by: Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

The InterContinental Hotel Group (NYSE Ticker: IHG) is the largest hotel group in the world with seven brands (Intercontinental Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge, and Candlewood Suites). They claim more than 645,000 rooms in over 100 countries.

If I take the time to join their “Priority Club Rewards” program, I get exclusive benefits like a free newspaper once a week. After I accumulate 20,000 points I get additional goodies such as Priority Check-In and a special phone number so I can wait less time on hold. Points are easy to accumulate because many of their rooms cost more for one night than I spent for an entire semester’s college tuition.

As a Club member, they would begin collecting information about me and my preferences so they can tailor an experience just for me. They promise not to release that information to anyone – not even me.

I never bothered joining. Unlike many, I can afford their rooms without going into debt to the credit card company. The issue is time, not money – my life is too short, and I don’t want to spend my time with them.

Instead, I belong to a different club, one with more space than InterContinental in more than twice as many countries. And my club is adding 14,000 members and 4,000 rooms a week.

And every one of those rooms is free.

My club is run by the Couch Surfing Collective. Although membership is free, four years ago I chose to donate about $20 and they verified that I was who I said I was, and I lived where I said I lived.

Couch Surfing members don’t have membership cards but rather online profiles that can be seen by all 1.8 million members. Other members write references, which can be positive, neutral, or negative – and all references appear on your profile, whether you like it or not.

Right now, I have over 70 positive references (and no neutral or negative ones), and therefore strangers all over the world will welcome me into their homes without any money changing hands. But if I stop being a gracious guest, and a few negative references start cropping up, I might as well drop out and start paying InterContinental. And if you think I can only participate if I reciprocate, you would be wrong. Couch Surfing is a pay-it-forward proposition, and plenty of people are guests hundreds of days a year and have never hosted anyone. These people are not freeloaders, otherwise negative references would have kept everyone at bay. With the exception of a few tourist destinations, there is a much larger supply of free places to stay than there is demand. Most Couch Surfers are hardworking and responsible people with limited vacation and therefore, most months of the year, they let their travel experiences come to them.

I feel safer when I surf couches than when I stay at a hotel. I have no way of checking the character of the maid, the front desk clerk, the maintenance man, or anyone else at a hotel, and I have never had anyone voluntarily warn me of a problem with an employee. But on CS I can triangulate everyone, and we take responsibility for each other’s safety.

As a Couch Surfer, I am not a customer of a corporation; I am a citizen of a community – a place where I must live by the Golden Rule and keep my account at the Karma Bank in good standing. Otherwise, I will be banished to the default community, the one you might live in… a place full of marketing, laws, contracts, and money; a land where a traveler pays two day’s minimum wages to stay off the street for one night, a place where the room tax can cost more than a day’s food.

Hotels must work very hard at maintaining their reputation, or they will lose customers and go out of business. As a Couch Surfer, YOU must work very hard at maintaining YOUR reputation or you will have to stay at hotels that care little about you other than that you pay your bills.

Sometimes it would be nice to go on vacation from the world of commerce, money, and marketing. And so you can… but it will cost you a few hundred dollars.

Black Rock City from Space

Every year, in early September, Black Rock City is built from scratch to host the week-long Burning Man festival in an inhospitable desert north of Reno. Over 40,000 people arrive and make it the fourth largest city in Nevada, and then they, and the city, evaporate.

It costs $300 to reside in Black Rock City for a week, almost exactly what I pay in property tax in a single week back home. Both places have roads, and hospitals, but only Black Rock City has an airport with a mile long runway. My town has two restaurants, one bar, a few stores, one library, a few civic organizations, and no dance halls. Black Rock City has hundreds of those things and everything is free. My town in New Jersey does not get torn down and rebuilt every year – BRC is built by people who love creating more than consuming.

