April 13, 2013

My mega-ambitious dream: Build a parallel participatory economy online

Let me share two quotes:

Quote one: Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, once gave the commencement address at his (and my) alma mater, the University of Michigan. He said: "I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition."

Quote two: PHP is a very common programming language that's used for development on the web, but on which in recent years has been derided for its many technical flaws. Even so, PHP remains staggeringly popular, being used by such websites and platforms like Facebook, Wordpress, Drupal, and my very own website. You would figure that a language that's widely derided for its flaws wouldn't merit such wide use, but intertia is a powerful thing. In response, one commenter offered this advice: "The best way to combat something as pervasively and institutionally awful as PHP is not to point out all its (many, many, many) faults, but to build compelling alternatives and make sure these alternatives are equally pervasive, as easy to set up and use as possible."

I mention these two quotes because they are connected in one project I'm thinking of building. Folks who follow my work know that I've long been an advocate of the model of economics known as participatory economics (parecon). But it hasn't been as tested in the here-and-now real world as much as I would like (though it has been implemented; there's even a book, which I contributed to, called "Real Utopia" about some of its implementations). If we want to make progress against the existing economic order, we do more than just point out the flaws of the existing economic order, we build a compelling alternative. I think we have a compelling alternative; now we need to work on implementing it, or at the very least testing it in some wide fashion to confirm that it's worth implementing more widely. But how?

Here's where the mega-ambitious-dream part comes in: Let's build our own worldwide participatory economy on the internet, for people to join in and contribute. (This isn't a new idea; indeed, similar ideas can be found the very first articulations of parecon, but technically speaking this is far more feasible to implement now than ever before.) Say for the sake of argument that we make a website to implement a participatory economy. A person can visit the website, login to a secure, private account, and see (among other things) the following:

  • A list of the tasks they have
  • A list of the tasks they can choose, or build new tasks if they so choose
  • A list of the jobs and work those tasks are a part of
  • The desirability ratings and empowerment ratings for those tasks, to ensure that they're balanced for desirability and empowerment
  • The effort scores and sacrifice scores for those tasks, to calculate payment
  • The payment penalties that are applied and automatically computed if the tasks are not balanced for desirability and empowerment (providing an incentive to ensure jobs are balanced for desirability and empowerment)
  • The credits earned for socially-valued labor
  • The consumption proposals relevant to one's current circumstances, with the ability to view other proposals at any scale
  • The indicative prices (and rationale for those prices) for goods and services in the economy
  • The connecting of one's work efforts in socially valued labor to fulfill needs in the participatory economy, completing the loop

This might be closer to an endgame situation rather than an opening move -- what it looks like after the revolution rather than before it. But I think that there won't be a revolution without providing an alternative that I think will work, or if it won't work, learn why and build from that. After all, "[l]earning is a feedback loop. You take an action, see the result, learn a lesson. The smaller the loop, the less time from action to result: the quicker you learn, the faster you advance."

We could use this online participatory economy not just to connect folks who, frankly, are already reasonably affluent, but to connect folks who aren't so AND who can tap into a system like this. (Yes, I know that there's a digital divide that blocks many people to online, but let me imagine this for the time being.) People who have tangible needs on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, conserving resources, brought in contact with folks who can cook food, provide shelter, build energy-efficient tools. Those who do the work would be credited for the effort and sacrifice for their labor, and can use the credits in the participatory economy as part of a participatory plan. Over time and over a wide enough scale, we might just abolish markets, corporations, capitalism -- by making them obsolete.

So, that's my mega-ambitious dream. What do you think?