Sorry for the lateness of this post. I might be trying to change the world, but when your little girl is sick and you are not the bread winner then global issues go on the back burner.
This post is a bit longer than than the last few. I've been trying to keep them concise and compact to better aid your brains built-in liking for short nuggets of information; they give you a quick dopamine hit before you move onto the next one - a topic for a future post.
This post is part of a series on tribal gift economics.
The purpose of this series of posts has been to show the relevance of tribal economics to a society that has the internet as a dominant means of communication. So far we have looked at the different kinds of tribal economies and how they developed. Now we will look at the internet.
The equalisation of production and consumption
The reason that internet society is comparable to tribal times is because for the first time since tribal times the power of production and consumption of information has been equalised. The development of first writing, and then the printing press meant that that the production and dissemination of information was controlled by the powerful few. However, there are also obvious differences, for example a tribal economic system operates with between a few dozen and a few thousand people, whereas the internet contains billions of people. Before we look at the differences, we will explore the similarities.
Of the two kinds of tribal economy explored - egalitarian and reciprocal - the topology of the internet more closely matches that of the egalitarian system in one way and the reciprocal in another.
It is similar to the egalitarian system because everyone can publish information for anyone to consume. Ever since the development of horticulture and counting we have been unable to communicate with everyone in our economic sphere - be that our tribe, nation or globe.
It is similar to the reciprocal system because we are still unable to maintain social relationships with over 150 people - this is a biological limit. As a result we struggle to know which information on the internet we can trust. Various strategies have emerged to deal with this problem.
The reflection to the egalitarian system has a very important equalising effect and is probably the most important defining aspect of an economic system based on the internet, however it can't be fully explored without firstly exploring how the similarity to the reciprocal system which will be the focus of the rest of this post.
Trust in a Social Network
We have a problem that is almost the reverse of the past: there is so much information published that we struggle to find the information that is relevant to us and trustworthy. As the internet has developed, new ways of finding information have emerged as a result of these two problems. At first they concentrated on making information findable: newsgroups, directories and search engines were the result of this. In the last few years the issue of trust has started to be approached. Starting with Google's page rank system. Social networking websites like Facebook and news aggregation sites like Slashdot, Reddit and
Digg are other examples.
All these methods of generating trust have a common approach; they decide if something is trustworthy based on whether other people think it is trustworthy. This is called crowdsourcing. Google do this by measuring how many other sites link to a website to decide if it is important. Facebook rely on our real world network of friends. News aggregation websites have their users vote on which items are good - a strategy that has since spread to many other websites, such as Facebooks 'like' button or newspaper website comment sorting.
All of these systems have flaws. Page rank is tricked by people who set up spam sites and make spam comments on blogs to inflate their ranks. This is why I have to approve the first comment you make on this blog before it is published. The trust of real world connections that Facebook promotes is more familiar to us and probably a reason for its success, however it is also inherently limited and does not allow us to easily make connections outside of our social circle. News aggregation sites depend on mass appeal; we may not want lay opinion on a subject but trusted specialist opinion.
The reason for these imperfect trust building techniques lies in the immaturity of the internet. They are solutions that try to provide only a few points of trust onto a system that inherently embodies relative trust; one in which a source of information is trusted differently by everyone. The internet is a many to many network, this does not just effect who publishes and consumes, it effects who we interact with and as a result who we trust.
In the communications age we are leaving - that of the printing press and television - a few points of trust make sense. A few political parties representing our political views. Each channel or newspaper with it's own audience and message on what is trustworthy. Central to my hypothesis is that as the internet society matures this will change. Trust will become relative, in much the same way that it was in tribal times.
In an egalitarian gift economy, trust was not even thought about, we simply rely on our biological instincts, which are based on our shared life experience - yet we each have our own opinion of who we trust. The Pirahã provide an example of this, when one of their members killed an outsider who was causing the tribe considerable trouble, he was gradually ostracised by his tribe. It was not talked about or discussed, people just did not feel as safe around him as they had, with his closest friends being the last to abandon him.
In a reciprocal economy, trust is delegated to the big man and in essence I suspect that something similar will happen with the internet. It is possible that the 'big men' will literally be people, but I think it is more likely that it will be an abstract ideal that a group of people follow.
For example, if you believe in homoeopathy then the system will tend towards trusting others who also believe in it. Whilst those who are sceptical will tend to trust others who are sceptical. If it is an issue that does not interest you then this will not effect your trust either way. You don't consciously decide which tribe you belong to, but become a member of a tribe automatically based on how you interact with other people and if you change how you interact then you will change tribes.
I describe your trust group as a tribe due to a psychological tendency towards confirmation bias that we all have; we seek out people with similar views to our own. However unlike in tribal times, today we are often members of several different groups resulting in each of us having a unique trust pattern.
Relative trust with global scope
This is similar to the approaches described above, however there is an important difference: whilst there is a vast quantity of information there are currently relatively few nodes of trust, and these are currently all essentially created using the old communications model. You can choose to trust the Reddit community, your Facebook group or a newspapers website and comments, but you don't have a trust group that is unique to yourself and global in scope.
The best example yet available of a relative trust network is provided by Stumble Upon, a link aggregation site that customises the results you see based on results you have 'liked' in the past. However their model is still top down; they alone get to decide how your 'likes' and 'dislikes' influence what you see.
A part of the project and economic protocol I am developing is just such a system. One in which you can find information and thus know what you trust based on how you interact with it and thus reflect your values of what is trustworthy.
In the next post I will explore how the internet will develop from simply an exchange of information into a full blown economic system and the importance of egalitarian gift economics to this.
Adams, Paul. 2010 The Real Life Social Network v2
Everett, Daniel. (2008) Don't Sleep There Are Snakes
Mauss, Marcel. (1954) The Gift
Nolan, Patrick and Lenski, Gerhard. (2009) Human Societies : An Introduction to Macrosociology, Eleventh Edition