You are expected to give things away, without expectation of return; even barter is frowned upon. You will find no company sponsorships and corporate logos. You are part of an experiment in a Gift Economy. On your first stay in Black Rock City, you could mooch free housing, food, entertainment – and enough booze to keep you drunk every waking moment. By the end of the week you’ll feel terrible, but it will be more of an existential hangover than an alcoholic one. And then, if you are like most humans, you will begin planning for next year, when you will participate – and give something away – and do nice things for others without expectation of return. In fact, if you are keeping score, you’ll realize you are in the hole and if you want to make things even, you’ll have no choice but to pay it forward.[1]

In my senior year in High School, 400,000 young people descended on Max Yasgur’s farm in Sullivan County, New York, and they created a national disaster. Less than half bought a ticket, and still fewer came prepared to meet their own needs for food, clothing, and shelter. They came to be entertained and taken care of by others, and when they left, they left a mess. What they considered to be peace and love, the locals considered to be drug-induced passivity and irresponsibility. The attendees say it could never be repeated and the people who had to take care of them say, “Thank God.”

The Burning Man Festival is almost the exact opposite of Woodstock. It repeats annually, and everyone is expected to be self-reliant and responsible. Art and entertainment are provided by the attendees themselves. And, boy, do they – providing more quantity and variety of experience than imaginable. Woodstock was homogeneous: almost everyone was young and distrustful of the old. Not so at Burning Man where the first of its ten principles is “Radical Inclusion” which means that the stranger is welcome. (And by the look of it, the stranger the better.)

Black Rock City is miles across. (Woodstock could be tucked in a corner.) Yet, when the Bureau of Land Management holds an inspection after the city is torn down, it issues fines for the slightest piece of trash. A pistachio shell or a piece of glitter can cost dearly. Luckily, almost nothing is found – not a trace.

In the 1970s, I saw all of the lower 48 states, courtesy of the kindness of strangers. I hitchhiked everywhere. Most of my friends were too afraid to come with me, but I found it quite safe. Even though I was propositioned numerous times (more by males than females), I did not take offense. Although there were times when I was afraid, I did not learn fear. Instead, I learned courage and emotionally resiliency. I saw my friends as the ones taking unnecessary risks with sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, and drunk driving. A few were done in by these things. Why did they think it was riskier to accept a ride from a stranger than to party with one, particularly if at the end of the evening they accepted a ride home?

By the 1980s, it seemed that hitchhiking was dead, and by 2000, since I hadn’t seen a thumb for decades, I figured it was buried.

I was wrong. Hitching has moved to the internet, where rides are arranged on Craigslist bulletin boards and elsewhere. There are even sites for thumbing rides on airplanes. Roadside hitchhikers are thriving too. The reason you and I don’t see them is because they snag rides almost instantly. This makes it safer, because they can afford to be pickier.

But you can’t deny the world has become more materialistic since Woodstock. It is as if the hippies grew up and implemented their worst nightmare. Business schools have cranked out drones who chant “enlightened self-interest is the best way to go” – except that “enlightenment” seems to have been left out of their education. I know; I have an MBA. If it were not for good parenting, I might have believed it.

Everything is getting monetized and commoditized, and all motivation seems to be only about incentives – grades, promotion, money, customer loyalty, even child rearing. Our financial crisis is not blamed on greed or evilness as much as the “wrong incentives” and “failure to regulate,” with no mention of the personal shame that can be a consequence of failure to self-regulate. (Why? I think it is because people actually feel no shame, or if they do, they take a pill for it.) Nothing seems to be worth doing for its own sake, or just because it is the right thing to do.

To me, especially after two decades on Wall Street, it seemed the Good Hearted had lost the battle.

I was wrong. The Good Hearted will inherit the earth – and they are not doing it meekly. They are just doing it without being noticed.

In the 1980s, I was a computer consultant and I had one of the largest brokerage firms on the planet as a client. They paid my invoices four months in arrears. Later, I became an employee, and in 1991, I began developing all my trading systems in APL from a British computer company called Dyalog. They gave me dozens of hours of exemplary service – the best I’d ever received from anyone, ever, and all for the fixed price of $1,900 per year. When the second invoice arrived, the bill said, “Balance Due, $1,900 – Total: $3,800.” My employer had not paid for a year.

