One of the most striking features of the Net is the ubiquity of its hi-tech version of the gift economy. When you go on-line, most information is available for free. Other users are happy to share music, movies and software with you. People spend hours building websites which they don’t charge you for visiting. You are invited to join listservers which will fill your in-box with e-mails every day. Compared to the media developed during the past 200 years, what makes the new media into something new is the vitality of these non-commercial activities. Information is for sharing not for selling. Knowledge is a gift not a commodity. The Net is a strange and novel form of mass communications.

Yet, during the late-1990s dotcom boom, politicians, CEOs and experts tried to convince us that the Net was simply technological upgrade of the old media system – or even just an electronic mail-order catalogue. The convergence of computing, telecommunications and the media was supposedly creating the “information superhighway”: a distribution system for commercial producers to sell their goods and services to passive consumers. Any misuse of the network could easily be prevented by an irresistible combination of strong encryption, intrusive surveillance and draconian copyright laws. Corporate brochures, government pronouncements and media reports repeatedly told us that the Net was the technological apotheosis of neo-liberalism: a global electronic marketplace where individuals and companies could trade with each other unfettered by state regulations, trade unions or national boundaries. Books, films, music and software were in the process of losing their material form and would inevitably be transformed into virtual products. Paying for things would be replaced by paying for downloads. In the dotcom future, every piece of information would be a commodity and everyone would be a media entrepreneur.

At the time, there seemed little reason to doubt this conventional wisdom. There was no alternative to free market capitalism. America had triumphed in the Cold War. The Left had learnt to love big business. The stock markets were booming. Above all, bitter experience had taught us that the radical potential of new technologies is always short-lived. For instance, instead of overthrowing the ‘society of the spectacle’, the opening up of the FM spectrum by community radio stations in the USA in the 1960s and in Europe in the 1970s rapidly led to the monopolisation of the airwaves by commercial operators on both continents. Why should anyone expect things would be any different on the Net? Academics, nerds and enthusiasts may have invented this new form of communications. But who could doubt that their time was now over? Rich and powerful media corporations were already moving in to remould the Net in their own interests. Although there would be plenty of opportunities for new businesses to prosper within the electronic marketplace, any different way of doing things would be marginalised. The hi-tech gift economy was finished. The triumph of the dotcoms was assured.

How wrong can you be? Only a few years later, everything seems very different. Leading Net companies have gone bust. Their CEOs are disgraced – and some are even on trial for fraud. The speculation in dotcom shares has tipped the global economy into recession. In contrast, the hi-tech gift economy has not only survived, but is also flourishing. Far from disappearing, this sector is still at the forefront of innovation on the Net. Peer-to-peer computing. File-sharing. Wi-fi. Network communities. The dotcom boosters have been proven to be mistaken. The monopolisation of the Net by commercial interests wasn’t inevitable. What happened in the old media didn’t have to be repeated in the new media. Of course, money is being made on the Net. People buy products from e-commerce sites. Books. Videos. Fridges. Computers. Motor cars. Plane tickets. Companies purchase goods and services from on-line suppliers. Corporate intranets. E-business extranets. Component auctions. B2B networks. However, the electronic marketplace is missing what was once expected to be its principle function: the buying and selling of information in virtual forms.

Although old media is bought over the Net, it has proved almost impossible to persuade people to pay for downloading their digital equivalents. With the exception of the real-time services provided by pornography and financial websites, it is now almost universally assumed that information should be available for free on the Net. Pirate MP3s. Morpheus. “E-mail this text to a friend.” Why should I pay for a tune, a movie or a text when someone somewhere will give it to me for free? It can be technically difficult for people to learn how to swap files. But the rewards for knowing how to use these programs are almost immediate. Welcome to the free world – a world where everything is for free! The media corporations are incapable of reversing this decommodification of information. Encryption systems are broken. Surveillance of every Net user is impossible. Copyright laws are unenforceable. Even on-line advertising has been a disappointment. This time around, community has trumped commerce.

Crucially, the hi-tech gift economy isn’t just a method of pirating commercially-available media. It has also proved to be an excellent method of working together without the immediate mediation of markets and bureaucracies. We can collaborate in creative projects with people from across the world. We are able to publish our own media without needing prior approval from corporate bosses or state regulators. Websites. Open source software. “Join our listserver.” The Net is the do-it-yourself technology for the DIY culture. As well as its altruistic appeal, contributing time and effort to the hi-tech gift economy is in our egotistical self-interest. However much of our own work we give away, we will always get more information back in return from all the other people who are on the network. Who wants to engage in equal exchange within an electronic marketplace when we receive more than we donate within the hi-tech gift economy? As the Enlightenment founders of liberal economics pointed out, private vice is the firmest foundation for public virtue.

