In Search of an Alternate Economy

In Search of an Alternate Economy

I had dinner with SXSW buddy Britt Raybould last night, and during our conversation I finally put into words something that’s been on my mind: an “alternative economy” that I sense I’m being drawn into. This is the larger pattern behind trends like DIY, Social Media, Open Source, Crowd Sourcing, CSAs, NPR, non-profits, BarCamp, PodCamp, independent film and music, idling, global microbranding, the long tail, sustainability, and good old fashioned face-to-face. This is perhaps what the New Economy was supposed to be about, before the wave was hijacked by the Old Economy’s model for making a quick buck. In the implosion of 2000, lots of people re-evaluated their value systems amidst the smoldering ruins of their stock-optioned lives, and refocused on building community. My thought was that it might be possible to eschew the “old economy”, which is currently in shambles.

I don’t have much to say on this yet, but I wanted to stick this post up to see how it resonates. I’ve found a few other terms related to this:

  • Social Economy – between public and private economies, this embodies charities and non-profits.
  • Ethical Economies – I came across a blog post called “The political economy of peer production: Adam Arvidsson and the Ethical Economy”, which seems similar to what I’m investigating.

Anyone looking at anything similar?


  1. Dan Murray 14 years ago

    Pondering how to put more purpose into my blogging, tweeting, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…while maintaining a full-time+ job role.

    I have fuzzy thoughts about hybrid (1-2 year) platforms for building a larger consulting business while building/enhancing friendships, client relationships.  Somehow this all fits together along the lines (I think) of what your pondering David, but it hasn’t crystallized yet in my head.

  2. Michiel Hartman 14 years ago

    Like the post, really good to examine value in a digital world.
    But I think you should be really careful distinguishing between new and old economies. ‘The Economy’ has always described transactions. Before money, it were transactions in gold, shells or anything else. Then there was money, and now there is something as a social value. Call it popularity, call it ‘respect’, but that’s a new currency that’s traded besides money. It could be the same economy, but with just a different currency.

  3. Benjamin Goering 14 years ago

    I’m on vacation visiting my mother in Little Rock, and today I visited Central High School where all the ruckus about school segregation went down fifty years ago.

    What started out defending my position on the importance of states rights turned into a really interesting though about why greed/corruption seems to have permeated the American political system and special interests, etc. seem more common now than ever before.

    It actually relates to the list of various memes/fields in your post because I really feel that the blatant disregard for states’ rights in the Brown v Board decision (which involved a school in my home town of Topeka, KS) set a dangerous precedent by eschewing the importance of small group and individual decisions. Since then, the federal government has taken on all kinds of roles that I feel the founding fathers would have taken issue with, and because we have folks in Washington making blanket decisions that would normally have been made at a more local level (schools, family values, marriage, abortion, etc.), it’s hard for the politicians to really see their decisions as affecting real people back home. Because of this, I wonder if they’re more susceptible to influence by special interests, money, etc and perhaps are more willing to abandon the real issues in favor of raising money, getting reelected, etc. On the whole, I feel that all these things may have contributed to a shift away from the importance of the small group or individual.

    Now, the common thread I find so great in things like DIY, Social Media, Open Source, Crowd Sourcing, Bar Camp, independent art/music, establishing a personal brand, the long tail, and the good ol’ face to face ‘let’s get things done’ session is that they all place a particular importance on the individual, or at least emphasize that it doesn’t take big, bloated organizations to get really awesomely creative/artistic/innovative/profitable/global/exciting things done. It seems that the economic pendulum has been shifting away from the feelings/hopes/passion/capabilities/worth/value/spirit of the individual for the last 50 years. This may have been because of the increasingly involved federal government, or perhaps that phenomena was really just a result of something else. Regardless, all of the things that people like you and me get really excited about and the things that are becoming more and more mainstream are things that throw that pendulum back the other way HARD. The increasing ubiquity of the internet has resulted in an international opportunity for almost anyone to learn almost anything with enough resolve and time, and that may be the key to the ‘new’ economy/social system/globalized world that everyone feels is emerging but no one can really identify.

    Who knows? Let me just say that it’s a very exciting time to be a 19 year-old, or a free-thinking person of any age for that matter.

  4. Owen Marcus 14 years ago

    I think you are on to something; the evolution of personal/social/political/economic change is actually a quiet revolution of personal responsibility. I agree with Benjamin Goering, our governments, particularly the federal government have taken over. The but is – we let them along with other institutions.

    The quiet revolution began for me in the 70’s with holistic health. I learned that I was responsible for my health and I could change it, I could improve it. Today with the technology we are learning we with open information we can be informed, we can communication directly without going “through the church” of the day to have our own divine relationship.

    Knowledge and choice is power… we have it. We want more.

    With all revolutions, they begin before the first shot. This economic revolution began before our recession as you point out. It is paralleling and building on other revolutions. The last to see the synergistic effect of these multiple revolutions are the institutions that we are revolting against.

    You are connecting the dots within the economic context. Let’s connect the contexts.

  5. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Dan: Yah, I think we might be on similar wavelengths. From what you described, I thought that there are two systems that are sustained through different mechanisms…how to transition from one to the other?

    Michiel: Good point. When I say “the new economy”, I’m referencing the state of mind that existed around 1996-1998, when everyone thought that computers and globalization would usher in a golden age of growth. The DotCom era was the part I most remember, and in the collapse there was a lot of soul searching done that I think may have contributed to the current state of affairs. There is some kind of reconvergence going on, perhaps several, that is outside the quantitative measure of economy as you describe.

