We’re in the midst of explosive innovation and change with an exponential acceleration of technological progress all the while trying to understand why it's happening. If I’m the millionth person to note this, my prize is the privilege of living in a period of near ubiquitous relative luxury that is historically unprecedented.
The short version, innovation is driven mostly by trade and division of labor with the best ideas and goods being exchanged, commingled, refined, and accumulated. Rather than being a top down process driven by elite intellectuals, innovation is a bottom up process of millions of ordinary people experimenting and exchanging. I’m posting about this here because I believe that the principles of game design can facilitate and further improve upon our remarkable but imperfect free market economy. We can help people understand what they’re doing, give them a longer term view of the impact, as we facilitate and encourage the continued exchange and blending of ideas. We can do so by impacting a problem area, providing a solution that is self organized through simple interaction mechanisms and adopted willingly, rather than through compulsion.
To get a basic idea of where I am coming from, start here http://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html. it's a quick video, about 16 minutes and well worth your time . If you’re interested in further exploration of Matt Ridley’s ideas, pick up a copy of The Rational Optimist. In short, division of labor and cumulative exchange economically and culturally are what truly separate us from the animals and it is this phenomena that has led to the existence of the pencil, the printing press, and the internet which could never have been developed by any one person or small group in isolation.
This would suggest that we must do everything we can to facilitate free trade but we run into problems with that in today’s world. Our technological progress is pulling ahead more rapidly than our economic and political systems can follow, leading the IT field to choke on the collar as our institutions try to control it.
Furthermore, we’re selfish and myopic as individuals (maybe it's just me) and thus we tend to act for short term gain not understanding that being less selfish could actually benefit us each personally more than anyone of us could benefit from selfishness. If you watched the video, you know that trade has lead to rapid improvements in our standard of living, that we enjoy a better standard of living than kings of past ages did. I think that even the most selfish person could be sold on a system that promises to give him a better life tomorrow than Bill Gates enjoys today.
We’re seeing this selfishness at work in digital media right now. As we are all well aware, the conversion of music, movies and print media to digital equivalents has created challenges and tremendous debate. On one side, we have those who believe that anything which can be digitized should be forever free. If we could accept this practice, we could give everyone all of everything we can digitize but with an ever diminishing incentive to create anything new.
On the other side, we have the creators, who have the money and who want to keep the economic models they worked under when they could fully control the supply of copies of these products. They want the assurance that they can continue to make a living doing what they do but their pricing is prohibitive and their estimation of the worth of what they produce is going to have to change.
We don’t need to debate which side is right here, only note the presence of the debate and the fact that it is provoking theft on one side and draconian measures on the other, neither of which are useful to anyone.
But the true tragedy is not in how this will impact our consumption of the arts, but in how it will affect the consumption of the next wave of goods and services to be distributed digitally. Believe it or not, we’re nearing a point where many if not most of our goods and services will be digital.
Starting with physical goods, today you can purchase a Kinect for 100 dollars, which can be used as a crude three dimensional scanner, as archeologists have done with it at dig sites and we may be seeing ever more sophisticated 3D scanners at this price point in the years to come. In turn, for mere hundreds of dollars (price varies according to your desire to be involved in the construction) you can purchase a RepRap 3D printer, capable of converting digital files and raw materials into physical goods.
The ultimate goal is completely self replicating universal constructors with the capacity not only to reproduce themselves but also improved versions of themselves. The market for all physical goods will take on many of the pitfalls, advantages and challenges of the market we have today for music and movies. Hell, we’re even working on printing organs and growing meat without the animal attached. We’ll be needing new ways of doing business.
Likewise, the market for services can go this route over time. I’ll go into more detail in a future article but today there already exists the Robot Operating System. This innovation promises to ultimately solve the problem of developing a versatile robot worker. The future promises that if you can build a robot capable of performing the physical actions of a human being and recording the raw sensory data needed to perceive its environment, that the software will be there to make it do what you want it to do. Instead of paying for a maid or a mechanic, you may only need to purchase the maid and mechanic software expansion packs and download them to your personal android. Perhaps your auto manufacturer will bundle with your purchase a robot maintenance software pack tailored to maintaining the car they sold you. Basic services will then be digitized and as with physical good above will become subject to the realities, advantages, and challenges we’re facing today with digital content.
These technologies are sometimes called “disruptive” because they will bring about changes our institutions can’t adapt to quickly enough. How great would it be then if we adapted on our own?
This is where you finally come into the picture. I can thank Extra Credits for calling to my attention the potential of gamification and how game design might be applied to accomplish things beyond mere entertainment.
It is my belief that we should try to use game design to help facilitate the new economy, to create engagement and understanding of its potential. I think that these mechanisms combined with the very information technologies that create these challenges will allow us to collaborate more efficiently and enthusiastically than ever.
You the gamers, game designers, and yes even game critics have the most important role of all. To bring about resolution to the problems of a market of digitized goods and services without a suffocating series of reforms and bureaucracy destined to be dated on arrival, we have to make people want to adopt new systems both because we can’t compel them and because we will get more from willing participants.
