Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Symbionomics Media Experience

Part of what Jay and I hope to accomplish in the long run with the Symbionomics project is making a feature length film. However, we believe the experience the audience has with the film is just as important as the content of the film itself. Today, the options for experiencing a feature length film are somewhat limited, so it may be time for a big redesign.

To get a lay of the land, let’s start with the current popular ways films are experienced. DVDs are totally unsocial. You sit there and you watch the film with no idea of who else has watched it or what they thought about it. You also have no way to contribute your own thoughts or enter into any kind of dialog other than with those who are physically present in the screening room. That seems a little last century to me.

Also, since DVDs are physical objects, once they are burned they do not change. While the extras on DVDs do make an attempt to provide additional context (such as commentary tracks), this material is just as unchanging as the film itself. This means that as new information and perspectives come to light, eventually the DVD becomes a historical artifact as opposed to a living document.

The rise of web video services such as YouTube or Vimeo has done much to address these fundamental shortcomings. However, while YouTube and Vimeo are awesome for short videos, you can only comment on the video as a whole. That may be fine if there are only a few ideas in the video, but for longer format films this limitation means only the shallowest of conversations can arise.

Netflix’s streaming service has certainly grown more robust over the last year, yet it still has only a few social elements. The viewing process itself still feels more like a lecture than a seminar. I watch a film, I give it a rating, and maybe I write a review if I am highly motivated.

Jay and I have been playing with how to take a quantum leap forward in audience participation. Think Soundcloud for video. Soundcloud is my favorite music platform by far. I majored in music composition in undergrad, and one of my favorite parts of that experience was getting and giving critiques. In a good composition class, your fellow students help you reach your highest potential by offering support, camaraderie, and constructive criticism. Soundcloud does this very effectively by allowing users to make comments at specific points in the timeline. In other words, if I, as a musician, decide to add a drum beat at 2:23, folks can make comments that appear precisely at that time. The result is a highly focused critique of the composition, which in turn leads to a supportive community of musicians who learn and grow together.

We want our audience to have the same kind of experience with the Symbionomics film. Imagine watching a finished film where any frame in the timeline can be commented on. If some expert in the film makes an interesting point, and you have a burning desire to respond, just add a video comment to that frame. These comments could be threaded to allow for dialog between different commentators. Comments could also include links to relevant external media sources, such as someone’s TED talk.

By allowing an ongoing dialog to emerge in specific response to moments in the film, we create the possibility for a living document. If new perspectives come to light on a given topic, people can add links to the latest and best web talks. The result is a collaboratively created way to drill into specific topics and ideas presented in the timeline of the film.

We want to hear your thoughts. What would make you want to participate in this kind of dialog? What features would you want to see?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Symbionomics Themes

What follows is a synopsis of the major themes we are exploring with the Symbionomics project (see kickstarter link on the right). Obviously, this is just a starting point. We are open to these concepts growing and evolving as this process unfolds.

With each theme, we are seeding an online video discussion (as linked to in the titles). Ultimately, we will have video forums for each theme.

