This is a blog post about economies of technology, it’s long, so let’s start out with 3 concept anec-quotes, and works it’s way to a series of bracketed themes: innovation + enterprise.
In a February 2013 interview with Wired, Larry Page (Google founder) commented on Google X and paths to innovation:
When I was growing up , I wanted to be an inventor. Then I realized that there’s a lot of sad stories about inventors like Nikola Tesla, amazing people who didn’t have much impact because they never turned their inventions into businesses.
Feb. 2013, Stephen Levy, 7 Massive Ideas that Could Change the World
Let’s ignore that Tesla was in any way slighted as yet another “inventor” who lacked “impact” (WTF) and proceed. This comment led me to question whether we need to monetize to achieve, and how do we create healthy economies for qualities as ill-defined as “innovation” or “integrity.” Maybe innovation alone is an opal not a diamond: beautiful and valuable to be sure, but unless someone contrives rarity or economy (ahem, debeers) around it won’t be nearly as rad. So, can we build a business on intangibles and “values” that as yet have no monetary equivalent?
Suketu Gandhi comments on this in The Wall Street Journal’s Deloitte Insight , defining the “postdigital enterprise” as one where innovators can either “take your existing processes and apply these new technologies to them,” or rethink the process that technology enables you to enact. In contemporary (apparently “postdigital”) enterprise, maybe the application of technologies to process gives innovation economic weight. Do we need business process to innovate and what do we value in a digital world where lots of interactions and transactions lack the physicality of “real” life? Gandhi also cited “ the big five disruptive technologies,” 3 of which struck me as strangely nebulous, not so much ‘technologies’ as vague ‘values’ of interaction: “social,” “mobility,” “cyber security.” The ability to be social, mobile, and secure seemed to bleed outside the bounds of “technology” as I would typically define it, and venture into the fuzzy region of human interactions and freedoms in the physical world. How do we monetize these, and should we?
To that end, Ecologies of Knowing blogger Pavel asserted that “much of the ubiquity of computing today is of course driven by opportunities to monetize social interactions and shifts in cultural perception.” As a software architect, I get paid to build things that have no physical product, my work is as intangible as the concepts whose value I’m now interrogating. While part of me is proud that so much of my life is “priceless,” part of me is a bit distressed that that I haven’t founded a business on the obscure intangibles and important aspects of my life. How can we re:define an economy to appropriately capture what we value? Can we bank on innovation, social mobility and security without building an enterprise? Or do ideas lack value when they lack an emphasis on economy?
Taken together, all of these anec-quotes coalesce in the topics at hand for this blogpost: bitcoins, cultural [in]security currency, innovation ecologies/economies, and basically banking on intangibles over bills. Let’s treat each in turn.
## Bitcoin to Begin
A few weeks ago, I hosted a Stereo Semantics radio show about new forms of banking. I’m interested in the development of independent economies, new currencies of exchange appropriate for our internet and IRL environments. Part in parcel to this obsession is my newfound interest in Bitcoins. As per the consistent popularity of Bitcoin in contemporary media, I’ve built a short URList (my new favorite OSStartup) on the topic.
18 Links from: Bitcoins
To take it further, and more topically, a recent NY Times article treated Bitcoin forays into governmental policy and Bitcoin progress toward legitimacy in exchange-traded funding.
The Times tempered this topic judiciously with an explanation of Bitcoin, and my URList includes a series of past and real-time updated publications/interactives focused on the topic. IRL, I’ve attended a few meetups on Bitcoin Startup philosophy and can submit from my cursory exploration that the Bitcoin ecosystem is pretty nascent, warbly in the real world, even now, long-after it’s debut. It’s hard to codify what conditions and cooperation merit my financial “trust” but I find that most startups built on Bitcoin fall in a category of specious, less-traveled by other landscapes of internet innovation.
## [In]security Currency
So, In prefacing with this artificial currency of contemporary fascination, I started thinking about other domains where potential economies could be crafted, and I found that defining values like “trustworthiness,” “integrity,” and “security,” also meandered in a nebulous and ill-articulated part of my consciousness. A recent MoMA PS1 panel discussion on Privacy and [National} Security, further forked this thought to consider a slurry of “rights” billed to US citizens but now in question in a post-PRISM world. What do we value? What are our intangible freedoms that form the substrate of our cultural currency? Services like Highlig.ht and Sitegeist would suggest that we value proximous information over privacy. In promotional material, the former markets itself as a “sixth sense for the world around you, showing your hidden connections, and making your day more fun.” The latter bills (ha) as an “the app present[ing] solid data in a simple at-a-glance format to help you tap into the pulse of your location.” Sounds exciting, discovering a secret garden of semiotics and site-specific information? How exhilarating! Until a third party starts tracking it, and determines your habits, patterns, behaviors, your prospective memories, your potential to commit thoughtcrime… so how do we balance an interest in information with a right to resist being polled? Right now, we don’t.
