Thoughts on the Gift Economy

Sunset view from Tank Hill, sun lighting up windows in east bay hills, Corona Heights in foreground.

Sunset view from Tank Hill, sun lighting up windows in east bay hills, Corona Heights in foreground.

Adriana and I went on a long walk Sunday in search of two trails previously unknown to me, written about by Gary Kamiya in his masterful “Cool Gray City of Love” (highly recommended!). The photos accompanying this otherwise unrelated essay are my favorites from our walk. The essay below is something I wrote in response to my colleagues from the Giftival (previous post) who asked me to elaborate.

Funny what you find in random windows in San Francisco.

Funny what you find in random windows in San Francisco.

The gift is apparently a concept that carries a lot of weight. People use it in all kinds of contexts and it can hold many different meanings, and even refer to quite different things. To contemplate the notion of a “gift economy” first requires some clarity about what is being discussed.

Some people take the notion of a gift and connect it to the feelings they’ve had at receiving a gift, usually some kind of gratitude and/or surprise. It doesn’t take too long before this perception morphs further and some people begin to relive moments where they were given something that they unconsciously took for granted, and later realized they SHOULD have felt grateful for it. For those who are religiously inclined, the concept of gift quickly becomes a pivot for giving thanks to God for life itself, or to Gaia/Earth, or if more secularly minded, to give thanks to other people in one’s life for the “gifts” of food, water, even air.

I think framing the idea of a “gift economy” in these highly subjective and personal ways, often fundamentally spiritual, makes it almost impossible to face up to the enormous challenge of posing the logic of the gift AGAINST the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is an amazingly adaptive and complex system of social organization based on class, private property, and exchange knit together in a productive regime that is meant to grow in perpetuity. To pose the gift as an alternative to this runs into immediate problems, since it tends to reinforce the starting point of private property that can be “given” by one to another. (As I type this, in the background on the television is a commercial for Christmas shopping centered on a character they’ve dubbed “The Gifter”—a woman who engages in a frenzy of shopping to give dozens of gifts during the holiday season). Moreover, the notion of the gift also tends to direct our attention to the goods and services being given (and received), rather than the social relationships that are both necessary prerequisites and logical outcomes of a culture of free sharing. Continue reading Thoughts on the Gift Economy


Published simultaneously at

I attended a unique event in Istanbul, Turkey from October 11-14, 2013, called “Giftival,” a neologism combining gift and festival.

The front door of our building for Gifival, on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey.

The front door of our building for Gifival, on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey.

Typical scene on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey...

Typical scene on Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey…

The choking morning on the same street... the only time vehicles are on there.

The choking morning on the same street… the only time vehicles are on there.

The event brought together people who are focusing on gift economy and gift culture as part of their core work in the world, arriving from an abundance and security perspective. Attendees came from far and wide: seven or eight from India, a half dozen from the U.S., various individuals from Nigeria, Brazil, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Mexico, England, Canada, Czech Republic, Holland, France, a Swiss-German family living on a commune in Portugal, an Australian living at Findhorn in Scotland, and another 8-10 from various parts of Turkey. Pretty evenly divided between men and women, and we spanned the ages with two children ages 1 and 2 to a few older than 65. It was a very interesting bunch! Folks from a local timebank called Zumbara were instrumental in calling for and hosting Giftival, and their hospitality and generosity will be remembered by all of us. We were housed in nearby hostels and hotels, and fed delicious homemade meals for lunch and dinner every day.There were about 35 attendees at any given moment, though we had an open session on the Sunday afternoon when another 40-50 locals came in and joined us in a series of breakouts and then group discussion, followed by a potluck dinner.

incredibly beautiful sky over Holland during flight to Turkey...

incredibly beautiful sky over Holland during flight to Turkey…

Our meeting place was in an old 19th century building on the main pedestrian boulevard called Istiklal, so we were four floors above the constant hum of thousands of passing pedestrians and a funny repetitive accordion riff that appeared regularly during the afternoons, providing an extra soundtrack for our thoughts and discussions. Going there in the mornings we had to weave between dozens of delivery and garbage trucks, the air choking with their exhaust, but by the time we’d leave during the afternoon or in the evening, the street was back to being a throbbing public promenade. Side streets and alleys too are full of people on foot, and all the restaurants and bars are crowded with people of all types, making this part of Istanbul a super magnetic urban space. After we closed down on Monday evening, we were treated to a boat ride from the Golden Horn out into the Bosphorus, northward towards the Black Sea, and then back to the Istanbul shore, coursing the dark waters between Europe and Asia under starlit skies on a cool but pleasant evening. For us visitors, the environment was enchanting.

We were in the top floor of this building.

We were in the top floor of this building.

The view from our fourth floor window overlooking the Bosphorus...

