Archives: Revolutionary Wealth

All right, for all my gripes about the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth being a bit short on revolutionary notions, here’s something they tossed off on page 167 that whirled the gears in my head:

Vikram S. Kumar has been working with the Joslin Diabetes Center to design what he calls a “community-based, predictive game” for children with type I diabetes. DiaBetNet aims to develop mental models of their physiologies and motivate them to check their glucose levels more frequently. The game encourages diabetic kids, linked together wirelessly, to play on a computer to predict their own and others’ glucose levels. The idea is to “leverage untapped social dynamics” rather than relying entirely on doctor-patient instructions or parental nagging.
Revolutionary WealthAlvin and Heidi Toffler

If you’re interested in reading more, go here and here.

False-Color Composite of Lake Carnegie, Australia 1999 by Landsat 7 (NASA/USGS)
This false color picture of Lake Carnegie, Australia linked to from Pingnews.com’s Flickr photostream. The picture by NASA is in the public domain.

You know about false-color imaging? Taking a picture of something but altering the colors to illustrate some invisible aspect of the thing? You can show how hot a place is, or wet, or how many minerals of what kinds are present where.

It’s a simple and powerful trick. Map a more obvious or more appealing visual to a set of obscured data to expose the secret truth.

How many people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Shared, communal game environments proliferate. So far, elements of gameplay and player’s characteristics are tangentally, if at all, related to anything about their meatspace existence other than their discretionary cash.

But look what DiaBetNet is attempting, and imagine games where aspects of the players’ actual lives, habits and activities, were tied in some measurable way to gameplay. There is alot of talk about a coming wave of home use medical diagnostic devices. How about games where your real world cholesterol level, heart rate, athletic ability, habitual diet, vitamin intake and drug use were directly related to in-game prowess or to active game-play through the uploaded diagnostic information?

A small step, the Wii Fit.

But I’m thinking of something more comprehensive… something that could aggregate and compare vital statistics and diagnostic results with a massive online population to spot trends and danger signs. Where catching early signs of cancer or the onset of alzheimers in other players leads to rewards and where the whole connected system learns from it’s player-base as they use it to become more accurate, to incentivize improvements in healthy lifestyles, and to tell you when something is starting to go wrong, and point you to necessary resources.

But it can’t be some square Surgeon General approved slab of government health propaganda.

The diagnostic activity has to be converted by “false-color” conversion to game play metaphors, that maybe have nothing to do with health in any obvious way. Maybe the players won’t even fully know it. Optimize your diet to your body-type and age in the real world, and hidden levels of the game become available. Stop smoking, notice your experience points earned in raids are increased by some percentage. Do you have an in-game home territory? A castle maybe? The higher your risk of heart disease, the more rats in your castle.

The more of your (certified by some method like diagnostic devices or doctor transmitted information) medical history you make available to the game, the richer your experience. The game subtly and constantly evolves environmental challenges aimed at nudging players closer to their unique optimal health.

The game of life?

I find the concept of Juristic Personhood to be really interesting.

That’s the practice of assigning some or all of the legal standing of a human being to a non-human system, like a corporation, in order to, as I understand it, simplify questions of ownership around the materials used by that corporation in its business, as well as to protect the actual humans who form that corporation from individual liability in the event of the corporation’s failure.

Juristic Personhood has been a tremendous benefit to economic development. I like to think of it as a way of constructing artificial super-beings which we can dress ourselves in to engage in economic tournaments with each other. Giant, semi-autonomous mecha power-suits built of laws and strategic plans. But enough of my fevered imagination.

I’m not going to go into the old slander of a corporation, considered as a person, exhibiting the symptoms of clinical sociopathy. Clearly the fictional beings we’re calling Juristic persons aren’t fully valent human personalities. They’re creatures with something like a quarter or an eighth of a brain… just the deep, autonomic and reptilian bits. You wouldn’t call a reptile a sociopath, it’s just a reptile. That’s the level our current, very useful, Juristic Persons exist on.

Kaa - South American Boa Constrictor
This picture of a boa constrictor linked to from Mozambique – Moments’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As we talked about yesterday, if consciousness can be expressed as a set of rules, and a Juristic Person is essentially composed of rules, should the rules become comprehensive enough, and independently operating, we might be able to build up our Juristic Creatures to more full personalities, with real social imperatives. We could give them the corporate equivalents of the pre-frontal lobes, instead of limiting them to reptilian nervous systems.

