Monday, December 14, 2009

Hand me that Apple Crate

I'm gonna talk about something besides game design. You probably don't want to read this post.

Some of you might realize that as I've gotten older, I've gotten steadily more anti-corporate. I think this is probably the opposite of a normal progression, where a college student is anti-corporate and, as he gets older, he realizes corporations are an important part of blah de blah de blah.

I'm the opposite. I thought that they were part of blah de blah in college, and now I think corporations are tied for the second worst thing on the planet. The reasons I think so are complex, and since it's such a common sentiment, I won't go into them. But I will talk about the issue most people have with naive, anti-corporate college students. That is, that they are naive.

After all, we all use corporate goods every day. The clothes we wear, the water that we drink, the computer you're reading this on, everything is brought to us by our complex web of corporations. So how can you be anti-corporate?

But that's a bad argument. After all, it's the same argument slave owners made about their slaves. How can a slave be anti-slavery? Everything he has is provided by his owner. He would be starving and dying of malaria in Africa without us! How hypocritical!

The question is not whether or not I use corporate goods, but is whether or not there is a better solution. Not some pie-in-the-sky solution that requires all humans to act inhumanly good and caring and perfect. Some solution that understands that even decent humans are dicks.

I think there are a variety of partial solutions. Like any paradigm shift, I think the future will be made of a patchwork combination of these new solutions burning away the old guard.

One solution is that it is growing ever more possible for corporations to transform into very transparent entities. For some corporate-like entities, this is a huge advantage. The recent climate change email scandal would never have happened if the scientists were publishing all their emails publicly at all times. Not because they would have avoided conspiracy - there was no conspiracy. But because the emails would be part of a clear context chain that is openly available to anyone. The "conspiracy" vanishes when you realize that these emails are cherry-picked, out of context, and rely on a misunderstanding of scientific terms and data sources.

Other corporate entities would be slaughtered by this change, or at least whine. For example, a transparent news room would reveal the sordid underbelly of what stories get shown in what light, and why. A transparent bank would reveal what advantageous trades they're going to perform, when.

But these are businesses that exist specifically in the cracks of imperfect information. They make money not by providing value, but by wedging themselves into any gap they see and pulling as hard as possible. In many ways, they make money specifically by reducing value. This is not a method of doing business I find ethical or sustainable - the steady increase in connectivity and information processing has put them on a path of leveraging ever smaller and riskier information gaps to make their money, since the largest gaps have been erased due to other people's enhanced information processing.

Obviously, transparency is a difficult thing. If a government required emails to be published, then a lot of people would simply gather in person to discuss their shady deals. But I'm not suggesting that the government step in. After all, governments are tied for second worst thing on the planet, and are already too buddy-buddy with these monsters. I'm simply suggesting that in the upcoming years, some small corporations are going to begin publishing a lot of details about the internal workings of their company and technology, especially in fields where leveraging information inequalities isn't the point of the business. These businesses will be more successful for two reasons. A) talking about stuff openly always generates more good ideas and more energy. B) your prospective customers and clients will feel they can trust you.

Because these open businesses are more successful, they will begin to dominate their field, slowly spreading a "transparency movement" where any business that does not publish is considered untrustworthy.

I think this is very likely as we enter a world where information is so easy to discover, so tightly integrated, and so carefully parsed. Imagine walking into a store and looking at fifteen brands of toilet paper. Up pops your AR: this brand is a company that is rated as 57% transparent by DougsTransparencyIndex, that one is rated 12% transparent. While neither have any grossly immoral acts proven, Doug says, the one that is more transparent will have fewer swept under the rug. Which toilet paper will you buy?

No need by the consumer to actually go out and research these companies. The computer collects and displays information automatically.

And if you think that's unlikely, stop reading this blog and go start reading on technology trends, because you're about to become painfully obsolete. It's not only going to happen, it's happening already.

That's just one solution - transparent companies. I think it's important to remember that the growth of this information web in which we live in also enhances several other methods of creating wealth.

The most famous is the start-up, which is a risky proposition but can be extremely lucrative. A relatively small group of people pitch in to deliver a new product that makes them all rich. I think that start-ups are just starting to enter their really powerful phase, and I think that over the next twenty years, start-ups will be the name of the game. After that, I think that they might start to decline, because start-ups actually operate on information inequality, and I think that twenty years from now we'll start to see the information web becoming so efficient that even the kind of inequality start-ups use will be corrected away.

That's a little hard to imagine, so let me explain. Remember that this is in your old-and-gray years.

I've worked for three start-ups now. Each was built on the expert knowledge of two or three people, leveraged together to create a product that provided value that didn't exist on the market. For example, the one I currently work for is leveraging a combination of solar thermal expertise with data mining expertise to provide some ridiculously overpowered and easy to use analysis systems for green energy installations.

The reason that the start-up is possible is because the expertise can't be effectively applied without a start-up. Once we've done this, the expertise will be available for anyone to see and use (and duplicate). However, we'll have developed further expertise we can leverage and so on and so forth. That's the theory. But the point is that start-ups exist specifically to make your expertise/genius/skill available to the market in an efficient manner.

In twenty years most of us will be deeply immersed in an ambient data network. Distributing expertise will be extremely easy. I think that start-ups will begin to find more and more of their opportunities are made too trivial by the network. You don't need a start-up to do something if you can just go out and do it.

In addition to the transparent-corporation and start-up paradigms, there is one more method I can think of that supports my theory that being anti-corporate is viable. That is the personal work theory.

As mentioned, our network is getting stronger and smarter every year. It is getting easier for an individual to self-employ. Or, if the product she wants to distribute is too big for her alone, she can form a temporary group to release a single product. You see this enabled by the network more and more. We have things like Etsy and Kickstarter that are just coming into their own. I can foresee a time not too far in the future where the structure and safety a corporation provides will be replaced by the ambient structure-forming nature of the network.

This will make things like ZipCar obsolete. I love the company, but it exists on a mountain of data imbalance. Specifically, it exists because there aren't loads of cars just lying around for you to borrow. ZipCar will find itself competing with a steadily rising number of free and easy solutions that help people find rides/cars just out of nothing. The advent of a widespread set of reputation systems and a connective "friend-net" will give us the power we need to automatically determine whether someone can borrow our car or tag along for a ride. The seeds of this required data underlayer can clearly be seen in things like Facebook.

Now, to some extent it might sound like I'm talking about some kind of socialist fuzzy-wuzzy paradise, but I'm not. I think life will be better and richer because, historically, life has been getting better and richer with every generation, although not always by the same measures. That doesn't mean there will be no hardships. I expect reputation will come to be as important as money for many people, and that raises its own sticky questions. Depending on what kind of projections you make, it could be that many of the people in question will be pretty poor, although somewhat alleviated by their strong network of connections that they rely on.

I'm trying not to make any specific predictions about the future outside of the ones specifically related to my anti-corporate stance. I don't want to predict the world will be glorious. I just want to point out that the rise of a dense and intelligent data network is making the staple of corporate evil - maintaining and abusing information imbalance - increasingly tenuous. Simultaneously, it is promoting some alternate ways of getting things done. I expect the transition will not be sudden, and it will probably be economically bloody. But it's going to happen.

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