Blessed are the Geeks

Reflecting on this Sunday after the Microsoft Absolution, I’m reminded of the distinction between personality types: Pushers vs. the Pullers, Daniel Quinn’s distinction between the Takers and the Leavers; the current line between the Geeks and the Suits. In the middle ages, there were the peasants vs. the “nobles” (John Perry Barlow’s “The divine right of thugs” comes to mind).

Geeks like to do stuff that’s useful and often worry about the pay later. Suits like to control stuff that’s useful and compel others to pay more for it than they pay the geeks. Nice gig.

Howard Bloom has made a strong argument that the dominated become aggressive when they become the dominators, so the distinction may have more to do with roles than personalities, but that may make this an even more worthwhile inquiry.

What might a new microeconomy do to break down these distinctions rather than reinforce them? It’s unlikely that any amount of teaching, preaching or reaching out will work – those have always failed. Government policies and books and morality plays don’t work. Religion seems a Dominator’s dream, so rigidly does it subject its followers to the whims of its leaders. Given all that, are there any protocols in our economy that should be included in or excluded from our little design?

You Can’t Steal a Gift

Let’s look at the protocol called compulsion. Our economy and our rule of law are based on compulsion, as have been all societies. The western world has raised compulsion to a Kafkaesque level, essentially saying:

“Here’s our body of laws, so complex that no one understands or obeys them perfectly.
If you violate one and attract the wrong party’s attention, whether or not you know about the law (even though no one knows them all), and whether or not it hurts someone else’s interest, you will be compelled to undergo a degrading, expensive process that intentionally does you significant harm.

“Of course, if you’re influential enough, or your interests align with influence, the compulsion will be illusory or non-existent.”

(Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. It’s always been tough for people like you and me who descend from the peasant classes.)

Is compulsion the source of customer dissatisfaction? Sure it is, especially with intangible services. Phones and cable TV and subscriptions and travel and lodging are all based on making bandwidth or physical space available to you, on the assumption that the availability has intrinsic value. Individual vendors may have generous refund policies, but that’s at their disgression. The fine print says that if you sign up, you’re compelled to pay until some period after your written cancellation. That’s how it’s always been.

But now there are alternate models – the work of waitpersons and street musicians and bloggers is valuable but unstealable. Open source software and closed source shareware and most Internet browsers are unstealable. Gene Lees wrote a fine book about Jazz called You Can’t Steal a Gift.

Naturally, most laws are broken due to economics – and the temptation to steal what’s stealable. Could our little P2P microeconomy make some of this stealing impossible, perhaps reducing the power of compulsion?

The solution for theft and compulsory economics should be based on code designed around the shareware model. Lawrence Lessig’s doctrine is that code can have a power comparable to law. Under the shareware model, all work would be delivered in advance with no compulsion to pay, as in Xpertweb. (Unlike shareware, Xpertweb requires the receiver of the work to declare its value – anything above a failing grade requires a payment between 50-100% of the asking price.)

Xpertweb users will live in two economic operating systems, the large one we love to hate and their P2P forms-based shareware model. For the Xpertweb portion of their lives, they’ll deal with people ranked as experts by their previous customers. They’ll find their expert by looking in an RSS index for people who’ve done similar projects before and who know more about their problem than they do. This is the embodiment of Bill Joy’s axiom that there are always more smart people outside your company than within.

Both the buyer and the seller know the expert’s work is shareware. By knowing each other’s reputation, thay share some assumptions. They assume that this gig is not a big hassle for the expert, who may be customizing previous solutions, so he’s not risking a lot on this task. The buyer knows the seller is motivated first by the grade and secondarily by the fee. The presumption is that this is indeed an enjoyable and responsive economic OS for both parties.

The peer-to-peer transaction model favors the geek over the suit (who’s nowhere to be found in the deal). This transaction is as unstealable for the suit as it is for the buyer – an expression of a gift economy with contingent price tags.

Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the next RFP.

6:58:31 PM    

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