There are many stories I could tell about my time in Jakarta. Here I offer one: the story of Marcus McAdam and his mix-tapes.
One downside of living in Jakarta was that we were cut off from the culture machine that had dominated life in New Zealand. At home, I’d been cultivating a passion for Blondie and the Cars. At the bustling markets of Pasar Baru, I could pick up any number of pirated cassettes, and I compiled a back catalogue of every band I’d heard of. Yet, there was no Western radio or television stations in Jakarta at the time, and no internet to browse in pursuit of the latest thing. I soon discovered how dependent I’d become on the weekly chart countdown. I didn’t lack for entertainment, but I had no idea what kinds of entertainment were cool. With my teenage years on the horizon, this was a serious problem.
Into the breach stepped Marcus MacAdam. Marcus was my friend Andrew’s older brother. At fifteen years old, Marcus knew everything about anything worth knowing about: bands, movies, comics, all the important stuff. He was a legend. Marcus left Jakarta for boarding school in Perth shortly after my family arrived in Indonesia. Twice or thrice a year he would fly back to Jakarta with news of the outside world. Marcus introduced me to the pop-cultural references that (for better or worse) defined my teenage imagination: Alien (‘…and this thing just explodes out of his stomach!’), KISS (‘…and then Gene Simmon goes HUURR and fire comes out his mouth!’), and The Savage Sword of Conan comics that satisfied my hunger for epic fantasy long after umpteen readings of The Lord of the Rings had taken the shine off the trilogy (‘…plus there’s a movie in the works, starring this Austrian bodybuilder, Arnold Schnizelburger!’).
Some might say that Marcus MacAdam had questionable taste. What the hell – we were kids. Marcus brought Western pop culture to our gated compound, and for that, we were very grateful.
What made Marcus truly awesome was his mixtapes. Each time he’d come back to Jakarta, Marcus would stun us with his latest collection. There was no ABBA and Air Supply on the mixtapes, though they were all over the airwaves back home. Pink Floyd would rub shoulders with the B-52s, Devo, and the Knack. The Vapours were Turning Japanese, The Boomtown Rats didn’t like Mondays, and The Buggles chimed that Video Killed the Radio Star. We loved every moment of it. Andrew and I would run off copies from the master tapes and share them with our friends at Jakarta International School. They’d run off copies to share with their own circles of friends, so the mixtapes went round and round the expatriate community, through the British Club, the American Club, and the International Sports Club, where the Antipodean families hung out. My friends and I would gather in sharing circles, waxing lyrical over the tapes, while our mothers sipped G&Ts in the clubhouse and our fathers played squash in the searing heat. Sometimes we’d trade and barter the tapes, but mostly we just passed them around. The copies, at least. The master tapes were sacred objects that we trusted only with our innermost circle of friends.
Marcus stopped coming back to Jakarta after his seventeenth birthday. We assumed his work was done. Thanks to his mixtapes, Marcus’ legend was assured.
The story of Marcus’ mixtapes is a story of everyday gift culture. Gift culture is part of the fabric of human societies. Friendships, peer relationships, courtships and love affairs all hinge on the exchange of gifts. The family home is a primitive gift culture, which indicates how fundamental gifting is to the real economy. Yet, gift culture is something we scarcely talk about. In many non-Western societies, gifting is a codified cultural activity and gift exchanges form a thriving subeconomy. The Anglo-American West, however, lacks a vocabulary, and perhaps even the inclination, to reflect on gift culture and the psychological and motivational dynamics that underpin it. It is not clear why this is. The answer can’t simply be that gifting jars with capitalist ideology, since most gifting takes places outside of the commercial world, in schoolyards, community projects, and love relationships. One is given to wonder if the cultural legacy of Christianity has something to do with it. Christianity posits that the true gift is ‘pure’ in the sense of having no ulterior motive. In a gift economy, a gift is never without some expectation of return. Consider how this reflects on the Christian concept of altruism. The son of God may be capable of pure gifts but the rest of us give to get. Even the faithful want to get into heaven.
Then again, perhaps the problem is simply that we lack the conceptual models for thinking about gift culture. With this in mind, I’d like to sketch three models of gift culture drawn from indigenous examples. I have already discussed the first two models – the Potlatch reputation game and the Kula Ring – in this blog. The third model, which I call tribaling, is based on the Moka exchange of the tribes of the Mt Hagen area of Papau New Guinea.
