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!Kung: Banking Social Relationships


As social networks emerge as the dominant framework for message traffic on the Network, the question of “monetization” is repeated again and again like a drum beat. There seems to be an expectation that someone will figure out how to bind the advertising subsidized broadcast/print model on to the message flow and/or the social graph itself. In order to persist, these social networks, at some point, will need to generate free cash flow (capital).

Money (capital) is the currency of the industrial age– in a sense, it is the equivalent of Democritus’s atom.

The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void space.

In the age of mechanical reproduction, capital is the smallest indivisible body from which everything else can be composed. But as Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media (1964), transitions between cultural structures can occur quickly:

A tribal and feudal hierarchy of the traditional kind collapses quickly when it meets any hot medium of the mechanical, uniform, and repetitive kind. The medium of money or wheel or writing, or any other form of specialist speed-up of exchange and information, will serve to fragment a tribal structure. Similarly, a very much greater speed-up, such as occurs with electricity, may serve to restore a tribal pattern of intense involvement such as took place with the introduction of radio in Europe, and is now tending to happen as a result of TV in America. Specialist technologies detribalize. The non-specialist electric technology retribalizes.

As we stand along the frontier of a new kind of retribalization, we look at the currency in our pockets and wonder what the exchange rate might be. Celebrities and the rich enter the social networks hoping the dollar capital they’ve accumulated can be exchanged for social capital. The metaphor of “capital” has replaced the metaphor the “atom.”

In today’s New York Times, Claudia Dreifus has a conversation with athropologist Pauline Wiessner about the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert. Dreifus’s first question about how the !Kung survive the harsh and volatile conditions of the the desert resurfaces a tribal form of currency. Here’s Wiessner’s answer:

They (the !Kung) have an intricate system of banking their social relationships and calling on them when times get rough. The system is maintained through gift giving, storytelling and visiting. It works like insurance does in our culture. …The Bushmen used storytelling to keep feelings for distant persons alive. The gifts are their way of telling the receiver, “I’ve held you in my heart.” Over the years, I saw this repeated many, many times. It would turn out that the !Kung spent as much as three months a year visiting “exchange partners,” and this was the key to their survival.

The social relationship was a reminder to the exchange partner that they had a kind of contract to call on each other in times of need. Wiessner believes that the invention of social networks– the storing of relationships for a time when you need them– is what facilitated the eventual migration of humans from Africa to the rest of the world.

Cory Doctorow posited Whuffie as a replacement for capital. In trying to think and speak about the kind of exchange and storing of tribal relationship value, we rely heavily on the language of capital, currency, purchase and banking. These are the atomic elements of our industrial age framework for understanding. The Gesture Bank was the first effort to formalize this set of ideas in the nomenclature of the previous era. These tentative efforts at articulation should be thought of as what McLuhan called a probe. They are by design incomplete and present gaps and interfaces that invite participation. Gillmor moves the ball forward with his exploration of dynamic links. Arrington probes the purchase that retweet will attain. The probe continues its mission.

There’s a poetic enterprise that must be undertaken as well. New metaphors, stories and music must be forged to tell ourselves the story of what is happening to us. Not in the future, but right now. McLuhan was also eloquent on this:

Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.


  1. Simon Edhouse | May 26th, 2009 | 6:05 pm

    Cliff, would you class yourself as a kind of “probe” too? (using McLuhan's definition) – If you are, you are perhaps 'probe +' or 'an insightful probe'…

  2. cgerrish | May 27th, 2009 | 11:35 am

    McLuhan's idea of probes is very interesting, they aren't personal. A couple of quotes: 'I have no devotion to any of my probes as if they were sacred opinions. I have no proprietary interest in my ideas and no pride of authorship as such. You have to push ideas to an extreme, you have to probe.' 'A good probe is hard to exhaust. It does not surrender everything at first encounter…'

  3. Simon Edhouse | May 28th, 2009 | 3:11 am

    …not wanting to anthropomorphize the inanimate.. but perhaps: 'a meme with a mission'?