Free Online Exchange: Death threat to consumerism

Alessandro Ludovico

Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and has been editor-in-chief of Neural Magazine from 1993 and the author of several essays on digital culture. He co-edited “Mag.Net Reader” (1 and 2) and is one of the founding contributors to the Nettime community and the Mag.Net (Electronic Cultural Publishers)’ organization. He teaches Computer Art and Interface Aesthetics at the Academy of Art in Carrara.

One of the most utopian aims is the final overthrow of the economic model of consumerism. For any large business that takes advantage of the economy as it actually works today, this is a scary idea. Nevertheless, alternative ways for people to effectively network are starting to emerge, allowing them to share needs, goods, and time. It’s almost like a spontaneous reaction to the current pyramidal scheme of production > marketing > consumption > waste, and looks very promising for the future.

The first and probably most precious resource that people can share is time. A quite successful effort in the exchange of “free time” has emerged in Italy, mediated by public institutions, called La Banca del Tempo (The Bank of Time). You donate one hour of your time doing something useful for somebody else (such as teaching a foreign language, painting a wall, etc.) and in return you receive a reciprocal service from someone who’ll spend one hour doing something for you (cooking a cake for you, fixing your bike, etc). You can even ask for something specific. It works on on a “points-based” system: you get points every time you do something, and the points you accumulate enable you to request acts or things offered by others. It’s an invisible network that makes time free from a quantified economic value, testing a different type of economics. There are voluntary-based organisations in the USA and Europe ( to support this exchange and prevent abuse of it.

The free exchange of goods has also got some hardcore net savvy supporters. Why trash things in the cycle of consumption and waste? The Worldwide Freecycle Network is a network founded on two principles: exchange things for free and do it locally. It is built around mailing lists where people discuss objects they want to give or would like to have. It’s a surplus sharing, self-organised and spontaneous, and it’s working fine in many US cities and abroad (including Singapore, Tokyo, Sheffield, Vancouver, Melbourne, Adelaide, London, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore). On the high-tech side the Italian Hacklabs (the nation of scattered and squatted hacker laboratories) had always organised hardware exchanges, trading used and old pieces of computer hardware, often bringing back to life what amounts to a symbol of obsolete technology. Restricting the field to books and CDs Swappingtons is a community site that uses the same “points” mechanism. You give away a book or CD and then receive some points which let you ask for a CD or another book for the same amount of points.

More centred on serendipity is the BookCrossing practice, whose aim is to establish a free and ubiquitous worldwide library. The process consists of “releasing” a book you want to share with others in a public place, telling them where to get it. By using an ID system to label books, people can discover titles and check out other readers’ comments (by email sent to the ID owner of the book). Other participants can then pick up your book and continue the cycle. There are even some businesses based on community networks that want to share, not just to buy/sell trash. Think of eBay. Scrolling through its listings, anybody could find lots of goods that are almost free, but sold at symbolic prices. Similar to Swappingtons but more focused on borrowing stuff is the most recent web business of its kind: MediaChest, an online infrastructure that lets you share your personal collection of books, CDs, DVDs and games. It’s a sort of friend-of-a-friend (FoF) network for the borrowing of goods, a system to keep in touch with people through the same interests in certain cultural stuff.

All these efforts hint at a possible reshaping of consumer society into something new: a society that recycles, shares and donates. This is one the most appealing initiatives for a different type of economics – one aimed at connecting people, letting them share personal property (including their time), and sounding a death knell to the consumerist model.