In The Nature Of The Future: Dispatches From The Socialstructed World, Marina Gorbis argues we are moving away from the depersonalized world of institutional production toward a new economy built on social connections and rewards–a process she calls socialstructing. Along with the exciting opportunities to create new kinds of social organizations–systems for producing not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good–there is a possibility that this form of creation will bring new challenges, new inequities, and new opportunities for abuse. We need to understand the potential disadvantages of socialstructing as well, if we are to minimize the potential pitfalls. The following is an excerpt from the book, available April 9.
In his novel Dead Souls, originally published in 1842, the celebrated Russian writer Nikolai Gogol paints the exploits of Chichikov, a man on the lower rungs of Russian society. Driven by a desire to enhance his social standing, Chichikov develops an ingenious scheme: He travels to Russian villages and buys the records of dead serfs. It’s a brilliant idea that capitalizes on a unique and grotesque feature of feudal Russian society: ownership by landlords of the people who live and work on their land.
The number of serfs, or “souls,” one owns is a measure of one’s economic and social status. Landowners, in fact, pay taxes based on that number. The government keeps count of owned souls based on census numbers. Unfortunately the census takes place only infrequently, and many landowners end up paying taxes on their dead serfs. Grasping an opportune moment between the two censuses, Chichikov buys records of these dead souls from landowners eager to lighten their tax burden. Papers certifying Chichikov’s ownership of four hundred souls rapidly elevate his status: landed gentry open their homes to him, try to give away their daughters in marriage, and celebrate him at town functions. And all it took was a record of ownership of hundreds of souls.
With social connections, social standing, and social influence becoming new standards of value and something that we increasingly measure, we may end up creating many more Chichikovs. But instead of collecting records of dead souls, the modern day Chichikovs may be driven to acquire more followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook or otherwise hoard social connections for money, fame, or reputation.
As we embark on the large-scale enterprise of creating a new infrastructure for social currencies, it is important to remember that social currencies operate quite differently than money. Their purpose is to facilitate social flows that often operate not on market principles but on intrinsic motivations to belong, to be respected, or to gain emotional support. Once we start measuring such connections or such flows, we may purposefully or inadvertently take intrinsic value out of them, creating perverse motives and incentives. In fact, instead of turning market transactions into social flows, we might be turning social interactions into market commodities. In the words of sociologist Chase, we would be applying ontic measurements to ontological phenomena.
It is this possibility that we envisioned at the Institute for the Future in 2004, when my colleague Jason Tester created the “Reputation Statement of Account,” an “artifact from the future,” a plausible but imagined future object. At IFTF we often create such artifacts not as prototypes for building new products or services but as a way of converting abstract, high-level trends and future visions into tangible objects that help people internalize our forecasts. The “Reputation Statement of Account” that Tester designed remains one of my favorites; it perfectly encapsulates the idea of social currencies emerging as we reorganize our lives around social relationships.
The statement looks just like an American Express monthly statement, but instead of accounting for your monetary transactions, it tells you how much you’ve earned by contributing to sites such as Wikipedia or Flickr, how many points you’ve earned by providing rankings or ratings on various community sites, or how much social currency you’ve spent by asking someone for advice. Since then, several projects have sprung up that measure people’s online contributions and reputations.
The Whuffie Bank, for example, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a new currency based on reputation that can be redeemed for real and virtual products and services. The term whuffie was coined by Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, to denote a unit of reputation-based currency in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The Whuffie Bank issues whuffies based on a reputation algorithm that blends information from different social networks. It aims to build a platform that measures the online reputation of contributors on various sites. “As we develop and refine the algorithm that tracks public user activity over the net, the whuffie will become an accurate reflection of your web reputation,” the site (currently offline) explains. “And as the Internet and social networks become a large part of people’s lives, your web influence will become an increasingly accurate reflection of you.”
The newest and most striking incarnation of this idea can be found in an online game called Empire Avenue, which simulates a stock market in which shares in individuals can be traded and one can track individuals’ market value based on their following in various social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, as well as demand for their shares by other players.
Commodifying social contributions–turning these into currencies that can be accumulated, hoarded, traded, and invested–may have unintended consequences. It could undermine precisely the kind of exchanges and volunteer contributions that are integral to the gift economies they are supposed to promote. In fact the word currency may be the wrong way to describe the incentives for facilitating flows inherent to social creation. The MetaCurrency Project coined the term current-see to emphasize the social flows of the exchanges it is trying to enable. Indeed, we need to invent new language and new terminology to describe the kinds of exchanges and values that comprise core elements of social production. This puts tremendous responsibility on people who design social platforms, because it is these design elements that will determine whether the platforms will foster gift exchange, competition, generosity, or new forms of greed.
We created social technologies. Our next task is to create social organizations: systems for creating not merely goods but also meaning, purpose, and greater good. Can we imagine a society of “private wealth holders whose main objective is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into capital?” asks political economist Robert Skidelsky. Or better yet, might they turn their wealth into a different kind of capital—social, emotional, or spiritual? Our technologies are giving us an unprecedented opportunity to do so.