XHARO is a ritualized gift exchange service designed to help neighbors connect beyond the barriers of their daily lives. With a little bit of user data, XHARO algorithmically partners a new user with a stranger from a different walk of life—and challenges them to get each other a gift, based on the other person's profile.
The paradox of today’s hyper-connected world is how fragmented we've become. The social and cultural barriers between groups—rich and poor, young and old, new immigrants and native-born—seem starker and steeper than they were just a few decades ago.
XHARO hopes to repair this divide, one new friendship at a time.
The process begins when a new user downloads the app and grants XHARO access to their social media profiles and shopping/browsing data. This enables XHARO to build a model of their social identity and begin developing a list of potential gifts that they might want or need. From there, the new user has the option to help XHARO complete the picture by filling out a personal wish list. In the next few days, the user will receive their first “assignment."
What's the assignment? They've been tasked with getting a gift for a specific stranger-neighbor—also a XHARO user—a gift in the next 30 days. They can peruse their match's profile—which includes gift lists—for ideas. They can buy a gift, but are also encouraged to make one themselves.
By the end of the month, the pair will have met up in aneutral location and exchanged gifts. From there, the foundation for a new friendship has been laid. Participants are encouraged to continue this monthly exchange as mediated through the app, but also to let a real-world friendship bloom in earnest. And every two months, XHARO sends its members a new assignment, and the process begins anew.
While the long-term value of XHARO lies in the new relationships it creates, potential users may need a short-term incentive that's a bit more tangible in order for them to take the intitial plunge. So XHARO's launch campaign features a promotional partnership with Amazon, offering a 50% discount an all gifts purchased through the platform. Getting something off your wish list and possibly a new lifelong friend for the cost of a half-price present? Seems too good a deal to pass up!
The launch campaign's messaging and targeting are aimed at people with small or homogeneous friend groups and the elderly.
The XHARO concept was inspired by hxaro, the gift exchange customs of the Ju/’hoansi people in the Kalahari Desert — and sketched up for the globalized world by me.
I use the 2D sketching process to iterate my conception of a system. It's easier to think while I draw!
In Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari writes of capitalism’s ascent to its current status as the most universally accepted religion on Earth:
Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. It was both descriptive and prescriptive — it offered an account of how money worked and promoted the idea that investing profits in production leads to fast economic growth. But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic—a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth. (Harari 314)
Humanity’s virtually unanimous buy-in to the capitalist ethic is what paved the way for the rapid acceleration of worldwide growth in the past few centuries and has been an undisputed boon for mankind. But blind faith in growth as a supreme good and goal is clearly no longer a sustainable belief system, the ecological consequences of unchecked, unconsidered growth already plain to see for all who care to pay attention. And it isn’t just these first few bumps of the head against our environmental ceiling that signal the end of the growth mantra’s infallibility: economic inequality and capital hording by an elite few have contributed to a stark decline in upward mobility in the United States and other parts of the developed world, the mirage of the American Dream—the belief that with hard work and application, all the comforts of the world will come into reach—all but evaporated for the working class. Instead, they see hyper-concentrations of wealth and investment in a few hub cities and an oligarchical economy dominated by a handful of corporate superpowers ready to quash any bootstrapped competition. And emergent capabilities of artificially intelligent systems spell further worry for the working class, as intellectual automation begins to creep into an increasing number of industries and potentially shrink the job market.
So how do we prepare for a future where most of us are no longer capable of making meaningful contribution to the growth of global output, and where that growth is no longer inherently good? We will have to create and instill new values to replace the unsustainable ones—no easy task. But by working to break down the social barriers between rich and poor, young and old, native-born and newcomer, we can begin to forge the egalitarian, community-oriented society we need to survive.
Finding contemporary examples of communities not in complete thrall to capitalist values is difficult, but not impossible. One such example is the Dobe Ju/’hoansi, a nomadic hunter-gatherer society native to the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the Ju/’hoansi had lived in relatively uninterrupted isolation from the rest of the world for some 200,000 years in a stable pattern of peaceful cooperation. But they weren’t simply peaceful for the fun of it—it was essential to survival. Sharing the Kalahari’s ten inconsistently viable watering holes between several hundred Ju/’hoansi required a delicate balance of goodwill and interchange between the different bands that occupied its 360,000 sun-scorched square miles.
When anthropologist Richard Lee conducted the first comprehensive study of the economic systems of this pre-capitalist group in 1966, he was surprised to find that the typical day of a Ju/’hoansi was not an arduous fight for survival, but rather a life of leisure. The Ju/’hoansi fed themselves on roughly two hours of foraging each day, spending the rest of their time resting, playing games, creating art, and bonding with family. Based on this discovery, he branded them as the “original affluent society,” and forced the industrialized world to reconsider its commitment to and definition of “wealth.”
The Ju/’hoansi had total faith in their homeland’s ability to sustain them and did not plan in the long term. Going to bed without knowing where your next meal is going to come from is nothing novel for those living in the “underserved communities” of the industrialized world, but the key difference is that the Ju/’hoansi were socially obliged to share food and key resources with everyone in their band: young, old, infirm, and unlucky. When one family had a successful hunt, they shared all that they did not eat with the rest of the group. The hoarding of personal belongings was mocked and stigmatized. Fascinatingly, this was not enforced by the edicts of some rigid hierarchy but rather by the social values and peer pressure of a staunchly egalitarian system.
While these values were universally held among the Ju/’hoansi, this didn’t mean that they blindly trusted strangers to abide by them. So the Ju/’hoansi developed a system of formalized interaction that helped maintain relationships and provide a barometer of individuals’ commitment to the social ethos, called ‘hxaro’ (pronounced x-zar 'oh).
Hxaro is a system of gift exchange that distributes goods and strengthens social bonds. Unlike bartering, the system is delayed and non-equivalent, meaning the item given in return is neither delivered immediately nor is it necessarily of equal material value to the original gift. Additionally, hxaro places greater importance on the relationship cultivated between the exchanging parties rather than the practical impact of the good given or received. (Gifts are often re-gifted to other hxaro exchange partners, sometimes as part of deliberate, elaborate chains that move scarce resources across vast tracts of desert.)
The type of good exchanged varied greatly: pets, pots, tools, jewelry, pipes, and eventually items of European origin like clothing and cookware. However, food and people were never hxaroed as a categorical rule, as their transfer was handled in separate symbolic systems. Hxaro partnerships were either forged along lines of direct kinship, kinship-through marriage, inherited from parents, or through friendship. Devoid of gender hierarchy, hxaro occurred between participants of either sex with unchanged connotation. Exchange typically occurred at the same frequency as social interaction between partners (i.e. whenever they visited one another), and thus varied with physical and familial proximity. This was all done with minimal pomp, as any ostentatious indiscretion might undermine the perceived sincerity of the gesture.
The values inherent in hxaro are well understood by exploring the Ju/’hoan concept of //kai, or “wealth.” Similar to the capitalist conception of wealth, //kai refers to the quantities of material goods (jewelry, cookware, etc.) hanging around an individual’s home. But interestingly, to be considered a rich person—//kaiha—is not a factor of the quantity of goods in your home, but rather of the amount of gifts you send out into the world. In other words, for the Ju/’hoansi, the richest man was the one with the most friends.
Thus, XHARO is hxaro reimagined for a globalized world, using gift exchange as a medium for fostering new connections, mutual understanding and egalitarian values in our modern society.
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Xharo was developed as part of my master's thesis, Me, Myself & A.I.: How I Learned to Love the Machine That Took my Job. You can watch my thesis video, read my thesis book, and see my other thesis projects here.