    Benjamin: That’s a great observation, that there’s an emphasis on the individual rather than feeling helpless before the corporation in all these memes. The emphasis also may be slipping away from money and more toward a different kind of fulfillment, at least in a certain audience.

    Owen: “A quiet revolution of personal responsibility”…yes! Coupled with the growing ability of the individual to create global reaction? And perhaps the ability to find like-minded people with complementary means of production?

  6. Amanda Pingel 14 years ago

    The original definition of “subversive” was from Latin meaning “under” and “change”, and simply meant “Change from below” (as opposed to change implemented by senators or generals).

    One theme of current times is that technology has once again allowed subversion to become feasible.  You don’t have to get elected to office to change the world, you just have to create an amazing YouTube video that gets people interested.  You don’t have to sit around waiting for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to do something, you can get together with a thousand people on Facebook and do something yourself.  The “new economy” isn’t about “important people”, it’s about us.  Real people, on the ground, doing things that matter.

  7. Stephen Smith 14 years ago

    The economy is definitely changing, and has been for a while. More and more people are “going Galt” as best they can – in order to hide or protect their income from confiscatory taxes and intrusive government regulation.

    I suspect that things (like unemployment, mortgage defaults, etc) are going to get worse for a while yet before they get better. Those that are prepared to be agile, flexible, and willing to relocate/telecommute in order to make a living will get through it okay. The rest, people that are stuck in the old mindset of the old economy are going to get smushed.

  8. WildCherry 14 years ago

    I think one of the reasons we come up empty-handed when we cast for new economic models to work with this emerging ethos is precisely because this ethos is not built around profit as motivation/expected outcome of effort. It may be that if we embrace this new ethos big time, our need for ‘earning’ will go down. After all, the last 50 years saw us work more and more hours for the sake of aquisition. When we Reduce, Reuse & Recycle, generally reduce our carbon footprint and take an active role in a society that shares and exchanges rather than sells, knowledge, goods and services, our need for money is reduced…and so therefore are the number of hours we need to be able to clock as ‘earning’ in the traditional sense. I think it’s worth paying close attention to alternative revenue streams and unexpected and difficult-to-quantify benefits that result from the ‘unpaid’ work we do, these are the keys to how our new economy are going to evolve.

  9. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Amanda Pingel: Nice etymology lesson! I like your statement that the new economy isn’t about people, but it’s about us. But it has ALWAYS been about us; generals and CEOs need people to effect their strategies and buy their goods. The means of attracting people to a cause, though, has become much more available, and the secrets of broadcast leadership are becoming more accessible to everyday people who are, as you say, are doing things on the ground that matter. Instead of feeding upwards into a few hungry mouths, we instead are starting to feed each other more.

    Stephen: The old economy offers a deal as old as time: security in exchange for fealty. I don’t think we will ever see a shift away from this for the majority of people who are perfectly happy living their lives. What changes is the notion of security and fealty, and how that creates an economic symbiosis that allows both the system and its denizens to flourish. If there’s anyone who’s gotta look out, it’s us, because the second deal as old as time is the proclivity of the system to marginalize, demonize, and eliminate threats to the continuing mental satisfaction of its denizens. Someone with resources and power will find the right deal to strike, and people will make the transition to the new old economic deal. This is what actually creates the protective environment in which we have the luxury of crafting our alternative economy, I think. Whether it has the legs to become the dominant economy, though, is something that someone else will comment on three generations from now, say in 2110. In the meantime, I’m up for the challenge! :-)

    WildCherry: I think that’s a powerful observation…as we reduce our fear of being bored and replace consumption with exchange of non-monetary assets, what will happen? I wonder what the minimum unit is to make this sustainable. I’ll have to find some intentional communities in my local area to see what they are doing.

  10. Fabian 14 years ago

    A very interesting topic and a lot of insightful comments on that. Thanks for sharing!
    I am very interested in the connection of the different trends you mention, David. Somehow they are related, but it’s hard to pin down… probably due to the myriad influences from all the people participating in it. There’s no grand government plan behind it, but it’s “us”, like Amanda wrote. So in the end, it’s kind of anarchistic, maybe an on-the-fly creation of mash-up economics that combine the need to make money to survive with the desire to bring along change and deliver value to other people.

  11. Stephen Smith 14 years ago

    Security in exchange for fealty worked for a long time, but security is going away. We have been seeing it for years now, when companies lay off expensive senior employees in order to hire younger/cheaper staff – or simply automate jobs out of existence. (For example – I am pretty sure almost no one takes dictation any more, let alone having an entire department of people to transcribe recorded letters.)

    In addition, the current economic downturn leads employers to focus very tightly on spending, many of them are cutting back on staffing levels, even at the risk of lessened customer service. A corollary to this is the rise of the freelance/consultant market, where people work on limited-time projects and then are out the door. These people know they have no security, so there is no fealty.

    The economy and the nature of the workspace are changing in unpredictable ways, and while there will probably always be a place for some workers who are satisfied with just getting by in a dead-end job, I am predicting a profound change in the baseline. How much of it will be the current alternative economy and how much will be the old-fashioned style is harder to guess.

    Bruce Sterling (Distraction) and Cory Doctorow (Makers) have taken a look at this dilemma in fiction books, both of which I highly recommend as thought-exercises.

  12. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Fabian: Yah…something’s going on, but it’s hard to gauge who it’s affecting!

    Stephen: It will be interesting to see what happens. The definition of security changes, of course, depending on who you ask, but I think the DESIRE for it is fairly constant. People seek it out because they don’t want to have to worry all the time, and they’re willing to buy into it with whatever they have.

  13. starpause 14 years ago

    Both terms remind me a bit of Wuffie, the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.