The Decentralized Information Economy
Not surprisingly, yet another ‘techie’ in San Francisco was attacked by a random person for wearing Google Glass. There’s clearly some anti-tech sentiment simmering in some people’s minds and I can see why. There’s a limited supply of houses and lots of demand from high-wage technology workers. People are being forced out of their homes because they don’t earn large amounts of capital. They have no say in the matter. A recent Swiss study concluded that the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy. People have no say in how their taxes are spent, no say in what issues the government thinks are important at the moment, and no say in the shielding of their data from the NSA. To top it all off, the person who attacked the Glass-wearer had no say in the abrupt eviction notice they probably received. I can understand their emotional response; the frustration, the hopelessness, the anger. It makes sense, but their anger was wrongly directed at the result (the techie) rather than the cause; the economic system itself (American labor-based capitalism).
We live in a centralized world where the abuse of power is rampant. The most extreme case being North Korea. On one hand you have a man and his cronies—well-fed and unspeakably rich—and on the other there are millions of people starving and near death. You can see it to a lesser extent in places like Iran and China, where the government requested ISPs to block the people’s access to certain sites because they interfered with pro-party propaganda. You can even see it here at home in the United States. I’d wager that most people aren’t in favor of their tax money going towards drone strikes on innocent civilians in middle Eastern countries or lavish vacations for politicians. Political campaigns are just a show put on for people to make them think they have any influence on the government. The American government has long since been bought and paid for by corporations and the extremely wealthy.
We have a shrinking economy. Nearly half of all American jobs could be automated within a decade or two according to recent research. When I worked in the Columbia Robotics Lab, I saw the potential for robotics to replace the current labor force in the US. Manufacturing, agriculture, cleaning, construction, even making Chipotle burritos, countless industries are ripe for automation. Any job that requires a repetitive physical task can and will be automated. If and when this happens in a decade or two, what are we going to do about it?
If ever there needed to be a social revolution, the time is now. The counter-culture free love movement of the 60’s was a predecessor to the tech revolution happening today in San Francisco. I think its a valid comparison, we share the same idealistic vision; a faith in humanity, in our potential to live together peacefully, and to love one another. The difference is we now have the tools to make the near-utopian society we’ve always imagined to be realized. We have the blockchain. We have cryptocurrency. We have smart contracts. We have mesh networking hardware. We need to put our tools to use. How do we prevent massive unemployment and decentralize the world?
The first option is that we do nothing and we just let it happen. When half of the population is unemployed, it seems reasonable to say that we would have mass chaos and riots on the streets calling for some sort of economic stimulus from the government. Entire neighborhoods would become homeless. The top 1%, now armed with cheaper, more reliable robots to do their bidding, would get even richer. The income gap would be much greater than it is now. Remember the movie Elysium? This is it.
The second option is that the government enacts anti-robot labor laws. Humans are guaranteed to have certain jobs and no employer can replace them with the robot. This would maintain the labor-based employment landscape of some humans, but it would stagnate research in automation technologies. Technology is supposed to make our lives better, not worse. Imagine if there was an anti-robot labor law back when Gutenberg was thinking about creating the printing press. Scribes would’ve kept their jobs, but society wouldn’t have progressed to the level that it is at today.
The third option is that we accept automation as an inevitable part of society and enact a universal basic income for all humans. The government would dish out something like $ 30,000/USD a year to all humans just for existing. This would give people the freedom to pursue their creative interests, travel, or just be lazy and smoke pot all day. Although this would free humanity from the shackles of labor, it would further centralize money and power into the hands of a committee. They would decide how much you get, how often you get it, and all the strings attached to the income. It would ironically create further centralization in a world where decentralization is occurring across all industries.
The last option is creating a new economy. An information economy, not a labor economy. An economy where we monetize data, instead of labor. In a world where robots can do all of the jobs, what value do you bring to the new economy? Your five senses, your unique perspective of the world, thats something no robot can ever take. That is your value. The recent WhatsApp acquisition was the biggest in history at a cool $16 billion. 32 engineers are not worth $16 billion dollars. What Facebook paid for was the user’s data. Users on the internet today give out their data for free in return for free services. Thats great in terms of immediate utility, but it shrinks our economy in the process. What if every status update, tweet, picture, video, and bit of text, people paid you a micropayment if they wanted to view it. If you wanted to view an article and its comments, maybe instead of the tedious process of selecting which comments you want to read you pay a small amount to view the entire page and that sum is split and sent out to all commentators by the service.
Fraud prevention will need to be a priority. People could potentially make multiple accounts and share data from them earning multiple payments. In order to prevent that, we’d need to create a decentralized ID system authenticates via biometric data like your thumbprint and a retinal scan. It would then verify that data against multiple independent agencies. People could also write script bots to just submit random data repeatedly to a service. There would have to be an automated moderation system in place to detect spam and plagiarism. We would have to establish authorship by knowing who the original source of the data was. If someone re-shared something you were the original author of and people paid to view it, that payment amount would be split by the network to go to you and the re-sharer.