  1. New Media: In the last twenty years, a wave of new tools has transformed the way we communicate. As Clay Shirky points out in his seminal book Here Comes Everybody, 20th century media tools took the form of one-to-many. Today, with the advent of social media, we can, for the first time, communicate on a large scale in a many-to-many pattern. What’s more, this new ability has profoundly affected how the economy is organized. We will explore how tools like blogs, social media, and Wikipedia have transformed the way people live and work.
  2. Networks: These new forms of communication have enabled the geometry of our organizations to evolve from pyramidal to networked. In the past we needed top-down hierarchical organizations to organize on any scale larger than a village. Today, we are seeing organizations become more effective as they have embraced networked culture. We will explore how living in a networked world changes the incentives for economic interaction.
  3. Letting Go of Control: As we have transformed into a networked culture, we have developed new ways of deriving value from our work. We used to depend on capturing value through the ownership of assets and the control of production. Now that access to information is only ever a few connections away, many people are loosening control over their property in favor of sharing amongst their networks. We will explore how new social contracts of ownership and control have gained traction in an age of hyper-connectivity.
  4. Open Production: As individuals and organizations have loosened their grasp on their products, an entirely new form of production has emerged. In contrast to the industrial production models of the 20th century, today, open source software, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons have proven that open production is both viable and effective. We will explore the success and future possibilities of this new mode of production.
  5. Motivation: With new modes of production come new motivations for participation and value creation. Since both monetary reward and power over others are largely non-existent in the open production model, motivation has shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic. What’s more, as Daniel Pink points out in his book Drive, intrinsic motivation is far more successful at educing creative problem solving in individuals. We will explore this new motivational landscape and find out exactly why people do contribute at such large scales to Wikipedia and other such projects.
  6. Post-Scarcity Economics: In the old economy, the surest way to profit was to be controlling a scarce resource. However, many of the products of the digital age are virtually free to reproduce and distribute. Industries such as newspapers and music have been slow to embrace this new reality, and have fallen into decline. We will explore the economic logic of a world where the primary driver of the economy is no longer scarce.
  7. The Future Work: Our new communications tools have also changed the way we organize at the workplace. The rise of co-working environments such as The Hub has brought into question whether the 20th century conception of employment is still a necessary foundation to the economy. Agile developer teams that spontaneously arise to build open source software have proven that successful teamwork no longer depends on an employer. We will explore this shifting landscape around how we organize ourselves into effective teams.
  8. Social Gaming: The recent explosion of smart phone technology has also seen an unprecedented integration of gaming into everyday life. Services such as Foursquare, SCVNGR, and CheckPoints, have provided new ways of coordinating economic activity, supporting local businesses in the process. What’s more, thought leaders such as Jane McGonigal and Jessie Schell have emphasized using game dynamics for social benefit. We will explore the power and potential of social gaming.
  9. Collaborative Consumption: In addition to new modes of production emerging in the economy, we are also seeing the rise of new forms of consumption. Rachel Botsman in her recent book, What’s Mine Is Yours, has documented a massive surge in services such as Zip Car, CouchSurfing, and NeighborGoods which use information technology to make more efficient use of physical resources. We will explore how this new trend in consumption is affecting the broader economic landscape.
  10. Making and Growing: New economic patterns of the information age are no longer limited to the Internet as the rise of maker communities and DIY demonstrates. The rise of 3D printing has made decentralized manufacturing a real possibility, with designs shared in a global knowledge commons. On the agricultural side, gardening has surged in popularity as the economy continues to languish. We will explore how we can use the same patterns Wikipedia has proved so successful in the broader economy.
  11. The Future of Currency: As our economy transforms, conventional forms of money may no longer be serving our needs. In many cases, online reputation systems have reduced people’s dependency on money to facilitate transactions. Much of the new economy is outside of the market entirely, which begs the question, what will replace money as an economic coordinating system? We will explore how 21st century information systems are beginning to reduce the need for conventional money to get things done.
  12. Collective Intelligence: As our civilization goes through this massive transformation, we are also seeing the intelligence of organizations rising to meet 21st century challenges. Where the 20th century was about smart individuals, the 21st century will be about creating smart organizations on all scales. We will explore the power and future possibilities of collective organization.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Asymmetric Accounting & Adaptive Networks

In this recent post, Gregory Rader explores the implications of asymmetric accounting. For those who need a quick catch up, asymmetric accounting is when two parties in a transaction account for the transaction differently. This process is a little different than we are accustomed to, as the concept of "price" generally ensures there is a symmetry in accounting between buyer and seller. Here are a few additional thoughts for your consideration.

Let's consider an adaptive neural network. The basic rule in any adaptive network is: try a bunch of different configurations, and strengthen those connections that lead to a preferred result. While our brains are one example of an adaptive network, this pattern also manifests in the evolution of ecosystems and even our social systems. In fact, our economy as a whole could be thought of as an adaptive network that reinforces configurations (innovations) that add value, and eliminates those that don't.

So what does this have to do with asymmetric accounting? If we were to consciously design an algorithm for the economy's adaptive network to function by, I would argue that insisting on symmetric accounting is a big mistake. Let's assume that our goal is to encourage lots of innovation / experimentation and provide reinforcement for the production of goods / services that add value to people's lives. By this logic we would want to measure the value-add of any good or service provided. However, you will notice that the price is agreed upon before any value is added to the economy. Consider for a moment how much distortion this causes. As a buyer, I might be suckered in by advertising that promises some great value-add for my life, only to discover that the product in question causes me nothing but grief.

Also consider that the buyer has every incentive to understate the amount of value they expect to receive, as this expression takes the form of them parting with their hard-earned money.

In order to overcome these two major barriers to a well-functioning adaptive network, I propose the following. First, we eliminate the concept of expected value as expressed through "price" entirely, and shift to a model where we are measuring the real value of the good or service received. There are, of course, many ways we could accomplish this, ranging from hard data derived from sensors to subjective reviews and ratings systems. The second would be remove any incentive for either buyer or seller to express anything other than their authentic experience around the transaction. And we all know that experiences can be asymmetrical.

Taken together, the picture this paints of the economy is quite different. In the interests of not rambling on for too much longer, I would assert that this algorithm would likely enable the kind of economy I described in this blog post from August.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Scarcity Is an Illusion, no really

Some would say that while non-rival goods like information are not inherently scarce, rival goods like oil are. I disagree. There is the amount of oil that there is. It is neither abundant nor scarce. It just is. What makes us perceive oil as scarce are the humsn systems we have built that create a context for it.

Consider a violin. A violin is a system defined by the interaction of various elements (wood, string, bow). The violin system enables a certain kind of music to be created. If you wanted to use a violin to make percussion, it probably wouldn't work too well. Does that mean the music that's possible to make with the violin is scarce? Clearly not. It just means that the system within which you make such music defines certain parameters. What's more, there isn't anything scarce about the music that's possible with a drum either; it simply enables artistry within a different set of parameters.

