kind of world."

No wonder the Nasdaq is in the tank. The Internet is proving to be a difficult place to make a profit.

It was created as a gift economy.

'An Incredible Gift'

Even at the very heart of the marketplace at Amazon.com, the gift economy is central.

Harriet Klausner, 48, of Morrow, Ga., has written 1,314 book reviews for the Web site -- more than any other person. She writes them for free.

Why?

"The best, most truthful answer is I need to. I take no money from them. Never have, never will. I just want to share my joy of books with other readers, and Amazon reaches the widest audience.

"I got a letter from a little girl who was writing a book report. She wanted to quote one of my book reviews. That was like worth a million dollars. Because she thought it was good, and had information that could help her in her report. Without knowing it, I ended up helping somebody," says Klausner. "And that means a lot. If I could write a review and make it as interesting as possible, I might get a person to read."

What's more, says the retired librarian, "I like to do it. It's fun. You share your joy of the book with other people. And Amazon is the biggest vehicle that lets you do that. Amazon has given me an incredible gift. An incredible gift."

She wouldn't dream of taking money. "When people asked if I got paid, I thought that was kind of funny. It seems so unethical to me. I believe if you do good, it comes back to you."

At the core of the resolutely commercial Amazon, there are more than 2 million book reviews provided by customers for the benefit of other customers, as gifts.

The Eighth Wonder

In the past 2,000 days, since the Web was born, the world has built some 3 billion Web pages readily available to the public. That's 1.5 million a day, one for every two humans on Earth, and growing exponentially.

This is a construction feat that would impress the pharaohs.

Who paid for it? asks Kevin Kelly, author of "New Rules for the New Economy." Where did the money come from?

Or to put it another way, if some government had tried to order this vast project into existence, what would it have cost?

"There is not enough money in the world to do this," Kelly says. "This is an impossible thing we've done. It's a remarkable human achievement of Renaissance proportions in 2,000 days.

"It's unbelievable. Americans send 600 billion e-mails a year. This is transformative, the scale and speed with which we have made this. That is the gift economy. It's an act of faith. A holy act. This gift exchange is socializing us to a degree not seen before. The typical person today is engaged in more relationships with more people in more dimensions than ever before. It's amazing given the number of people involved.

"I'm not so naive as to think the gift economy is going to replace the market economy. But I do think the gift economy is an essential underpinning of the market economy."

Kelly admits, of course, that on the Net, "nobody can figure out how to make a profit. To me that has to do with the value that you add on top of the ordinary exchanges of gifts. Doing that is quite difficult, and not very formulaic.

"One hundred years ago, the way a woman got a recipe was from her grandmother, for free. Now if you told someone back then that selling recipes would be a multibillion-dollar business -- that cookbooks keep some bookstores alive -- they would have thought you were nuts. Why would anybody buy a recipe when you can get them for free?

"So what happened? Recipes are still exchanged for free. But people learned to package and provide service of value."

What's the solution? Kelly's hunch involves transforming our ideas of what should be a gift and what might soon be seen as a profitable service. He calls it "Following the Free."

Kelly personally put this into play when he put the entire text of his first book, "Out of Control," on the Web when it came out in 1994. Anybody could read it, print it out, download it for free. He gave them permission. But on his Web site he also said that for $15, he could save people some trouble. He would ship them a "nice bound printout" from Amazon. He called it a "book." "Fifteen bucks for a book is a lot. But as a printing service, it's cheap." He believes that argument sold a lot of copies.

"I think people inherently want to communicate," says Hal R. Varian, dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of "Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy."

"That's why there is so much good stuff on the Net that you can get for free. Very, very few people make a living off writing. Most people just want to be heard. People are social animals. Every human being has a desire to communicate. That's something that's an inherent part of human nature. The scarcity is not speakers but listeners."

Spirit of Giving

Gifts are at the heart of Christmas.

The Rev. William J. Byron, former rector of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University, is an economist who is serving on an Internet advisory committee. As a pastor, he has often had to explain the spirit of Christmas.

One time he asked some children, "What's a gift?" The predictable answer was -- something somebody gives to you. How about if I had borrowed a dollar from you, he asked, offering a lesson in market economics. Now I'm returning it. Is that a gift? The kids allowed the answer was no. Okay, Byron said, so what's a gift?

Silence.

After a long moment, another youngster spoke up. "A gift is when you get something you don't deserve."

Byron loves that story and repeats the punch line eagerly as a setup for his beliefs about the meaning of Christmas. The gift of salvation, he believes, is not something we merited on our own. The Christian message is about the ultimate connection. Jesus is the incarnation that allows us to connect with the universal truth and the cosmos. Jesus came and offered a different way of living. His gift is how people can come together in groups and create the kingdom of God on Earth right now. The celebration of Christmas, therefore, is about when you get something you don't deserve.

One Sunday earlier this month, Byron says, there was a "toy Sunday" at Holy Trinity Church, where he is pastor. Children brought in toys to give to the poor, in the spirit of putting the interests of others ahead of your own. "It was beautiful. The children bring them up at the offertory procession. The deal is you don't give broken toys. They not only have to work, but they have to be toys that the child really likes. You wouldn't believe it, the way the toys were piled up."

The pile was not what impressed Byron, though. What stuck in his mind was one little boy whose reward might be great, if reward can be measured by the quality of what one gives away.

"One kid turned and waved goodbye to a teddy bear," said Byron.

"It was a favorite of his."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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