On the fundamental tensions around money and its place in society

This gets even broader than the important stuff I’ve been fleshing out at Framing idea for introducing newcomers to concept of public goods - #21 by wolftune

This is a first explication of some pretty radical perspectives I’m processing. I would love to engage in conversation about all this.

Snowdrift.coop as (ironically) anti-money

For perspective, this came up more explicitly for me while reading the late David Graeber’s new co-authored book, The Dawn of Everything. In the first section, the book challenges the core questions about the relationships between traditional European social structures, the influence of indigenous American ideas, and the massive significance of indigenous critiques and philosophy on the Enlightenment. In short: the indigenous ways of living were not driven by money nor the force of state-power, and while many Europeans did get their imaginations running wild with the ramifications of this alternative way of life, it wasn’t just imagination, it really was driven by the real concepts and critiques of the indigenous people who were appalled at the brutality and horrors of European life (like, ‘OMG, you just let beggars starve on the streets? WTF is wrong with you!’ — but also very thoughtful, reasoned arguments; the indigenous societies relied on consent for so much of everything, they were naturally practiced at reasoned debate etc)…

I could go on about the powerful arguments in the book and their points about why historians today so widely and unfairly dismiss the influence of indigenous ideas (ironically, often in the guise of being critical of Europeans, not wanting to give credence to European claims to understand indigenous perspectives) and the other ideas in the book… But I’m writing here to reflect on my own feelings about money and the place it plays in my motivations in founding and working on Snowdrift.coop.

IMO, Money does undermine all sorts of egalitarian social possibilities. Contractual monetary arrangements tend to compete with rather than enhance our social relationships. I’ve focused on this from the earliest days of Snowdrift.coop. I wrote about Dan Ariely’s studies in behavioral economics and Barry Schwartz’s emphasis on the more fuzzy, human, non-contractual deeper-meaning of “Practical Wisdom” outside of formal job descriptions. In my earliest writings at Snowdrift Wiki - FLO Development and Economic Psychology, I had the headings: “Money can displace social considerations” and “How Snowdrift.coop avoids focusing on money” and so on.

No wonder I have resisted nailing down traditional money-focused hard goals for projects (for us as first project) and related basic business things. Incidentally, I’ve had the same tensions in my music-teaching day-job where setting rates and dealing with money is my least favorite of my tasks. Over the years, I’ve done more and more bartering, and I’ve made it less and less hard-line and contractual. I don’t want to relate to others through money. And I have good reasons for this perspective.

So what is with the idea of building Snowdrift.coop as a money-centered fundraising platform??

Crowdmatching for public goods as a way to limit the scope of money

FIrst, to set the obvious stage. We do not live in an egalitarian world built on abundance, sharing, volunteering, and consensus. But of course, these things are present in many places. And whenever someone experiences them, it can transform our perspectives. Richard Stallman struggled to feel comfortable in our society until he experienced this sort of egalitarian community at the MIT AI lab. When that egalitarian community started falling apart, that led to everything else he worked for in his life with GNU and software freedom. Although not explicitly anti-money, there’s always been a huge tension because there’s no inherent place, no primacy of money in the vision of software freedom.

What drives creative work today? Despite all the volunteering and social actions around the edges, most work happens through people paid for their time. And the funding that pays them comes from paywalls and ads. Paywalls and ads make each interaction with creative works be one mediated by money.

We cannot jump from where we are now to a totally different non-monetary society. I have no confidence in the capacity of sudden revolutions to take us where I hope to go. So, what small steps lead us in the right direction?

If we can continue the pattern of paying creative workers to put in their time but remove the monetary context from each creative engagement, that’s a step in the right direction. We can push money upstream. We can contain it. Put a firewall on where money plays a part. I don’t want money anywhere near the moment when someone reads a news article or watches a video. The public library still has to buy books, pay salaries and utility bills, and this comes from the money that the residents of a town pay in taxes. But my choice to read a particular book from the library is completely independent of money. I don’t give some author extra money by reading their book (and sometimes I read books I dislike in order to understand what they are, and I don’t want to support the author at all).

I have always been resistant to schemes that try to assign micropayments to each view or click or listen. The whole cryptocurrency emphasis on certain sorts of contracts seems to me to push money into everything — the opposite of what I want to see and the sort of society I wish to live in. So, this framing is helping me understand my own motivations and tensions around all these topics.

For me, crowdmatching is a way to build consensus with others about the general direction of where money goes while having the end results of projects be freed from direct connection to money. I don’t want to micromanage which features projects use money for (hence my distaste for bounty-style fundraising, even though it has a place). I do have opinions about priorities, but I want to express those priorities with reasons, to have them considered in terms of their merit. I don’t want our widening inequality to mean that whoever has the most money gets their priorities. If we fund projects enough at their core, it frees the creative workers to have non-monetary relations to the rest of their work and to their audiences and collaborators.

