Radically Valuing Human Time & Incentivizing Attention

Thom Ivy
Thom Ivy
Jan 8, 2019 · 7 min read

Time and attention may be the most valuable resources an individual can possess, and neither is renewable in any pragmatic sense. Meanwhile, communication is time-consuming, increasingly asynchronous and generally just hard to do.

Worse still, societies have an exponentially increasing amount of noise. As the amount of information grows, its value is derived from the quality of that information, usually distinguished by it being timely, concise, reliable, relevant, accessible and actionable. Since the invention of the internet, people produced countless new channels that individuals can use to freely create and even capture the increasing value of quality— by curating and creating content across communities, blogs, podcasts, videos, streams, books, and wikis.

The magic of this transformation was in the egalitarian way it proceeded — with protocols and software reducing the cost of production and distribution of media to almost nothing. These changes made this creation and capture accessible. ‘Content is king,’ Bill Gates wrote in his ’96 essay, and today, even our 5-year-old peers can ascend to YouTube millionaire status without a Hollywood camera crew.

Today, the opportunities for providing quality information continue to multiply as participants in niche and sometimes lucrative interests are better connected across a global village.

While the best examples of this trend are in primarily digital spaces, there are lower-hanging fruits if we have the courage to question the norms of social interaction.

As the value of our time increases in the face of worse ‘signal-to-noise’ ratios, we also earn better returns on our increased productivity and learning due to technological progress. With these value dynamics combined with the invention of smart contracts and digital monies, we can begin to treat more types of time as being valuable- even very casual, brief, or otherwise taken-for-granted moments that wouldn’t be worth tracking or invoicing for previously.

With accessibility secured, these changes have the potential to shift the social norms on the value of human attention. We can see this happening from the ‘gig economy’, which promotes more granular and increasingly self-sovereign ways to capitalize on our own time and attention by working the jobs we want, when we want them.

Micro-transactions powered by smart contracts and digital money allow this trend of the decentralized valuing of others time and attention to go deeper. With clever mechanism design, we can also enable unique social benefits for proving that human consideration upfront, sometimes at no actual cost.

As of yet, we have yet to fully realize this capture of time and attention. People are regularly pummeled by advertisements and notifications from a wide array of messengers, networks, and services. Attention fatigue is rampant as we are increasingly programmed to undervalue our own time as being practically for-the-taking- especially by powerful entities, corporations, and governments. Ghosting is on the rise between dates, friends, and even in workspaces as our capability to manage demands on our attention worsen.

Solutions to this trend will require a rework of our expectations and norms — a rework that affirms of the value of human life, is distributed and useful, yet incentivized.

Cost-to-Disturb is an expansion of the Do-Not-Disturb feature of connected devices and services (phone, chat, email, IM) empowered with the automatic payment abilities of digital monies. Using Cost-to-Disturb, a person can set a minimum fee they must receive before accepting and being notified of some communication.

While ‘paid messages’ are not new — (Earn.com, for instance, attempts to incentivize advertisements, tasks or messages by paying cryptocurrency to users) Cost-to-Disturb is a device or account-level filter that could apply across any and all selected communication types and accept only contacts that are explicitly white-listed.

At the far end, the tool has a traditional do-not-disturb mode, which under Cost-to-Disturb would be equivalent to saying “There is no amount of incentive that will encourage me to be notified.” Of course, through the white-list, close friends and family would always be accepted, regardless of the price setting.

On the other end, we have the usual state-of-affairs: Our time is free, our attention is free, and we can be notified by digital services as often as they deem fit.

Cost-to-Disturb places a clear price on interruption and for good reason: Flow states are intensely productive, healthy, and less prevalent in modern societies. The benefits of this barrier, however, aren’t solely founded on the potential to generate income or reduce interruptions. Admittedly, Cost-to-Disturb is unlikely to earn many people significant revenue- yet some individuals with untraditional but high status may reap the benefits of offering more therapeutic, humorous or otherwise socially valuable interactions through their networks.

More broadly, charging a nominal fee accomplishes several functions: automates the filtering of inbound communication, reduces socioeconomic differences by habitually affirming the value of human time more evenly, and provides a new and self-sovereign revenue channel for individuals.