A recent app built by Open Data City in Germany for a local conference tracks population movements in a timeseries visualization hosted here and blogged about here. ODC’s sensors detected passive interactions with mobile devices on the conference floor via each devices’ unique mac address. The visualized animation of conference traffic from sensor perception point to point is stellar and stunning but also scary. What’s disturbing about this isn’t just the tracking of these data points, more incriminating and valuable metadata is captured daily by our social applications and email clients, later mined by 3rd party services that sell us products and promotions. What’s disturbing is that unlike those social apps that we opt into voluntarily, if idiotically, on the daily, these sensors were tracking participants without explicit consent; if you had a device (phone, laptop, tablet) you were traceable, part of someone else’s time series art project. Potentially innocuous since mac addresses were probably anonymized by some hash, probably difficult to relate to your identity, but what about the other traffic patterns evident on your device? Could tweets, correspondence, conversations be layered over mac address traffic to trace aspects of your “private” interactions? The project authors allude to this in their blog post:
One thing is clear: The application displays the duality of such records. On the one hand it is clear what data traces you leave, often unconsciously. Therefore, we hope that the application will help to raise awareness for the protection of their own privacy. And is perhaps only once thought about why someone “Free Wifi” offers before you log.
Zur re:log-Website. Realisiert von OpenDataCity. Unterstützt durch picocell und newthinking. Anwendung steht unter CC-BY 3.0.
But is awareness of this enough? And are we more jazzed by the “Open Data [City]” potential of these apps than by the one-valued privacy we enjoyed in comparative anonymity? Further, how does “freedom” articulate in our ecology of networked intelligence? Is newfound “freedom” afforded by the “open” arrangement of the internet equivalent to the right to hide or the right to expose what’s been hidden? Is it the right to keep secrets or the right to reveal them? Are these even of value? And further how do we re:define value to suit a digital landscape?
## Innovation Economies
In defense of “open data,” my fascination with Bitcoin follows from persistent interest in open source and internet innovations toward replication of analog concepts. Not going to a lie, I’m totally an open data/knowledge/info fangirl. I’ve enjoyed the transition of Encyclopedias to Wikipedias, of gift economies founded in the likes of Burning Man to online exchange platforms like TimeBanks; I can dig it. There’s an intangible quality to trade and barter of “time” or “security” over monetary payment, and perhaps those tacit economies best express in the bit and byte-built world of the internet. Maybe we need to start thinking about cultural economies, the tacit luxuries that we value for their rarity and not necessarily their potential to facilitate purchase. Intangibles like “freedom,” “privacy,” and “security” are governed by their own economies based on contemporary scarcity. If scarcity and control are the determinants of value and weight, then privacy is the gem in our the rough of our current monetary systems.
So what’s new about this? Are bitcoins really that different from current economies? Maybe not, but they’re a provocative start to thinking about tacit economies and the value-making of intangibles. To return to the article that inaugurated this blogpost, I’ll revisit the Larry Page interview, if only to root this endless econ-odyssey in a more agreeable symmetry. In response to what he envisions as successful ideas and company concepts, Page asserted that “[y]ou just need to have the conviction to make a long-term investment and to believe that things could be a lot better.” Will the world be better with investment in a more artificial econ? Will I be more content when currency codifies not as a physical bill but as an ephemeral bit? Will that make me appreciate that money really bears little of the emotional weight that I’ve applied to it, and that intangible and ill-defined values and virtues warrant a more miserly defense than I’ve ever invested in them? Maybe, a bit[coin]…
## Banking on Intangibles
To conclude, I’m not alone in recognizing the impact of bitcoin currency on our potential economic future, nor am I particularly brilliant at applying economic social science to even more subjective qualities of “innovation,” “privacy,” “safety” and “security,” but it’s comforting to read how new systems of value are developing in tandem with technological innovation. Their access points are becoming increasingly available to a pedestrian public, but new post-digital economies demand an understanding of what we value and how we define the ephemeral. Do we view privacy and innovation as valuable independent of a price point applied post-facto? And as we’re building these economies, I’m not sure how we’ll incorporate those ethics and morals into the “monetizable” and “business-driven” soup of innovation.
Throughout Who Owns the Future?, Jared Lanier comments on this relationship between economy and digital society, and the cost of “free” information to social and cultural constructs. As citizens of a digitally-driven society, how do we resist violations of our intangible values via capitalization on our social, mobile, and [in]secure interactions? Should we embrace a new economy that appreciates exchanges of ideas and information, that values innovation without insisting on its monetization? Come check out Lanier’s talk at NYPL in October to find out, and in the meantime, let me close with the indubitable paraphrased prescience of one of my favorite poets:
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ec[onom]y
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.