The Altruistic Wallet
Modelling a gift economy for the global village
The Altruistic Wallet is a digital wallet that works like any other wallet except that you can’t spend its contents on yourself, only on someone else. Or more specifically, on a project that has been vetted and green-lighted by the network. It can also contain more than just money.
The conundrum and the predicament
What if society was built on a financial system that supported democracy and sustained the commons instead of limiting the former and expropriating the latter? What might an economic system look like where monetary profit was not the ultimate goal of the game but instead sharing, well-being, sustainability and self-realization?
An impossible fantasy according to many a student of contemporary economics, educated on the axiom that it is a naturally evolved system. A result of free interactions and human nature rather than a game designed with the purpose of accumulating symbolic wealth. But the fact is that our current global economy has been designed by a handful of highly influential institutions, whatever their origins. It is a game with a set of rules designed with a wealth extraction parameter at the core which leads to large imbalances over time and systematic collapses once the concentration of wealth gets sufficiently lopsided. Something the game of monopoly demonstrates with all the clarity one could wish for. Indeed, the game was originally designed to demonstrate this very purpose, a fact that ironically seems to be completely lost on most players.
To be fair, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Hoarding of wealth became an option once our migrating hunter-gatherer ancestors were outcompeted by our stationary farming ancestors. Kings and emperors and their ilk have honed this craft, an ability to control resources being a prerequisite for their position in the first place. When the extraction of resources from the common pool grew too extreme, the result was more often than not a collapse. A new order would rise, a new imbalance would grow beyond the manageable and the cycle would repeat, as is the nature of cycles. We repeat the same mistake until we learn our lesson, and this seems to be a very difficult lesson to learn. Perhaps because this particular class tends to span a few generations, at the very least.
The point of this meander is that our economy is a cultural phenomenon, a human invention, a story. It may be born out of a behaviour that we to a degree share with our simian cousins, but it is a derivative of nature rather than a pure law of economic nature in itself, comparable to a law of physics. It is a derivative in that we could give it different parameters and rules and we would, most likely, arrive at a different result. Of more practical importance, we have arrived at a point in our technological evolution where entirely new concepts are possible to both imagine, design and deploy. The acceptance of the need to shift into something new also seems more widespread than ever.
Poverty, in both relative and absolute terms, is no longer relegated to rural subsistence farmers and dwellers in cardboard and tin roof shacks springing up around the gated wealth of a prosperous few in distant cities far from the strongholds of empire. The traditional bastions of success in the west are in decay, informal settlements in the shape of tents are popping up and spreading out in places unthinkable a mere decade ago. The cost and consequences of unbalanced resource extraction move ever closer to the centre and are now at its doorstep, in the most visceral of ways.
The imbalance in the system has become so extreme that any potential deleveraging is likely to be far too little and far too late. The old system is falling apart, despite efforts to keep the scheme alive through artificial liquidity, to maintain the impression of prosperity. Because let's be honest, impressions count a lot more than facts, at least in the short run. But reality will inevitably catch up. In the siren song of the spreadsheet the assets and liabilities all match up, but in reality, the liabilities are rocks waiting to tear the hull apart. The remaining available assets are rapidly being extracted from what could have been democratically governed commons in order to meet shareholders’ dividend expectations and upper management bonus aspirations. We seem to be hurtling towards the mother of all crashes, the economy now being a global one.
Homo economicus revised
The theory of homo economicus, the perfectly rational individual basing actions entirely on perceived personal gain seems to be falling out of fashion for the best of reasons — its entire lack of foundation in empirical data. Though rationality as the sole foundation for transactional behaviour in humans was probably never taken too seriously by anyone outside neoclassical economics, broader studies of human motivation seem to point in a very different direction. Interestingly, and perhaps speaking to a deeper, more intuitive rationality, what we lack in the area of deductive reasoning we make up for through being social creatures that genuinely care about each other. After all, for all those years before money was invented, we must have had some reason to transact, or at least share resources to achieve common goals. Perhaps such contemporary concepts as money and profit even serve as distractions from this deeper motivation that kept us together, as tribes, in good and bad times alike. That allowed us not only to get along but to build some fairly complex societies that exceeded the Dunbar digits with an impressive margin.
Naturally, one could argue that what is good for my neighbour is good for me is ultimately rooted in personal gain, but as long as this gain is achieved through cooperation and sharing, it makes little difference in operational terms. As evolutionary biologists point out, it is our exceptional ability to cooperate that made us the apex predator, despite physical features that should place us somewhere mid-range in the food chain. This ability seems to be evolutionarily linked to our socialising ability, a survival of the friendliest rather than the fittest, as Rutger Bregman puts it in his recent book Humankind.
