Reciprocity and Stigmergy


During the Economics and the Commons Conference I gave a seven minute talk in the labor stream with title »Direct reciprocity versus indirect reciprocity and stigmergic polycentrism as new phenomena of socialized, needs oriented production processes«. Wow. Since this title was given to me and seems to be quite complex, I approached the topic by clarifying the notions within that title. Here is my notepad, the talk was given freely, and below you’ll find some additional remarks.

Direct reciprocity:

  • many commoners are familiar with that
  • it means direct social relationship to people to do things together or to communicate
  • being able to have direct or indirect social relationships is not a special thing since human beings are societal by nature

Indirect reciprocity:

  • addresses the aspect of societal mediation
  • means, that you don‘t use immediate personal relations, but mediated: there are persons or structures or both between you and other persons or processes
  • this is meant, when we are talking about the division of labor or tasks
  • indirect reciprocity increases the opportunities of the people enormously, precisely: exponentially, due to the network effect
  • human history is the history of unfolding the power of indirect reciprocity
  • however: this ideal scetch is not the whole truth, because there are a lot of societal restrictions and limitations: money (have/have not), market, state, domination, alienation, etc.

Stigmergic polycentrism:

  • is a commons way of unleashing the power of indirect reciprocity (thesis)
  • polycentrism: is well known from Elinor Ostrom as way to organize huge commons in form of commons of commons or nested commons
  • stigmergy: is hint-based task-sharing
  • you leave signs and other people use them to start new tasks or continue on already started tasks
  • example wikipedia: red links signal, that there is an article which wants to be written, because people already put a link on a word pointing to that yet not written article
  • stigmergy works only voluntarily, it is a kind of self-attributed doing the things I really want to do
  • stigmergy scales best in huge diverse systems, where the possibility to find a matching between a task and a person doing the task is big
  • the stigmergic law is: given enough people you will find a nerd for every task which has to be done

Summing up:

  • commons polycentrically organized and stigmergically mediated release the power of indirect reciprocity which has never been seen in history before – this is the right way of scaling up
  • since this mediation process is need-based alien goals like making more money from money are driven out of human activities, because they are useless and only resource consumptive: another type of mediation is simply not needed

Remarks after my talk: It seems, that Silke Helfrich in her introductory conference talk has a different meaning of reciprocity in mind. She wants to emphasize, that in commons the balance of giving and taking does occur on the level of the commons itself, and not on the individuell level like in commodity relationships. The latter is usually called equivalent exchange. Although she is completely right, I feel that she confuses or mixes reciprocity and exchange. Primarily, reciprocity has nothing to do with exchange, but only describes the relationship between people. Direct reciprocity means face-to-face relationship between persons, and indirect reciprocity means mediated relationship between persons, where other persons (or structures) mediate between those two. In my talk I referenced to the small world phenomenon saying that each person is related to each other person on the world via four inbetween steps (which has nothing to do with exchange).

In my view, it is very imortant not to confuse reciprocity with exchange, because getting rid of money and thus of exchange does not mean diminishing reciprocity — on the contrary!


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