technology|vision

the bank shot: the hardest question in 3D printing/replication

When Adrian Bowyer invented the RepRap 3D printer, he set forth a vision of the future of manufacturing based on self replicating robots–3D printers that make parts for other 3D printers. In the time since, 3D printing has advanced dramatically, in terms of reliability and cost. Design options have proliferated. There is enormous experimentation going on in the field. Many new open and closed source printers are available.

I often wonder what the 3D printing industry could learn from the history of open source software. As I compare the open source software and hardware businesses, I notice an interesting difference: the most successful companies producing open source software are not primarily in the software business, whereas the open source hardware businesses all seem to be primarily in the hardware business.

Red Hat and Canonical are certainly successful businesses, don’t get me wrong. But do they return the same level of shareholder value as IBM or Google? All these businesses produce open source software, but two have direct models and the other two are more indirect.

By ‘direct,’ I mean Red Hat and Canonical have open source as a foundation of their business. They give the software away, but charge for service and support.

And by ‘indirect,’ I mean IBM and Google are really in other businesses, but contribute to open source development  strategically:

  • IBM is really in the services and hardware businesses, but open source software helps it leverage commoditization against its software-industry competitors.
  • Google is primarily an advertising company, but it relies on an ecosystem of open technologies powerfully reinforced by open source software. Google needs Internet specifications to be freely available and widely implemented in a consistent way. Competitive, freely available open source software makes it easy to choose to interoperate with the rest of the world, and hard to choose otherwise, in a way that benefits Google’s business directly.

So what does that have to do with hardware? I’m not sure, but I suspect it could be a powerful direction of inquiry.

All the 3D printing businesses I see are in the business of either making and selling 3D printers (Lulzbot, Stratasys/Makerbot), or 3D printing services (Shapeways). Neither of which benefits from sharing source designs.

I’m curious: is there a business that could gain strategic advantage from using replicating 3D printers, but doesn’t necessarily sell them?

I love Adrian Bowyer’s vision of replicating machines, but it needs a business model. I’m envisioning entire industries being taken over by replicating bot farms, selling cast-off but still useful machines for belo cost once they’ve returned their investment, throwing off massive production capacity as a waste product.

But to unlock that possibility, we still need an entry point. We need a suitable business that will benefit from replicating 3D printers that doesn’t sell 3D printers or 3D printing.

The Google strategy doesn’t seem that relevant to me at this point. I do think interoperability and software standards are necessary, but we’ve had them for a while now and replicators haven’t taken over yet. We have the .stl file standard, and sites like Thingiverse, and sharing capabilities with Mediagoblin, and an open source software toolchain to drive these devices. The software toolchain does need work, but even an excellent open source toolchain wouldn’t increase replicator virality much: it’s necessary but not sufficient.

The IBM strategy seems closer to me.

I’m looking for the bank shot. Is there a bank shot here? Or is there one that’s close–an industry one could go after with a bit better technology than we have now? Is there a direction we could push things that would open this up?

Such a market would need to have these properties:

  • sufficient margins/ROI from replicators to suport investing in the technology;
  • potentially high levels of production–millions of units;
  • some locus of intellectual property central to the business but outside 3D printer design;
  • products that match the parameters of current (or soon to be available) 3D printing production–tolerances, sizes, and materials;
  • high demand for customization.

I find it hard to imagine such a business working in plastic items (PLA or ABS being the main feedstocks for 3D printing at this point). The large-scale production of plastic stuff I know about is pretty low margin. To me that says you need devices that work in metal, which at this point means CNC (subtractive) manufacturing. Maybe you need a device that combines the two. So as I write this, I don’t have an answer.

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self-expanding domains

I am talking about a domain, or category of things that are made with certain other things, perhaps a particular set of tools. They take an input, and produce an output within the domain. An example would be woodworking–things people use woodworking tools to make. You take wood from trees, and use woodworking tools to make wooden toys, furniture, or signs.

What makes a domain self expanding is if the tools/implements/whatever are in the domain itself. You can use woodworking tools to make the handle of a saw, but not a functional saw. So woodworking is a partially–and weakly–self-expanding domain.

There’s only one completely independent self expanding domain I could name, and that is life. Living things can metabolize non-living matter and produce living matter. Mushrooms and plants can use chemical and solar energy to break up rocks and turn them into more mushrooms and plants, and more bioavailable dirt. Also, by definition, any living thing has the capacity to reproduce itself, on top of whatever else it produces. Species within life count as self-expanding domains, as does life overall.

When the inputs are within the domain we call it domain cannibalism, and when they come from outside the domain we call it genuine expansion. For example, when you eat plants, for the overall domain of life, that would be domain cannibalism, but for the subdomain of human beings, it would not. Elements brought into the domain we call vitamins.

Some domains are indirectly self-expanding. Viruses do not reproduce directly, but they hijack living cells to produce more viruses.