Cost-to-Disturb helps filter frivolous, unserious, or abusive grabs on our time and attention. Innovatively, Cost-to-Disturb automates or outsources this by moving the burden of that consideration process to the person or entity performing the request to communicate or notify. This automation of decision-making processes is a benefit to our willpower and quality of life that frees our minds up to make more valuable decisions or to simply experience our moments.

Cost-to-Disturb also monetizes a resource that each person, regardless of socioeconomic status, is naturally endowed with but often under-utilizing and under-tracking due to the management costs of this process. Time can be valued more evenly across socioeconomic groups. Downstream, the cognitive habit of self-valuing our own time (demonstrated by the metrics and revenue generated) may be the most productive benefit of all.

That demonstration isn’t limited to our own sense of value, but can also be leveraged in wage negotiations — the better the alternative to a choice is, the more power one has to pursue more ideal options. The power to decline is a luxury few can afford, but by capitalizing on built-in communication habits, our power to decline or negotiate increases slightly.

Perhaps the most progressive use of these decentralized performance metrics is to prove skills or value in application to new roles where we do not have traditional credentials. For instance, a clear history of revenue from helping the elderly members of one's own family may be leveraged to obtain support or service roles. By capitalizing personal resources in a quantified fashion, we also accredit them in ways the market understands, substituting traditional work or educational experience.

We should also think about the implied corollary: some people may wish to pay some nominal amount for various kinds of attention. The existence of many kinds of talk therapy, sex work, support hotlines and more indicates that there is a wider market for human attention that is going underserved. By creating self-sovereign and intuitive protocols on these requests, we lend legitimacy to the needs and enhance the dignity of both the supply and demand side of human attention.

Next, we’ll explore mechanisms that help ensure proper valuation of time and effort in conversations where both parties have waged a stake and have complex interests.

Staked Conversations are a particular type of voluntary, negotiated, incentivized and programmatically-monitored communication channel where the participants have ‘stake’ to lose or keep after agreeing to a set of terms of conduct.

Failure to respond timely is a shared plight among users of resale services like LetGo, or Craigslist.

For instance, Alice and Bob need a timely and conclusive dialogue within a period. They agree to a set of terms: respond within some arbitrary time (Say 3 hours) of each other’s messages for a determined but arbitrary time. (One day, for example.)

Once they agree to the terms, Alice and Bob initiate the Staked Conversation by submitting an equal amount of money to be controlled(the ‘stake’) by the monitoring program (a ‘smart contract’) and their dialogue begins.

If Alice or Bob violate the terms (e.g., Bob did not respond to Alice’s question within three hours before the chat closes at the end of the day), then the breacher’s stake would automatically transfer to the other party or parties. Otherwise, if the period closes and both users have obeyed the terms, their stake is returned to them- happy on all counts on effective and efficient communication.

A caveat: in our example, both users are equally incentivized, however, socioeconomic status can make some costs less or more stomachable to different parties. In these cases, the users may choose to propose uneven staked amounts to account for different time values or true cost relative to wealth — these conditions remain up to the users to negotiate until better data reveals patterns for designers of systems like these.

The intention of Staked Conversations is not to make money, but to incentivize pro-social and efficient communication at zero cost, while also preserving all social ties if expectation-failing interactions occur. Eliminating the resentful sense of ‘wasted time’ is a massive emotional and social boon that helps participants recover and perhaps even renegotiate at a later time with less ‘hard feelings.’

Through Staked Conversations and Cost-To-Disturb, people can begin to enforce the value of time and attention through communication standards — lessening the disparity between powerful and less powerful agents by placing costs on interactions that help promote good-behavior while creating downstream benefits for human welfare and social equity.

These tools are intended to create a more egalitarian, pro-social, self-sovereign and resilient society through innovations in the protocol of our interactions. This goal requires a radical willingness to criticize and reimagine today’s norms —perhaps even those that seem like common courtesy.



A community publication bringing together activists, artists, entrepreneurs, and scholars working to inspire radical social change through decentralization and expanding markets.

Thom Ivy

Written by

Thom Ivy

Chief of Staff, Commonwealth Labs. UMich Philosopher of Value Theory.


A community publication bringing together activists, artists, entrepreneurs, and scholars working to inspire radical social change through decentralization and expanding markets.

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