10.24.2012

Big Idea: Attention Economy


Without a doubt, my favorite "big idea" is the Attention Economy. Attention Economy is a protocol for social organization and economic management that works by accounting for what all the system's users attend to. The idea is one part Augmented Reality, one part Internet of Things, one part Use-Theory of Value, and one part Cognitive Surplus. I am utterly convinced that an attention-economic system will ultimately replace both money and centralized governance as the dominant method for large-scale organizational management, and moreover that it is the only method for ensuring a timely and effective response to global climate change andsustainability.

There's a lot to say about how such a thing works, but the best illustrationmes from existing science fiction, in Bruce Sterling's 2009 novel The Caryatids. The novel takes place 50 years in the future, after massive environmental and social collapse; presumably, these system failures didn't prevent the march of technological progress. I want to quote a passage at length, and then I'll give some discussion and links to more information below. 


When they had docked at Mljet in their slow-boat refugee barges, they'd been given their spex and their ID tags. As proper high-tech pioneers, they soon found themselves humbly chopping the weeds in the bold Adriatic sun.
The women did this because of the architecture of participation. They worked like furies.
As the camp women scoured the hills, their spex on their kerchiefed heads, their tools in their newly blistered hands, the spex recorded whatever they saw, and exactly how they went about their work. Their labor was direct and simple: basically, they were gardening. Middle-aged women had always tended to excel at gardening.
The sensorweb identified and labeled every plant the women saw through their spex. So, day by day, and weed by weed, these women were learning botany. The system coaxed them, flashing imagery on the insides of their spex. Anyone who wore camp spex and paid close attention would become an expert.
The world before their eyeballs brimmed over with helpful tags and hot spots and footnotes.
As the women labored, glory mounted over their heads. The camp users who learned fastest and worked hardest achieved the most glory. "Glory" was the primary Acquis virtue.
Glory never seemed like a compelling reason to work hard-not when you simply heard about the concept. But when you saw glory, with your own two eyes, the invisible world made so visible, glory every day, glory a fact as inescapable as sunlight, glory as a glow that grew and waned and loomed in front of your face-then you understood.
Glory was the source of communion. Glory was the spirit of the corps. Glory was a reason to be.
Camp people badly needed reasons to be. Before being rescued by the Acquis, they'd been desolated. These city women, like many city women, had no children and no surviving parents. They'd been uprooted by massive disasters, fleeing the dark planetary harvest of droughts, fires, floods, epidemics, failed states, and economic collapse.
These women, blown across the Earth as human flotsam, were becoming pioneers here. They did well at adapting to circumstance-because they were women. Refugee women-women anywhere, any place on Earth-had few illusions about what it meant to be flotsam.
Vera herself had been a camp refugee for a while. She knew very well how that felt and what that meant. The most basic lesson of refugee life was that it felt bad. Refugee life was a bad life.
With friends and options and meaningful work, camp life improved. Then camp life somewhat resembled actual life. With time and more structure and some consequential opportunities, refugee life was an actual life. Whenever strangers became neighbors, whenever they found commonalities, communities arose. Where there were communities, there were reasons to live.
Camp user statistics proved that women were particularly good at founding social networks inside camps. Women made life more real. Men stuck inside camps had a much harder time fending off their despair. Men felt dishonored, deprived of all sense and meaning, when culture collapsed.
Refugee men trapped in camp thought in bitter terms of escape and vengeance. "Fight or flight." Women in a camp would search for female allies, for any means and methods to manage the day. "Tend and befriend."
So: In a proper modern camp like this one, the social software was designed to exploit those realities.
First, the women had to be protected from desperate male violence until a community emerged. The women were grouped and trained with hand tools.
The second wave of camp acculturation was designed for the men. It involved danger, difficulty, raw challenge, respect, and honor, in a bitter competition over power tools. It acted on men like a tonic.
Like any other commons-based peer-production method, an Acquis attention camp improved steadily with human usage. Exploiting the spex, the attention camp tracked every tiny movement of the user's eyeballs. It nudged its everyware between the users and the world they perceived.
Comparing the movements of one user's eyeballs to the eyeballs of a thousand other users, the system learned individual aptitudes.
A user who was good with an ax would likely be good with a water saw. A user quick to learn about plants could quickly learn about soil chemistry and hydrology. Or toxicity. Or meteorology. Or engineering. Or any set of structured knowledge that the sensorweb flung before the user's eyes.
The attention camp had already recorded a billion things that had caught the attention of thousands of people. It preserved and displayed the many trails that human beings had cut through its fields of data. The camp was a search engine, a live-in tutoring machine. It was entirely and utterly personal, full of democratically trampled roads to human redemption. By design, it was light, swift, glorious, brilliant.