The question then is if we had a different economic system, one geared towards network cooperation rather than exploitative competition, would it be possible for us to transcend the role of predator, a trait that seems very much ingrained with our contemporary version of global capitalism, and become the apex custodian? To be givers before we are takers, regenerators rather than extractors? Such a shift does not seem to run contrary to our nature, at least. In fact, it might be more in line with the spirit of our species than we think, if such a thing can be said to exist.
Research tells us that giving feels good. Rationality suggests it feels good for a reason. The reason would be that it makes us safer, and more likely to survive in an unpredictable and often hostile environment. Because despite all of our individual achievements, the world remains a dangerous place. The threats might not be sabre-toothed tigers but rather threats like imminent mortgage foreclosure due to the ungraspable turbulence of the larger economy, resulting in the inability to shelter oneself and one's family. To the soon-to-be foreclosed primate with an insufficient credit rating, one threat is as threatening as another.
This general insecurity comes with externalized costs that are difficult to measure, but that we know are out there. Who knows how many civilization-changing inventions are never brought to fruition because the human in question is too busy trying to survive on three jobs at minimum wage to have any spare time to do anything else but make ends meet? More sinister than this, how many potential geniuses are biologically prohibited from attaining their intellectual summit due to malnutrition and other forms of abuse in the early years of their brain’s development, which could easily have been avoided in a better system? How many of the over three million children who die from starvation each and every year might have become great leaders of industry or civil society, had industry or society allocated sufficient resources to nurture them? Impossible to measure, perhaps, but statistics tell us that we are failing quite badly at providing the basic requirements for our extended family to thrive on a global scale. And like it or not, that is the only meaningful scale by which we can measure our economic system.
Could we redesign the parameters of our economic system in order to naturally shift from predator capitalism to custodian capitalism? I would argue that we can, and we shall explore this in a few paragraphs
A first step to custodian capitalism
So much for amateur historical theory and soap-box posturing. The proof resides where it is always to be found, in the pudding. What then might one of the recipes be that could bring us back from the precipice of full-scale economic collapse and into a safer, more balanced system able to self-regulate and perhaps even emerge some new kind of shared economy that benefits the many without disadvantaging any? One idea we have been playing around with is this thing we call the Altruistic Wallet.
As its name implies, this is a wallet that you cannot spend on yourself, only on, well, everyone else. In principle, it is not that difficult. The wallet can be filled like any other wallet but when it comes to emptying it, you have to find a project or person you believe in and give it to them. Technically there are a bunch of challenges, but most can be overcome. Using the potential of the wonderful world of distributed ledger technologies, blockchains and their alternatives, a host of novel and scalable functions are possible.
The Altruistic Wallet would ultimately be a stand-alone feature with complete autonomy, provided this first criterion is met. It is ultimately up to the giver to decide who receives the gift. The ecosystem, however, will provide the information the giver needs to be relatively certain that the gift is spent in a responsible way in line with the spirit of the gift. This can be achieved in a number of distributed ways.
For instance, whoever adds assets to an altruistic wallet will also be able to provide the criteria that regulate how and where these assets may be spent. Par example, the donor could delegate the allocation of their assets to other actors within the ecosystem that have proven track records of selecting successful projects, or to actors in a specific region, of specific demography or with a specific area of interest, say housing, nutrition or education. The donor selects a few criteria in the interface and the network does the rest. Down the line, the donor can follow each gift and see the results. This is one of several possibilities that have opened up with the advent of the growing cryptographically based economy with its non-fungible tokens and its smart contracts.
Funds allocated through the co:do network and other networks that share the same protocol, will be used to finance community-led projects that support our commons, but it is ultimately up to the donor where they chose to deploy their donations.
Running altruistic projects
On the other side of the altruistic coin, for a project to be eligible for funding using the Altruistic Wallet, it needs to tick a few boxes. It needs to have a clear and objectively measurable goal with an equally clear budget and step-by-step plan of how to arrive there. It also needs to have longer-term metrics to measure aspects of its impact down the line. And most importantly, it needs to have at least one verified individual taking on the role of a project manager who personally shoulders the responsibility for the success of the project. Ideally, however, the ownership of the project should be shared by a team who all put their name and reputation behind it, as this will improve the chances of its success. It should also be pointed out that there are no requirements that the project owners work for free. Like any other project, altruistic or not, the cost of labour will be included in the budget.
The purpose of these requirements is to use the resources we have in the most efficient way possible, along with providing the most reliable and transparent follow-up on projects the network can facilitate.