These three models represent ancient practices that were developed and continue outside of Western market society. Yet, it is easy to see how we play out similar forms of social exchange more or less everyday. These supposedly foreign forms of gift culture are based in psychological and motivational principles that are more or less constant across human societies. Once we understand these principles, we see that gift culture is, in fact, all about us: in our social lives, our love affairs, our work lives, and peer engagements. Gifting is life, just as life is a gift.
1. Reputation games
The Potlatch reputation game was practiced by the natives peoples of the North American Pacific coast. A chief would host a Potlatch by gathering their tribe and presenting them with a massive gift of food, weapons, furs, and other goods. This was not a ‘pure’ gift. Chiefs hosted a Potlatch to demonstrate their nobility and wealth. By giving generously, they distinguished themselves as persons of spiritual abundance, earning reputation while simultaneously supporting their tribe.
The Potlatch scandalised Christian missionaries, who were repulsed by the fact that chiefs earned status through giving. They railed against the ceremony, leading to it being banned through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the US and Canada. On record, the Potlatch was banned for being a wasteful expenditure of goods. One wonders if perhaps the real reason it was banned was because it held up a mirror to European practices of gifting, revealing the economic underpinnings of these exchanges, concealed beneath the doctrine of altruism.
Marcus’ mixtapes involved a reputation game. Marcus went to the trouble of recording his mixtapes because he saw personal and social value in it. On a personal level, Marcus earned considerable reputation for sharing the tapes. Without the tapes, he was just Andrew’s older brother. With the tapes, he was chief of our tribe – a powerful purveyor of cultural knowledge, the giver of gifts. I have no idea how much social influence Marcus wielded at boarding school in Perth. When he returned to Jakarta, he was the magnetic hub of a social circle that formed about his presence, and that fell dormant each time he left, eagarly awaiting his return.
This brings us to the social value of gifts. By gifting mixtapes, Marcus created a thriving tribe that worshipped its chief. No doubt Marcus prepared his tapes with this end in mind. Given his erratic tastes, it is remarkable that his collections were so consistently ‘cool’. Was Marcus really trying to express his own taste in curating the mixtapes? Or was he second guessing the impression his tapes would have on his community of friends? To be fair, a good chief always gives with a view to impressing his tribe. A poor gift that fails to resonate with the tribe will backfire on the chief, making him or her look foolish or mean-spirited. To earn social capital, chiefs must ensure they are giving the right gifts, in the right quantity, and to gift them at the right time. Understanding the expectations of one’s tribe is vital to ensuring that one’s gifts produce the anticipated effect.
Counterintuitively, it is the tribe, not the chief, who is the dominant party in the Potlatch reputation game. The chief gives to satisfy the tribe, thus to earn its favour. It is only by earning the favor of the tribe that the chief gets personal reputation and social capital.
2. Sharing circles
Our second model of gift culture comes from the Kiriwina (previously Trobriand) Islands, off the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea. For untold generations, the residents of this spiralling archipeligo have practiced a gift exchange known as the Kula ring. Participants in the Kula ring row from island to island to dispense their gifts. Instead of seeking to impress one another through exorbitant gifts, they gift one of two things: a red shell-disc necklace or a white shell armband. Necklaces are gifted to islands to the north and armbands are gifted to islands to the south. Upon receiving either of these items, the giftee is obliged to pass them on, within a reasonable time, to a chief or notable on a neighbouring island. Eventually, the necklaces and armbands complete a full circuit of the archipelago, and around they go again. Hence the name: the Kula ring.
Understood as a general model of gift culture, the Kula ring is a sharing circle. To appreciate the logic of this form of gift culture, we must look away from the item that is gifted and reflect on how the gift exchange consolidates community. Ultimately, the item that is gifted in this case is a symbol of the community, and thus it can be anything: a shell necklace or armband, a tribal talking stick, an official post or reponsibility, a book, or a mixtape. By circulating this item, gifting it from one person to the other, the spirit of the community is reinvoked and affirmed. Sharing circles often take the form of group discussions facilitated by passing a simple object from interlocutor to interlocutor. The person who holds the object has the unique privilege of speaking to the group while the others remain silent. The group respects this priviledge insofar as the speaker respects the sacred protocol to pass the object on. Honoring the gift is honouring the community, and this makes it a sacred act.
