Beyond Jobs

The LA Times recently ran an op-ed by Bryan Dean Wright advocating for the creation of a Data Mining Royalty Fund — in part as a way to provide a basic income to people whose jobs will be eliminated in the near future by robots and artificial intelligence.

Jaron Lanier and others have advocated similar schemes. In my opinion, they miss the point. The point isn’t “can we monetize” our private information instead of only “others” monetizing our private info. The point is: how do we “steer ourselves as a community most effectively.”

This author’s proposal is most accurately thought of as a community subsidy.

A subsidy doesn’t help us steer. In fact, it inhibits steering. And trading privacy away for sheckels isn’t the right next step either. The right next step is using systems that help us do a better job of figuring out “with whom” we want to be sharing “which” pieces of information. Who is trustworthy? Who is serving our interests? Who is going to make use of that info in a way that is of service to 1) us, or 2) something that we support.

Right now the “overhead” of managing “who” we publish to is overly burdensome — not because it is an inherently complicated task, but because it is a task that happens constantly — and at a scale that is well beyond the ability of ordinary mortals to manage.

Beyond vastly underestimating the value of privacy, the problem with the “we’ll sell our data” schemes is that they make the same mistake that all the recent fascination with a “Basic Income Scheme” suffers from. Nice sounding band-aid. Not a solution. Not even related to a solution.

REGULATION ≠ LEGISLATION

“Work” (in the “9–5 in exchange for a paycheck” form as well as its other variants) and “Money” and “Capitalism” and “Corporations” are just tools that are useful for helping a community to regulate itself.

And by regulate, I don’t mean “legislate.” Legislation is just another tool.

That particular tool happens to be tied to assumptions about bureaucratic process leading to fairness.

News flash: it doesn’t.

The use of legislation also happens to be dependent upon the government’s ability to wield superior (i.e. a monopoly of) violence over individual citizens in order to enforce the selected norms (laws). In other words, the government is the only entity that we give permission to attack the body or restrain the body of an individual citizen. Having that violent power concentrated in government — and, importantly, constrained by process, sounds a lot better to us than roving warlords wreaking havoc on our population.

Where this monopoly of violence is threatened, legislation is undermined.

(Breathe Matt… Breathe... You can see I get worked up about these things.)

Legislation and the regulatory powers of the state are one tool in a regulatory toolkit, but they are just one — scaleable, but severely flawed — approach.

Instead, by regulation, I mean the ability of an organism to steer — to navigate — to bring its behaviors and beliefs and ways of living into harmony with the circumstances that it is facing.

When a warm blooded organism “regulates” its body temperature — it starts processes that adjust its internal generation or retention of heat in ways that suit the context (specifically the temperature) that it is facing. It heats up or cools down the organism. This ability to internally regulate temperature comes at a cost — cold blooded creatures are far more efficient, energy-wise.

However, this capacity also is accompanied by great benefit — warm blooded creatures can explore and thus exploit a much broader range of territory. This is so because they are able to dynamically adjust themselves to “fit” the environment that they find themselves in. Warm bloodedness broadens the range of temperatures that they can survive in and gives them an ability to adapt to — and thus thrive in — a broader range of circumstances — and that confers an enormous resilience advantage.

A community is like an organism. You can think of it as a social organism. It consists of the individual members, as well as of the relationships between them. However, like all organisms, a community needs to do a few things well in order to thrive in the environment that they find themselves in. Specifically, in order to thrive in its context, any entity must be able to:

  1. Sense
  2. Interpret
  3. Decide
  4. Prioritize
  5. Act

If any organism is unable to do any of these things effectively, they will fail to successfully navigate within their environment and suffer the consequences — typically death.

The complicated thing about a social organism is that it is actually a collection of other organisms (individuals) and that often these individuals have needs and desires that conflict with one another. The past several thousand years of political philosophy has been focused on finding norms, processes, structures and tools that can improve the functioning of communities — both in their ability to thrive as a whole, but also, particularly in modern times, in their ability to improve the circumstances of individual members as well. (see Rousseau etc)

In particular, traditional liberal political and economic theory recognizes that communities that are able to distribute decision making tend to be better at adapting to their environment than communities that centralize the decision making and prioritization functions.

The example that most people point to is the difference in economic efficiency and quality of life that was experienced by the “free markets” of the West and the “centralized economies” of the Soviet Union and its allies.

With all of that as ground-work:
Distributing “redeemable” wealth, in exchange for letting someone else leech our private information misses the point entirely.

