Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is a fair economy the right goal?

Life has never been nor ever will be fair. How can a miracle be fair? In the unimaginably vast emptiness of space, a persistent yet dynamic pattern of chemical reactions among the remnants of a supernova somehow took form, and you were born. You did not ask for this to happen. You did not sign a contract before the organic material in your mother’s womb started self-organizing and self-replicating. Life is many things wonderful and horrific, but it most certainly does not come with contractual guarantees. I don’t know what to call this arrangement other than a miraculous gift.

I believe we all know this is true on some level, yet we spend most of our waking lives working and spending in an economy built around contractual reciprocity. All forms of money that have ever existed were designed to enable someone’s idea of “fair” exchange. What makes economic questions so vexing is that everyone has a different idea about what “fair” actually means.

Some say charging interest isn’t “fair” as it forces society to continuously lose ground on an endless treadmill of growth and consumption. Some believe it isn’t “fair” to tax wealthy “hard-working” people more than the poor, and some believe just the opposite. Some believe inflation isn’t “fair” because what you eventually get for your money is less than what you gave up to get it. All the rhetoric I have ever come across on this issue, in one way or another, indulges a uniquely human fixation: how to make sure the Universe gives us what we think we deserve.

I ask you, is that any way to hold the miraculous gift of life? When, exactly, did the Universe start owing us anything? To become endlessly enthralled in the particulars of constructing a “fair” economy is to miss the most precious things there are about life, its spontaneity, its creativity, and its mystery. How tragic that we spend so much time worrying about whether we are getting a “fair” deal, when there is so much beauty in every direction.

So what then am I proposing? A return to vicious rivalries based on violent exploitation? Definitely not. For most of humanity’s brief time on this Earth, economies were small in scale and almost entirely gift-based. Even today, we operate within a gift economy among our families and close friends. We instinctually know how to do this on a small scale, but until the advent of modern communications technology, the gift economy’s ability to operate on a large scale was limited.

Today, we are seeing some inspiring glimpses of what might be in store for the next stage of our economic evolution. It would be impossible to overstate the value the open-source software movement has provided the world. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate that knowledge can be collaboratively created and shared across a large section of the population outside of conventional markets. And there is even a growing open-source hardware movement developing designs for everything from microprocessors to cars and farm machinery. While most of our economy still resides in the space of markets and contracts, endeavors such as these prove that other possibilities do exist.

There is no doubt in my in my mind that meeting today’s global challenges depends on pulling together as one human family. We can no longer afford to blame any “them” for our problems. There is only us. We must somehow learn to extend the same kind of empathetic bonds we have with close friends and family to all of humanity, no matter where we may live, what we may look like, or what our cultures may value. We must learn to see every person on this planet with the same awe and reverence as we do our own family and friends. It is this feeling of reverence that bypasses any hint of worry about what our kin “owe” us for our gifts. If we are constantly worrying about the “fairness” of the economy, where is this space of reverence for our love to blossom? Love does not grow under the stringency of contractual obligation, but out of the light touch of sincere gratitude.

Can this "gratitude economy" provide all the modern comforts we’re used to? Perhaps one day, perhaps not. But no one ever said we had to tear down the current system before we begin solving our problems. I imagine the way forward is through nurture rather than destruction. As Lynne Twist has said, “What you appreciate, appreciates.” I believe the gratitude economy can scale. I believe we will develop the capacity for global reverence, not out of youthful idealism, but out of evolutionary necessity.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Three Types of Economic Interaction

Economic interactions can be boiled down to three core patterns. I will make no attempt to take an ethical stance on any of them, though their ethical implications are obvious. Let me also say that this post is a gross over-simplification. However, sometimes, over-simplifications can be valuable tools for helping us see where opportunities for innovation lie. That is my intention here.

Pattern 1: You’ll do that

Otherwise known as brute force. Basically the point is to get someone else to do something that benefits you by threatening violence. Examples include slavery, serfdom, empire building, and extortion. People who engage in this behavior calculate, consciously or otherwise, that the *other* is so different from them that the trust needed for reciprocal trade is impossible. Since even the most rudimentary trades are based on unconscious cultural assumptions, one can see why the threat of violence might appear an easier way of getting value from people. However, violence requires the perpetrator to expend considerable resources in the process of forcing themselves on the other. While in the short term, the resources expended may seem worth it, this strategy is, overall, a relatively low-yield investment. History has shown again and again that societies that are built on this kind of economic interaction ultimately wind up self-destructing.

Pattern 2: I’ll do this IF you’ll do that

Otherwise known as trading. As people began to develop a basic trust in the *other*, they learned that they could expend considerably fewer resources to get things of value by engaging in reciprocal exchange. Once, long ago, this process was done with direct trade (asparagus for shirts). About five thousand years ago, we learned to substitute information tokens for actual goods, and money was born. Using this method of economic interaction requires that we share enough context with the “other” to trust that they won’t take what they want by force or flake on their end of the deal. Strong governmental institutions have helped establish this kind of trust. Today this is the primary way we interact with society at large. But even with today’s light speed monetary transactions, the core remains about parting with something of value to get something of value.

