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.