A few nights ago Mari and I arrived home when we usually arrive home: late. It was another 10-hour work day, the fourth in a row. And on the answering machine there was a flashing number. It was a one. It was my grandmother.
‘Hi David and Marisa … it’s Grandma … Sasaki … I’m not sure if I have the right … I hope this is … I’m a little confused whether this is the right phone number … anyway … David, if you could give me a call back … there’s something I want to ask you … ok … that’s all … oh, and this is Grandma Sasaki … I’m not sure if I said that already.’
Followed by a beep.
Now, let me set the record straight right away. I love my grandma. I love both my grandmas. And as the years go by I find that I love them both more and more. Not out of familial dutifulness like it was throughout my adolescence … no, just out of love.
But if there’s one pet peeve I’ve always had (ok, so there are thousands, whatever), it’s when someone leaves a message saying he or she has a question for me. Or, when someone starts a conversation with, ‘can I tell you something.’ Or, ‘let me tell you something.’ Or even, ‘dejame contarte una cosa.’
For fock’s sake, just speak. Just say it. The fewer disclaimers and warnings, the better. Surprise me with a single sentence of meaningfulness, wholly detached from explanation and prelude. I will be ecstatic.
At 9:30 – just after I poured my first Tanqueray and tonic with three ice cubes and a wedge of lime squeezed, dunked, and stirred with a knife – the phone rang. Again, grandma. This had me worried. If you’ll recall, she’s now living alone for the first time in her 80 or so years of oxygen-inhaling existence. Was she hurt? worried? lonely?
I felt a pang of guilt for rolling my eyes at her earlier phone message. And then, 15 minutes into the conversation, when she finally asked the question, I felt even worse. She was offering me her car. Free. Just come and take it.
Funny thing is, the week before I had been celebrating the fact that I’d soon be a carless citizen. I live in the Bay Area – compared to Southern California, this is public transportation Nirvana. Wi-Fi in the brand new clean buses, BART trains going every which way every five minutes. MUNI trains in the city, more buses, trolleys, and lots of bike lanes. Sorry neighbors, but there’s just no reason to have a car here.
The very same day that Grandma called to offer me her car I had called 1-800-OUTREACH to give my smog sputtering SUV away. No more smog checks, no more insurance payments, no more registration, oil changes, tune-ups, $50 fillups … I thought I was on the bike path to liberation.
But then, a free car didn’t sound so bad either.
For most of the 20th century economists viewed the way we make decisions through a framework called “rational choice theory.” The theory makes some assumptions: 1.) if you can get paid to do a task, you probably won’t do it for free. 2.) We make our decisions (which iPod we buy, what job offer we accept) based on what gives us the largest or most probable payoff.
The theory and the assumptions seemed to work pretty well when economists were crunching numbers in the Western world. Its supporters – most notably Milton Friedman – took into account that humans have always volunteered their time to ‘the cause’ out of a desire to do good and look good. But we look after ourselves and our family first.
Then the Internet brought with it a whole new level of volunteerism. Grateful Dead fans started spending hours every day uploading, sharing, and documenting bootleg recordings. In-demand computer programmers worked late into the night to make applications like Firefox even though there was no profit in it. Supporters of the program who didn’t have the technical know-how to help write the code volunteered their time to market it. Dedicated Wikipedians around the world spent and spend hours and hours each day amassing the world’s knowledge without being paid a cent for it. WordPress, well on its way to becoming the world’s most popular blogging platform, was created by volunteers. Its excellent support forums have always been staffed by dedicated volunteers. And it’s been translated into scores of languages by volunteers. On Assignment Zero professional and amateur journalists both volunteer their time to get a story right.
We’re not talking about volunteering at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving here. We’re talking about highly-skilled and educated people who are working at least 20 hours a week without any compensation whatsoever. What drives them? What keeps them going? And, for that matter, what makes them stop?
Trying to explain it all, academics did what academics to best: they came up with a new term: the gift economy:
A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future quid pro quo. Typically, a gift economy occurs in a culture or subculture that emphasizes social or intangible rewards for generosity: karma, honor, loyalty or other forms of gratitude. In some cases, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within a community. This can be considered a form of reciprocal altruism. Sometimes there is an implicit expectation of the return of comparable goods or services, political support, or the gift being later passed on to a third party. However, in what is considered to be in the true spirit of gift economics, many times giving is done without any expectation of reciprocation.
The incentives in a gift economy are community, gratitude, karma, loyalty, purpose, respect, recognition.
And typically, for whatever reason, those incentives tend to last … about two years. And then those hard-working volunteers start to think to themselves, ‘you know what, I deserve something for all the work I’m doing around here.’ And they start to demand money. Or someone offers them money first. Or they use the recognition they’ve built up as a volunteer to start their own consulting company.
This is the very messy way in which apprenticeship works on the web. You bust your ass for two years volunteering as much of your time as possible. And then … things tend to work out … sort of … I mean, more or less … don’t get crazy and expect health insurance, but you know …
When my grandmother called to offer me her car, she was also offering me something else. She was offering me the opportunity to say, ‘sure, I’ll take the car as long as you promise you’ll call me whenever you need a ride anywhere.’ She was offering me the opportunity to take her to the supermarket each week and to drive her to the airport like I’ll be doing next week.
She’s not expecting or demanding that I do these things in exchange for the car, but she does know I’ll feel guilty as hell if I don’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s good guilt. I want to take my grandma to the airport next week. But, sad as it is, I need the extra guilt to make sure I’ll actually do it.
In my effort to be more like a peer-reviewed academic, I’d like to come up with a new term for this: the guilt economy. The guilt economy is when you guilt a do-gooder into doing work for under-market pay. It is guilt that is at the heart of microgrants. We are giving – at the very maximum – $5,000 to groups and individuals who are willing to work their asses off for two years to get more people blogging. And of that $5,000, the most I’ve seen anyone applicant give him/herself to compensate his/her time on the project is $1,000.
$1,000! For two years of work. Let’s be honest. $1,000 is not an incentive. It’s a reminder. A source of good guilt. An always-in-the-back-of-the-mind thought to keep them going over the next two years.
Guilt is the psychological engine of capitalism. We feel guilty when we don’t provide for our loved ones. We feel guilty when we don’t pay our rent. We feel guilty when we don’t pay back our debts and loans.
Unless, of course, we are the investors. And then we inflict guilt on those investments that aren’t making us money.
That may sound bad. But, seems to me, guilt is only bad if it leads to stress. If it inspires us and makes us work harder, then it’s a good thing.