UBI (Universal Basic Income) is a similar direction. Within our money-centric world, UBI gives money less power, less direct influence on what jobs we do, how we use our time… there are tensions with it all, but nothing is perfect. In my view, everything that reduces the power of money is going in the right direction (at least on that aspect of the many concerns we have about how we want to live).

We do not have good money-focused business models that work without scarcity or exclusion, and really I don’t have any answers for how to get them. I don’t want them. I don’t want FLO public goods to somehow get money injected as a mediator to every engagement. My celebration of FLO public goods is that they exist so strongly independently of money. FLO public goods are about abundance and sharing — and engaging with them is our greatest challenge to monetary-focused nature of life. Of course, we also have other non-monetary parts of life, such as “care work”, which I so strongly do not want to see “monetized” (I wrote about this in Essay (with valuable links): Economics, social attitudes toward FLO public goods, and "care work").

I’ve heard claims that money is a neutral technology, it’s just a matter of what we do with it. Well, we might say the same about video-chats or all sorts of other things. And I’m thrilled that I get to engage with people through this amazing technology and have relationships I couldn’t otherwise have. But no way in hell do I want a world in which all my connections to other people are through screens and computers. The technology isn’t inherently good or evil, but to whatever extent it has a place, that place is not “everywhere”. I’m open to the idea that money has a place and can even be part of a profoundly healthy society — but that’s certainly not the reality I experience today.

So what does all this mean for Snowdrift.coop?

It’s helpful to me that I’m getting my views more explicit. I would like to get others’ perspectives and to end up making our vision all that clearer. We are not in this to fundraise. We have no mission of fundraising as an end in itself. We are proposing fundraising as a means to remove the need for all the intrusive monetizing that has brought us paywalls, ads, and so many other harms. We are building a dedicated place for people to put coordinated funds so that the products of creative work do not themselves need to be tied to money and scarcity and exclusion.

How does this perspective inform how we build and describe what we’re doing? I haven’t thought that through as much yet. What do you think?

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I realize, of course, that I can’t just wish for funding to go to projects (or to us) and ignore all the questions of how to use it.

The points I made above bring up tensions around the questions of who gets paid and how much when it comes to the funds we can bring in. I do see the need to answer those questions. Still, I personally can’t help but consider all the baggage of inequities and inequality in our current reality when I try to think about how we should decide on our use of money within this reality…

I find it really hard to deal with these things. Despite trials over the years, I have never succeeded at getting myself to the simple business mindset of many people I see engaging with money questions and decisions while oblivious to these broader concerns. It certainly seems easier to be oblivious, but I just can’t do it.

I love the world you’re designing @wolftune and will support you with everything I can.
Yet, from what I’ve learnt on my path, it is enormously difficult to implement such a big change at once, even promote it. We opted for small practical steps instead: ceased showing those beautiful designs to the public, hence even the project name transformation from “thank-u rays” as apposed to money with the plan to make money obsolete, to a vulgar “smartlike”. My approach now is to solve a popular problem, give something good to the public, while building in the important features without much advertising. For example, derivative functions of money are already suppressed in our current version…

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Yes, I agree completely. I’m not laying out the grand paradigm vision as a proposal to enact. I’m working to be clear in my own view of my internal motivations and values, and then be able to communicate that clearly. And from that point, I want to see practical, incremental, realistic steps that at least go in the right direction.

As I was thinking of this topic of “firewall” around money — the general idea of being cautious about where in things we let money be the mediator, I was reminded of another simple point from Dan Ariely. He recommends things like people prepaying for all-expenses-paid cruises — not because it’s more affordable in terms of the budgeting, but because it’s valuable to remove the money question from each experience. People on such a cruise don’t have the negative experience of thinking through the cost of each meal or activity. The money is a sunk cost, and now they get to just enjoy things. This works particularly well if they don’t keep thinking about the money, they let it go mentally, and they think about just enjoying things.

Related to that, Dan did a study of how much people enjoyed pizza when they had to pay by the pie, by the slice, or by the bite. And of course paying per-bite had the most reduction in enjoyment.

My bigger point for public goods is that when we even consider the idea of paying per-access and so on, it pushes us into thinking in the economics of exclusion and rivalry. It blocks us from being open to even understanding public goods conceptually. To have public goods at all, we have to manage both (A) providing resources to the workers who develop and maintain them and (B) not have money actually mediate our engagement with the public goods.

