Free online exchange, death threat to consumerism


by Alessandro Ludovico

One of the most utopic aim is the definitive defeating of the consumerism model. This is really a scaring perspetive for any big-size business based on how economic actually works. But there are some new and efficient efforts starting to develop alternative practices that network people together, letting them share needs, goods and time. It’s an almost spontaneous reacting to the pyramidal scheme of production > marketing > consume > waste that sound very promising for a better future.
The first, and probably most precious resource that is possible to share is time, so a quite successfull effort is the the exchange of free time. In Italy this practice, mediated by public institutions is called ‘La Banca del Tempo (the Bank of Time)’. You donate one hour of your time doing something useful for somebody else (teach a foreign language, paint a wall, etc.) and you’ll receive something by someone else who’ll spend one hour too (cooking a cake for you, fixing your bike, etc). You’d even ask for something specific. It works on on a ‘points’ based system: you get points everytime you do something, and your points amount let you 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 organization in USA and Europe that just support this exchange preventing it from abuse. The free exchange of goods got also some hardcore net savvy supporters. Why trash things in the wasting cycle? The Worldwide Freecycle Network is a net that founds on two principles: exchange things for free and do it locally. It is built around mailing lists where people tell about objects they want to give or would like to have. It’s a surplus sharing, self-organized and spontaneous, and it’s working fine in many U.S. cities and abroad (Singapore, Tokyo, Sheffield, Vancouver, Melbourne, Adelaide, London, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, now). On the high-tech side the Italian Hacklabs (the nation scattered and squatted hacker laboratories) had always organized some hardware exchange, trading used and old pieces of computer hardware, often bringing back to life what is the symbol of obsolete technology. Restricting the field to books and cds Swappingtons is a community site, that uses the same ‘points’ mechanism, awarding people who give this kind of stuff to others. You give a book/cd and then receive some points, that let you ask a cd or another book for the same amout of points. More spontaneous and fate-related is the BookCrossing practice whose aim is to establish a free and ubiquitous worldwide library. It consists in ‘releasing’ a book you want tho share with anybody else in public places, telling people where to get it. Labelling books with their ID system let people find titles and to know comments by other readers (by email sent to the ID owner) who pick up and then release again your book. There are even some business based on network of communities that want to share, not just to buy/sell/trash. Think at Ebay.


Scrolling its listings anybody’d find lots of goods that are almost free, but sold at symbolic prices. And similary to Swappingtons, but more focused on borrowing stuff is of the most recent web business of this kind: MediaChest [], an online infrastructure that let 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 unknown people through the same interest in some kind of cultural stuff.
All these efforts draw a possible reshaping of the consumer society in something new, that recycles, share and donate. This is one the most appealing starts for a different economics, aimed at connecting people, letting them share personal properties (including some time of their life) and stating a death threat to the broadcasted consumer model.

September, 2004.