early digital societies

Men cutting corn with sickles. Detail of a wallpainting in the tomb of Mennah, scribe of the fields and estate inspector under Pharaoh Thutmosis IV (18th Dynasty, 16th-14th BCE), in the cemetery of Sheikh Abd al-Qurnah.

I’d invite everyone to imagine the human world as it existed before the invention of money. Prior to money, people engaged in cooperative behaviors for a variety of non-financial reasons (family, love, adventure, etc). But populations eventually grew too big to support the network with such slow, noisy transactions. Early agricultural societies invented money to help everyone collectively keep better track of how all their valuables were distributed.

At the time, it would have been perfectly sensible to wonder about the complications that money would bring. “What if you’re in a situation where you need help, but you don’t have enough money to get anyone to help you? Seems like a lot of people could get the short end of the stick.”

Of course, this worry would have been exactly correct. There are massive problems with the distribution of wealth and resources that comes with money. These problems are persistent; we still don’t know how to deal with them, and they are worse than ever before. Nevertheless, money was the critical coordinating infrastructure that (more or less) set up the human population to flourish over the last 10k yrs or so. It was the tool that built the human population as it exists today.

I don’t like money. The human population today is fat, dirty, wasteful, uncoordinated in distributing resources, and ineffective at exerting global, targeted control that does anything but kill people. These failures have piled up to the point that they legitimately pose widespread, calamitous dangers to large human populations and important cultural centers. Money is currently in no position to resolve the problems we face; if anything, it’s made them virtually intractable. We’re in an analogous situation to the early agriculturalists: we need a new tool.

Attention is our new tool; the attention economy our new coordinating global infrastructure for harnessing this precious cognitive resource. Apps like Peeple are slowly teaching us to use attention effectively to coordinate social action. The hope is that, like money before it, the development of this new tool will trigger large-scale structural reorganizations, reorienting us around attention-based economies and their problems. The worries people are raising about the dynamics of these new social systems reflect our first-hand experiences as early members of digital societies. I suspect we’ll be facing this basic set of problems (bullying, trolling, doxxing, the inexorable effects of networks) for a very long time into our future. I do not think these problems are trivial.

But I do think that they are qualitatively different problems than the ones posed by money. Whereas money addresses problems with the distribution of material support, attention addresses issues in the distribution of social support. We’ve actually nearly fixed the basic material problems money was meant to solve, but we’re still hopelessly saddled with the problems money creates in its wake. On the other hand, while digital problems are complex and multifaceted, but they also happen to be exactly the sorts of problems our brains are equipped to solve. People are concerned about Peeple in part because they know that, despite their ethical qualms, lots of people would be interested in using it. This is precisely the kind of social feedback we’re exceptionally curious about. Social status gossip is like sugar for the human brain. Money operates on our social status obsessions too, but the enormous disparity of wealth and the relatively rigid class structures has made it hard for status-fueled money obsession to perform any real social work anyplace but at the very top. For the vast majority of us, money is socially obsolete.

This is not to say that the digitals have it better than the agriculturalists. Both of us appear at the dawn of radical climate change, but theirs was a shift into unprecedented stability, and ours is a shift out. So unlike the agriculturalists, we find ourselves running quickly into environmental constraints from which we may not be able to recover. Money has already proven itself ineffective in managing our trajectories. The proposal is that rapid reorganization is our best (=only viable) shot. It’s quite possible that, given the time scales required for reorganization, we have already missed it.

So, while I admit that there are (functional, ethical) problems with building and maintaining an attention economy, I submit that this class of problems are, at least at this moment, a much better class of problems than the ones we face under State Capitalism. They are ones we are in a better position to face, and facing those problems will bring us a long way towards facing all the other problems of life on this goddamned earth. With any luck, reorganizing around the attention economy will induce an explosion of culture and expression that will outshine the age of money as the sun does the moon.

Each day we wait for the status quo to get their act together is another day we bet against chaos.

In the long run, chaos always wins.

// Forking from https://goo.gl/FSzQnB

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