Richard Barbrook, “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy”

Barbrook’s 1998 article argues that the Internet is inherently anti-capitalist, exploring the tension between its particular brand of gift economy and its neoliberal commodification.

The Net reflects two different value systems. The first is that of open source, inherited from the hackers who invented it and the academics who first defined its structure through their early use patterns (see Janet Abbatte, “Inventing the Internet”). These hackers and academics both functioned on the basis of gift economies, and carried those values over into the design of the Net. The result is a structure that is inherently hostile to the idea of “copyright.” Expressed in terms of copies made, the concept is rendered nonsensical by networked digital technology (Barbrook quotes Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, to this effect). According to Barbrook, then, “The design of the Net therefore assumes that intellectual property is technically and socially obsolete.” Anything that is posted on the Net is instantly available to anyone else connected to it; furthermore, there are no technical limitations to the process of copying: as soon as information is uploaded once, it exists—by the very nature of the technology involved—as an infinite series of copies. As digital information, then, it becomes an abundant resource, and enforcing copyright not only becomes nearly impossible from a technical standpoint, but contrary to the very culture of the Net, which centers around the maximal dissemination of information. Instead of controlling access to information, users of the Internet are naturally compelled to share information freely, posting their original materials for the benefit of the larger community in a large-scale gift economy based upon an open source model of networked software contributions. The result is that “everyone takes far more out of the Net than they can ever give away an as individual. As givers they gain recognition by the many who download their work; as users they benefit from the contributions of thousands of others. The Internet gift culture is thus “really existing anarcho-communism.”

At the same time, Barbrook notes, the “Californian ideology” or cyber-libertarianism or the writers and editors of the magazine “Wired,” had an enormous impact on Internet commercialization in the 1990s. This particular ideological camp grew out of the New Left ideals of the 60s (primarily individual freedom and cultural dissent) and was grafted onto technological determinism and free markets. This paved the way for the corporatization and commodification of the Internet in the mid to late 90s. Barbrook emphasizes, however, that even in its neoliberal mode, the Internet cannot be fully co-opted by capital: its gift economy and accompanying technical and social structure will always prove intractable. Neoliberalism and gift economies are therefore symbiotic on the Net: “Anarco-communism is now sponsored by corporate capital.”

Ultimately, then, as Barbrook emphasizes in his 2005 update to his original article, the neoliberal project seemingly depends upon the universal obligation of copyright, but this is consistently undermined on the Web. Nonetheless, “the same piece of information could exist both as a commodity and a gift,” and thus neoliberalism is not thereby defeated by the high-tech gift economy, which for the foreseeable future will exist in an uneasy stasis between the two.

-ZH

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