Blood, Linux and the Commons

Giving blood sucks. They poke me, sometimes painfully, and I feel crappy afterwards. There is no amount of money they could pay me to make it worth my while. But that’s the point.

I went in today to donate, and for not the first time they screwed up getting the needle in my arm. It hurt, of course, but moreso because they were using a new system that extracts more blood, centrifuges out the red blood cells and returns the liquid along with some saline for good measure. This gives them more usable blood and, in theory, leaves the donor less dehydrated, which is one of the main pains of blood donation. The problem was when the gizmo started pumping liquid back into my arm, I felt a burning pain, and I could see a lump growing under the needle. They had missed my vein.

So why do I donate? My friend Scott Smallwood turned me on to a writer called David Bollier, who writes about the gift economy and the commons. It’s stuff that applies real obviously to free software, but also to blood donation:

One of the most vivid case studies comparing the performance of market and gift economies is Richard Titmuss?s examination of British and American blood banks in the 1960s. Drawing upon extensive empirical data, Titmuss concluded that commercial blood systems generally produce blood supplies of less safety, purity, and potency than volunteer systems; are more hazardous to the health of donors; and over the long run produce greater shortages of blood.

What can possibly account for these counter- intuitive deviations from market theory, which holds that the price system produces the most efficient outcomes and highest quality product? It turns out that the introduction of money into the blood transaction encourages doctors to skirt prescribed safety rules and tends to attract more drug addicts, alcoholics, prisoners, and derelicts than altruistic appeals do.

According to Titmuss, Britain?s National Blood Transfusion Service ?has allowed and encouraged sentiments of altruism, reciprocity, and societal duty to express themselves; to be made explicit and identifiable in measurable patterns of behavior by all social groups and classes.? In this context, the gift economy regime is not simply ?nice.? It is actually more efficient, cheaper, and safer.

So I donate blood because it’s the right thing to do, because Lissa and my Dad did but can no longer. And because they don’t pay me.