It is also worth noting that a project will not automatically be deemed a failure if it does not achieve its goals or long-term impact. Provided it feeds useful feedback back into the network that will improve the likelihood of future projects being successful, it has still provided some value. Evolution is a process of trial and error after all. The only failed project would be if the project manager offers no feedback or absconds with the funds, something we hope to avoid through verifications of identity and the staking of reputation. Certainly, successful project managers will most likely find more willing backers over time, but only fraudulent project managers will need weeding out, the rest will have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Again, provided they can convince their potential backers that they have indeed learned from their mistakes.
In addition, if I wish to take on a larger project than my own experience and track record might warrant in the eyes of potential donors, other more established members of the network might put their reputations behind mine. It is even possible to imagine the altruistic wallet network becoming a training ground for project managers in social and environmental fields who might later rise to take on more traditional roles in a democratic society. The trajectory civilisation might take in this case is likely to be quite different to the one we are currently on, with politicians at the helm having little to no practical experience overseeing organisations that are often the opposite of agile and effective. Imagine a world where everyone holding a political position first spent a few years in service of the commons, building their reputation on a host of altruistic actions with verifiable outcomes, and rose to that position because they were trusted by their peers, not simply the least bad option at the bottom of the barrel of bad options. Which, given the approval rating of most democratically elected politicians today, is probably not an unfair metaphor.
What to give
A second feature of the Altruistic Wallet that sets it apart from your average wallet is that it can contain more than mere currency. Obviously, it could contain digital tokens such as cryptocurrencies, stablecoins and their ilk, but more than this it could contain any offer you might have to make, be it your time and expertise or a material asset you might be prepared to lend or even give away.
Such a multifaceted nature of the Altruistic Wallet will allow the budding project manager even more options as they seek to make their project a reality. It will be possible to search the ecosystem for goods and services prior to establishing a monetary budget for the intended project in question. Being able to source brick-and-mortar assets along with other resources, such as the time of volunteers, translates into lower monetary demands as well as more efficient use of available resources. If you add to this a project that will benefit the commons, you will have found yourself a win-win-win situation.
How to receive
Anyone will be able to set up an Altruistic Wallet, but these wallets can only be used to send value between them, it will not be possible to withdraw funds out of the system. In order to withdraw funds, you will need to set up what we might call a “project wallet”. A project wallet would have a specific budget, that of the project it represents, and as soon as it achieves the funding it requires, the wallet will be closed and the funds will be removed from the ecosystem and released into the bank account of the project manager, be it a person or an organisation. In time, as stablecoins and other cryptographic assets become more common as exchangeable assets, there will be no need to convert funds into fiat with the costs this simple, but for now, it is an established and practical interface.
Though Altruistic Wallets cannot remove funds from the ecosystem unless they are project wallets that only have that purpose, it will be possible to transfer funds from one wallet to another. The obvious purpose for this might be that one simply trusts someone else’s judgment and expertise in an area one wishes to support, and simply sends one’s funds to that person's altruistic wallet. It is also conceivable that one might want to send altruistic “tips” to people whose content one appreciates. This could be done either directly or through automated micropayments every time one “likes” or upvotes some content. It would be interesting to see how such an incentive played out, that you do not earn cash yourself for your content but rather you are earning cash for your community.
Before one dismisses such a quaint notion as a human motivator, one would do well to remember that this is pretty much exactly the modus operandi of hunter-gatherer societies, which we spent far more time evolving in than we did in the more sedentary communities that agriculture allowed. The concept of hoarding rather than sharing is an artefact of this later stage in human evolution, which has further deteriorated into attempting to make as much money as possible while one is young so one can live off one's savings and dividends when one is too old to work. As opposed to working to support those in one's tribe that are too old to hunt for themselves as they once sustained us as children before we could sustain ourselves. It seems like there is much modern society could learn from our ancestors and the circular nature of life in this regard.
Micropayments would give “likes” in their various expressions across platforms a tangible, monetary value but also helps fund the Altruistic Wallets of content creators who, in turn, can offer more funds to the people and projects they support. Widely popular content creators could potentially make large sums in such a system, but would not be able to remove these funds other than by funding the change they want to see happen. Naturally, they will be able to fund their own projects which they might receive compensation for, but provided they reach their goals and do not extract more funds than necessary to pay their own salary there is no foul in this.
Should they choose to extract more funds than is warranted in the eyes of the finders, this information, being public, will most likely lessen their support in the future and thus creating a self-regulatory feedback loop. The altruistic game is played for the benefit of others and the dynamics of the game can be designed to both reflect and incentivise this. Obscurity is a feature used in the current game of political power, along with distraction and a number of other tools to make sure no one will be keeping tabs and no serious consequences will be doled out. The Altruistic Wallet will have to play an entirely opposite game if it is to be successful. Full transparency, full traceability and full responsibility. It is a system of trust, trust gained through service to others.