Now, I don't think we want to actually realize the post-apocalyptic situation actually described in the novel, but implementing something like the sensorweb within the next 20 years might go a long way towards preventing disaster in the first place. 

There's lots of technical problems with the sensorweb, and I'd be glad to talk about them, but I take it to be just one way of implementing an Attention Economy, and the latter is really my interest here someone independent of the particular implementation. I just want to point out a few conceptual features of an Attention Economy before I open it up for discussion. 

1. First and foremost, individual agents are driven to explore and produce by natural incentives and according to their own interests. In this case it is hunger and the need for food that drives the work, but we might imagine a similar system in place where food and other basic needs are abundant, and where individuals can pursue other interests freely as they see fit. The point is that the system is self-organized and operates without centralized control. Instead, central control is replaced by the distributed coordinating infrastructure in the web itself. This is similar to the way ants self-organize, by laying pheromone trails in the environment, through a process known as stigmergy. An attention-economy system would provide the basic infrastructure to leave the necessary digital trails to help us all self-organize in a very similar fashion. 

2. An attention economy rewards the individual's learning, labor, and expertise. The sensorweb knows what everyone has spent their time doing; it knows who has developed which skills at what tasks, and therefore knows who might be helpful in engineering future tasks. Being able to quickly and effectively find the relevant experts is absolutely central to solving the division of labor problem, and this system solves the problem in a bottom-up, distributed fashion. It's the sort of thing we'd expect to find in a genuine meritocracy: the more work you do, the more glory you have. Moreover, everything that everyone does contributes to that system, so there's no dead weight and every brain cycle is part of that system's overall development. Using education and skill mastery as the basis for organization, instead of centralized control and mastery, is what allows communities to genuinely self-organize. Self-organized consensus behavior will be to future Digital societies what freedom and representative democracy was to the Industrial Age. 

3. Objects themselves have detailed personal histories. With the sensorweb, a plant can tell you its type, its uses, its ideal growing conditions, and so on. In his non-fiction design manifesto Shaping Things, Sterling makes a convincing argument in favor of tracking all objects over their lifecycles in a very similar way. Tracking garbage and waste in particular is a critical aspect of sustainability, but in general the more spimey things you make the the most coherent the network that connects them, the better we'll be able to manage our collective resources.

4. Finally, and this is most important of all, Sterling's passage above provides a vision of what an alternative economic management system looks like with his description of the sensorweb's "glory". In the Attention Economy, individual agents (and probably all the objects as well) will "glow" in a way that indicates relevant features of their use-value in different contexts. Imagine needing your keys, and being able to look around the room and see your keys glowing bright and distinct from all the other objects. Imagine being in a crowd and being able to tell with a single glance if one of them is malnourished, or if there is a doctor nearby to help, because all the starving people glow red and all the doctors glow bright green, and a flip of your AR goggles will let you instantly see which is which. 

Imagine that we are tracking how many apples get taken from a single basket at a corner grocery, and we can predict with incredible accuracy exactly how many apples need to be put in that basket every week to meet the regular habits of use. Imagine doing the same with every other object we produce and use, ensuring there are positioned in the environment in such a way as to maximize its use-value relative to all users. 

In such a situation, we'd no longer have any need for either a centralized representative government, nor the need for money as a medium for managing the exchange of goods. This is the hardest and most controversial claim that anyone can make, really: that we can get rid of both money and government and come away with a system that is better organized, more free, and more likely to reach a stable, inclusive consensus than anything else on the table. This is why the idea excites me so. But let me explain just a bit:

First, money. The really important feature that money as an economic medium is the notion of a price. Prices are a way for a highly complex system to distill an incredible amount of distributed, institutional knowledge into a single, accessible figure that individuals can use to make their own economic decisions. I have no idea what kind of work and effort goes into drilling, refining, and transporting gas, but I know what $5 is worth, and I can use that knowledge to decide whether I want to spend that $5 on a gallon of gas without knowing anything about how it is made. Likewise, gas producers can set the price at levels that supposedly reflect their own effort in the task but are sensitive to market competition competition. In theory, the dynamics of the markets will force the price to hit an equilibrium so that the market hopefully clears. 