I don’t want to talk this pattern down too much as it is a huge improvement from the “You’ll do that” way of doing things. However, there is still much inefficiency in a reciprocal economy. For instance, economic interaction doesn’t happen without agreeing on what each party will part with. And such blocks routinely prevent what would be valuable interactions. Also, this zero-sum logic usually results in people looking to get the most from others for the least of their own.

Pattern 3: I’ll do this

Otherwise known as gifting. Examples include tribal cultures, small villages, and what’s left of that today, families. When people share enough context and identity that the wellbeing of the other is seen as part of the wellbeing of the self, then gift economies become the most efficient way of interacting. Gone are any of the inefficiencies of force, or of haggling out a deal. When people are on the same team working for the same goal, reciprocity becomes irrelevant. How many times do you see basketball players striking deals on the court: “I’ll pass you the ball now, but you have to promise to pass it to me next time.” When people share common goals, reciprocity just gets in the way. This isn’t to say that some people on the team don’t pull more weight than others. In fact, when contributions are severely mismatched, other kinds of inefficiencies crop up. However, on a team everyone tends to see what everyone else contributes, so the process is highly self-regulating.

I believe this kind of economic interaction represents the future of the global economy. We must recognize our shared identity on this planet, both in terms of the impact we are having on the broader environment, and in terms of the impact we are having on each other. We must recognize ourselves as team humanity, and develop the information systems needed to make this third mode of economic interaction the primary driving force in the economy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Innovation and Compensation

Here's one thing I know: in the next hundred years we have to fundamentally remake civilization to live in harmony with the planet while 2 billion people climb out of poverty. This is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge humanity has EVER faced, and no one really knows how to get from here to there. There has never been a greater need for innovation, redesigning, rethinking, and experimentation in all realms of knowledge and society.

Here's another thing I know: 99% or more of innovations fail. There is nothing wrong with that; it's just the way innovation works. In nature, 99% or more of biological experiments fail, so why should cultural evolution be any different?

Let's connect these two thoughts. We need vast amounts of innovation if we are to survive the next hundred years, and most attempts at this innovation will fail. It should follow from this that we need to attract as many people as possible to innovation, since only 1% will wind up producing innovations that are adopted. As anyone who has tried to support themselves by thinking outside the box knows, these are not attractive odds.

What we need more than ever is to relieve some of this pressure on the very people who may come up with the solutions we so badly need. If 99% of innovations fail simply because that's what innovation is, then perhaps we should think about decoupling the success of innovations from the compensation people receive to take care of their basic needs.

Also, we know that releasing innovations into the commons allows them to spread and adapt most efficiently. Why then are we hobbling potential innovators by forcing them to create an artificial scarcity of access to their innovations just so they can take care of their basic needs? Shouldn’t we be providing the support these people need to do their work and contribute to the collective good?

I believe that we need to develop some kind of innovators stipend, that can take the pressure of meeting basic needs off those who would devote themselves to helping us survive the next 100 years. What's more, receiving support from this stipend should NOT be dependent on success, since if it were only 1% would actually receive the compensation they need to survive. Instead, people should be encouraged to grow and develop as whole people. After all, it's never easy to admit failure when your paycheck is riding on success.

I don't pretend that this kind of support would work for everyone. Some people really do need incentives to do more than play kickball in the park. However, I know dozens if not hundreds of people who want nothing more than the freedom to be tackling our most pressing challenges. It's time to remove the monetary tit-for-tat boot from our throats, and embrace the fact that while most of what innovators come up with will be total fluff, a little tiny bit might actually save the world. It’s really anyone’s guess where and when it may emerge.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thoughts on the NY Times

The NY Times latest attempt to return to the 20th century is, at best, absurd. There are a number of troubling aspects to this development, but what really gets me is that even after ten years of light-speed growth in digital culture, some people still think it is both possible and desirable to return to the good old days of mass media.

But rather than complain, I would instead like to offer some ideas about how the NY Times could keep the lights on without behaving like it's still a 1960 Mad Men kind of world.

1) Offer a really awesomely designed iPad app for $7-$10 that a customer pays for once, which gives them access to all their content forever. I for one would pay that much on a one time basis for news eye candy. While their iPad app is decent right now, it could still be way better.

2) Offer articles for free if people fill out a ~20 question demographics survey, so that advertisements could be better targeted. I still see ton of ads on the NY Times site that I have absolutely no interest in. A well-designed survey like this could greatly improve the ability for the NY Times to match me with their advertisers.

3) Do suggestion 2, but instead of / in addition to a survey, offer articles for free if a reader agrees to allow the NY Times to use machine learning to predict what their interest in products might be. Netflix and Amazon do this already, and since the NY Times has been following my choices for 12 years, they certainly should be able to figure out what I might be interested in ad-wise. Why the heck am I still seeing ads for Steuben's Glass???

4) Give people a chance to buy ads off the page. Some people might feel creepy about their reading habits being tracked, so why not simply offer them a choice to read the articles without ads for a modest fee. I probably wouldn't go this direction myself, but there certainly are many who would.

5) Do all of the above, and preserve the current idea that modest use of the site would not require an account.

Anyway, that is my two cents. Thoughts?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Symbionomics, the word

Here is a little video I just put together explaining why we made up the "symbionomics."

Symbionomics, the word from alan rosenblith on Vimeo.