ONCE UPON A TIME, I encountered an economist in a most unlikely setting. I had traveled to Assisi in the Umbria region of Italy to attend a global summit devoted to “Love and Forgiveness.” The location could hardly have been more fitting—it was, after all, the same place where Saint Francis had launched a mini-revolution drawing on those same virtues some eight hundred years ago. I had a small role, having been asked to offer a few cogent observations on how musicians can have a positive impact in their communities. But, frankly, I saw my attendance as a break from the here-and now, a chance to focus on something larger than myself and my everyday concerns.
We had gathered at the end of the first day, and I was grooving on the mood in the room, which was surprisingly serene, a kind of kumbaya-on-steroids vibe rare in any setting, but especially in large gatherings of professionals from diverse fields. That’s when a young woman introduced herself and told me that she was an economist specializing in gratuitous actions.
I am rarely left speechless, but I didn’t know how to respond. I had no idea what she was talking about, and my vague, stumbling reply must have made that clear. She tried to help out with a brief description, but her words were more dictionary definition than real explanation. “Gratuitous actions are those undertaken without any expectation of financial gain or other advantage, perhaps out of kindness or compassion or charity….” Well sure, I knew that already. The real mystery was what an economist could possibly study in these actions. Weren’t acts of kindness and compassion the exact opposite of economic behavior; or, more bluntly, didn’t they start at the very place where economics comes to a screeching halt? Was there really room in the dismal science for random acts of kindness?
But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Back when I was a graduate student, I had delved into sociologist Marcel Mauss’s 1925 book The Gift, which looked at societies where gift exchanges serve as a robust supplement to economic transactions. Mauss saw that acts of seemingly disinterested generosity provided a social glue that bonded groups together. Gifts might be less efficient than market-driven transactions—where everything gets quantified down to the second decimal point—but they play a similar function, and they have the offsetting advantage of creating goodwill and a sense of responsibility toward others.
All of us have seen this in our own lives. If your neighbor asks for a stick of butter, you don’t calculate the price. You give without asking for payment and do so wisely, because you may need to ask a favor in return someday. The same is true of holiday gift-giving, which has a much larger signification than can be measured in dollars. If your spouse doesn’t remember to give you a gift, the financial impact is probably the least of your concerns.
Back when I first studied gift exchange, I dismissed its economic importance—after all, it reflects only a tiny portion of all our transactions. Perhaps it might interest an anthropologist, but only as a kind of curiosity item, a refreshing but impractical alternative to the real substance of economic life. But as I see it now, the gift economy is much larger than I realized—in fact, it’s almost as large as the transaction-based economy. For a start, I’ve seen its predominance in my own life. My wife and I don’t charge my children for their meals or the hours of service we provide them. My friends dealing with elder care or community service or church activities operate off-the-grid, so to speak—at least from a conventional economic perspective. These are gift exchanges, pure and simple, and they are everywhere you look, even in a modern capitalist society.
But I’m concerned here with a different class of activities, ones that straddle these two spheres—and are hard to classify for that very reason. Artistic or creative pursuits, endeavors that are typically pursued for the intrinsic joy of sharing one’s gifts, are also frequently commoditized and placed on the market. Are they part of the gift economy or the transaction economy?
It took more than a half century before a major thinker pushed more deeply into the field of study initiated by Mauss in the 1920s. But when Lewis Hyde published his provocative book The Gift in 1983, he focused primarily on the arts. He understood that artists are very similar to the tribes and communities studied by Mauss. Creative people themselves are gifted—even the language we use here is revealing—and they feel a strong drive to share their gift with others. Even more intriguing, their lives prove the most incredible claim made by Hyde: the seemingly paradoxical assertion that gifts increase in value when given away.
“The increase is the core of the gift,” Hyde asserts confidently. But how can that possibly be true? When measured in dollars and cents, the act of giving destroys value. At best, we break even—assuming I get a gift of comparable value in return. My loss must be someone else’s gain.
Or must it?
It certainly doesn’t in the arts. Take, for example, my own vocation in music. As strange as it seems, the more a musician gives, the greater the total value created. The musician who plays alone in the practice room creates very little value, either in dollars or in the less tangible metrics of gift exchange. But when that same song is performed for a thousand people, its value increases enormously—and the catalyst here isn’t the transaction (the ticket price, for example), but the song itself, which becomes more powerful through this act of sharing.
In other words, music is what I call an anti-commodity—a thing that isn’t exhausted when used or given away but gets larger and more valuable, like the fish and loaves in the gospel. In that way, a song is like love or friendship or trust, those other anti-commodities that increase with the giving. The same is true of a painting or novel or dramatic production. We have now arrived at what, in Hyde’s words, “seems at first to be a paradox of gift exchange: when the gift is used, it is not used up. Quite the opposite, in fact: the gift that is not used will be lost.”
