2.20.2014

Project Tango, *coins, and the attention economy

About 20 years ago the music world underwent a digital conversion. Our tapes and vinyl records were systematically turned into strings of bits. This conversion made music portable and manipulable in a way it had never been before, and completely transformed our relationship to music.

It's just one of dozens of similar stories about the digital conversion we've experienced in so many quadrants of human life. We've spent the last few decades uploading some of the most significant aspects of our lives into their digital form: our social networks, our economic infrastructure, our education and communication channels.

Despite this historic progress, the digital conversion is far from complete. The trend towards participatory access characteristic of digital conversion is most notably absent from our political and governing infrastructure, even in technologically rich countries where the conversion has otherwise been successful. The cohesion of space and its contents is another gap in the process of conversion, which Project Tango is beginning to address. Unifying objects in a digital space is an extremely important step in the process. Think about how important GPS and digital maps have been in guiding your behavior over the last few decades. That same utility will soon be available for all the spaces you occupy and for all the objects you encounter.

But for all the progress we've made, little effort has gone into thinking about what we will use these digital technologies for. Without understanding the uses cases which give these technologies context and meaning, a high resolution trail describing a person's movement through space might appear unnecessarily invasive and foreign, even Orwellian. I want to provide a use case where hopefully the virtues of these technologies are clear.

I've been talking about this context of use in terms of the attention economy. One of my early attempts to describe the attention economy was with what I called the "marble network," which consisted of continuous exchanges of marbles between objects and their surrounding environments. I wrote about this in early 2012, when bitcoin was around $2 and on almost no one's radar. At the time the idea of a ubiquitous digital currency seemed like science fiction instead of a central narrative in a years time.

I'm not really interested in the new bitcoin protocols from a strictly financial perspective; I own exactly .02 bitcoins won on accident, and have no interest in getting more. However, they make more concrete what a functioning attention economy infrastructure would look like; I'm thinking in particular about namecoin and the discussion of decentralized autonomous corporations (DACs). So if you'll indulge me, let me redescribe the attention economy as if it it ran on a bitcoin-like protocol.

Let's call the protocol *coin. Using *coins, the attention economy operates as follows:

Each object/organization/person/system (or simply "system") recognized by the attention economy is allocated some allotment of *coins which uniquely identifies that system. Think of this allotment as the system's "potential influence" on every other system it contacts, analogous to the potential energy of a boulder at the top of a ramp.

The system then specifies some conditions under which those coins are distributed to other systems. Don't think about this like money, because these transactions don't work anything like payments for services of the sort we're used to.

For instance, imagine that the garbage can on the street corner near my work automatically deposits some tiny fraction of its allocation of *coins to anyone who passes within 30 feet of the trash can, and a slightly higher fraction for people who deposit waste in the can, perhaps even adjusted for the weight and value of garbage being disposed. The garbage can is capable of making these deposits because it is equipped with an array of sensors and hooked into a networked digital model that senses all these interactions and accounts for their details at high resolution. The can's network of sensors can also detect the public key of each individual as they stroll pass, and can issue the deposit without authorization or any unwanted breach of privacy or the economic friction of a transaction cost. The user needn't even engage in an explicit transaction with the can, and may never even know such a transaction has taken place. Carrying the can's *coin might not cost the user even the slightest attention.

Nevertheless, since the can's *coins uniquely belong to it as an system, it's distribution in the population serves as a record of the influence it has over that population: who uses and benefits from it, and in what degrees. The garbage can is effectively marking its environment of use with a signal that can act like a pheromone trail for other organizational projects we might have.

For instance (and this is just a toy, naive example), if some issue about the placement and maintenance of the can came under question (say it needs to be moved 30 feet to the west), we know exactly which population it will effect, and potentially who to query should we desire a democratic resolution to the issue.

Now imagine the same process scaled way, way up, so that all systems are engaged in transactions that mark each other in ways that signal all the complex social and economic relations between us and their relative impact on our lives. Not just how humans use objects, but also how objects use other objects, and how humans use other humans. This is the attention economy: by means of our digital infrastructure, each system can track the influence it has and the attention it receives from every system it engages. We talk today in a developmental stage about Youtube subscribers and Twitter followers as measures of influence in the economy of attention; in the internet of things, every system including the trash can on the corner is actively maintaining and engaging with a population of subscribers and followers, defined on its own terms, and sustains itself as a system by means of this curated community.

There's obvious applications to a host of economic concerns (who cleans the can and how to compensate them), but I think even more important potential applications for political organization that will help us move confidently past the failures of the 20th century. An attention economy embedded in an internet of things will start to make decentralized alternatives to centralized political structures a viable option. It will put in the hands of the people the tools necessary to make decisions at a local level that are compatible with and reinforced by larger organizational concerns. Which is not to say this world will be perfect, but just that we can do better.

We can organize collectively as a digital population.

We're almost there.