Other domains are only partially self-expanding. Other than life, all the ones I can think of require human operation to force the action forward. They need to produce something that humans want other than the tools, so humans will continue to propagate those tools and and maintain and expand the domain’s capacity for expansion. And, of course, they need to reproduce, either of their own volition or with human operation.

The reproducing elements we call domain seeds. The products that do not reproduce we call domain flowers, in analogy to the way flowers and bees interact to reproduce more flowers. Flowers attract bees; useful products/domain flowers attract humans.

Early humans saw life propagating itself, and noticed that seeds from a plant grew into the same plant. So they planted some of the ones they liked to eat, chose the best ones to replant, and the first human-operated self-expanding domain was born: agriculture. Some of our plants would continue replicating themselves without us, but many wouldn’t. It takes a lot of human work to keep that self-expanding domain on track, producing and reproducing.

Machine and metalworking tools are almost entirely self-expanding, though they need a human operator. I’ve heard both the lathe and the mill  referred to as the ‘mother tool:’ they can be used to make the entire shop of tools, including themselves. That may not be the most efficient way for them to reproduce, but even the most efficient way involves their use: they are needed to produce the molds and stamps that produce their pieces. They form the basis of industrial production.

Software is built using other software (compilers and various packaging tools), but all software depends on computer hardware to run on, and humans to use them. That hardware is produced in a process that involves software, computer hardware, and a range of other tools.

Computer hardware is also arguably partially self-expanding at this point. Early semiconductors could be designed using pen and paper, but now with billions of circuit elements on a given chip, that’s just unmanageable. Also, mass production of semiconductors requires fairly sophisticated automated processes.

So there are two self-expanding domains that intersect, computer hardware and software. Software helps hardware create more hardware, and hardware gives software a place to run and do all the things it does, including make more software. Together they form the basis of an information based economy.

These domains also support evolution: as domain seeds are used to produce more domain seeds, they can be used to improve and test designs, advance the state of the art, and accelerate change as seed designs are refined. Repraps are an attempt to make that loop more explicit, and to use the open-source model to broaden involvement in that process and accelerate it.

Also, note: agriculture, industrialism, information technology: we are distinguishing the core of epochal technological transformations. When a new self-expanding domain is invented, it’s transformational to the economy.

This a materialist idea: it’s about things making other things, or people making things with other things. You could think of it as a material extension of memetics. I’ve tried to extend it to economics or culture, but I think memetics already explains that.

the human niche: towards an ecological politics

DarwinWhen life was new on Earth, it invented photosynthesis. Photosynthesis takes light from the Sun and captures it as useful energy. It also produces waste oxygen.

We like oxygen, because we breathe it, but we forget that chemically, it’s pretty nasty. Oxygen gas is implicated in lots of bad things, from rust to explosions. It’s not stable, and it’s highly chemically reactive. It sits on the periodic table next to fluorine, and if you know anything about fluorine, you know you should stay away from it. And when photosynthesis first evolved, oxygen was deadly to most life on Earth.

And in fact, once it started reaching high concentrations in the atmosphere, it wiped a lot of that life out, in what we now call the Great Oxygenation Event. But then other organisms evolved to make use of that oxygen. They produced waste CO2, which the photosynthetic organisms used. So a cycle emerged, and an ecological balance came into existence. And here we are.

We talk about nature’s harmony and balance as though it’s eternal, but that’s wrong. These sorts of balances and cycles are older than humanity, but they are born in time, in the process of evolution. They are dynamic, and they shift with changes in the Sun and solar system, and with the things evolution invents as it progresses.

We are one of the things evolution invented. There is an idea that humans exist somehow outside nature, and that we create things and environments that are ‘artificial.’ I think that’s misguided. The problem is time: if you make enough of the very most toxic things humans produce, and then give nature enough time, it will invent processes that will make use of them, or render them harmless somehow.

It’s less a matter of ‘damaging nature’ than incurring a debt to Darwin: creating ‘waste,’  or unlooped materials, substances that nature doesn’t yet know what to do with. And time really is the problem: we don’t have the millions of years to wait around while evolution figures out what to do with our garbage.

Personally, I don’t think it’s within our power to threaten all life on Earth. Life has endured worse things than us. It might be in our power to extinguish all human life, though humans are pretty hardy: we have existed in a lot of environments, from the Arctic to the Sahara to the Amazon, for many generations. It would be possible to render our current civilization untenable. I think that’s the track we’re on now.

To get off that track, we need to think about humanity in the context of broader nature. We often talk about other species as occupying an ‘ecological niche,’ a role in nature. Wolves are hunters, at the top of the food chain; wildebeests are ruminants, eating grass, pooping fertilizer, and feeding alligators. But we don’t talk much about the human niche.

