Adam Arvidsson: Value in Ethical Economy. Part Three: Can there be currencies of esteem?

Part three of the landmark essay by Adam Arvidsson, first published at IDC. Go the IDC version for the references.


Traditional systems of honor and esteem have worked in close-knit communities. Scaling them towards the contemporary information economy will necessarily entail making esteem transferable between different communities with different value standards. What is needed to accomplish this is a general medium of exchange, which like monetary exchange value can guarantee the transferability to values. Such a medium would be different from traditional currencies however:

The amount of esteem an actor can acquire thus has a non-linear relation to his or her measurable performance. This is mainly because esteem is a multifaceted affective quality that originates in subjective judgment that cannot be entirely rationalized: it is an irrational quality in the Weberian sense of that term. So any objective measure of esteem- the first precondition for making it tradable- could not depart from some common measurable standard (like labor time)- but would had to consist in an aggregation of a multitude of subjective judgments. It would be a sort of bottom-up currency, where values are defined by the continuous input of public ratings.

Two factors speak for the possibility for the emergence of such general media of exchange of esteem. One factor is the increasing transparency and visibility of social action. The flip-side to increasing surveillance is in this sense the possibility for a new ethics: everything you do will be potentially visible to everyone. One’s public person could thus form a common point of reference that unites estimates of esteem from different communities. Personality becomes a generalized medium of communication. The second factor is the socialization of the means of organization in networked ICTs. The establishment of representative money from the Sumer and onwards has been contingent on the administrative capacity of the state apparatus controlling the money supply. Now such administrative capacity is at the hands of virtually everyone, and consequently we already see the emergence of alternative currencies like LETS or Open Money. Some of these currencies could be esteem-based. Indeed the world’s second largest currency, air-miles, already is.[6] Essentially air-miles is a measure of the affective appreciation that an airline has of you as loyal customer, and they can be traded for a wide range of gifts: free trips, upgrades, car rentals etc. (Again air-miles do not have an objective exchange value, strictly speaking, since their relation to possible gifts is subjectively and variably determined by the airline itself. Relationship should rather be understood as that of a stable gift economy. I give my loyalty to the airline. I can reasonably expect the airline to give me a certain kind of gifts in return.) Slashdot Karma is another one, quantifying the esteem you have accumulated by contributing to various blogs, by systematically integrating a multitude of subjective ratings of your performance.

With the likely proliferation of such alternative currencies two scenarios are possible. One, a new common standard of value emerges. One platform or tool for calculating esteem becomes hegemonic, on that platform a number of generally accepted values emerge. The likelihood of the emergence of such a new common value system is supported by what seems to be a common value-structure among the knowledge workers who are the primary users of ICTs: a combination of post-materialistic ideas of self-realization, a quest for atuthenticity and sustainability with a planetary environmental consciousness.[7] Indeed a number of alternative currencies that measure esteem in terms of precisely these values are emerging, like the The Interra Project, sponsored by VISA founder Dee Hock: “a payment card and transaction platform, that rewards customers for purchasing from locally owned and sustainable businesses, donates automatically to community organizations and facilitates connections to like minded members in a self organizing manner.” One would thus acquire esteem points in relation to one’s performance in relation to these common values. Such esteem-points would make one the recipient of different kinds of gifts.”

1 Comment Adam Arvidsson: Value in Ethical Economy. Part Three: Can there be currencies of esteem?

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.