A Tale of Two Gift Economies

By Monica Westin


This piece is selected from SFAQ Print Issue 16.



Screenshot 2014-04-25 17.00.48


Why doesn’t tech patronize the arts? The question has echoed throughout a wide range of discussions I’ve heard since long before moving here, from who’s buying what at art fairs to discussions of projects bringing the arts into the peninsula—and, of course, tech’s role in driving art out of the city via increasing real estate prices. (The first show I reviewed in San Francisco was at Rena Bransten Gallery. Soon after filing it, I received a query from my editor as to why the show’s end date was suddenly much earlier than anticipated as the gallery had to abruptly leave their location at 77 Geary due to their eviction after 27 years.)


Contrary to, say, finance executives, the richest tech workers don’t seem to be buying up high-end contemporary art or donating proportionally to art institutions and foundations. (However, it should be mentioned that there are ways of lending support to communities outside of philanthropy.) Whether or not the question is entirely accurate or fair, the fact that it’s a running theme makes it worth pursuing. Issues of class, culture, and deep values are at play. At heart, I’ll argue, are questions of how we understand creative work, giving, and community building.


In some ways, tech workers already see themselves as giving back to creative communities in their day-to-day work. Just as entities like Google’s DevArt program (which is currently being aggressively pushed to engineers) try to convince tech workers that they’re artists, these workers already see themselves as contributing to what might accurately be called “gift economies” through open-source models. In the seemingly endless art vs. tech debate, one of many ways to mediate the problem might involve bringing their respective models of gift economies together. And one way of thinking about how these different gift economies operate and see themselves could begin with the story of the two Hyde brothers.


In 1983, thirty-seven-year-old poet (and sometimes electrician, carpenter, and alcohol counselor) Lewis Hyde published “The Gift.” Its then-subtitle, “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” captures the major distinction between “rational” market wealth and “erotic” gift wealth that underlies the book’s central claim. Anthropologists like Marcel Mauss had long been studying societies founded on relationships of reciprocity and gift exchange rather than markets. Hyde freely admitted that much of his book draws from Mauss’s 1950 essay, also called “The Gift.”


Hyde’s radical move was to argue that the model of the gift economy applies to the work that artists do, even in almost purely capitalistic societies. While the myth of the starving artist is ancient, “The Gift” explicitly argues that the artist’s labor has a particular social role, one that establishes a “feeling-bond” between people, that continues to “give increase” (his emphasis, as opposed to add value) to society as a whole over time. This relationship can preserve what he calls “true community” in a mass society.


At its best and most generous, “The Gift” defends the value of artistic labor that doesn’t translate into monetary commodity; at worst, it can be interpreted (and used) as a set of excuses for not paying artists. And at its heart is the assumption that there is some kind of inherent conflict or tension between gift exchange and the market that can only occasionally be truly overcome. For Hyde’s art-as-gift model to be sustainable, he himself admits that it ultimately needs influxes of patronage from the outside—or non-gift-based—world. (In the new afterword to the book, Hyde cites foundations like Creative Time, which Hyde says he was involved in founding, as one solution.)


The rest is history. “The Gift” touched a nerve. Hyde predicted and inspired the late-century shift in artistic aspersion and the Gen-X mourning of the “sell-out.” As for his paean to gift culture, Lewis Hyde got a job teaching creative writing at Harvard and then Kenyon, a MacArthur Fellowship, and other accolades from the most selective corners of the culture industry.


Meanwhile, as Lewis Hyde rocketed into the MFA world, his brother Ben Hyde worked as a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon hacking away at a little-known web server called Apache, which was licensed in a way that became a foundation for a new mode of creative participation. The HTTP Apache Server and subsequent Apache Foundation (a code-donation foundation that now operates in part as a check on Microsoft’s potential chokeholds), while now somewhat passé and thus squirm-inducing, offers another model of gift economies. Like the ideas presented by “The Gift,” this open-sourced model of creation structures the ethos of many software engineers as one endless collaboration in a community of makers. Whether or not we believe that collaborative creativity is the most salient or prominent aspect of what tech workers do, it’s impossible to understand their ideological commitments without understanding this aspect of tech culture.


The story of the Hyde brothers offers up two archetypes of gift economies. One stresses the individual gift of the artist, which may or may not be valued by the market (and so, by extension, requires patrons of various forms—or grant funding offered by organizations like Creative Time—to survive). The other offers a collaborative model of making in which gift giving and capitalistic production are so fluid and interwoven as to be at times indistinguishable.


Most people outside tech have a sense that software developers are working in creative communities, but it can be surprising to hear how strong this rhetoric is and how profoundly it affects both the ideologies and daily working conditions of tech workers. A modern software developer spends most of his day socializing with other developers. Like most people, he checks his email and reads the latest chatter on mailing lists. Still more, when he’s trying to solve a tricky problem, he’ll search Stack Overflow—a website which lets you ask programming questions and grants you reputation points when you provide good answers—or he’ll search for further examples online. Failing that, he might go straight to the code on sites like GitHub, a web-based service which houses your code and provides you with tools for sharing, commenting, requesting, and mixing. The vast majority of these interactions are reading, but sometimes writing helpful notes and answers to questions, or just sending “me too” or flagging issues to help nudge a topic along to get more attention.