Some would say that parameters on systems are what enable creativity in the first place. A person has to be a real artist to get any instrument to perform at the height of its potential. Artistry is only possible because there is a system within which it has meaning.

To continue the analogy in the economic domain, in the broadest sense, our instrument is the Earth. And the Earth has certain parameters. This doesn't make anything herein scarce. Quite the opposite. It simply gives us a system within which we have a chance to be artists. If we are experiencing scarcity, it is only because we are trying to play the wrong kind of music. There is no question in my mind that the new music we will learn to play together will be much better suited to our instrument.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Core of MetaCurrency

For all the talk those of us at The MetaCurrency Project have gotten into about the meaning of open, the meaning of currency, and various subtleties therein, the core of The MetaCurrency Project is actually very simple. IMHO, it boils down to the following question: What would it take to make the role of 3rd party record keeping irrelevant?

For those of you who need a quick overview, 3rd party record keeping is what a bank does. It is also what a commercial barter organization does and even a timebank. When the records are denominated in terms of dollars, it is an official IRS designation. For those of us comfortable including things likes 5-star ratings in the definition of currency, 3rd party record keeping also refers to Yelp!, Ebay, etc, since they keep the records people make about fellow users.

The ability to record stuff that happened in the real world, and derive useful information from those records (such as account balances, or average user ratings) is obviously very powerful. Just being in the business of 3rd party record keeping can concentrate massive amounts of wealth (just look at the banking industry). What's more, as the failure of many local currencies has shown us, this architecture can be highly fragile, subject to the petty personal politics that so often run rampant in activist circles.

What if we had a way to perform all the same functions, but without the middle man? What if our records could be distributed in such a way that they couldn't be tampered with, and privacy was still protected? We believe this shift would open up vast new possibilities for how we organize ourselves economically, as well as offer a resilience to our economy heretofore unrealized. In essence, that has been what The MetaCurrency Project has been trying to figure out how to do for the last few years. And, this is a more difficult challenge than you may think....

However, I for one would be delighted if someone out there figured it out no matter who it was.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Job's Economy

That's Job as in The Book of Job. Yes, it's time to get Biblical. The Book of Job may be one of the oldest books in the Bible, but it actually contains some interesting wisdom pertaining to the new economy.

The basic story is very simple. Job is an upstanding guy who does everything G_d tells him to. Despite this, lots of bad things start happening to him. Job gets pretty upset and challenges G_d saying, "Hey, I did all this great stuff, and look what you gave me!" To which, G_d replies, "What the hell is wrong with you? The universe doesn't work like that. It's way cooler." Then, when Job finally accepts that the universe doesn't owe him anything, he regains all his former wealth.

At the core, this is a story about Quid-Pro-Quo a.k.a. something for something. Job expects the universe to work based on a quid-pro-quo agreement. He does some good, he gets some good. His sense of fair play is deeply offended when it turns out the universe doesn't work like this at all. What's more, we sympathize with Job. We feel his pain because we too often feel as though the universe isn't being fair.

The interesting part is, we've built our whole economy around this faulty notion of how the universe works. Money is the very essence of a quid-pro-quo agreement. I do something for you. I get something back from society. In fact, society actually owes me to the tune of however much money I have. What's more, we believe this core agreement to be at the heart of wealth production. It's nearly impossible for us to imagine how we could have an economy without this tit-for-tat way of doing business.

We forget that this is not actually how wealth is built in Nature. Nature is a complex system that exhibits emergent properties. The type of emergence that underlies true wealth production has almost nothing to do with quid-pro-quo. In many cases, the coming together of seemingly unrelated elements produces wealth far in excess of the sum of the parts. How would you describe that in terms of quid-pro-quo?

G_d says something like this to Job (albeit it not explicitly spelled out with these concepts). What's more, when Job finally "gets it" that being a good human being isn't about extrinsic rewards, his happiness returns.

Here is my strong intuition. If we lessened the degree to which we base our economy on quid-pro-quo we would create a lot more space for the emergence of new types of wealth. Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc. are examples of this new kind of wealth emerging as we speak. And Lord knows the Old Testament was all for Wikipedia... :)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

21st Century Property Rights

The question of property is not as easy as it first sounds. William Blackstone, a judge circa 18th century England, defined property rights as "sole and despotic dominion." It's no accident that this formulation coincided with the Industrial Age, which has been largely founded on the premise that control over nature / other is a worthy goal. Our conception of property, while certainly becoming more sophisticated over the last 250 years, has not really shifted from this basic notion.

One of the ways property rights have evolved is that today there are limits to "sole and despotic dominion". In many neighborhoods, I could not paint my house with green polka dots, as this would violate code. So, The State (as a proxy for the community at large) places restrictions on what I may do with my property if I want it to remain mine.