The difference between this Juristic Person (JP) and the standard concept of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) is that the JP comes already plugged into a Darwinian environment – the economy. It has a food: capital. It has a metabolism: production/service provision. It has a means of storing excess energy: wealth. It can thrive or perish in this environment, which is rich in variety and opportunity and hazard. It’s more than a metaphor, it’s a real environment that has been winnowing the existing reptilian species of JPs for centuries now. It’s still an economic age of dinosaurs, a Juristic Park. If there is a revolution in wealth creation coming, I think it will involve our JPs evolving into something more mammalian.

Here’s where thinking out loud is going to carry me into absurd extremes, but it looks fun over there, so let’s go!

Given enough elaboration, and enough automation, I think we’ll be able to build corporations that require few, if any, human beings in the system. I believe we’ll eventually figure out ways for the various kinds of corporate guidance (the jobs of executives) to be derived using analysis of historical cases, existing market conditions and built in corporate goals, that will provide steadier, more beneficial leadership than the hodge-podge of people currently involved. A corporation is essentially a machine that produces wealth, and I think that eventually we’ll be able to program these machines to run better on their own than they can with a human’s hands on the wheel.

Eventually, if you can suppose an autonomous JP that achieves the semblance of consciousness, given the already extant legal definition of a corporation, might not a fully automated, conscious appearing wealth generating system with legal “personhood” be able to stand beside a natural human being in the world’s esteem?

This thing would exhibit signs of intent and comprehension, it would be making a positive contribution to the wealth of the society around it, and it already has a framework in which it’s legal rights can be equated with personhood.

This is a true form of Revolutionary Wealth.

I didn’t think it up, though. Alot of the above is elaboration on ideas presented by Charles Stross in Accelerando as a concept called Economics 2.0. As he imagined it, it wasn’t the best thing for anyone who couldn’t keep up.

But more on that later.

Previously I was criticizing the book Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler for having a lack of real revolutionary ideas about how new wealth might be created in the years to come. I’m not far enough through their book to make a serious critique, but I’ve found some fairly interesting ideas around the subject in a couple of actual Science Fiction novels I’ve been reading. Here’s one of them.

In Accelerando, Charles Stross proposes a legal framework for inter-corporate lawsuits that is essentially trial-by-combat, rather than adjudication.

The idea seems to be that a corporation being sued over something; for example copyright infringement, would then be obliged to pit its use of the copyright against the plaintiff coporation’s in a structured contest to determine who’s use of the copyright would most benefit the society that is ultimately the sponsor of the legal system. The corporation that demonstrates the greater general benefit wins.

The virtue of this framework is that it makes lawsuits more dangerous to enter into by the plaintif corporations (they might lose, and so lose their rights in the thing in question), and it places merit on utility, demanding action on ideas, not allowing a corporation to claim ownership of an idea or thing and just sit on it to prevent others from using it in competition. It keeps more ideas in competition, and actually encourages beneficial development as a direct result of the trial. The contest stops being “who claimed it first” and instead becomes “who uses it better”. It’s also important to note that the “better” is in relation to the society sponsoring the legal system, not necessarily just the profit of the company; though in a sane system the two will be as closely aligned as possible.

A downside is that it echoes the justification behind the concept of manifest Destiny; that someone who can turn a better profit with something has a greater right to it than its original owner. This is certainly a danger. The important distinction I think would be to make sure this legal framework only applies to corporate entities, and not to individual people. Although the legal fiction is very useful, corporations aren’t people. They exist to serve the needs of people. Maybe there is room now for a re-imagining of the useful fiction. Individual people are adjudicated on merit. Corporations must prove utility.

Maybe ther could even be a sort of Scottish Verdict version of the corporate trial-by-combat, in which the victor is not awareded exclusive right to the innovation, but rather is just granted permission to continue, while leaving the plaintiff in posession of their main rights. There could probably be a number of shades to such verdicts, according to the fitness that each contestant displayed in the fight.

Half-baked, sure, but an idea.

I’m still a bit underwhelmed by the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth. There may be better insight to come in it, but right now it seems to be lagging conceptually when compared to a couple of science fiction novels I’ve been reading.

One of the new-wealth concepts that the Tofflers’ mention is the idea of “prosuming”, by which they mean non-monetarily re-imbursed volunteer or amateur activity that either has an effect on the monetized economy or enhances the overall social wealth. An example of this might be online communities like youtube or flickr, or the extravagantly helpful digital art instructional forums of CGTalk. Very few of the content providers to these websites see any financial reimbursement for their time or personal expense in creativity. They do, however, enhance the general wealth by creating a vast, deep resource of images and advice for anyone interested in looking, and they have generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the individuals who invested in the structural creation of these forums.