The view from our fourth floor window overlooking Istiklal and the Bosphorus…

For the locals who called us together, the intensity of the recent events around Gezi Park was still quite fresh, and their compelling descriptions during our first morning together quickly penetrated any jet lag or uncertain distance we may have held. To hear about tens of thousands bringing food in a 15-minute period to a kilometers-long “table” spread down the middle of Istiklal (where major multinational brand stores and boutiques predominate) touched us all and produced a palpable excitement, even several months later. Combined with the other stories of amazing events, unexpected serendipities, spontaneous solidarities, and more, we could feel in the room the “eros effect” that had been so present during those summer days, and was still lending its long tailing residue to our gathering in a surprising but delightful way. At one point during the protests the government told mothers to go and get their children from Gezi to save them from attack, and instead the mothers by the thousands converged on Gezi with food and confronted the police themselves…. some of our friends here said they never ate better than during those heady days. In fact, they even talked about falling in love with everyone in the streets. Continue reading Giftivalve

Hightailing (and Highlining) it through History in New York

Taking off in the fog and suddenly there was the city!

Taking off in the fog and suddenly there was the city!

Just finished a whirlwind visit to New York City where I saw old friends and popped in to visit four separate historical museums. I got extremely lucky with the weather: sunny and high 70s with a nice breeze the whole time I was in town. It was a bit of an odd trip, scheduled at the last minute to send Adriana off to her month at Blue Mountain Center (where I’ve been myself twice previously—an incredible experience of generosity and support for writers) and to prevent losing about 30,000 about-to-expire miles on one of the frequent flyer programs I’m enrolled in.

Since I’m off to Berlin at the end of October for a “History From Below” conference of DIY historians, I thought I should do some extra research in New York in preparation for that confab. I’ll talk about what I saw in the order I did them in, starting with the City Museum of New York’s exhibit on “Activist New York,” then the Museum of the Chinese in America in Chinatown, then the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, and finally the recently opened Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in the East Village.

Like San Francisco, there's a frenzy of building in New York too, the global city saga...

Like San Francisco, there’s a frenzy of building in New York too, the global city saga…

With all the work I’ve been doing over the years with Shaping San Francisco and our archive at, I have thought a lot about how to present historical information. But I can’t honestly say I’ve settled on any particular formula that feels like it always works. Sometimes I want great depth and complexity, other times a photo essay tells the story best, and then there are times when an oral history clip, either video or audio, can really bring a story to life. Other times such clips can be weirdly trivial and uninteresting, so there’s not a sure-fire way to approach these things.

Similarly, there’s been a discussion about a Museum of the City of San Francisco going on for years now. The project as it is so far constituted is controlled by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (though I’ve heard rumors that they may be breaking it apart again after some five or maybe even 10 years of not succeeding as a shotgun marriage) and is projected to open someday at the Old Mint at 5th and Mission. But the SFMHS has not been able to advance the project beyond the drawing board and some elaborate but unrealized plans drawn up by well-paid consultants. Having seen the plans going back some years now, I was never very excited about what they were going to do, and definitely wondered about how well it would work, how likely it would be to engage and provoke people to think historically, or might it not be just another cable-car-and-sourdough-bread-on-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge disneyfied history?

Meanwhile, Richard Everett and Amy Hosa at the San Francisco National Maritime Museum have created a marvelous mini-museum of San Francisco history, called “The Waterfront” (free and open to the public at the Visitor Center in the corner of the Argonaut Hotel at Jefferson and Hyde), which does a fine job of telling the central story of San Francisco’s rise and development along its waterfront, which encompasses a great deal of the City’s basic economic and social history as a result. I actually wonder why we need another history museum, even though I can imagine many more historical threads to unwind in other narratives. In any case, my skepticism notwithstanding, I often find museums flat and dull and pointless, if not actively reinforcing the worst clichés and falsehoods that tend to pass for history in our amnesiac society. That I found “The Waterfront” so engaging and well-informed, informative and smart, saved the idea of museums for me, to some extent.


yeah, I admit it...

yeah, I admit it…

So in New York I went out looking at these four different institutions to see what I would learn from them, both in terms of the histories they’re presenting, but also how they’re presenting them, how they’re engaging in basic historiography. A good friend told me about the “Activist New York” exhibit after he visited it a month ago and I went hoping to find it inspiring. But something about it went flat for me soon after I started wandering through it. It’s all in one big room, divided into more than a half dozen alcoves. In each there are artifacts, huge photos on the walls, displays highlighting characters who participated in the movements being documented, and small kiosks in the middle of the floor where you can connect to current organizations still campaigning on similar issues. There was a section on women’s rights and suffrage, a section on the proletarian literature movement of the 1930s, the labor movement through the years, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement, the bicycling movement of the past few decades, the urban and architectural preservation movement (with a focus on fighting Robert Moses in NYC), and of course the Civil Rights movement and its connection to the original abolitionists; there was even a display on the “Conservative Party of New York” and its so-called activism.  Continue reading Hightailing (and Highlining) it through History in New York