However, I would assert that The State may not be the most effective or efficient arbiter in property rights. Consider the following: the bank can own a completely unused house (appropriately painted), acquired through foreclosure. I doubt many people would claim if pressed, that the unused yet appropriately painted house was more beneficial to the community than my lived-in green polka dot house next door. Clearly something is amiss with the way we assign property rights today.

One thing is clear. Property rights are derived the perceived benefit to the community (or at least non-harm) from one person or group's stewardship of what is owned. I will lose my car if I use it to run people over. I will lose my house if I use it to refine crack cocaine. So, given the rise of online tools that can instantly reflect public sentiment, perhaps it is possible to disintermediate The State as the sole authority in this matter. What if we were to look towards the proverbial wisdom of the crowds as a way of determining property rights? The state has proven itself clunky at best in mitigating modern society. Perhaps there is a way of moving this function of defining property rights out of the state's hands and into a more dynamic, adaptable, and democratic framework.

Imagine a world where property is owned because it is being well stewarded rather than ownership being a priori to stewardship. Much of the worst behavior we see in the economy would be impossible, because the second any firm stopped stewarding their properties for the benefit of the larger community, they would no longer own their properties (intellectual or otherwise). In this world ownership is derived from good stewardship, rather than the other way around.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Currency Design Possibilities

I've been deep in the alternative currency community for the last five years or so. Unfortunately, even after the economic crisis of 2008, our movement still hasn't had anything more than anecdotal success. To tell you the truth, this has on occasion gotten me down. There is something deeply unsettling about the mismatch between what is obviously so (the unsustainable nature of conventional money), and how people behave in reality.

Recently, however, I have been feeling a lot more upbeat about the prospects of creating a new economy. I started feeling better when I realized that it wasn't about ME, as a currency designer, creating a new kind of economy. There is an often unspoken assumption for many of us in the currency design world that good currency design is what gets people to behave in new and more sustainable ways. In essence, if you can get enough people to participate in a well designed currency, their behaviors will be incentivized in ever more sustainable and virtuous directions. The more I have become aware of this assumption, the more I have grown wary of it.

The core problem in this assumption is that currencies DO NOT create behaviors. Currency designers DO NOT play puppet master to the unsuspecting and largely ignorant masses. Currencies are adopted and adapted because they support existing behaviors. For instance, when we made the shift to fractional reserve banking, the merchant class already needed a form of money less controlled by monarchs to support an emerging industrial production model. The evolution in currency happened because it supported an ascending pattern of economic production.

So, where do we see an ascending pattern of economic behavior today? While there are lots of experiments in local artisanal production, IMHO these are dwarfed in significance by what Yochai Benkler has called "commons based peer production." This kind of production has been most famously embodied in Wikipedia, open source software, and Creative Commons licensing. Commons based peer production is global in scale, and is made possible by the many-to-many communications technology of the Internet.

The main question for us then, as currency designers, is not how to get people to buy local, or how to incentivize more sustainable behavior. The main question should be how to support the growth of this entirely new type of economic production. Now, in no way I am discouraging folks from experimenting with different incentive structures for the existing economy. I am simply saying the sea-change we need to catalyze will be founded upon an entirely new pattern of production. Imagine what would happen if manufacturing was organized in the same way as Wikipedia. This is not as far fetched as it sounds now that the cost of 3d printing is dropping into reach of everyday folks.

What's most important about this new mode of production is that it is NOT about the quid-pro-quo, something-for-something social contract. The primary motivation for participation is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Therefore, in the most fundamental way, this new currency will NOT be based on the quid-pro-quo social contract. This is difficult for us to conceive of since all modern money is based on the assumption that producers of value should be incentivized with rewards as determined by the market. Even most alternative money substitutes simply recapitulate this basic pattern. The logic of the quid-pro-quo market goes something like this "I'll provide my service at $50/hour but not $30/hour, and if you can afford it, you are worthy of my time."

Instead, these new currencies will be about making it easy to find the right place to put one's own efforts based not on extrinsic reward, but on intrinsic value. In other words, where will my efforts be the most fulfilling to me and most in harmony with my community? This is about right placement, and about being in economic communication with people all around the globe.

I am highly optimistic that this kind of world is not only possible, but inevitable.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Spontaneous Teams

Recently, my parents were visiting me from out of town. At one point in the conversation I made a quip about how I thought employment was on its way out as the dominant conduit for producing value in the economy. They were interested and a little skeptical, so they asked me to explain further. I quickly realized I had to find a way of communicating these ideas without citing things like Wikipedia and open source since they really aren't that tech savvy.

Then, I remembered I had recently been at a wedding reception where, in a lull between a small intimate brunch and roaring evening party, folks were asked to help set up tables and chairs. A group quickly assembled and sorted out which tables went where, and got chairs around them for the numerous guests who were to arrive later in the day. What's interesting about this vignette is that a team spontaneously assembled to perform a task without a clear "person in charge." Also, once the work was complete the team disbanded just as quickly as it was assembled.

