Over the course of the last week, I had three fascinating conversations with strangers.
First there was an Ethiopian taxi driver at SXSW in Austin. He lamented leaving home after people were shot down for not being communist. I thought of the Act of Killing, of people being killed for opposite, yet similarly arbitrary, reasons. The ultimate madness in killing for ideology. The taxi driver didn’t like capitalism either. “It kills you, too – by making you work like a slave,” I remember him telling me, “but I would rather be killed that way than be shot.”
In the taxi arriving to New York, I was driven by a woman not much older than me, from Egypt, who grew up in Queens. It was past 2am, and she said she would begin work again at 6am the next morning, as she does everyday, performing autopsies. She has four jobs, but her dream is to do CSI full-time. (I thought of the TV show, and indeed it’s movies that inspired her. I thought of the Act of Killing again. That movies have inspired real-life role-playing of heroes and villains.) It’s tough living in New York, she said calmly – proudly almost, like that’s a simple inevitability.
Then, Monday night, in Washington DC, after a fascinating day with the UN foundation, I visited the White House on the way home. White snow on white. Opposite, a man sat inside a little makeshift tent. His signs read: SILENCE IS A WAR CRIME … WHITE HOUSE … 24 HRS A DAY … SINCE 1981. The longest protest in America. That’s older than the internet. That’s older than me. I thought of all the people who have sat committed to that tent, in sunshine or snow. I asked what he was protesting: nuclear weapons? That, and lots of things, he said. Mainly capitalism and our system – how it doesn’t work for so many people, how it only really serves the rich.
“You are anti-capitalist,” a man told me in a dinner conversation last week. I had just explained to him Impossible.com, the social business I founded to encourage a gift culture through a social network, which I have been traveling America to talk about.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
That night I found myself dwelling on the point. I am not anti-capitalist or indeed anti-anything; political systems are as imperfect and flawed as they may be helpful. They are structures, made by us – subject, like us, to entropy. The commitment to any singular ideology is dangerous.
Rather, I believe in values: honesty, openness, fairness, freedom. And freedom is something for which I understand the web to offer huge potential. The web is open, universal and decentralized. A structure that enables whole new social dialogues and ideas to exist and function, in ways never before thought possible. Voluntary systems we can opt in and out of, allowing us – perhaps – to co-exist between multiple possibilities, simultaneously and to meet different needs.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with the world wide web’s inventor, MIT’s Tim Berners-Lee, at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Reflecting on Impossible, he said that while the web was not inherently designed to “work better for altruistic things ... it gives us a choice for what we build on top. It gives us the chance to start again.”
My vision for Impossible – for what is possible – is rooted in the philosophy that underpinned my Cambridge thesis, “Impossible Utopias”, which was published this week. In it, I tried to retrieve a concept of utopia (etymology: “no place” / “good place”) as the ever-present existence of possibility by which we are all individually – collectively – empowered.
The first manifestation of this idea, for me, has centered around the gift economy, a concept written about mostly by anthropologists but that the British government understands as having a bigger presence in the UK than GDP. The difference between the gift paradigm and more typical exchange paradigms sits largely in the rumour of reciprocity.
In exchange paradigms, return is quantified and direct. In giving paradigms, reciprocity exists but it is generalized and not quantified. When something is done for “the other” – for the act of giving – a subtle bond is understood to be created between the two people. And that action is understood to trigger reciprocity. Imagine what happens at scale: social cohesion.
So I deeply believe in the social value a gift paradigm might offer, and set out on this seemingly impossible journey to build tools to encourage one. Again, and again, I told people about the idea and they have gave to it – time and resources, from legal work to the development itself. I have been blown away by people’s generosity, and so it has become, on many levels, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have built a social network that allows people to post “wishes” – things they may want, need or offer, which are then shown to other people on the platform based on location, on existing friendship groups, and through matching content (i.e. #cooking). The only currency is an abundant one: saying thank you, which is always public.
Late last week, after three years of sleepless nights, gifts, favors, tears and laughter developing the concept, Impossible launched in the US. I sat in New York’s Washington Square park, reading through my Impossible feed. Listening to a man play the piano in the centre, distant drumming running in and out of sync behind. Leaves moving through the light gently. People listening, talking, clapping. And I paused and found myself reflecting on a dream part manifest, on utopias arriving to move again, and on the reason I have always loved this park: for bringing strangers together.
This article was published by the Guardian in 2014.