We have now come to the crux of the dilemma facing gifted people in our cultural ecosystem, one that in the digital age has grown into a crisis. All creative people grasp, if only subconsciously, that their gifts were meant for giving. Even more to the point, they know that the value of their gift increases (for both giver and receiver) through that open-hearted act of exchange.
We even have a special term for it now: going viral. And this unrestrained viral gifting may be the most potent force of our digital age. Even the president and the pope want to give freely on the web in hopes of going viral. But virality comes at a steep price—for the simple reason that is has no price. The very act of sharing undermines the financial value of the gift. As Hyde has shown, the power of the gift erodes as soon as you demand payment. You could call this the “paywall dilemma.”
So take your pick—do you give or do you sell? When you embrace one of these strategies, it limits your freedom to pursue the other. In an extreme case, staying true to your gift may undermine the economic basis of your life, and even paying the rent and putting food on the table become acute challenges. On the other hand, when a gifted artist focuses primarily on financial gain, the gift is debased and might disappear completely.
Unlike Mauss or Hyde, I prefer to view gifts as the basis of a spiritual economy. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them,” Paul writes in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. He adds that these are given us for the “common good.” If this is true—and I believe it is—the internet ought to serve as a reliable platform for sending our gifts out into in the world. Certainly there’s no more powerful tool for reaching the larger global community. In fact, I believe there is a moral imperative for each of us to do this.
But the cruel truth of the web is that the gifted contribute to the digital world (often for free) only to see their gifts quickly appropriated by others who, like the buyers and sellers in the temple, debase everything they touch. The gift gets turned into a commodity. The ruthless economic underpinnings of the internet serve to punish the giver and destroy the spiritual, disinterested essence of the gift.
Welcome to the inescapable foundation of artistic alienation in the digital age. Even artists without financial worries—maybe a working spouse or trust fund pays the bills—understand this conflict. If they give their talent away, they feel shortchanged and exploited, but if they attach a price tag to every creative act, they betray the essence of their gift. And if a miracle happens and an artist gets rich, the inevitable accusations of selling out will be voiced—often from those who were the most loyal fans when the artist was operating in obscurity.
Most professions lack this kind of obsessive anxiety. Do dentists worry about inauthentic ways of filling cavities? Does a car mechanic who takes a better-paying job in a new shop fret about selling out?
These conflicts in the artistic psyche have always existed, but they take on particular urgency in the age of the internet. Hyde wrote The Gift before the birth of the web and never grappled with these trade-offs. Even in his later writing, he didn’t seem to comprehend the crisis the web has created for the gifted. In a postscript to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book, he offered optimistic predictions on how the internet would serve as glorious platform for gift exchange.
He’s not completely mistaken. There are web platforms built on gratuitous giving. At Wikipedia, for example, volunteers have created something extraordinary out of sheer generosity, with no desire to monetize their labor.
But the real foundation of the internet is businesses that pretend to be gift exchanges. The management of Facebook may act as if their corporate mandates are driven by goodwill—they call everyone a friend, the same way Soviet commissars addressed everyone as comrade back in the day—but this is a smokescreen for a company built on economic transactions. The same is true of Google, Twitter, Pinterest, eBay, and almost any other web platform you can name.
Sometimes the language is deceptive, but it’s not hard to see through the spin. Silicon Valley may have put the word “pal” into PayPal, but what I’m sending through its payment platform is cold hard cash, not love and forgiveness. YouTube, despite the name, isn’t really about you—it’s about the estimated 25 billion dollars in revenues the platform generates by “giving” away music and other apparent freebies in order to sell ads.
These businesses have cleverly constructed their platforms to lure the gifted—those creative talents who generate much of that 25 billion dollars for parent company Alphabet—into a faux gift-exchange community that is actually built on squeezing them dry and paying as little as possible for the privilege.
At first, these platforms did little to harm the cultural ecosystem. After all, nobody was forced to participate. A musician could still operate under the status quo and sell albums—at least for a short period before demand for physical albums collapsed. But when the audience stopped buying—and who can blame them, when the largest companies in the world insist on giving away music for free?—that option disappeared. No, you’re not forced to participate in the digital age, but good luck trying to find another way to survive.
The damage varies from field to field, but almost no area of creative work has emerged unscathed from this forced imposition of a gift-exchange culture by transaction-based companies. Journalists have watched as newspaper after newspaper has shut down—more than two thousand during the last fifteen years—but many still write their articles, although often for little or no pay. Photographers, videographers, illustrators, and creative professionals in dozens of other fields have felt the same pinch. Creative individuals are expected to give away the very basis of their livelihood. The gifted give while others prosper.