Think how different the above is from our usual employment scenario. At the wedding, the team was self-defined; i.e. no one had to apply to be admitted as part of it. The team was self-organizing; i.e. people were free to lead or to follow as they chose. No one was trying to protect their spot on the team, i.e. no one was afraid of being laid off. Once the work was done, the team disbanded; i.e. we weren't trying to ensure ongoing employment.

I went on to explain that these kinds of spontaneous self-assembling teams have been the mainstay of human culture for as long as there have been humans, but until recently they were only possible on a very small scale. New communications have enabled the same kind of pattern on a much larger scale. What if the dominant means of producing value in the economy was in the context of teams like these? Wouldn't that be a lot less stressful? We could simply trust that there were always projects to work on, and ways our contributions could be valued.

To my delight, this meme seemed to resonate a bit. :)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gifting with Completion

In our current world, much of what we do in service of each other is conditional upon receiving value in return. Usually this value takes the form of a claim on goods or services from someone else in the economy. We call these claims money. Money has served impressively to coordinate our economy in modern society. However, new forms of large-scale coordinated production are beginning to emerge that transcend conditionality in our giving.

Imagine a world where every time you expend your time and effort, the interaction is complete at the time of the interaction. In other words, your contribution isn’t conditional upon receiving value at some time in the future. You simply contribute because you make a sovereign choice to.

Think this sounds too pie-in-the-sky to be realistic for a global economy? Believe it or not this basic social contract is already working to enable large-scale group projects. When an expert on a giving topic chooses to spend her time writing or editing an article for Wikipedia, she doesn’t expect monetary compensation. The interaction is complete as soon as the article is. When a musician chooses a Creative Commons license for his work, he doesn’t expect royalties. Again, the interaction is complete as soon as he chooses the license. In both these cases, the contribution is based on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

These social patterns have been very successful in the domain of information, where your gift can be replicated at virtually no cost. So, what kinds of communication tools would be able to support this kind of giving in other sectors of the economy? Instead of choosing where to gift your energy based on a future obligation, you might base your choice on information about what has happened in the past. You are always free to decide where to give your time and energy, so what information would you want to help you make those decisions?

I can’t tell you how to direct your gifts, but I can tell you some things I might consider.

  1. Values: How does this gift I am about to make support the values I care about. Does this recipient spend their time to better the world (according to my values), or to degrade it
  2. Karma: If I choose to give here, does that energy dissipate or does it make a cyclical pattern? How does this gift get returned to me? In material form? In the form of a safer or friendlier neighborhood? In the form of a cleaner environment?
  3. Efficacy: How much is my gift appreciated? I don’t want to give my gift if the recipient doesn’t appreciate my time and effort in a way that is consistent with the energy I put in.
  4. Satisfaction: How do I feel when I make this gift? Have I felt good in the past giving to this person? Or did I feel exploited? Have I learned something in the process?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Embracing Fuzziness

It's a full-blown cliche that today's rapidly changing world is full of uncertainty. For individuals this is hard enough to navigate, but for many groups this is near impossible territory. Anyone who has ever participated in group decision making knows that groups tend to have a much harder time arriving on a shared plan than individuals. Top-down hierarchies have been the traditional approach to dealing with this organizational quandary, reducing much of group decision making to the decision making of an individual. And, it is another full-blown cliche that even those structures have become ineffectual given the complexity and unpredictability of today's environment.

So what practices can we embrace in our groups that can help us move forward? This is, of course, way too rich a topic to explore fully in a single blog post. However, I put forth that one key element is embracing fuzziness. Many of us big brained apes try to get a clear picture of the territory mapped out in our heads before making important decisions. It shouldn't come as a surprise that much of the difficulty in group decision making comes around arriving at a shared map. Anyone who has been down this road knows this can be a long drawn out process. What's worse is that many times, by the time we have painstakingly arrived at a shared map, the territory has already shifted, rendering that map moot.

Therefore, it seems to me that we need to learn to be more comfortable operating with shared maps that are only roughly drawn. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but letting go of the need for a precisely drawn shared map can allow us to move forward in uncertain circumstances. The better we get at making these fuzzy maps, the less intimidating it is to change them once we get feedback from the environment which contradicts the map. Consider that an organization may continue to use a dysfunctional map long past its prime simply because making a new one would be too time consuming.

The map doesn't have to be perfect, just enough to take us a little ways down the road. Then, we redraw the map as needed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Role of Government in an Open World

The recent flurry of attention on net neutrality has gotten me thinking about the proper role of government in society. For those of you in who missed it, Google and Verizon recently released a joint proposal for how the FCC should regulate net neutrality. The proposal leaves wireless Internet out of any requirement for neutrality, effectively killing the whole point of neutrality in the first place.