A developer on a team will start work by fetching the latest code changes from his teammates. He’ll read about what has changed, tweak some code, add a message about what he did, and then issue a “pull request” to GitHub. This is a formal request of the other developers to accept his changes and merge them into the shared project. This workflow (grab code, talk about it, change it, submit it for acceptance, repeat) is the basic rhythm of how modern software gets built. Many developers spend as much time reviewing the work of others for acceptance as they do actually writing code. But these all occur in decidedly social, collaborative, donation-based contexts.


What does this socializing “code chatter,” from the world of Ben Hyde, have to do with the gift-giving theories of his brother Lewis? The communities of social coding are laced with the rhetoric of gifts. You give when you answer a question. You give by convincing your boss to share an internal tool with the public. You give by contributing fixes and enhancements to an existing open-source project. And this “giving” provides both the rhetorical framework for social engagements (please, thank you, you’re welcome), as well as the operative social norms. People expect good stewardship of open-source projects. Companies acquire reputations for how they maintain their projects, for interacting with the community, for past public efforts (or failings) to integrate with other tools and communities. People are proud to participate in some, but not other, projects. When a company selects a license for their project, it reveals their stance toward the community. (Deep in the bowels of software philosophy, there’s a careful distinction made between the flavors of “free software/speech” vs. “free beer.” One is a person’s right, the other is a person’s value. Much digital ink has been spilt hashing out the ought’s and how’s of this stuff—it continues today.)


Beyond the explicit “giving,” software communities (like most trade communities) trigger a meaning-making shift in the competing narratives of interaction. Conventionally, a market interaction is a sale of a product. The typical developer interaction is the solving of a problem. A conventional salesperson’s inner dialogue might go something like, “an opportunity: crush it, bliss, swagger,” which acts as feedback into the next one. A software developer’s inner dialogue might look more like “grumble, grumble, breakthrough! bliss, share, swagger,” feedback into the next one. This shift from selling to solving builds communities in the eyes of big tech. And, at the risk of repetition, this process is seen as a form of giving to something bigger.


But where Lewis urged pure gift giving, software’s gifting communities are definitively hybrid—a roiling admixture of business markets and socializing gifts. Company exec- utives have their own reasons for sharing their code: it offloads their maintenance costs, it demonstrates commitment to the product, it animates their employees, and it attracts stronger recruits. But software developers have their own mixed motives beyond gift giving. An open-source project makes a resume shine. It’s an instance of software you can talk about with future employers (versus some obscure internal company tool). It shows the actual code you wrote—the quality of code in popular open-source tools far exceeds that in most private codebases. And it shows how you work with other people. But it’s also a political tell.


Contributing to open-source software is perceived as a kind of “giving back to the community.” Companies can harness this perception rhetorically and financially; increasingly, an aspect of compensation to software engineers is the feeling that they’re contributing to an open-source economy. You can pay engineers less if they feel they’re part of something bigger. Of course, they’ll still get paid a lot more than most artists who went to graduate school and live off of their work. And software engineers are almost never asked to work for free (or “for exposure,” or any of the other euphemisms that those of us in the arts live with daily.) But—crucially—to come to common ground, if we want that, it’s important to see that how tech participates in community as part of the job. It also dictates the way the scene frames giving, collaborating, and making.


Tech has a mostly closed-gift system; it gives back to itself constantly both in terms of giving and, of course, in financial investments, with the understanding that what’s being given eventually returns to the giver. They circle where the gift is circulating, to keep it from dissipating. As it’s structured now, the art world simply can’t work this way without patrons: Those who will pay for artistic production, either directly or indirectly, through foundations and grants. Those who will maintain and support cultural and educational institutions, where many artists have day jobs.


So to summarize: 1) software developers are self-understood as a fairly enclosed creative community that is thriving on a hybrid model of market motives and gift giving. 2) Wealthy software developers may feel disinclined to contribute to the conventional arts because they see their everyday work as scratching this creative itch, as well as participating in cultural gifting.


So what? Does knowing this get us anywhere? The point here isn’t necessarily that artists and software engineers should come together to make a bunch of open-source art together (there are lots and lots of individual projects and collaborations for different kinds of making); it’s that a start to mending the ever-widening cultural rift might be to help all of us understand the different kinds of gift economies in which we operate, and to see how they might come together.


For example: Can tech be persuaded that it needs to look outside itself to support a truly rich ecology of creative work? Can we invent practices and institutions that can explore and highlight the kinds of massive collaboration undertaken every day in the arts—and get tech involved or see itself as working in similar ways? Can these practices be folded together structurally and not just on individual levels? Should they be? I’m not sure what the right next questions to ask are, but I know other people know. And they should be talking to each other.


Finally, the gift economy as a whole might just be an outdated model from which to start thinking about this problem in the new economy. The Hyde brothers perhaps represent a bygone period in ‘80s and ‘90s America, before the hierarchies and leveling of the playing field that came when the Internet changed the topography of what creative work means and how it comes into the world. It might be useful to think of ways to define the new kinds of economic, philanthropic texturing that have emerged in the form of the new venture capitalists, the new crowdsourcing models. The fact that so much vocabulary is being produced to describe the economics of the tech industry suggests as much.


Ultimately, no work should operate primarily in a gift economy. Everyone should be paid for their work and nobody should be told that they should donate their talent and labor for free. And it is only people who are being paid well that can join gift economies in the first place. But if we begin to understand each other’s ideologies on giving, it’s perhaps a start.