A G+ follower pointed me at Note on Homesteading the Noosphere by Martin Sústrik. He concludes saying this:
In short: Labeling open source communities as gift cultures is not helpful. It just muddles the understanding of what’s actually going on. However, given that they are not exchange economies either, they probably deserve a name of their own, say, “reputation culture”.
I’m going to start by saying that I wish I’d seen a lot more criticism this intelligent. It bothers me that in 20 years nobody seems to have refuted or seriously improved on my theories – I see this as a problem, both for the study of hacker culture and in the field of anthropology.
That said, I think Sústrik gets a couple things wrong here. And don’t want them to obscure the large thing he’s gotten right.
First (possible) mistake: I have not observed that, as a matter of language, the term “gift culture” is as hard-edged and specific as he thinks it is. There’s a way we could both be right, though – it might be that terminology has shifted since I wrote HtN. Possibly this came about as part as the revival of interest in the concept that I seem to have stimulated.
But: one piece of evidence that anthropologists are still using “gift culture” in the inclusive sense Sústrik criticizes me for enmploying is that Sústrik himself feels, at the end of the article, that he needs to propose a contrasting term rather than citing one that is already established.
This so far is all about map rather than territory. As a General Semanticist I know better than to get over-invested in it.
Here’s the territory issue: Sústrik is not quite right about expectations of direct reciprocal exchange not being a shaping force. True enough that they aren’t salient at the macrolevel the way they were among the Kwakaka’wakwe. But if I download a piece of open source, and it’s useful to me, and I find a bug in it, I do indeed feel a reciprocal obligation to the project owner (not just an attenuated feeling about the culture in general) to gin up a fix patch if it is at all within my capability to do so – an obligation that rises in proportion to the value of his/her gift.
I should also point out that the cultures Sústrik think are paradigmatic for his strict sense of “gift culture” are mixed in the other direction. There is certainly an element of generalized reputation-seeking in the way individual Kwakaka’wakwe discharged their debts. There, and in the New Guinea Highlands, the “big man” is seen to have high status by virtue of his generosity – he overpays, on the material level, to buy reputation.
In the terms Sústrik wants to use, open-source culture is reputation-driven at both macro-level and microlevel, and also sometimes driven by gift reciprocation in his strict sense at microlevel. The macro-level reputation-seeking and micro-level gift reciprocity feed and reinforce each other.
This brings me to the large thing that Sústrik gets right. I think his distinction between “gift” and “reputation” cultures is fruitful – both testable and predictively useful. While I’m still skeptical about it being in general use among anthropologists, I rather hope I’m mistaken about that – better if it were.
Yes, real-world cultures are probably never pure examples of one or the other. But differentiating the mechanisms – and observing that the Kwakaka’wakwe and hacker culture are near opposing ends of the spectrum in how they combine – that is certainly worthwhile.
As a minor point, Sústrik is also quite right about reciprocal licenses being a red herring in this discussion. But I think he has the reason for their irrelevance mostly wrong. The important fact is they’re not mainly intended to regulate in-group behavior; they’re mainly a lever on the behavior of outsiders coming into contact with the hacker culture.
(It was actually my wife Cathy – a pretty sharp-eyed observer herself, and not coincidentally a lawyer – who brought this to my attention.)
Bottom line, however, is that this was high-quality criticism that got its most central point right. In fact, if I were writing HtN today I would use – and argue for – Sústrik’s distinction myself.