I’ve seen the future, and it’s coming right at us

In Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbows End the protagonist awakes after being reanimated in the near future. Having ‘died’ previously with dementia he isn’t well prepared for the future, even if he was a acerbic professor in his previous existence.  Slowly trained in wearable computing and the new ways of earning a living a story is woven around him involving the death of libraries, virtual tribes and distributed knowledge chains. That last neologism is a difficult phrase, but one I struggle to define – the closest may be the idea of the Mechanical Turk from Amazon: very low value pieces of work which can be picked up by workers world-wide and paid for by the requester.

Take a look at Mech Turk and you’ll see that the interface is forbidding and unwelcoming. Gaming the system is common (do a piece of work and the requester rejects it after seeing the result, meaning you don’t get paid and but the requester gets what they wanted) and I guess that workers can do the same by choosing carefully or scraping Wikipedia or whatever. Most mass consumer to consumer services (think eBay) are open to some form of gaming along the way and it is best to take the rough with the smooth when using them – I sold mostly old consumer gear I no longer needed but around 5-10% of all transactions had difficulties.  In some the buyer would insist that I’d not given them everything they expected, in some the seller didn’t send the item until I pointed it out. Reputation systems are used in most of these marketplaces to help the potential buyer to build up a picture of their anonymous seller, but even these are open to gaming at some level.

Somehow we need to invent more liquid ‘means of exchange’ in the digital world. Bitcoin? Kudos? While the idea of working for the reputation may work in the open-source software world, hardly anyone uses it to buy their lunch and generally most open-source software companies charge real money for services. No matter how great my reputation there is no way I can use it to purchase food except for getting someone to buy me a drink at a programmer’s conference. Means of exchange remain fundamental but they don’t have to be oppressive, nor do they need to be dictated by the old establishment. Even bankers were once little boys that grew up and saw how to cash in on something – the challenge is that we learn to do the same in the digital world without getting hampered by strictures imposed by centuries’ old formats invented In Real Life.

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