This was originally written by Robert Levin in 1999, and it has disappeared and reappeared on the internet many times in my lifetime. In hopes of ensuring it remains accessible on the internet, I’m reproducing it here, in hopes of expanding upon it in future writings. My formative years were influenced by the chance discovery of this document, and I have been haunted by its possibilities and implications at every point in my life. I would like it to be more than just a small essay.
Thanks to all who have commented thus far. The comments from working economists and sociologists were of particular interest, and I can see that they are going to produce some changes in the essay. In particular, gentle reader, realize as you read that I do not consider agalmias to be gift cultures per se; traditional gift cultures are largely pre-industrial, and based as much on scarcity as any modern technological state.
Also, when you read my games-theory comments, don’t infer that I believe economies are zero-sum games. While one or both “legs” of an economic transaction can most conveniently be expressed as a zero-sum game, that does not extend to economies as a whole, nor even necessarily to a single complete economic transaction. I’ll plan to discuss these points in more detail in follow-ons to this essay.
Finally, frequent comments have led me to conclude that an important element is missing from the definition of agalmics. Agalmic goods are non-scarce goods, but they are often produced using scarce goods as raw materials. An important example is the initial programming work which goes into a free software application. At the current state of the human lifespan, programmer time must be regarded as a scarce good. I’ve added the words “production and” to the definition, and I hope you’ll find this to be a clear and necessary improvement. We are now at version 3.0 of the essay.
The recent growth of interest in Linux and “open source” or “free” software raises questions about the nature of the “gift culture” of the Internet. Why do people give away information? What do they hope to gain? How can the Internet continue to work, in a world in which politics based on shared ownership has serious, demonstrated problems?
The cooperative spirit of the Internet is not a historical fluke. If human beings allowed their aggressive, suspicious sides to dominate, we’d live in a world in which people took things by force instead of buying them. And how would anyone trust the printed word? How could education occur in the absence of cooperation? All over the world, students listen and educators teach. In a largely unrestricted market of record size, individuals freely trade goods and services for other goods and services of their choice. Ownership of private property remains largely undisputed by men with guns. We live in the cooperative state known as civilization.
Not every human activity is cooperative. Wars still occur. And the existence of laws implies that people do disagree about when cooperation is a good thing. But it’s clear that voluntary interaction serves important human needs. The most successful economic systems on the planet are based on voluntary interaction. Variants of the “free enterprise” model have produced wealth and plenty on a vast scale. Political systems based on involuntary interaction, such of those of the Soviet Union and various Third World nations, have not been nearly so successful at meeting the needs and desires of their citizens as have systems which emphasize freedom.
But will technology change the way human beings interact over the coming decades? What trends do we need to understand in order to see where things are going? One clear trend in a technological society is the marginalization of scarcity. As time goes on, the technology of agriculture and manufacture teaches us how to produce goods with more efficiency, at less cost. The trend in technology is an exponential improvement of knowledge and capabilities. Make anything cheap enough, and it will no longer be scarce enough to be considered an economic good.
Contrary trends operate in the marketplace. Intellectual property, a system of law in which access to inventions and creative output is limited in order to reward their creators, has a powerful conservative influence on the market, slowing the adoption of new ideas and inventions. Patent law rewards inventors for coming up with useful technology; but the reward often comes in the form of purchase of the right to control who may use that technology. Large corporations, with large legal and accounting staffs and access to capital, have an extraordinary advantage in accumulating exclusive rights to new technologies. The nature of such organizations is to hold onto these assets tightly and release them slowly, so that the most efficient return on investment can be achieved.
But technological change continues to occur, in part because competing organizations often need the competitive advantage which new technology can provide. So we can be certain that, over time, more and more basic goods will become less and less scarce. With these changes, it becomes increasingly important to understand how human beings allocate non-scarce goods. Indeed, a sort of “economics” of non-scarcity becomes an important study. But economics is the study of the allocation of scarce goods. We need a new paradigm, and a new field of study. What we need is agalmics.
agalmics (uh-GAL-miks), n. [Gr. “agalma”, “a pleasing gift”] The study and practice of the production and allocation of non-scarce goods.
agalmic actor, n. An individual or organization engaged in agalmic activity.
agalmic software, n. Computer software written and distributed as an agalmic activity.
agalmia, n. The sum of the agalmic activity in a particular region or sphere. Analogous to an “economy” in economic theory.
To understand human behavior, we must find clear examples to study. Agalmic behavior involves the exchange of non-scarce goods, goods which can be found in the modern free software community. As we examine agalmic behavior, we’ll frequently use examples involving free software. We can observe the following characteristics of agalmic activity:
- It is transfinite. Economic trade is finite; when I give you a dollar I have one less than I did. Agalmic activity involves goods which are not scarce, so I can give you one without appreciably diminishing my supply.
- It is cooperative. Economic activity often involves competition. Buyers must allocate their limited funds to the supplier who best meets their needs. Since it doesn’t involve scarce resources, agalmic activity rarely involves competition. Efficient agalmic actors know how to encourage cooperation and benefit from the results.
- It is self-interested. Agalmic activity advances personal goals, which may be charitable or profit-oriented, individual or organizational. An agalmia typically contains both individuals and organizations, with a broad mix of charitable and profit-oriented goals. Agalmic profit is measured in such things as knowledge, satisfaction, recognition and often in indirect economic benefit.
- It is self-stimulating. Examples can be seen in free software communities, in which new programmers, documenters and debuggers come from the ranks of free software users.
- It is self-directing. Free software users provide feedback to developers in the form of bug reports, patches and requests for new features. Software projects can be forked by users when an existing developer group is not responsive to their needs. Maintainers are then free to adopt the new work or go their own way.
- It is decentralized and non-authoritarian. In a free software community, developer groups maintain their positions only as long as they are responsive to their user bases. No one is forced to participate in a project, and the projects people participate in are the ones in which they are interested. Involuntary activity places limits on exchange and creates scarcities. As such, it is non-agalmic. A particular agalmic group may be organized in a top-down fashion, and non-agalmic groups may act agalmicly. But alternatives are available and participation is voluntary. Authoritarian systems remove personal incentives for agalmic behavior.
- It is positive-sum. In games theory, a ‘zero-sum game’ is one in which one player’s gain is another player’s loss. Conventional economics often describes zero-sum games. When two suppliers compete for the dollars of a single customer, or when two government agencies compete with each other for fixed budget dollars, a zero sum game is played. A ‘positive-sum game’ is one in which players can gain by behavior which enhances the gains of others. Efficient agalmics is a positive-sum game. For example, when a free software programmer gives his source code away, he gains a large population of users to report bugs; the users gain the use of his programs. By awarding the other players points, the player gains points.
- It is not new. Gift cultures have existed during much of human history, and other, non-gift cultures have clear agalmic influences. Religious communities have engaged in agalmic behavior, as have governments, businesses and individuals. Charities, standards organizations and trade associations often act agalmicly. It may be argued convincingly that civilization itself is an agalmic activity.
The behavior of agalmias gives us useful information about the ways that societies can change and grow. Open source and free software communities provide us with excellent modern day agalmias for study, as does the Internet itself. But long term trends in technology suggest that material scarcity will likely become less common, and agalmic behavior more common. In studying the behavior of agalmias we can see intimations of our technological future.
Robert LevinEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Woodland Hills, California, US
4 April 1999
Online: lilo at Open Projects Net IRC