When I go to the public library, I don’t mind the thought that I and others paid taxes to make the library possible. Similarly, I think it would be fine to have lots of reminders of things around all public goods in the direction of “this exists thanks to our patrons at Snowdrift.coop; and if you aren’t a patron yet, here’s how to join the crowd”.

But while I can be happy with these practical things, I also can acknowledge the wish for a moneyless society based on widespread abundance and sharing, living in harmony with the planet.

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I think a lot about this topic too. I similarly don’t have the answers, but I am super-glad you’re thinking along these lines as well.

I think for me, it is clearly possible to live in abundance. We live in an era of fantastic leverage, and have, for quite some time. One person with a CNC machine and a 3D printer can cut or print just about anything anyone around them really needs, for peanuts. We could talk about the obscene wealth of the 1%, or we could talk about the absurd amount of waste modern society generates, or the fact that there are more empty homes than homeless people. It should be clear to anyone that we as a species have more than enough. There’s nothing physically stopping us from ending homelessness and hunger tomorrow, if we really wanted to. Why we’re not doing it is a question for another time.

But back to the matter at hand: one person, in one weekend, can create powerful and useful software that every person on the planet can benefit from, from now to eternity. That kind of leverage has never occurred in the history of our species. We are really, truly, wasting this opportunity. I often wonder what we could accomplish if we just took care of people’s basic needs. How productive would the world be if people were free to write awesome software (for the world, not to line a billionaire’s pockets) without having to worry about their next paycheck, to invent amazing new machines without stressing over their mortgage, to create fantastic entertainment for everyone without having to choose between a hospital bill or a car repair bill?

I think UBI is a step in that direction. I don’t know if it’s enough, or if it is politically feasible, but I’d love to see it. We need more imagination and more bravery. There is so much complacency and defeatism. We will never grow into a new world unless we can imagine it and at least try to get there.

That’s why I’m supportive of projects like Snowdrift. Keep up the great work, humanity won’t progress without folx like you :+1:

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Some links that may be of interest:

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Wow, those links seem like stuff I’ve got to get through. The space of people discussing and working on these ideas has really changed since Snowdrift.coop got started as a concept. I find it a bit overwhelming, honestly.

Conceptually, I think maybe there’s value in thinking about efforts in a few categories:

  • FLO stuff that already exists and offers real value to general public
  • meta support efforts for that stuff (e.g. Patreon and Open Collective and various ways people fund it)
  • political/conceptual work (stuff I’m talking about here, articles and research on public goods economics, coordination failure, critiques of monopolization and ad-driven business models etc)
  • projects aiming to build some new direction but not connecting (yet?) to the general public

The first type offers tie-ins and stepping-stones in the direction I’m talking about. It’s the foundation for why Snowdrift.coop could make a difference via helping these already-impactful projects.

The second is the space I’ve historically seen us in and where I’ve discussed why I’m not just satisfied with what’s already there (though I see potential for Open Collective, that’s the closest to something I’d consider just supporting and joining essentially — I specifically need to catch up on their new public openness to potential co-op direction).

The third is really valuable, and it’s the space I’d most wish to help contribute to. I wonder whether there are some things out there that really get everything clicked-together enough to just use. Maybe someone has already laid out the stuff I’ve been thinking about. But mostly, I think there’s wonderful resources to draw from, and there’s still synthesis work to do.

The final one I find the most tension with. In some ways, it seems maybe to be the closest to just actually realizing all the things I’m talking about. But I have a fear about it all basically failing to have an on-ramp, a connection to the rest of status quo reality as we know it. And I have this worry about sinking time and energy into understanding it and coming out with absolutely nothing I can use to engage with the general public.

I need to figure out a plan for how to engage with all this. It’s such a big world. Any super-obscure corner of things could still fill up all of one’s attention potentially.

Any thoughts on how to make sense of it all?

It’s a bit overwhelming to me too, and I keep up with it pretty regularly. That’s a great sign! It means there’s a ton of work being done in the space, and gives me hope and confidence we’ll get there soon.

Yeah the third is the one I’m most excited about. I think it has the most leverage. Coordination failure is essentially the story of the human race. And I think we now have the opportunity to finally fix it. We have a ton of resources, a ton of perspectives / takes, essentially a Cambrian explosion waiting to happen. Well, not really waiting to happen, we’re seeing it now. Right here, this forum, what is it, mattermost? It’s a little proto-organism “way-to-coordinate” which is, in the grand history of things, a newborn. So is twitter, irc, facebook, medium, discord, github, etc… when we zoom out and see the big picture, this whole internet business is brand-spanking-new. We haven’t even begun to utilize it to its fullest potential. Anyone that says otherwise has a seriously deficient imagination.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the fourth on your list. I think we have enough eyeballs on everything that someone somewhere will always be able to find a way to raise useful stuff into the mainstream. If an idea is good, it will thrive.