What I see emerging in articles like this one and in intellectual circles in the US at present is a twin pronged argument:

  1. “the robots/AI will take all our jobs”
  2. “we need a socialist style redistribution of wealth to solve this”

I call bullshit. Not on the robots. Change is coming. But this will change the methods of value creation, not replace it entirely.

This author (Mr. Wright) has merely given a watered down version of what many others are peddling: a basic income. He just pitches it as being paid for by tech firms rather than by the government.

As I mentioned earlier, a basic income is a band-aid. But it isn’t a solution. And it certainly isn’t the formula for some new economic system that will be key to helping our community thrive. In fact, by its nature it actually continues to centralize value assessment in a monetary form — most likely in fiat currency — rather than fostering a diversity of forms of “value assessment” and prioritization.

Money does an okay job of helping a community communicate value (as in price) — but a pretty terrible job of helping us act upon values (as in priorities).

That is why we have always “subsidized” the monetary system with regulatory efforts that counter it’s “race-to-the-bottom” tendencies. These have included regulations related to minimum wages, worker health and safety as well as environmental protection.

We legislate “floors” in these areas because we recognize that a money based market system, if left unrestrained, will drive out many of the things that we value as a society (like healthy citizens and clean water).

Because supply chains communicate “cheap-est” better than they communicate “pollute-iest” or “slave-iest,” the distributed decision making that Adam Smith described as “the invisible hand” creates a race to the bottom and actually destroys deeper forms of wealth.

That isn’t to say that those tools of violence backed legislation and market based distributed prioritization are particularly effective in accomplishing our ends.

We have problems of regulatory capture and of the fact that these forms of legislation occur on a national scale, but operate in a competitive international environment. As a result, we have a game theory problem where nations feel pressure to reduce such protections in order to avoid losing — yep, you guessed it — jobs.

MONEY

Money, while great for communicating certain types of information (which supply chain looks “cheaper” from the perspective of the customer) — does a terrible job of communicating other information — for example:

WHY is product A cheaper than product B?

Is it because they invented a more efficient process?

Or are they externalizing costs by underpaying their workers?

Or by saving money on pollution controls and thus contaminating their environment?

There are a wide variety of forms of “bad math” that creep into markets in these ways and together these “mis-guidances” lead communities to “shoot themselves in the foot” by trading away long-term prosperity for short term reductions in costs — not because they intended to, but simply because it was easier to measure (and thus to sense and act upon) the short term (or locally communicated) factors.

If I can’t distinguish between two options when it comes to buying toothpaste, I have no ability to make an informed decision.

From the perspective of my fellows, there is no expectation that I would be able to, and so I also have no “responsibility” to make an informed decision.

However, if the relevant information becomes readily available — If it is literally at my fingertips and doesn’t require some onerous research project — those expectations will likely shift.

In particular, they will shift in ways that increase the breadth of responsibility that we will expect from an individual. If you run a bakery and knowingly buy flour from a supply chain that uses slavery, especially if there are reasonable alternatives available, the customers and social acquaintances in your community may see that you are a “user of slaves” — i.e. a“slaver.” They may turn away from you as a result. Customers may decide to not buy pastries from you. Acquaintances may decide to not invite you to a house party.

As the logistical complexity of acquiring information decreases, the practicality of holding one another responsible for even the distant impacts of our actions increases.

Regulation shifts from central government (or centralized “monetary” currencies) to distributed enforcement of diverse priorities, making use of a whole ecosystem of signals (or as we refer to them at the MetaCurrency Project: current-sees.)

JOBS AREN’T THE POINT

The point isn’t jobs. “Jobs” is a part of a capital focused economic system. “Slaves” played a similar role in earlier times. As is widely getting recognized — the relationship structures that we engage in — for value creation purposes — is diversifying quickly. Transactions of time for dollars are one way to structure such relationships. But there are many others, both new and old.

When a husband takes out the trash, he doesn’t do it as “payment” for the meal that his wife cooked. Their relationship isn’t based on tit-for-tat transactions (at least not if it is healthy!) He takes out the trash as an investment in the relationship — and he doesn’t keep track of the accounting on such things too closely either.

The same is true when you buy lunch for one of your friends. It isn’t a tit-for-tat transaction. It is a relationship.

However, if we always find ourselves paying for lunch — or if we catch our sweetheart kissing someone else (contrary to our expectations) — we might second guess inviting them to dinner next Thursday — or even consider abandoning the relationship altogether.