Above and beyond the use of gamification to engage people in a new system of productive exchange, games have the capacity to recontextualize a problem to both to give the task of solving it excitement and romance and to help the gamer understand the problem well enough to make a meaningful contribution. Foldit, for example, harnessed the collective intelligence of more than fifty thousand gamers to the task of protein folding by turning it into a game, while this same task challenges even the most powerful supercomputers of today.
I know the ideas are out there. I want to open discussion on the subject. I’m not a game designer, an economist, a programmer, an engineer or an evolutionary biologist. I’m not all that smart. If you find anything about this article compelling or thought provoking, it comes from living up to the ideas of one Matt Ridley and providing my own synthesis of the ideas of people much smarter than I am, Ridley included.
As a starting point I’ll offer my ideas for what I think should be some parameters of any system we might try to design for this purpose.
1) Start small.
We don’t have the power to force change upon the world. What we do have is the power to create a product and market it, this product being a series of innovations we bundled together and implement within a particular market. As I mentioned above, it might be good to start with digital goods. This is an area that we can impact, that needs to be impacted, and one where we can comfortably stand on the shoulders of giants. My follow up articles will explore ideas already being used that we could employ here. I know a few places to look but if you have suggestions of other innovators we should be looking at feel free to contribute an article or point us in the right direction so that we can post about it here.
By solving problems for one market, we will hopefully get the attention of others who are seeking to solve similar problems and give them some ideas they can work with
2) Reward participation.
We have to reward effort as much as possible and encourage people to try and fail. In this kind of economy, it’s ideas that matter, but not everyone is going to produce useful ones. Except that even the failures are useful in an idea based economy. It helps us to rule out avenues of investigation and it may even point better innovators towards a problem they hadn’t tried to solve themselves. Both failure and success should be rewarded. Obviously success should be rewarded more than failure but that shouldn’t be a difficult feature to implement.
3) Ideas must be allowed to freely commingle.
We’re facing a problem today with various technology companies suing each other because every product represents the accumulation of so many people’s ideas and under today’s laws so many of those ideas are owned. Our intellectual property laws are unwieldy and restrictive in this environment. This is why the Open Source movement is so important.
So we have to create an agreement for people who operate in this arena that they will receive compensation for their ideas but that those ideas can be used by others who might want to mold and refine them. I believe than in the digital arena, it may be possible to do this by giving someone compensation in proportion to their contribution to every project so that if Alice comes up with a thing, and Bob comes up with another thing, then Charlene can put the two together, and ever “sale”or unit credited to Charlene is split among the three. And so on and so forth. Other people will take your ideas and make money off of them without fear of reprisal but in turn you will continue to make money even though someone created something off your work that was better. And we all profit from the innovation.
4) Our economy will have to interact with the real one.
For now at least, our economy will have to interact with the real one. The Lindens of Second Life our ahead of us in this arena as is BitCoin. We’ll explore that in future articles.
5) Our system must be open to interaction with similar systems developed for the same market or other markets.
One pitfall of any innovation or revolution is the tendency for the new system to take hold and then stagnate, failing the trust we placed in it while anchoring us to it because we’re already invested in it. If we come up with a system and another group comes up with a better one, we must be open to people taking effort they invested with us and being able to use it there. This will challenge us to continue to innovate so that they always come back. Hopefully this will mitigate the long term damage of implementing primitive iterations of our ideas that will almost certainly not live up to the full promise of our mission.
When I first posted this on the forum, a fellow poster commented that innovating the economy was a backwards approach here. This is understandable. Our temptation as idealists is to give in to the idea that the world should want to be better on its own.
But what is better? Do you know what’s better for six billion people. I sure don’t. Each one of those people understands what they need and what those around them want more than I do. Through price signals and local exchange, an economy helps people provide for each other to mutual advantage with each of us making our own decisions on what we’re willing to do or give in exchange for what.
And actually, I almost use economics as a metaphor. The free market economy has been powerful because it represents the distilled wisdom and best practices of millennia of trade and civilization. We follow these rules because they make sense and the framework allows us all to trade to mutual advantage. The system offers natural rewards and generates staggering complexity from relatively simple rules. There’s plenty of space for us to fill in the gaps without gumming them up in the process. .
What we should do is strive to give people more useful signals. This is already happening through social media mechanisms and information technology. I can now go to Google Shopping and Amazon to compare prices and get reviews and ratings on products while rapidly locating the best prices from the most reliable merchants. This is already impacting how we spend and I believe it's for the best. I also believe we can do better still.
Imagine, for example, a multidimensional scoring system for products. Imagine that we could go to Amazon and get an average rating of how entertaining a product is, how good it is for our physical and psychological well being, how it impacts the environment, and how it helps fund further innovation from good producers. Imagine we could review our cumulative scores in these departments based on all our purchases. Imagine if we were motivated to min/max our scores.
I can’t put all these ideas into one article. It’s well above my paygrade anyway and I’m sure all of you have understanding of specific areas I’ve touched on that far exceeds my own. This article only aspires to highlight the relationships between different areas for a particular audience. I only hope to get a discussion started and to follow up on it with action once you the experts are engaged. If you want a challenge, welcome to hardcore mode. Game on.