The thing that bothers me the most is that the 1% have effectively co-opted everything useful so far (industrial machines, shipping logistics, governments, now software / the internet). It is a simple result of existing power == more power. I think there isn’t enough thought on how to build things that help us but don’t also help them. A handful of billionaires with more resources than the rest of the planet isn’t healthy. I’m sure it will naturally end at some point, but the sooner the better.

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My concern in this case isn’t systemic, it’s about my personal priorities. The question is how much to work on developing this, reading about and talking to others, etc. Because I don’t want to either (A) do my own version of something that already exists just fine and just needs more attention or (B) spend all my time making sense of what others are doing just to end up realizing that nobody is doing what I think is really needed, and it would have been better if I had been working on it instead of reading about everyone else. My ideal is collaboration, where I’m just contributing with others to a collective effort — but I still need confidence that a particular effort is viable and potentially effective enough.

A question Graeber and Wengrow express as rooted in indigenous perspectives: How is it that wealth disparities translate into power? Some indigenous societies had wealth disparities that had no impact on power. It’s not obvious to them why wealth brings power. And this relates to my core point in this topic: as long as money is the mediator for how things are done, that inevitably gives wealthier people more power.

In practice, we have discussed crowdmatching mechanisms that do not allow large disparities in patronage levels. This is a challenging balance. We want FLO projects to succeed, so if we can get them more money, don’t we want that? But we also see the value of not allowing wealthier patrons to give more, because we don’t want to be reliant on that or have interests tilted toward the wealthy.

The Quadratic funding that GitCoin (partnering with Open Collective too) has set up is an interesting balance. It’s the closest direct competition/alternative to what we’re doing, debatably a form of “crowdmatching”. In their approach, most money still comes from fewer wealthier sources. But those sources don’t get to choose the direction of the money, that is determined by essentially a vote-with-your-wallet method from smaller patrons. The influence on where money goes is decreased the higher the patronage level. So, the smaller patrons retain democratic influence. It’s more complex than what we’re proposing, and it relies on the wealthy patrons in the end, but it might just be pretty close to the right solution. I need to investigate it more. But I’m most skeptical because it seems to be moving around a lot of “money” without doing anything that anyone in the general public can care about.

I wouldn’t suggest spending ALL your time making sense of what others are doing, but I definitely don’t think researching what exists is a bad idea. Perhaps reaching out to some key people per project to give you the essential gist of things would be sufficient. Connecting with the wider community of people doing similar things is always going to be a positive thing.

“Wealth” as we know it didn’t really exist until feudalism. Prior to that, sure, you could accumulate grains or trinkets or what-have-you, but nobody really “owned” land. Anyone could always just go out and find more food/rocks/whatever, if they really wanted it. But once feudalism popped up, then the wealthy began having significant power over others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot too. I think whatever we can do to fund public goods, the better. If that means the wealthy give their money to it, I think that’s great. There are certainly altruistic people out there in the world that could definitely help kick-start this whole thing. What is important is that they get no special voice in what direction the development goes. So a complete separation of money and what gets developed.

I’m imagining something like a library, which is funded by the government and private donations. It’s a public good. But none of the donors gets a say in what particular books are on the shelf for people to read. In this case it would be the library staff, in snowdrift’s case, it would be the public at large. I’m making all of this up, I have no idea how libraries pick what books. But you get what I mean. People put money into the thing, and they just trust that what comes out will be useful to everyone. That trust has to be earned, like libraries have earned it. But I’m willing to bet there are ways to make the public goods software development efforts trustworthy. Some algorithms or blockchain or federation of people’s councils or something.

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Blog post that touches on similar topics:

There’s no particular conclusion, but it’s well written & organized, maybe useful for organizing one’s thoughts on the topic.

In that article, is “Blorkchain” a typo or a joke? Assuming typo.

I appreciate a lot about that article. But the end that asserts that startups are where companies can be democratized capitalism that are somehow delivering better for the customers/public… well, I won’t get into it here. Anyway, I agree with the core points that money screws with the nature of gifts. What I wanted to clarify here is something about how we can put a limited firewall on money. How can we use it within the reality we find ourselves such that it can free people from selling-out to harmful employment while otherwise minimizing what it can touch and affect within FLO projects? And can we be confident enough about this idea to actually express it as a value we support?

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Agreed, and I considered writing a note when I shared, but given the immediate follow-up (epilogue) tempers the startup-enthusiasm, I decided it wasn’t necessary.