Now, I have been somewhat skeptical of the FCC regulating the Internet. We need only look at the stringent censorship that happens on our public airwaves to be VERY wary of the government having any authority over the Internet. However, net neutrality isn't about making sure Americans don't see Janet Jackson's nipple while trying to enjoy the Super Bowl. It is fundamentally about making sure that the "tubes" of the Internet don't discriminate against content, no matter the source or how offensive it may be. To me, this seems like the exact opposite kind of protection than that afforded by the "decency police."

Think how differently government would behave if its primary mission was ensuring open access to the fundamental infrastructure that enables complex society. Whether it be the airwaves or money itself, these communications platforms have largely fallen into private hands. The government's current role is to vigorously protect and prolong the enclosure. Doesn't this seem to be the exact opposite of the appropriate role of government in democratic society?

Now, in no way, am I proposing some totalitarian communist nightmare. In fact the exact opposite. In a totalitarian state the government has full control of societal infrastructure. I am not talking about control. I am talking about the preservation of no control.

Consider roads. Most everyone agrees that roads shouldn't be controlled by private companies. They are far too integral to society. If private companies controlled the roads, they could make deals with auto makers to only allow certain brands of cars to use them. This would be a major impediment to the functioning of society. The government's role is to ensure that the roads remain an open platform for transportation. In other words, for roads to be functional as infrastructure, they must not be overly controlled. Notice that in no way does this mean that car companies should be run by the government. It just means that for car companies to be in a free and open market, roads must be in the public domain.

Think of how much infrastructure there is in society that is similar to this. The airwaves, the Internet, payment networks, money itself, etc. Much of this infrastructure has fallen under the control of those who don't have society's best interests at heart. I put to you that the primary function of government should be to ensure open access to basic social infrastructure.

What's more, this foundational principle should be formalized in the Constitution. This would mean the FCC would stop being the decency police, and start doing its only legitimate job. This would mean that intellectual property rights would be rewritten to ensure that drug companies can't price gauge for life saving medicines. This would mean that banks would lose their monopoly on legal tender. This would mean that payment networks (like Visa or MasterCard) would have to ensure open access for other types of currency as well. This would mean that net neutrality was constitutionally guaranteed.

Put that in your libertarian pipe and smoke it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thoughts on Sovereignty and Emergence

One core concept to come out of the MetaCurrency camp is that of fractal sovereignty. A fractal is self same at all levels. Similarly, fractal sovereignty is where the sovereignty of the individual and the sovereignty of the group are simultaneously fully embraced.

The question about where to place sovereignty has long been one of the core divides in politics. Many who consider themselves conservative favor the sovereignty of the individual over the group, decrying regulations, taxes, etc. Those who may consider themselves liberal tend to believe that taxes are a good thing because they contribute to the common good. In the spirit of "transcend and include" we have been exploring what it would mean to embrace both types of sovereignty fully. And, as is the case with many other topics, the MetaCurrency people don't all agree. But here are my thoughts.

Fractals are all over the place in nature. Consider a snowflake. Its hypnotizing symmetry is a direct result of the "V" shape of a water molecule. A water molecule is bent at a very specific angle, causing it to be polar. This means one side is positively charged and the other is negatively charged. The collective interaction of billions of these tiny polar molecules is what ultimately leads to the snowflake's macro crystalline structure. So the larger scale pattern emerges fractally from the smaller scale pattern.

Now apply this to sovereignty. For a group to be truly sovereign as a group, the only possible foundation is full individual sovereignty. So what do I mean by full individual sovereignty? In this case I don't simply mean that you have a vote. I mean you are fully sovereign to act however you deem best given the information you have. That last part about information is really the key.

As you may already be aware, I consider a currency a method of keeping account of things that happen in the real world. It doesn't take a big leap to see that my perception of the world largely depends on how I account for events. If I am a teacher who cares how polite the kids are with each other, I might want to keep track of pleases and thank yous. Perhaps I would choose to use a gold star system. If I care about academic performance I would use grades. If I care about athletic performance, I would keep score. All of these are currencies that shape my perception of the students in my class.

When we share methods of accounting, we can better coordinate our actions. For example, it wouldn't be much of a football game if half the team was paying attention to the score, and the other half was counting the pleases and thank yous on the field. Coherence in the game emerges from shared perception of the events taking place on the field, and our perception emerges from how we account for these events.

So far, so good. But how does this apply to sovereignty? In the Industrial paradigm, we tend to get to cohesion through coercion. There are rules that are usually dictated from on high. Even in a democracy, how much say do you really have over the rules? Not much. What if instead of relying on RULES to create social cohesion, we let cohesion emerge from everyone's fully sovereign individual actions. Everyone would be fully sovereign to use whatever method of accounting for events they found most useful. In other words, everyone would be fully sovereign to choose how to perceive the world around them. I predict that ultimately, this would produce large scale social coherence without coercion, much like how water molecules produce the coherence of the snowflake without any coercion or rules.