At least, that's the theory. But in fact, because of a variety of cognitive and institutional biases, we engineer markets in ways that make it rather hard for prices to find sustainable equillibria. For instance, gas should cost a lot more than it does, but is kept artificially low in order to manipulate market prices (and for a variety of political reasons). Economists call these errors "externalities", and they have lots of ideas for how to correct for them, usually through some combination of state regulation or deregulation. Some have even gone so far as to suggest new alternative currencies, like BitCoin, because of failures of the regulatory model. But nowhere in the discussion is the possibility that the exchange of money itself might fundamentally prevent the correction of certain kinds of externalities; despite all the talk of alternative currencies or purchasing models, very few people are suggesting alternatives to currency. 

Yet there are many cognitive triggers associated with the exchange of objects with perceived value that really have nothing to do with economic costs. For instance, "taking money away" (in the form of taxes, say) is almost always viewed negatively by the people whose money you are taking, even if they don't really need it for anything and it might be better spent elsewhere. This failure to incentivize participation is an artifact of the fact that our economic systems are managed by trading around money in the first place, coupled people's cognitive biases in handling their possessions. An economic management system that didn't require trading any resources at all would neatly circumvent these cognitive biases, and I would argue could ultimately provide a much more stable and reliable economic infrastructure. Of course, gift and other participatory economies that don't rely on money do exist , but such systems can lose out on the incredible heuristic power of Prices for organizing large complex systems, and thus lose the power for organizational decision making at scale. Economists on both sides of this issue seem to agree about the implication: a large-scale, globally organized world requires capital, so if we want to give up on capital, we also have to give up on organizing at scale. We can't have it both ways. 

Sterling's sensorweb provides a picture of why this conclusion might be wrong. An attention economy has the potential to consolidate an immense amount of distributed information into a value that doesn't require the exchange of some commodity possession like money, but instead can be derived from the productive value of labor directly. In the novel, "glory" isn't the kind of thing you spend through thrifty purchases and acquire through shrewd decision-making. Glory is the kind of thing you earn by doing things that the rest of the community finds useful, and having glory gains you social influence without having to give anything to anyone (or take anything away). This set-up has plenty of immediately obvious virtues: sometimes the community needs plant-experts, and an attention economy can reward the plant geeks because of the time they put into their vocation and how important that work is to the community, whether or not they can convince others to part with their money by paying them a salary. Such a system would naturally incentivize the most important structural tasks for maintaining the society, because the system rewards people for work that others find most useful. That's surely a plus over the existing system, which seems to only incentivize the accumulation of more money. 

So imagine a world where we know how much of everything gets used, so we know how much we need to make and where it needs to be distributed. Moreover, the infrastructure of the system is such that if you contribute in a way that is recognized to be useful and appreciated by a community so organized, you stand to gain real and quantifiable influence over the system's dynamics. Such a system is tuned precisely to its own sustainability, and can be self-organized to ensure that sustainability without any central control. In such a world, we would be able to afford to produce and distribute just about everything freely and without any presumption of exchange in return. This is how we realize a post-scarcity, moneyless, sustainable economy. 

Now here's the kicker: the exact same system provides the means for both identifying the legitimate experts within the system, and allowing them the influence to collaborate on system-wide problems, without any need for artificial financial incentives or institutional authority structures to grant those experts legitimacy. Experts aren't granted legitimacy because of some institutional procedure, they are granted legitimacy through the work they've actually done, the attention they've actually paid, and the consequences of that work for the system's organizational dynamics overall. 

For instance, if there is some issue about how to use a plot of land, this isn't just an issue of adjudicating the various claims to the land, because I also have the histories of who has worked most with that land, who are the relevant experts that might weigh in on the consequences of its different uses, and so on. This information can be used directly to reach consensus across the network of users, and thereby allow communities to achieve genuinely self-organized social management techniques, without centralized representation, and without the corrupting influence of financial incentives. In other words, an attention economy is its own justice system. Occupying a dual organizational role in this way is a massive leap from the tired 20th century debates between the free market/small government libertarians on the one hand, and the social democrats on the other. The attention economy cannibalizes the good ideas from both camps and tosses the excess ideology: the perfect remix for the digital age. 

I could obviously go on, but that's the core of the idea in a nutshell. It is obviously just a kernel of an idea, but I suppose that's what this forum is for; hopefully others see the potential and would like to help iron it out. I post and write about this frequently on my G+ stream and blog, and I'd encourage anyone who is interested to participate. 

A good place to start would be this link repository I've been maintaining, called The Attention Economy Primer.


// I just posted this on Hieroglyph. I'm not sure anyone is there to pay attention; the interface there is absolutely torturous, so I don't blame them. I reposted an edited copy here instead.