If you are a devoted user of car share services, like GoGet or ZipCar, you’ll have experienced the subtle dynamic of sharing circles. Judging by the state in which some people leave share cars after use, not everyone attends to this dynamic. Presumably they perceive the share car as a personal service, as opposed to an item that is shared and preserved by a community. For my part, when I return a share car to its parking bay, I adjust the volume on the stereo to a comfortable level, return the air conditioning to a standard setting, and remove any litter I’ve left lying about. These tiny acts are my gift to the user who rents the car after me. I undertake them knowing that I will probably never meet this user; yet I trust that this user, or some other, will return the gift in the fullness of time, honouring and affirming the community of users in our neighbourhood.
Some people clean up their share cars because they feel obliged to do so, or because they are worried that they will be punished if they don’t. They act as individuals following a rule. Sharing circles emerge when individuals take responsibility for co-creating a community of gifters. They gift proactively with a view to recieving a similar gift at a later date.
In the cloud-shrouded highlands of Papua New Guinea, we discover a third model of gift culture, embodied in a practice called the Moka exchange. The Moka exchange is a reputation game with a communal twist. It is conducted by individuals known as Big Men, who are not chiefs but well-respected members of the community. One Big Man will challenge another to a Moka exchange to take place on a certain date. Both men must then assemble a massive gift to present to the other in the presence of their tribes, a gift typically consisting of hundreds of pigs – a staple commodity in the PNG highlands – as well as food, cash, handicrafts, and shells from the coast. The man who gives the greater gift wins Moka, or dignity. The man who gives the lesser gift is placed in debt to the other, and must endevour to repay the debt through an even more fabulous gift. If he fails to do so, he runs the risk of damaging his reputation – in the worst case becoming the opposite of a Big Man, a Rubbish Man.
The twist in this model, distinguishing it from the Potlatch reputation game, concerns the way that Big Men assemble their gifts. Big Men may not be flush with possessions, but they are rich in terms of social capital, and they leverage their connections in order to prepare their offerings. We see this practice played out in the 1976 documentary film, Ongka’s Big Moka. Ongka, a Big Man of the Kawelka people, challenges his rival to an exchange. His task thereafter is to visit the various families and individuals about the region who own him a debt, and to ask: ‘Will you help me assemble my gift?’ Ultimately, a Big Man is only as rich as the community he is able to pull together. His wealth is his tribe. I call the activity by which he assembles his wealth: ‘tribaling’.
The tribaling model of gift culture is surprisingly widespread. In fact, you are enjoying the fruits of tribaling right now. WordPress is built on open source software, and open source software development is tribaling. Just as Ongka leverages his community to assemble his gifts, WordPress is built through the contributions of thousands of developers, who freely donate their time and talent because they believe in the value of the project. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are also premised on the tribaling model. An individual or creative team comes up with an idea for a project. Instead of funding it out of their own pocket, they launch a crowdfunding campaign, effectively turning to their community and saying: ‘Will you help us prepare this gift?’
If the campaign is successful, the owner reaps the primary reward, just as Moka goes to the Big Man in the Moka exchange. Yet, everyone knows that it was a community effort. A crowdfunder, just like an open source software development company, is only as rich as the community they can pull together. The tribaling model is a key element of 21st century gift culture.
A model is a lens that casts the world in a clearer light. Tribaling, sharing circles, and reputation games are not real, material, features of the world (like cars, rocks, and trees), but rather diagrams and perspectives that bring social practices into relief, foregrounding the strategies, dynamics, and rewards that makes these practices work. The important thing is to learn how to apply them. This takes practice. Next time someone adds value to your life free of change, ask yourself: what is the gift culture model that applies here? Is it a reputation game, a share circle, or an act of tribaling? Perhaps it is another kind of game – there are many more.
Once you learn to look at the world through the lens of gift culture, everyday social exchanges appear in a brand new light. You see that there are (and always have been) gift-based subeconomies at foundations of society. Today, they are rising from the grassroots to form new economic models that are rapidly transforming industries based in market exchange. Economic practice is rapidly evolving, and yet we’re still using conceptual maps from the 20th century. It is time that we adopted new models to see the landscape that is unfolding before us.