Benjamin Franklin; Founding Prosumer

We can see this happening now. It’s not new however. You can look to any good biography of Ben Franklin to find out about some two century old examples of the same phenomenon:

…he formed a number of his colleagues into the Junto, “a Club for mutual Improvement.”

From this group, motivated by the wish to do good and an inclination for making profit, there was to grow a variety of public institutions…

…Franklin then proposed something more ambitious: a subscription library which could be joined by anyone prepared to pay an entrance fee and an annual subscription…

The next public innovation which he sponsored concerned the City Watch, which, he wrote, “I conceiv’d to want Regulation.” … (Franklin) proposed a regular force of watchmen who would be paid by householders, the payment being proportional to their property.

In 1736 he proposed the formation of a thirty-man (fire) brigade whose members would meet once a month “& spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur’d to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions.”

Much the same practice of first sounding out informed opinion through the Junto and The Pennsylvania Gazette was followed when he proposed improving the paving, lighting, and cleaning of streets, the foundation of a city hospital and of the College which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. More important, however, was the American Philosophical Society, and inter-colonial Junto… “…formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men, residing in the several Colonies… who are to maintain a constant Correspondence…” The members were to meet at least once a month and discuss the correspondence received. Their subjects, it appears from Franklin’s letter, covered almost the entire field of human knowledge, ranging from botany to geology, art and industry… Franklin himself offered to serve as secretary until someone else could be found.

– Ronald W. Clark – Benjamin Franklin: A Biography

Ben Franklin’s mad fit of colonial prosuming spawned police departments, fire departments, libraries, universities, hospitals, and learned societies. All of these things were begun as amateur volunteer efforts, but became the foundations of professional institutions as the colonies matured into a nation.

Part of the reason this could happen is, these things didn’t exist yet in colonial America. There was not sufficient centralized authority to impose solutions to these difficulties, so Franklin and his associates devised solutions on the fly.

Colonizing the Internet

The dramatically easier exchange of information made possible by the internet is kicking off another era of amateur volunteerism, as it provides a sophisticated and largely unregulated forum in which individuals can make the world over new. It fosters societies of like minded people to pursue objectives that might have been impossible a few years ago due to the improbability of them actual meeting and forming societies. It allows detailed, specific information on how to do things to be democratically distributed. It has much potential that has still not been tapped, with plenty of room for building new institutions from the ground up.

Again, I guess, it seems like this aspect of wealth creation isn’t really a new revolution… it really seems analogous to the amateur volunteerism required by undeveloped frontiers of the past.

I went on about Ben Franklin a bit more than I at first intended, so I’ll save the more innovative examples of new-era wealth creation from science fiction novels in the next post.

I’ve started reading Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and I’m finding it odd that I want to argue with this book even though I’m only three (very short) chapters into it.

So far what the book has essentially laid out is:

a) Wealth is neutral, not good or bad. It is created by desire. Desire is not the same as greed. Stigmatizing desire leads inevitably to poverty. Encouraging desire sometimes (not always) leads to wealth.

So far, no argument.

b) Human history has seen 3 Wealth Systems:
1) Agrarian
2) Industrial
3) Knowledge/service

From Chapter three:

“The First Wave wealth system was chiefly based on growing things, and the Second Wave on making things, the Third Wave wealth system is increasingly based on serving, thinking, knowing and experiencing.”

Notice the first two waves are to the point, and the third one is a pretty vague catch-all of verbs. Maybe the Third Wave, having only just started, isn’t really definable yet.

The Phantom Wave

But then, why decide there even is a Third Wave at all? The four characteristics he lists are all integral qualities to success in either of the two previous systems as well. Both the best farmers and the best industrialists utilize the virtues of service, thought, knowledge and experience in their creation of wealth. These are more or less generic qualities necessary to be good at anything.

I’m not sure I completely believe that there is a Knowledge Economy. Material wealth still needs to be produced. Successive waves don’t and can’t replace the previous ones. Since the beginning of being human at all, we’ve needed to eat and we’ve needed tools and devices. We’ve needed and made these things through both the First and Second Waves, and we still need them. The wealth systems we’ve used have all evolved one from another as we figure out ways to get more food and things to more and more people.

What new is being produced in the Third Wave? Nothing, it seems. It’s just a dramatic refinement of methods for storing and distributing the knowledge necessary to produce food and machines.

Sure, we live in rapidly changing times, but I’m not sure these changes are really all that revolutionary, nor am I convinced the past changes really amounted to revolutions.

I’m not a Luddite, I find the idea that we may be at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the wealth is created really exciting. I’m just not sure it’s really happening yet.

Maybe the rest of the book will be persuasive. This is only chapter three, after all.