If you’ve had to sleep on the couch because you were “unwelcome” in the bedroom after some relationship misstep, you know what I’m talking about.

DISCRETION

This ability to exercise discretion — i.e. to turn toward someone or to turn away from them and to determine how and when we do so — is the core component of the “built-in” regulatory systems that humans evolved alongside.

Our use of this system helps explain our thirst for gossip and our active management of reputation. Prior to the invention of writing and money and all of the other tools and institutions that we rely upon today, this regulatory system did the heavy lifting of helping a community fluidly navigate their surroundings.

Later, money was invented to help us interact with people that we didn’t have functional “trust relationships” with. Money and intimacy don’t mix well. We understand this deep down at an intuitive level.

When was the last time you tipped your spouse for making a meal?

When was the last time you undertipped them for “poor service.”

That example is laughable because we understand intuitively that money is something we use with people that we don’t trust.

There is a whole different set of steering tools that operate within intimate relationships like that of the couple as well as communal relationships like you and your lunch-mates.

Who has the “job” in either of those examples?

No one. It isn’t that sort of relationship. Those interactions were not about a “tit-for-tat transaction.” They were about making one’s self vulnerable in a way that could help shift our perception of self so as to lessen the emphasis on us as two (or more) separate actors and increases the perception that there is a “we” here.

It is, simply put, a mechanism for shifting identity from “you” and “me” to “you” and “me” and “we.” Christopher Allen has written thoughtfully on the mechanisms of what he calls progressive trust.

It is literally the mechanism by which “community” (or coming together) gets generated. As we repeatedly “invest” effort and energy in the creation and reinforcement of this shared identity, our bonds of kithship (social ties) strengthen.

However, until now, we have never been able to scale relationships of that type to larger communities. The number of people to keep track of — and to communicate insights and expectations to, quickly becomes overwhelming. I have no idea how my phone was made, let alone whether they treated their workers well, or polluted a nearby river. There are too many steps separating those inputs from my purchasing decision to enable me to “sense” them and make a decision that incorporates that information.

What is the point of Economics?

The point of economics is priorities. And by priorities, I mean distributed steering. Me deciding I care more about buying a surfboard than going to more restaurants. Someone else deciding they want to buy a wedding ring and seeking out ways that they can “help solve the pains and problems of others” in order to be compensated sufficiently to save up for that shiny torus of gold. Money is useful in those contexts, but as previously mentioned — has some pretty serious shortcomings — from a “community steering” perspective.

Jobs, and companies, and work and money and capital markets are all just tools. They are tools that have proven useful in helping the members of our large and distributed communities coordinate action within larger populations. These tools have proven more effective than others. But they have also started to show their limitations.

I work with the MetaCurrency Project team to build systems that can enable communities to create and use new types of currencies — from transactional currencies that operate similar to money, to reputation currencies that enable people to take into account the feedback from others when assessing whether they want to interact with someone in the first place, to other forms of signals (or current-sees) that make the flows of activity within the system visible to the participants so that they can exercise judgment and help steer.

Many of these currencies are really about embodying forms of social agreements between the members of a particular community — and enabling them to track and sense when those agreements — and more importantly, their expectations — are being upheld or violated. The hope is that these currency systems will actually enable us to do the things that we already do naturally in small groups — distributed sensing and steering — but do them at the massive community sizes that we operate at today (Billions of people).

We aren’t building a single currency. We are building the tools and developing the practices that will unleash an ecosystem of interoperable currencies. And we are doing so in order to foster a functional peer-to-peer regulatory system. Not because it sounds nice. But because it works better.

We believe that this will allow us to take the things we already do naturally in intimate and communal relationships — and scale them to the size and complexity of our modern society. And we believe that such tools and practices will prove to be critical in solving our worlds most complicated coordination problems — from water scarcity, to species extinction to climate change.

NEXT STEPS

A city is a community. But so is a A marketing department. A company. An industry.

All of these are communities — or as we describe them, social organisms. In fact, any time you have interaction between two or more entities, you create a community. A new form of organization. A new organism.

Whether you work in a non-profit, as part of a city government or happen to steer a fortune 100 company, if you think that your organization could benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of these concepts, please contact the MetaCurrency team.

We look forward to getting to know your community, and seeing if there may be insights, tools or training can help improve the health and “wealth” of your organization.

Finally, if you have critiques or insights, please share them in the comments.

-Matt