Micro-payments for data would enable people to get paid for their creativity, their thoughts, and their ideas. People would be incentivized to share more things on the internet, it would give them something valuable to do in the new information economy, and we’d be monetizing more and more of the economy instead of less and less of it, as we are today.
So how do we do this? Centralization stands in our way. Its hard to imagine tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple paying us for the data we give them because it goes against their already very profitable business model. The NSA would probably never give up their access to our data, and the ISPs have already bent to their will before. We rely on central government backed identity and currency. We rely on centralized ISP run internet access. We rely on centralized internet services to send and receive information. We need to decentralize our economy.
First, we have to create a new internet; A mesh-net. This will allow us to be free of ISP’s ability to block internet access and limit bandwidth. It will also free us and from the NSA’s monitoring of our data. No central hub that all data is routed through means the NSA would be powerless. The mesh-net would start in small pockets of the world. In neighborhoods. Then these local mesh-nets would get bigger and bigger as more people adopted them, until all of them intersected each other and eventually resulted in one unified global mesh net. In order for the mesh-net to grow, their needs to be some utility in using it, rather than the regular internet with all of its awesome attractions. That utility would be generating an income from sharing, storing, and computing data.
Second, we have to create a decentralized identity system in order to prevent fraud in the new decentralized information economy. It would use biometric data, like a user’s thumbprint and a retinal scan to verify authenticity. It would be an ID protocol, like OpenID, that every decentralized service implemented. The ‘Login’ itself could be integrated into your local device’s operating system. So you verify yourself once, then every time you visit a decentralized service, it checks against multiple independent decentralized agencies if your ID is unique, and if it is, you gain access.
Third, we would need decentralized services to be built on the new internet. We would leverage Ethereum’s smart contracts feature to create decentralized search engines, social networks, and sharing services. These services would be protocols with a series of rules built in programmatically, and they would have to be open source to be widely adopted. The creators of the software could programmatically ask for a small percentage cut of profits for their efforts, but once the protocol was adopted, the community would judge if the cut was fair, and if it was, the community would take ownership of the protocol. Take for example, a decentralized social network. Our encrypted data would reside in bits on every nodes computer rather than one central server. We would pay each other for data and receive dividends for sharing the tasks of computing and storage.
Fourth, we would need a currency that is capable of making micro payments online. Enter cryptocurrency. There are many crypto-currencies out there, Ethereum even has its own currency known as ‘Ether’. Bitcoin has network effects going for it and the first mover advantage. I think forking the Ethereum source code and using Bitcoin as its currency would be ideal. That way we could leverage Ethereum’s built-in ‘pay for all data’ model, its smart contracts, and Bitcoin’s user base.
Finally, we would need a new decentralized web browser to access all of this content. A browser that is capable of accessing decentralized services that exist not on a single server, but on every user’s computer. (SyncNet comes to mind as a possibility). Decentralized services could be accessed through this browser, or directly as apps from an app store downloaded onto your device.
If these steps were realized we would have an internet that no government could ever shut down or access your data without your permission. We would have services run by the people, for the people and not by corporations. We would be in control of our data, charging for access to it. We could all vote on changes to the services, with the majority ruling. We would earn an income for sharing our perspective of the world with others that would allow, and even incentivize us to learn as much as possible about the world, and share our findings with one another. Artists of all sorts barely able to get by now, would have a stable income once again. We would be free of the dollars diminishing value and all the debt associated with it. Cryptocurrency is our way out for the mistakes of our parents.
The society we’ve built so far relies on trust of central authority, but there is a trend of decentralization occurring across all industries. Sometimes humans abuse power. We are after all, only human. With technology that has been created in the past few years, we can create a totally decentralized economy based on a trust-less system. Eventually, we’ll be able to decentralize the government. Imagine a KickStarter-like service for issues on the local, state, and federal levels. We could have a built in taxing system based on your data earnings and you could choose what issues your tax money goes towards. We are living in the perhaps the most revolutionary period in human history. I’m thankful to be alive right now, amongst so many brilliant people.
The end of the last of the centralized fortresses, the government, won’t go down easily. I don’t think it will happen abruptly one day. Rather, I think it will be it will be ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Technology will slowly make the necessity for government irrelevant. In this new society, each person would be empowered so much more than they are today. To make an actual difference in policy, to create, and to earn a living. The individual who attacked the Glass wearer was a representation of the frustration some people at how little power they have. We can change that, we can create a better society. We need people to experiment, try out some of the things I’ve mentioned, see what works and what doesn’t work. I know I will. Time is running out, we’ve got to start thinking about what we want our new society to be like. The future of humanity depends on it.