Economies of Specificity

15 Jun 2024

Corporate extraction is eating everything. The tech monopoly is destroying us. The unicorn startup model is broken. We need economies that support collective flourishing.

What is an Economy of Specificity?: The Coffee Shop and Starbucks

Starbucks’ strategy has been ubiquitous reproducibility. Globally, you can walk into a starbucks, and get pretty much the same product, no matter where you are. Starbucks does actually adapt some to local cultures, adding menu items exclusive to a particular place and palette. But the business model is copy and paste. And Starbucks is everywhere, at one point seeking to be visible from every office window in cities like NYC or their home of Seattle. It does not matter who is working behind the counter, nor what local bean roasters might be in business, Starbucks will produce the same cup of coffee and carry the same pre-roasted beans on the shelf.

This is in contrast to the local coffee shop that roasts their own beans which they source from a few family farms in Guatemala. The person working behind the counter matters quite a bit, not just for their skill as a barista, but as a source of community news and gossip. This coffee shop might work with a local bakery, or add a menu item named after one of their regular customers. While still tied into global networks of exchange, this is an economy of specificity. They are reliant on their particular relationships and exist only in their context.

But local coffee shops are a pattern, a global phenomenon. Collectively they have a greater market share than coffee chains, even though they are not organized under a single business. Their risks and rewards are distributed.

Economies of specificity make communities richer. Rather than extracting wealth for global corporations, the more local, “inefficient”, flows of exchange feed back into the mutual relationships that these economies require. They also make communities richer in the sense that they increase intangible values like quality and uniqueness while knitting the social relationships that are needed for sustainability.

Here is a list of a few examples, dividing between Copy-Paste Economies and Economies of Specificity.

Mushrooms and Culture

When Anna Tsing talks about the networks of matsutake mushroom hunters in The Mushroom at the End of the World, she is talking about an economy of specificity. These networks span the globe, but each step in their processes of discovery, exchange, pricing, and meaning making is relational and specific — not just in place, but also time. Matsutake resists industrial mushroom growing practices and in each place it grows it does so in a different way, favoring different environmental conditions. The people who hunt the mushroom do so for a variety of reasons, but each group is somehow bound to the agency that mushroom hunting gives them. And the networks of sale and exchange that set the price of the mushroom are deeply embedded in the relationships between cultures.

When I think about the Indigenous “three sisters” agricultural method of planting corn, beans, and squash together so that they balance the soil nutrients and increase yields, I see that as an economy of specificity. This method doesn’t work for industrial farming because industrial agriculture scales through automation, minimizing labor. But the three sisters have to be harvested by hand. Quality and labor intensity are an intertwined pair. While it may be “inefficient” to have to employ more labor, from a societal perspective we can see the benefits of high-quality, low-waste industries that create jobs. Really, it’s just a different type of efficiency, tuned for different goals.

When I think about the slow food movement I am reminded that economies of specificity support each other. One local farm has limited effect, but a network of farm-to-table restaurants, farms, bee keepers, composting services, and local artisans all working in collaboration has the power to change economic conditions for an entire region. And this can go further; groups from workers cooperatives to land stewards can be connected through something as innocuous as a matsutake mushroom.

The individual businesses and actors are unique and highly specific. They are both irreplaceable and unimportant on their own. But because they are in networks of mutual support, they are powerful.

Copy-Paste Economies spread through capital, hostile takeovers, and market dominance.

Economies of Specificity spread through culture. They are patterns without prescription.

What Does Any of This Have to Do with Tech?

Well, I’ve been thinking about the Cozy Web lately. Secluded spaces like Discord servers, niche forums, and Signal group chats are where a lot of the activity of the web actually happens. These spaces allow for customization and cultural development, in contrast to the large social platforms like Meta and X. The large social platforms rely on advertising and the collection of user data. They operate through scaled, ubiquitous extraction.

What is the economics of the cozy web? A lot of institutions like Signal have to rely on donations and public funding. This is one model, but we need more. And I see economies of specificity as one lens through which to find solutions.

SAAS is one model that can be revolutionized from its current form. What if we were paying development teams to add custom features to open-source software? This would open up a direct line between user needs and software development. It also provides a more direct funding stream for the maintainers who keep the fundamental building blocks of our networks functional (and yes I am thinking of the XZ Utils incident and the classic xkcd comic Dependency).

Additionally, as we start seeing more peer-to-peer software that can provide interconnectivity without servers, the SAAS model will need to adapt.

Similarly, we need more custom web designers and less Wix sites. We need more applications built for local township governance, food waste mitigation, and citizen science. B2B applications are an opportunity for custom solutions to situated problems. Approaching development as an act of customizing open-source software lowers overhead while building more fit to purpose applications and creating a thriving developer industry. Not everything needs to be a unicorn startup that gets sold off to the same monopolies capturing the rest of the internet.

We need to rewild the internet, and also our economies.**

Competing with Copy-Paste Economies

And I believe that technology has the power to help economies of specificity compete with copy-paste economies. When I talk about networks of mutual support, I recognize that these networks are always bounded by the friction of communication, the time it takes to transport goods, and the amount of information in the system about the needs of each of the different businesses.

Amazon can have a super precise and flexible distribution network that lets you receive packages the next day, because they control all of the information about their business centrally. As I write I am watching the UPS guy unload six packages with Amazon logos that he is delivering along my block. Each of these packages has a tracking number that will be scanned as they are delivered; photos of them will be uploaded and attached to that number; and emails will be sent to customers. Amazon’s warehousing information systems let them know exactly what is on the shelf at any moment, coordinating the fastest and most efficient delivery of the thousands and thousands of products. Why were these packages delivered by UPS when yesterday it was an amazon branded van driving down the block?

Rather than the central information system that lets Amazon function, imagine information tools that help the actors in economies of specificity to coordinate on both local and global scales. If a farm is suddenly unable to supply romaine lettuce to the restaurant that they are contracted with, what other farms can fulfill the order at the last minute? How does the emission of carbon in a specific development project affect the global climate?

There are a number of technologies that enable this flexibility and data availability without devolving into extractive systems that require uniformity and cannot handle the uniqueness of these local networks and specific economic relationships. Mutual credit currencies and REA accounting allow for demand side value flows. Peer-to-peer software allows for shared ownership of data, supplanting centralization and silos. And local-first software means these peer networks can operate with a really small minimum viable number of actors or scale up to global levels as needed. Together, along with economies of specificity and other economic and social shifts like cooperatives, it is possible to have the benefits of Amazon and Starbucks without destroying our planet. All while enriching our local communities.

Special thanks to my colleagues Camila Hanada, Jarod Holtz, and Paul d’Aoust for their enriching reviews and assistance with this article’s feature image. All mistakes and opinions remain my own.