Science Fiction & Fantasy




TANSTAAFL! (There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch)

In Bruce Sterling’s “Maneki Neko,” a Tokyo resident running errands for his wife ends up embroiled in a potentially dangerous clash of cultures. Although the story features desktop fractal detail generators and highly advanced smartphone-style “pokkecons,” the truly fantastic element of the story is the way protagonist Tsuyoshi Shimizu makes a living—he participates in a gift economy organized and tracked by an AI network.

Although gift economies have existed in various non-Western cultures for many years, academic scrutiny of the process began comparatively recently, when Marcel Mauss published “Essai sur le don” in 1924. Drawing from the field reports of early 20th Century ethnographers and his own considerable knowledge base (Mauss was not only a talented linguist but a Sanskrit scholar), he created such an enduring portrait of the gift economy that, as Lewis Hyde notes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “almost every anthropologist who has addressed himself to questions of exchange in the last half century has taken Mauss’s essay as his point of departure.”

Key among Mauss’s observations is that gift economies tend to be marked by three interrelated obligations: The obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate. Or, in the words of Robert A. Heinlein: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” A participant in the classically defined gift economy gives in order to gain honor within the community, accepts to avoid being seen as rejecting the values of the community, and reciprocates—either to the gift-giver or to other members within the same economy—from a complex mash of the motives behind the other two obligations. Finally, to turn a gift into one’s own capital (the example used by Hyde in The Gift is of a tribesman who receives two goats and breeds them to create a flock, rather than making them the cornerstone of a feast to which everyone is invited) is to invite shame upon the recipient of the gift.

In order for shame and honor to work as carrots and sticks upon participants in a gift economy, the cultures they participate in are always small, interconnected communities that constantly track each participant’s social standing–the weight of obligation between giver and recipient to socialize and bond over the gift, the need for both to update their own internal ledgers with corresponding entries of honor and shame.  As Hyde puts it, “there are times when we want to be aliens and strangers.”

In Cory Doctorow’s Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom, reputation (or “Whuffie”) becomes the main incentive for members of a post-scarcity society to be productive and useful. For example, although most manual labor no longer exists, “what remained—tending bar, mopping toilets—commanded Whuffie aplenty and a life of leisure in your off-hours.” And yet, participation in Whuffie-culture means what is popular always prevails, and to lose a conflict in a Whuffie-based society can make you worse than an alien or a stranger—you become a non-person, such that when ‘you press the callbutton for the elevator […] it gives you an angry buzz in return.”

Similarly, as Alex Golub, an anthropologist who spent time in Papua, New Guinea, observed in an excellent post at the anthropology blog Savage Minds:

“[P]eople who grew up in gift economies don’t mind getting out of them all that much. It can actually be tremendously rewarding to buy a honkin’ big piece of meat from someone who you will never meet again, take it back to your hotel room, and eat the entire thing by yourself, completely alone.”

By contrast, in Maneki Neko, Tsuyoshi Shimizu doesn’t have to worry about his reputation: He can give gifts to people he does not know, confident the pokkecon will track his good deeds and reward them at some later juncture. This is a huge change from the desire to improve social standing that compels participants in the Kula rings of Papua New Guinea to travel hundreds of miles for the exchange of necklaces, or to prove one’s wealth in a potlatch (thrown by one of the North Coast’s Salish Native American tribes) by giving away the most resources—the only obligation Tsuyoshi feels compelled to honor is to the system itself.

While much would have to change in our culture to make it an automated gift economy, the Internet has already helped shaped items, ideas, and movements in ways similar to the engines fueling gift economies. Warez are cracked and distributed by individuals and groups for the honor of bragging rights; open-source software is created and developed by participants who exchange their time, energy, and creativity for prestige; and anyone who’s attended Burning Man, the annual festival held in the Black Rock Desert, knows how participants of theme camps will expend tremendous labor and resources to create works of ephemeral beauty and generosity for the pleasure and appreciation of others. In fact, when Larry Harvey and the other official organizers of Burning Man decided to allow cafes and ice to be sold for money, they were met with resistance by those who’d previously taken pride in the event being a “pure” gift economy. To such detractors, Harvey replied:

“Some people have said that these seeming contradictions in a non-commercial ethos are evidence of deep naïveté or demonstrate hypocrisy. I believe that this is due to a confusion of words and their meanings. When people assert that something is too commercial or has been commercialized, they do not mean to say that commerce is necessarily bad. Instead, they are expressing the feeling that something essential—something that should not be bought or sold—has been commodified. […] Our annual event in the desert is meant to demonstrate what can happen when human interactions cease to be mediated and limited by market transactions and are governed, instead, by the unconditional passage of gifts.”

In moving beyond simple anarchist cant, Harvey and the other administrators of Burning Man proposed that selling ice and coffee not only assisted the underprepared, but increased the official organization’s fiscal self-sufficiency.

Such arguments may have found favor with Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, sometimes referred to as “The Anarchist Prince.” (Although he renounced the title at age 12, Kropotkin’s royal lineage was well-established and traced back several centuries.)

In 1902, Kropotkin published Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in which he argued that the practice of mutual aid among animals and people in feudal and pre-feudal societies allowed the individuals in those societies to prosper. Kropotkin’s aim in doing so was to counterbalance the current social trend to tie Darwin’s theories (especially the concept of the survival of the fittest) to free market capitalism and competition. In his own experiences (especially journeys in his youth made to Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria), Kropotkin had “failed to find—although I was eagerly looking for it—that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

In the colonies of rodents and the migration of birds and fallow-deer, Kropotkin instead discovered examples of mutual aid that allowed the species to survive in such harsh conditions. Kropotkin’s later study of primitive tribes, similarly revealed not “the war of all against all,” but instead a state of cooperation and mutual aid. Although Kropotkin’s studies carried within them both bias and a tendency to romanticize the primitive society (as Hyde points out in The Gift, “a fully shaded view of tribal life had to wait for the emergence of ethnography as an empirical science”), they were still studies done from the field and carried with them more observed truth than the dour Hobbesian pronouncements made by Social Darwinists from the safety of their drawing room chairs.

At the end of “Maneki Neko,” Tsuyoshi encounters Louise Hashimoto, an assistant federal prosecutor from Providence, Rhode Island, who believes (possibly correctly) that Tsuyoshi’s gift economy is also “the biggest criminal conspiracy I ever saw.” An American, Louise still participates in our system of commodity exchange, telling Tsuyoshi, “Your network gift economy is undermining the lawful, government approved, regulated economy!” To which Tsuyoshi gently replies, “Maybe my economy is better than your economy.”

When different economies collide, cultural misunderstandings and frustrations run high. Indeed, Puritans in Massachusetts were initially delighted by the welcoming generosity of Native Americans who offered them an abundance of gifts. But neither group truly understood their vast cultural differences: The Englishmen took the items to consume or to keep and did not reciprocate, ignorant of their obligations under the American Indians’ gift economy. And when the natives tried to correct the situation, the Puritans were both amused and appalled. The pejorative term for someone who either gives a gift and later decides they want it back, or gives a gift to get one in return—an “Indian giver”—is the resulting creation, a painful scrap of linguistic shrapnel, from the clash of two very different economies.

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Jeff Lester

Jeff LesterJeff Lester has written for io9, Newsarama, and Comix Experience’s Savage Critic website, as well as for Telltale Games’ Sam & Max and CSI series of video games. With Graeme McMillan, he co-hosts Wait, What?, a podcast reviewing comics, graphic novels, and the latest developments in the comics industry. He currently divides his time between San Francisco and the amorphous internal landscape of his own head.