Who is threatened by this outbreak of selfish altruism on the Net? Anyone who has profited from information scarcity in the past. Copyright emerged in a world with only limited media. Granting a monopoly over each piece of information created markets for cultural commodities. The writer, the artist and the musician – and their employers – had something to trade with the farmer, the clerk and the factory worker – and their employers. Over the past few centuries, the dynamic development of capitalism has – slowly but surely – ended the scarcity of information. Printing and broadcasting technologies enabled the mass production of knowledge and culture. Information has become ever cheaper. The Net is now completing this process. It costs almost nothing to make perfect copies of digital data. Information really is free. The owners of copyrights are desperately trying to slowdown this process of decommodification. They have lobbied and browbeaten politicians to introduce repressive laws to protect the source of their wealth and power. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The EU Copyright Directive. Anyone who distributes unauthorised copies of copyright material over the Net must be punished. Anyone who invents software potentially useful for on-line piracy should be criminalised. But state power is a limited tool against the logic of social evolution. Individuals may suffer, but progress can’t be stopped altogether. Sooner or later, even the most technologically illiterate politician will realise that it is impossible to enforce information scarcity in an age of information plenty.

The triumph of the hi-tech gift economy is the return of the repressed. Sharing information is exactly what the Net was invented for. Scientists needed unhindered access to each other’s research. Hackers enjoyed writing code together. Activists wanted to promote their causes. These pioneers hardwired their own social mores into the technical protocols of the Net. Unlike media corporations, they did not make their living from buying and selling information. On the contrary, they were already living within real-life gift economies. Scientists achieve fame by contributing to journals and giving papers at conferences. Hackers gain respect from their peers by improving open source programs and cracking encrypted software. Activists win support for their political positions by publicising their ideas to the widest possible audience. If in no other way, the pioneers of the Net were all in agreement about one thing: copyright laws and proprietary formats are obstacles to their preferred ways of working. No wonder that they believed “information wants to be free” in the most literal economic sense of the word…

During the past few years, over-exuberant investors in dotcom start-ups have tried to ignore the non-commercial origins of the Net. Yet the widespread popularity of swapping information is a reminder of what the system was designed to do. Almost every academic discipline, political cause, cultural movement, popular hobby and private obsession has a presence on the Net. Whether for work or for pleasure, people are creating websites, bulletin boards, listservers and chat rooms. Although only a minority are now engaged in scientific research, hacking or political activism, the overwhelming majority of Net users participate within the hi-tech gift economy. Quite spontaneously, most people have opted to share knowledge rather than to trade media commodities when on-line. This is why – instead of the concept of the electronic marketplace – the community vision of its originators still drives forward the technological development of the Net. Every computer is a server. The browser is an editor. Information is a process. Knowledge is for sharing. The hi-tech gift economy is a future which is still under construction.

For you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Net is in the early stages of its development. The hardware is too expensive and the software is too clunky. Most users still lack the skills and technologies to take full advantage of its potential. This is why the sharing of MP3s is only a taster of what is to come. The music corporations can close down Napster and try to flood its successors with spam files. But what they can’t do is make people forget that they are able to share and modify information with each other. All the copyright owners can do is slow down history. As bandwidth increases and interfaces improve, the prevention of media piracy will become ever more difficult. No copyright law or encryption system is going to stop the swapping of information between consenting adults in the long-run. The media corporations will even find themselves increasingly isolated from their fellow capitalists. For anyone selling material goods and services, the spread of peer-to-peer computing is an opportunity not a menace. Flexible working. Knowledge dissemination. Flattened hierarchies. Consumer participation in production. Why should most capitalists care about copyright infringement if they are making money on the Net in other ways? Copyright laws become an anachronism when the ‘cutting-edge’ of hardware capitalism is software communism.

Despite its many benefits in the wider economy, the greatest impact of the hi-tech gift economy will still be cultural. The information society is built upon information. The Net already provides the structure for realising an unfulfilled revolutionary demand: media freedom for all. Authors can publish their writings on their own websites. Musicians can release their tunes on MP3 first. Film-makers can distribute digital files of their movies. Not just the right to consume media, but also the right to produce media too. Even better, the Net is inspiring novel forms of expression. Things beyond the delights of making and distributing old media in improved ways, Net.Art. Blogging. Webcams. These are the first experiments in a new aesthetics – an aesthetics which reflect the social mores and technical protocols of the Net. Interactive. Modifiable. Accessible. Communal. Democratic. Upgradable. We can only imagine what our imaginations will be able to create once the Net begins to reach its full potential. We can only dream what happens when the hi-tech gift economy makes possible the flourishing of a socially advanced gift culture:

We must rediscover the pleasure of giving: giving because you have so much. What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see – whether it likes it or not! – when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift.

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Practical Paradise, London 1972, page 70.


Richard Barbrook is the coordinator of the Hypermedia Research Centre at the University of Westminster and was the first course leader of its MA in Hypermedia Studies. In collaboration with Andy Cameron, he wrote ‘The Californian Ideology’ which was a pioneering critique of the neo-liberal politics of ‘Wired’ magazine.