As the Altruistic Wallet will be deployed as a standalone feature, content creators could conceivably also use it as a plugin on any website. This would allow tipping well outside the domain of co:do even if the deployment of funds would still have to happen through the network, at least for the trial period, and be subject to the rules of the platform and the scrutiny of this network.
It is also conceivable that an “altruistic marketplace” might evolve, where strangers do each other favours that are compensated not through direct reciprocity, as may be the case in a local community, but via Altruistic Wallet transfers. For instance, person A might ask the network for assistance with task B, and person C will offer to perform it for reimbursement D into their Altruistic Wallet, or possibly directly into a project they manage or support. An entire tokenized economy based on altruism could take shape in this way, an actual sharing economy that supports the commons. It would be an interesting take on the local economic practices of reciprocity described in David Graeber’s Debt, only scaled up to the global level.
Altruistic Venture Investing
Taking the concept further, Altruistic Wallets could do more than merely fund projects with albeit clear, deliverable and broadly beneficial goals, but projects that might actually be revenue-producing in the future. In other words, the ecosystem could be used to fund pro-social businesses that would not only improve people’s lives or restore the environment through their practices but actually return profits in the form of dividends into the Altruistic Wallets of their investors. Such dividends could then be used to fund new projects or beneficial businesses in a positive feedback loop of societal and environmental improvement.
There are of course a number of issues that would have to be worked out before we can implement this investment option. Such as what types of business proposals would be eligible, should they provide Altruistic Wallet holders with actual shares making them eligible to vote or just dividends, could they accept an outside investment with different parameters et cetera. But once these issues are resolved, the path will open up for a new type of altruistic business investment that in turn could provide a far more sustainable and beneficial marketplace instead of one that seeks to extract local wealth.
Having a European pension fund invest in building a renewable energy park in central Africa will at first glance seem like an ethical investment, but down the line translates to African pensioners paying a premium on their electricity costs that goes to fund European pensioners instead of their local community. A local community that more than likely needs whatever surplus it can glean in order to make other investments that will improve quality of life to approach that of their European counterparts in some incremental way. Thus, instead of using private providers of goods and services that remove funds from a restorative financial ecosystem, the Altruistic Wallets could usher in a new era of businesses that support the commons by making this a base requirement to become eligible for funding at all.
Beyond the scope of the Altruistic Wallet, some dangerous ideas might take hold through the mindset that might evolve through this broader practice. For instance, one might argue we should collectively own shares in all businesses that operate in society as it has repeatedly proven quite difficult to get most such larger entities to pay their taxes to support the societies that make their activities and profits possible, yet they hardly ever have any issues with paying their shareholders dividends on a regular basis. If the market deems that taxes are bad but dividends are good, then perhaps we should wise up to this and simply abandon the former in favour of the latter.
The end game
In this discussion about wallets, be they altruistic or not, it is important to remind ourselves that however successful such an experiment may play out, it is not the final destination, the technology that will solve all our societal woes. The goal must ultimately be to move away entirely from such abstract fictions as the symbolic monetary economy and towards a more direct and literal way of denominating and sharing resources. The Altruistic Wallet is merely using a familiar concept that we have tweaked into supporting a different purpose. If we are successful in the longer term, we will have provided for all our basic needs through the supporting systems we have built and nurtured together.
Our food will be provided from the regenerative agricultural processes we are part of, the dividends, in this case, being actual nutrition. We will have ample access to advanced and personalized healthcare, which we will not need to the same extent we do today as our lives will be far less stressful and more connected, and our bodies far healthier due to our improved diets. We will have access to clean, reliable, abundant and sustainable energy thanks to the businesses and research we will have funded. We will have access to high-quality, granular and most important, reliable information, which in turn will lay the foundation of top-quality and broadly accessible education. Any object we could dream up will be possible to 3D print at a fraction of the energy and resource cost of even the most cutting-edge facility of today, with designs being shared as freely as best practices are within our network. There will be a myriad of projects to keep us busy as the apex stewards of our world and ancestors in training. And as a result of these, we will have endless opportunities to develop and explore deep, meaningful relationships with others and with our inner selves. In such a world, would money really be necessary, or even make sense at all?
Not that we won’t have any currency, it just won’t be the monetary one we are currently so dependent on. If we are successful, we will have created a host of personal metrics that could be represented as currencies or tokens based on trust and reputation gained through service to others. Tokens that can be quantified and used to facilitate interactions between strangers to avoid the inefficiency of spending large amounts of time with one another to ascertain levels of reliability and competence. Latter-day letters of recommendation writ large by the network. Through this access that being trustworthy and useful will facilitate, these traits may again become among the most desirable ones for a human to develop, and, as a result, a truly nurturing altruistic society can emerge on a global scale.