Is the Design World Becoming a Broken Gift Economy?
16 design challenges and what do you get? Another week older and deeper in debt.
Recently someone I don’t know personally but follow for some reason on Twitter posted something like, “We know better than to work for equity, but we keep falling for it.” (Context: she was referring to some form of tech work, not sweat-inducing labor, and “equity” here refers to a possible big payout if a startup gets funded.) I replied that I’ve never been asked to work for equity, aside from some postings to my graduate department’s email list from random MBA students — but I have been asked to work for free. And, in fact, working for free seems to be mandatory in the UX/design world. We have to prove that we are driven enough to build passion projects or contribute to other people’s successes (such as Medium), in order to reach a point where a job will be offered to us. Has the UX/design world become a gift economy, or a false gift economy?Qui bono?
A gift economy is a type of social system in which people give each other items of value without any expectation, or contract for, reciprocation. In some societies it can be tied to property rights, or shaming peers, or other reasons. You might be more familiar with charitable donations, blood banks, or copyleft. Or Burning Man. But the idea is that everyone involved buys in, plays by the same rules, and, ideally, needs are met for everyone. Sort of a “what goes around, comes around”
But professionally, some of us seem to be living, to some degree, in an asymmetric gift economy, one where the nature of the gift contains a dram of poison.
Georges Bataille, in his book La Part maudite, wrote about his theory of a “general economy”. He felt that gift-giving was not only a constructor of society but also of every possibly form of an economy. This is not as good a thing as it sounds. He noted that gifts as economy, or within an economy, place the dyadic participants in an combative but unequal position, enforcing a Hegelian master-and-slave relationship.
But where Bataille saw the supplicant (a beggar, for example) having to acknowledge his or her subservient position, in the “get a job by doing a job” economy, the poles have reversed and the water of life flows uphill. The givers are supplicants to those who hold some power, and the supplicants outnumber the powerful 20 to one, meaning that giving becomes a competitive sport (unrelated note: please “Recommend” this post on Medium!) while reciprocation is a seller’s market. To mix economic metaphors.
And this asymmetry stands only to grow for the foreseeable future, as the field grows but the job market doesn’t keep pace. Already, listings of good UX positions are seeing application queues that aren’t quite as full as those of, say, tenured positions in a Humanities department, but it’s getting there. I mean, in my short career I’ve already mentored more than one person.
And sure: hackathons can be fun, you can make good “contacts” there, you may build skills (that you may or may not use professionally), design challenges can produce items to go into your portfolio… but is this the most efficient way of finding meaningful work, or just another iteration of the Old Boy Network, where it’s all about whom you know, and how you know them?