Lunch with Pip (dining out in the gift economy)


I've blogged about the new "idea intermediaries:" Pip Coburn (pictured), Jerry Michalski, Brad Berens, Tim O'Reilly, Faith Popcorn, Noah Brier, Sara Winge, Bob McBarton, Piers Fawkes, to name a few.  These people have revived the Salon.  Actually, they've improved upon the Salon.  They manage to make themselves a kind of Constantinople, a place where many worlds meet. 

I was talking to Pip yesterday and we started chatting about his lunches.  He invites around 12-16 people from thither and yon.  Some from the capital markets.  Some not.  Usually, the meal takes place in a Indian buffet restaurant in mid-town Manhattan.  It takes about an hour.  People chat about whatever takes their fancy. 

I met Esther Dyson at one of Pip's lunch.  Wow.  We talked about her training in the Russian space program.  I wasn't sure what to say when my turn came.  I'm never sure what to say, and, I mean, Russian space program, come on.  Finally, I blurted out, "I have three cats."  Esther was impressed by this.  I could tell by the way she arched her eyebrows. 

Pip was telling me about his most recent lunch.  He watched as a new visitor, a first-timer, tried to "talk business."  He left, Pip said, with a tiny cloud of confusion over his head.  All anyone wanted to talk about was ideas and stuff.   What was the point of a business lunch if not business?

There is the informal but powerful rule that says no one may do business on these occasions.  You come for the sociality, the conversational and the ideas.  And that's it.  Still less can Pip himself use these lunches for profit or power.  He understands that the moment he breaks this rule he loses his power as an idea intermediary.

So let's review.  Pip gets to make the invitations, book the restaurant, and pay for the meal.  It's not a lot of time and money, but it is an odd investment when we consider that he gets no return.  It gets odder still when we consider that Pip is prohibited from asking for a return.  Pip makes this investment with the certain knowledge that he cannot leverage it.

We are at the moment undergoing a sea change.  We have two economies running at once, the newly arrived (or returned) gift economy and the still resilient good economy.  This good economy was described by Adam Smith.  It presupposes a direct exchange.  In the good economy, we calculate whether and what to give by calculating what we expect to get.  We prefer it when exchanges take place instantaneously, in a known (and the same) currency, as value passes from hand to hand, with the deal (and the relationship) not just completed by the exchange, but extinguished by it. 

The gift economy has a different logic. In this economy, Pip takes value (the cost and effort of the meal) and releases it into the world.  It will, probably, someday, in some form, return to him.  But at the moment of the planning and the doing, none of this clear.  The rules of the game say he must be contented with the intrinsic satisfaction of lunch with friends.

Pip says he actually prefers this approach.  He doesn't want to think about "what's in it for him."  He likes it when this lunch feels like "a free lunch."  It sounded almost chivalric, the mission that can only succeeds when one's heart is pure.  Less grandly, it  sounded like the code of the Renaissance gentleman, the "liberality" with which worldly wealth is shared.  It even sounded like the the Big Man model that once operated in the Pacific (and may still.) 

But of course we know that things will return to Pip.  His reputation will be augmented.  Blog posts will be written about him.  (For what that's worth.)  He will blink a little brighter on his profession's radar and when deals are done, his liberality will come back to him. 

But two things.  I believe him when he says that his motives are disinterested.  What returns to him is the accident of these lunches not their intention.  Two, he has no way of calculated exactly when, how, in what form and in what measure value will return to him.  And this means that his calculations are now just so much guess work. 

We didn't actually get this far, and I hope one of these days to interview him for the Ning website, but I suspect that there is a "reckless act of generosity" rationale at work in Pip's life.  And we know that this idea is alive and formative in our culture now.  We may put this down as yet another of the many reactions against the Smithian regime and the rise of markets as a regnant social form. 

But knowing Pip as I do, my guess is that he likes the gift economy because, first, it is fun to release value without a destination or a purpose, and second, because he likes to activate the Pachinko machine of contemporary culture.  Not knowing whether and how things will return to him, far from being a troubling new reality, is indeed much of the fun.  All Pip can know is that value he releases will have a wild ride of it.  This value will ricochet in transit, enlisted unsuspected and unsuspecting partners.  It will be lost many times before it's found.  I think all of us, and not just Pip, find something sublime about this randomness.  And sublime randomness ceases to be random and starts getting, well, it starts getting pretty interesting.