That is the soft claim. The strong claim is that true group sovereignty has as a necessary logical underpinning full individual sovereignty. Groups that cohere otherwise are not actually sovereign in the sense of choosing how to respond to their environment AS A GROUP. Sure they can respond, but not as sovereign entities. They respond based on rules and policies formalized on paper.

Think of it this way. In nature, species exist BECAUSE they work. No one sat down and looked at the ecosystem and said, "You know, I think a small hairy critter would do well here." If there are small hairy critters, it is because small hairy critters emerged. Similarly, groups that are truly sovereign will exist BECAUSE they work, not because they were designed ahead of time. That is the essence of emergence versus creation from outside.

This difference in thinking is analogous to that between G_d the watch maker, and G_d the mother. G_d the watch maker makes a plan first, and then executes it. G_d the mother simply creates a healthy environment for the baby to emerge as the baby self-determines.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Innovation, Openness, and Currencies

A few days ago I watched this very insightful talk by Lawrence Lessig (thanks Matt for tweeting it!). One of the take home points of this talk is that many of the platforms that are now supporting innovation and creativity are not actually that open. In some cases they are both functionally and legally closed, as in the iPhone, and in other cases they are legally closed but functionally open, as in Youtube. Lessig points out that this is contrary to the conventional theory on openness, which states that the level of creativity and innovation is inversely proportional to the level of control over the tools / platforms that enable them. Lessig's point is well taken. We run the risk of losing ground on open values unless we find practical ways to make openness indispensable.

I believe this is true as far as it goes. Of course, the big elephant in the room is money. Both money itself and the infrastructure that enables its use are highly controlled (closed) technologies. Is it really any surprise that companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, etc haven't fully embraced open values when they have to swim in the ocean of conventional closed money? They are simply doing what the market necessitates they do, which is maximize profit through dominance and control. If they can give lip service to a new way of doing things along the way, they can improve their brand image, but the core game is still conventional money.

We have only just begun to develop robust and scalable economic tools that can support open values. Wikipedia, Creative Commons, and others have begun to pave a practical and legal path for the integration of openness into mainstream culture. I have tons of hope that this process will continue, but I am also aware that we can't expect further openness from big multinational companies until we have the economic tools that can support it. IMHO, that is our primary design challenge right now as currency enthusiasts.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What the death of wave means for new currencies

Remember a year ago when everyone was falling over each other to be one of the "cool kids" who got a wave invite? Well, today Google officially announced the death of Wave. Apparently no one actually used it. Even though I was one of those "cool kids", and even though I too could not find a way to integrate it into my life, I think this is a shame. Wave WAS really innovative. And Wave did have remarkable potential as a collaborative tool / platform.

The lesson should be clear. Even the best inventions backed with tons of resources and hype don't necessarily catch on. The reason I never used Wave was that no one I knew ever used it. If I started a Wave (and in the beginning I started quite a few), chances were other people wouldn't notice. What's more, the people I am referring to gave similar reasons for their not using Wave. Think how similar this predicament is to any new form of currency. And our economic habits are much more deeply ingrained than our email habits.

Collective behavior changes do happen. Today they are happening very rapidly. But what drives this collective behavior modification is still as mysterious as ever. I'm not saying we in the new economy movement should give up. Indeed I see many reasons for optimism. I am saying that we need to be aware of the challenges ahead.

RIP Wave.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Little Big Planet as a UI Model for Currency Design

I am doing another post on video games because I think there are some really interesting and relevant stuff brewing in that world. Recently, I checked out Play Station's Little Big Planet. Little Big Planet is more than a game. It is a game building tool that allows people to build their own game worlds and share them.

We'll forget for a moment that it is highly proprietary and operating in a closed network (there is no open game protocol that people can use without having bought the game). That aside, I think this may offer a glimpse of what the future of UIs for currency design might be like.

Little Big Planet's UI is graphic, simple, and intuitive, meaning you don't need to know code to express your creativity. I am sure there will be ways of doing this with currency design in the near future as well. I can imagine some kind of flow chart that would describe possible relations between different account types. I cooked this diagram up in about 5 minutes on OmniGraffle, but you begin to get the general idea. What if there was a currency UI that would spit out a set of currency rules that corresponded to any such diagram you make.

More importantly, however, Little Big Planet has a large community of collaborators who build and share levels. To me, one of the biggest issues in currency design is the highly centralized power of the currency designer. This is analogous to Blizzard being the sole designer in the World of Warcraft world (see previous post). For currencies to be more emergent, a decentralized process of building and sharing currencies is necessary. To me Little Big Planet begins to hint at this possibility.

Of course, for emergent collaborative design, Twitter is still my all time favorite. Twitter is the classic example of "paving the cow paths." Twitter's users invented most of what is cool about twitter, such as @ replies, hash tags, and so on. We need a currency platform that will allow for the same kind of emergence in currency design. An intuitive UI will be an important first step.

