Cooperation and complicity

The Barras is a market in Glasgow that is (or was) notorious as a site for hustlers. It attracts both bargain hunters and spectators. Ten years ago a group of us conducted a study of the area, mainly to consider its soundscape. On more than one visit we observed a familiar scenario involving the sale of bootlegged CDs.

A seller positioned himself on the road at the crossing with a card table covered with a tablecloth scarcely concealed by a small crowd of potential buyers. Before long a lookout signalled a warning. The produce (CDs) were scooped into the table cloth and carried away. The table was speedily carried off the street, and the sellers and crowd continued as if nothing had happened.

A few minutes later two police personnel strolled along the street on their customary patrol. The table came out again when the police were out of sight, and the performance was repeated in another part of the market.

Online exchange

If nothing else, the development of new modes of digital exchange online have expanded and amplified different models of commerce, and recall the operations of informal markets. According to classical theories, the performance of the economy is a product of so many individuals or actors (buyers and sellers) seeking to maximize their individual gain.

The aims of various actors generally conflict, requiring negotiation to maintain or improve the common welfare. Co-operation is the operative term, implying that actors work together within a common framework or rule base to meet mutually agreed ends.

But there is another tendency, and that is complicity, which implies actors working with or against one another in defiance of the rules, or at least to operate at the edges of their frames of reference and rules bases.

The study of markets is instructive in understanding co-operation and complicity. E-commerce on the Internet has been likened to a bazaar: chaotic, dynamic, and opportunistic in its organization.

Classical economics assumes that market conditions tend towards stable conditions, abetted by sufficient information for rational decision-making. Our observations of physical marketplaces indicates the role of instability, tarrying at the edge of legality. This is the ‘reality’ of much market activity.


To the extent that the Barras demonstrates the informal market it participates in the tricky off-beat economics popularised by the economist Steven Levitt, and characterised as Freakonomics.

Unregulated digital marketplaces continue this informality, not least the unregulated world of (some) ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings), one of the ways that new digital companies attempt to raise capital. They invent a digital currency and sell its virtual coinage. Buyers expect the currency to inflate over time, i.e. as the value of the company rises so does the currency, much as investors speculate on regulated IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) sold by startups as shares.

The technology that abets this ICO commerce is the blockchain, about which much has been said. See posts tagged: blockchain. Also see an article about ICOs in last year’s Guardian. I’ve also started listening to the Techmeme podcast, that covers what’s happening to tech companies.

Also see:

Bibliography (pre 2010)

  • Ardrey, R., The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations, Collins, London, 1967.
  • Axelrod, R., The Evolution of Co-Operation, Penguin, London, 1990.
  • Bloor, R., The Electronic Bazaar: From the Silk Road to the Eroad, Nicholas Brealey, London, 2000.
  • Coyne, R., Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.
  • Coyne, Richard, Raymond Lucas, Jia Li, Martin Parker, and John Lee. 2007. Co-operation and complicity: Voices, robots, and tricksters in the digital marketplace. International Journal of Architectural Computing (IJAC), (5) 1, 161-175.
  • Eric, B., Marco, D., and Guy, T., Swarm Intelligence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
  • Gates, B., and Hemingway, C., Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System, Penguin, London, 1999.
  • Giddens, A., Runaway World: How Globalisation Is Shaping Our Lives, Profile Books, London, 1999.
  • Koolhaas, R.e., The Harvard Guide to Shopping, Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Köln, 2001.
  • Levitt, S., and Dubner, S.J., Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Penguin, London, 2005.
  • Smith, A., An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.
  • Terry, S., Glasgow Almanac: An a-Z of the City and Its People, Interlink Publishing Group Inc, Northampton, MA, 2005.

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