I called Pete, the President of Dyalog, and asked why he continued to service us. He said, “Because you are a user.” When I asked why he would do that if we did not pay, he said, “Whether you pay or not is irrelevant, you are still our user.”

Four years later, I was working at one of the largest investment banks in the world, and they were also a Dyalog customer even though they had not paid their invoice for two years. One day, I made a casual comment to Pete that I thought our investment bank would outlast his little company. He said, “I doubt it. Even when we all had to mortgage our houses to fund this company, we always paid our bills in full and on time.”

In the mid-1990s, I came to my current employer, a decent company that pays its bills on time, and therefore I became a Dyalog customer in good standing for the first time. Pete asked me one day to help put a market valuation on his firm. I asked for number of customers and total revenues. Paradoxically, he took in way too much money given the number of customers. He explained, “We thrive because some of our customers pay us much more than we ask for.” When I asked how that can be, he asked me why I was paying for four licenses when I only needed one. I had to admit I felt terrible that I was making millions of dollars with his product and only paying him a couple of thousand. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

The brokerage firm and the investment bank I used to work for still exist, but merely as brands. Neither would still be around if not for mergers and large taxpayer bailouts. As wealthy as they have made their managers, they could not have met their obligations without you and me chipping in – involuntarily.

But Dyalog is still going strong. And I am still paying them more than I have to.

It is a well accepted fact that the balance of power has shifted to the consumer. Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody describes how this is happening, and Tara Hunt’s The Whuffie Factor shows marketers how they can reach those consumers in this new world with whuffie (look it up). People are even learning how to roll their own educations, as Anya Kamenetz explains in DIY U.

But I think something more fundamental is going on.

Consumers are becoming producers, reputation is becoming currency, and the biggest bills are denominated in unselfishness and kindness. Some of us, employed and not, wealthy and less fortunate, are realizing that we’re all in this together, and that we are going to need to find people to trust and share things with, just to get by.

In a real sense, our fears and our financial foibles are frustrating wealth creation, at least when measured in what economists call “utility.” How many people have spent an additional $50,000 because they wanted a guest bedroom? And how many days a year does that room have an occupant? Do you need a guestroom you don’t use; particularly now that you might wish you had the money rather than a bigger mortgage? You don’t need one for my sake because if I am coming to see you, and you don’t have a finished attic, a basement, or comfortable couch, I can probably find a stranger walking distance from you who trusts me, and will gladly let me stay at his or her place.

People are building whole lives that look more like open source projects than cogs in commerce, and they are living very well in the lower tax brackets. They don’t need a hotel to substitute for someone’s couch, a college to take responsibility for their education, or even a bus line to replace someone going in the same direction.

And then there is everyone else.

There is my generation (I’m 57) who should be ashamed of what we are leaving our children: liabilities instead of assets, and physical stuff instead of the stuff of character. Many of us who are not wealthy will face a meager future because our modest retirement plans are filled with assets we hope to sell to our children. But they have no money; they are in debt, both individually and collectively.

Our children had better learn how to live with little money because, even if they make tons of it, most of it will be taken to pay off the lifestyle their parents once lived. The government will tax income, property, sales, and even barter. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, they will have to devalue the currency.

I am betting they won’t figure out how to devalue Karma.

Or tax a favor.


[1] If you believe it is unreasonable for people to give of themselves without expectation of return, consider this: Because it takes so long for a human to develop, and our society is so complex, a couple of decades pass before you can begin to be worth more than you cost. By then, many of the people who have helped you have moved, died, or been forgotten. You can’t pay them back; you can only pay it forward. You are not giving without expectation of return. You are giving a return, just not to the same people. This is news to many, and I think the reason is that we are taught how to get a return on investment, but not how to give one.

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