Friday, July 9, 2010

WoW as a model for 21st century work

Ok, I know this sounds over the top geeky, but hear me out. WoW (World of Warcraft) may actually provide a valuable model for how to run a post scarcity economy. After having watched and LOVED Jane McGonigal's TED talk, I realized how much those of us in the new economics world have to learn from WoW. I have never actually played WoW (no interest in goblins, ogres, or wizards), but I have talked to many who have and have learned quite a bit about how the WoW "workplace" is constructed. Here are some important parallels to the new economy.

Much like the real economy, WoW provides a series of tasks that can only be accomplished with a team. The difference is that there is no "employer." Teams spontaneously self assemble with the skill sets needed to accomplish the task. In the real world, we call these skills "core competencies," but in WoW each player has a special set of skills appropriate to their player class (healers heal people, wizards cast spells, etc).

The interesting part is that each mission requires a slightly different configuration of skills. One mission may favor fighters, and another may favor healers, and so on. This is quite similar to real life as different tasks in the real world require different sets of core competencies on the team. However, in WoW rather than being assigned tasks by a boss, teams self assemble based on prior experience, reputation, and a set of transparent metrics (currencies) about each player. WoW allows players to "level up," meaning that they get better, faster, stronger the more they play. More difficult missions require teams comprised of players at a higher level. What level you are on is transparent to those around you, so others know whether or not you would be an appropriate member of a given team. This transparency is what allows teams to self-assemble. It also allows for new comers to feel welcomed into the fold since people at lower levels can seek each other out for missions.

Also, in WoW there is NEVER a shortage of tasks to accomplish. This is of course true in the real world as well, but we have tricked ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of work (due to the chronic shortage of federal money). WoW does not have this limitation so there is always something VERY IMPORTANT to do with a team.

Even more importantly, in WoW the primary motivation for players is to "level their characters." The higher a level you attain, the more likely it is you will be asked to join a team for a really interesting mission. This is important because WoW is NOT about climbing a corporate ladder. It is about improving one's skills so as to get the most out of the experience. Think for a moment how radically awesome that is. Is this not exactly the kind of intrinsic motivation that spurs people to their highest potential in the real world?

To recap, in WoW, you don't need an employer because there is always work to be done, people can always connect with the right people to do the work, and the real motivation is in developing one's own skill set. And if you think this is too pie-in-the-sky to work outside the context of a video game, just remember how many young people are playing games like this for hours on end. They are in the midst of learning the skills for the new economy. Go future!

What platforms do you know about (and want to share) that are about taking this logic into the real world? How can we start building buildings this way? How can we start doing industry this way? I want to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

MetaCurrency Status & Future

Over the last week, it has been my privilege to have been a part many fine conversations around the question of project management and team building (Katin Imes, Zack Moser, Sara Garrett, and Jay Standish in particular). For the sake of background, these conversations have been largely in service of The MetaCurrency Project. Basically, I have been trying to figure out how to catalyze some dynamism in that domain, as my experience has been of late that The MetaCurrency Project has lost a lot of its early momentum. There were of course way too many things to fully report on, but here are a few highlights from these conversations.

1) Group endeavors must be open systems. They need a constant input of resources to maintain their cohesion. These resources could be monetary, and/or they could be resources of participation, ideas, feedback etc. Projects that are overly insular do not tend to thrive, especially in the new economy. With that said, it is important to have a clearly defined membrane, but a membrane allows resources to move through. The last thing you want is a virtually impenetrable wall (which to be fair was largely accidental in our case).

2) Short redesign cycles trump long term planning. Rather than figure out everything that needs to be done over the next five years, open source projects tend to work better when they are comprised of short term goals that can be realistically achieved. Having a short time horizon on goals allows for constant adjustment to feedback received from the environment. Basically, you want to learn from lots of little experiments rather than throw all your marbles into the ONE master plan. Think survival of the fittingest. This also allows for much greater participation and openness.

3) A group operating on a short term basis in service of a small and achievable goal will be more likely to experiment with innovative social architectures around decision making, task management, etc. Since no one is committing themselves for the LONG haul, there is less to lose if mistakes get made. Social architectures don't have to be perfect out of the gate. Constant redesign and feedback are the key.

4) It is utterly PARAMOUNT to have clearly defined rules and roles for these short term teams to function effectively (thanks Katin for that insight). By rules I mean agreements on how to operate as a group. Without these agreements there is no way of knowing how to coordinate and cohere as a group. By roles I mean roles that the individuals in the group must self-define in service to the declared intention of the project. Roles are critical because they allow for constructive criticism. Without roles, it is very hard to know how to assess the quality of a fellow team member's contribution or indeed how to serve them being at their highest potential. Since roles are defined in service to a shared intention, individuals are more likely to be able to receive feedback in a positive way.

There will be lots more to say soon, but I am trying to keep blog posts short these days. I would love to hear feedback. Thanks!