Before you know it, your life is, as Max Weber liked to say, "reenchanted."  Gift economies exhibit accident with purpose.  Randomness with pattern.  Anonymity that inclines to  intimacy.  Calculation that gives way to whimsy.  Maybe.  Pip is perfectly capable of speaking for himself and I will let you know if and when he decides to write up how and why these lunches work.  Your comment, please.

Last note

I have started a Ning network for Chief Culture Officer.  (There didn't seem to be any point writing a book about how to create a living, breathing corporation that did not itself live and breathe in some way.)  Please come and sign up, if you're interested. 

Here's the drill as I understand it:

1) go to

2) join the Ning network (this gives you access to all the communities on Ning)

3) search for Chief Culture Officer

4) Join Chief Cuilture Officer.  This should be straight forward. 

5) If you need my approval, send me an email at grant27[at] and I will sign you in.

6) See you there. 

10 thoughts on “Lunch with Pip (dining out in the gift economy)

  1. steve crandall

    Pip is a wonderful guy – I’ve learned much from watching him and am proud to call him a friend.

    I have my own take on the gift economy. Many years ago when I became non-religious, I started thinking about pieces of religion that I should build into my life. The concept of the tithe appealed to me, but tithing time rather than money (money seems lame as it greatly favors the wealthy). Since grad school i set aside 11 hours a week (I tithe my waking hours) to projects with friends. If there isn’t anything going on I read. It is my goal in life to be poorly read.

    What is remarkable are the threads and wonderful friendships that have developed from this. My formal education was very narrow, but through friendships I’ve done more than a few things that still astound me. Hopefully my friends get as much out of this tithe as I do. I can’t imagine how they can, but I hope they do.

  2. Marc

    Hi Grant

    My search on Ning returned:
    “We couldn’t find anything that matches “chief culture officer”. Why not search for something else?”

    I’m some way through Transformations btw… an amazing read that I’m taking slowly (it’s so dense with smart insight that my tiny brain needs time to process).

    =) Marc

  3. Rick Liebling

    I (unfortunately) don’t know Pip, but my hunch is that he gets great pleasure and satisfaction from these lunches in and of themselves, even if nothing ever comes from them. Some people like to gamble in Vegas, others prefer expensive ski or golf holidays. Those are fine, no judgements being made here – I’m just betting that Pip’s idea of a great time is an informal lunch with interesting pepole and that’s where he chooses to spend his time/money.

    That down the road there may be an additional benefit probably plays a very small role in his thinking.

  4. Martin Calle

    Hi Grant,
    So if I was a copywriter I’d sum up Pip’s gestures in a tagline, “Paying it forward.” Good man. Never got an invite to Pip’s lunch though and I’m certain I count as an “idea intermediary.” Love Indian too! Thanks!
    Martin Calle

  5. L.L. Wynn

    And speaking of tithing time, all of those people who meet at Pip’s lunches probably don’t need a free lunch. They’re giving their time, their wit, their ideas and their conversation for an hour (plus the time it takes to commute to midtown). All of us busy people know how hard it sometimes can be to find an hour for lunch, and I would almost always rather pay for my own lunch than have to get a free lunch and eat with boring people. I don’t know how much lunch costs, but I imagine that money is the least of the investments made at these lunches. The much bigger contribution that Pip makes (not that I know him, but I guess) is sharing his connections and his gift for social-linking with his friends.

  6. Robin Upton

    Pip’s generosity contradicts the assumptions of modern economics, but makes perfect sense on another level. Food sharing is the quintessential act of altruism, and an essential survival strategy in times of irregular food supply. Am I being too fanciful to suggest that something of that resonates with his guests, encouraging them to give of their time and energy? The modern ‘western’ culture is actually the exception, not the rule, in promoting accumulation of stuff as a sensible strategy; life for most of human history _was_ relationships.

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