No merchant or trader, no matter how greedy, ever dared do that in the past. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest,” economist Adam Smith once famously declared. But nowadays Mr. Smith would need to revise. Mark Zuckerberg does want us to trust in his benevolence, and the same is true of Jack Dorsey and Larry Page and other tech titans.
We ought to withhold our trust. The very fact that these platforms are disguised as gift exchanges should alert us to the danger they represent. We need to be even more suspicious in dealing with them than we are in transacting with the butcher or baker—both because of their masquerade and also because of their monopolistic size.
The true antecedents of Zuckerberg and Page aren’t Rockefeller and Carnegie—capitalists who later became philanthropists on a grand scale—but rather that sly Dutch trader who purchased the island of Manhattan for 24 dollars’ worth of beads and trinkets. I suspect that the losing side in that transaction thought they were involved in a friendly gift exchange, just like the musicians who put up their songs on YouTube or the journalists who give away their writing via social media. The problem isn’t with gift exchange—a building block of all societies that underpins all our relationships of love, trust, and friendship—but with that gray zone in which transaction-driven traders pretend to operate on those values while counting every penny back in their lavish headquarters.
That gray zone now encompasses almost all of our creative economy. Of course, money still changes hands, but now it happens indirectly and out of sight. In its annual report, Spotify proudly declares: “We don’t sell music.” They want everyone to know that they sell subscriptions, not songs. That may seem like a small difference, but it has a profound impact on how the company views music—for Spotify, songs are treated as a cost, not a source of revenue. And, of course, costs must be squeezed. For the first time in music history, the people making money off music don’t want to be part of the music business. This is an ominous development.
YouTube is the most powerful force in music today, but it makes its money from advertising—once again, the songs themselves are just an unfortunate cost of doing business. Apple also exerts enormous influence on the music ecosystem, but its whole history and ethos have been built on selling devices. Who can doubt that Apple would give music away for free if it helped them to sell a few million more gadgets?
Many music fans were displeased by Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone—which seemed to reflect a cavalier disregard for consumers who care about audio fidelity. But Apple felt it needed to make its phones more waterproof. Think about it: Apple was essentially admitting that it cared more about drunks who drop their phones in the toilet than about music fans.
Even some of those who agree with my claims here may have despaired of any solution. The digital age has arrived, they believe, and it’s pointless to fight it. Who can possibly prevail against the collective might of Google, Facebook, and Apple?
But it’s important to remember that these corporations, for all their size and dominance, aren’t like authoritarian governments—they ultimately rely on the hundreds of millions of individuals whose active daily participation in their business models created their dominance in the first place.
And there are plenty of examples from the past of companies that exerted too much power and got forcibly downsized as a result. That happened to Standard Oil, which once controlled 90 percent of the petroleum that made America run, but eventually ran into an even more powerful force, namely the Supreme Court, which broke it up into thirty-four separate companies. Similar days of judgment arrived for AT&T, Sears, and other enterprises who thought they could dictate their own terms.
Even in the arts, we have seen impressive victories over formidable adversaries. Creative work once enjoyed no intellectual property rights, but today every sphere in which the gifted participate offers some degree of legal protection—albeit, often distorted by the manipulation and lobbying of powerful interests.
What do we do? First and foremost, we must demand absolute transparency from distributors about who is getting paid and how. In the music world, for example, secret deals—such as those scams that reclassify payments to record labels as catalog licenses in order to avoid sharing the money with musicians—simply can’t be allowed. The payola getting funneled to playlist curators needs to be exposed, just as it was by congress back in its 1959 investigations of the radio industry. Merely casting a bright light on duplicitous practices will have a powerful cleansing effect.
In addition, we should make a public outcry when any business asks a creative professional to work for free. The charade of inviting artists to participate in a faux gift exchange while a web platform makes money through side deals ought to be exposed for what it is—a shameful tool of economic exploitation. I’ve publicized these ruthless practices in the past, and I know how much these parties hate having their modi operandi exposed. Once again there’s a track record of success here. Even behemoth companies will back down.
Finally, we must create true gift exchanges on the web—altruistic enterprises that support the gifted individuals in our midst. We have already seen how Wikipedia was able to flourish on the basis of actual gratuitous actions. A host of other digital platforms, from Kickstarter to ArtistShare, have proven that fair and compassionate approaches can survive and thrive without resorting to deception and exploitation.
The internet is a source of empowerment for all, not just for tech titans, and when used by those motivated by generosity, compassion, and fairness, it can be transformative. It can—and should—be an engine of goodwill and a source of spiritual uplift. And we should all want to be a part of that. We are fortunate that the tools are at hand to make it happen. If we take advantage of these technologies and use them with genuine reciprocity, just maybe it will go viral.
Ted Gioia is a writer and jazz musician. He is author of eleven books and a well-known authority on music, literature, and popular culture. His most recent book is Music: A Subversive History (Basic).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.