We do talk about our ‘footprint,’ but that’s still non-ecological thinking: everything in our ‘footprint’ is assumed to be artificial, damaging, an interruption in nature; everything outside is assumed to be harmonious, balanced, and ecological. When we seek to ‘reduce our footprint,’ we seek to reduce the damage we do. But we don’t seem to focus much on legitimate ways for humans to participate in nature.

Notice we never ask: what is a wolf’s ‘ecological footprint?’ It’s hard to apply the logic of ‘footprint’ when we assume an organism is already operating in a way we see as ‘natural.’

the human niche

So what would a human niche be? Being humans, we have some choice in the matter. We probably can’t become ruminants, because we can’t digest grass (unless we modify our own biology, or the biology of the grass), but there are so many things we can do. The only question is, how long can we do them? If we don’t consciously choose to participate in ecological cycles, we can only persist doing what we’re doing so long. Our current role is probably short-lived, one way or the other. So for a longer-term role, we need to be inventive. Here are a couple ideas that come to mind:

ecological designer

So what can humans do that other species can’t? The closer we look at that question, the shorter that list is, but we do seem to be pretty good at designing things, and we do seem to have some ability to be reflective. So if we combine those and look at our role in nature, it’s logical that we could find  a long term role as ecological designers, creating and participating in new natural cycles.

And clearly, to create a natural cycle is to participate in it. You might not execute all the steps yourself, but you can cooordinate with others, humans and other species, to close your loops and eliminate your debt. Bill McDonough talks about it in detail in Cradle to Cradle.

OK, then: what does it mean to do good ecological design?

A lot of what comes to mind should be familiar: closed loop recycling, balanced capacities for generating and using waste products, complete recycling of the entire waste stream. Some might seem pie-in-the-sky, but we’ll have to get there at some point. I’m reminded of this Ted talk by Michael Pollan. A couple new things (to me) do come to mind:

managing debt: parsing waste as debt brings to mind all the financial tools related to debt, as well as all their risks and rewards. You can build up debt in planned and unplanned ways. You can pay down debt. You can work with it in a strategic way. Which I think would be useful in moving towards a more sustainable society.

But debt can also mess up your life, and on a large scale, your society. Ask a Greek how they feel about debt right now. Poison in the groundwater,  waste CO2 in the air, can cause us and a lot of other organisms problems. Like I said above, maybe if we had a few million years, we could wait around for nature to adapt our debt to its use. But in the time scales humans care about, we need to take some kind of action.

beauty: the dimension of time is central to the idea of sustainability. For humans to continue to make choices that benefit an ecology over long periods, they must develop a heritage of an appreciation of that ecology. So beauty is more than a good thing we should all want, it’s also a material priority.

It’s part of what persuades others to join us, and part of what binds the next generation’s way of life to ours. We don’t expect them to live the same way we do, but we do need to persuade them that what we create for them is worth sustaining and building upon. And if what we create is beautiful, and we can show them how to appreciate that beauty, that will be easier.

infection agent

Terraformation is a staple of science fiction. But from the viewpoint of Earth’s ecology, it’s infection: spreading Earth’s life to other worlds. Mixed with the ‘ecological designer’ role, it means we could be a vector for life in general, inventing new ecologies that could persist in diverse environments. Freeman Dyson speculates that we could even make species ‘native’ to space itself. It’s an interesting idea. One open question: how do we get off Earth in  a harmonious way? Launching payloads into space requires enormous concentration of energy in one place, far more than nature generally does. And the scale of terraforming would require truly massive launch capability, or very long timeframes.

biome protector

Another staple of science fiction is the comet strike. Protecting the Earth’s life from comets could be an important ecological role for humans to play.

conclusion

I guess what I’m saying is: we can participate in natural cycles deliberately or not. Not participating is not an option.

We’ve built a civilization that we value. If we want to operate in a civilized, conscious way for the extended future, we need to include nature in that vision of civilization. If we don’t deal with broader nature on the best human terms, it will deal with us on its own.

money hacking: problems and pitfalls

This is the fifth article in a series. The previous ones are

I don’t want to represent myself as a guy with all the answers. More to the point, I value skepticism and uncertainty deeply. Caution and a sense that things can go wrong is important. I’ll talk a lot about trust here, and it’s important too, but doubt is a core value for me. Anyone who says they have the final answer to all our economic problems is either shortsighted or dishonest.

Americans have not faced a currency crisis in living memory. We collect dollar-spewing securities for our retirement and accept dollars in exchange for things. We accept that inflation is a fact of life, and we try to protect ourselves against it. But we don’t really worry about what currency we’ll use to fund our retirements. We imagine the dollar will always be there.

That’s trust. We trust in the operation of our currency and our economy. We trust it like the air we breathe. Literally: we’re a little concerned about air pollution, but most folks don’t get bent out of shape about it. We’re a little concerned about the economy, but most folks don’t plan to stop accepting dollars anytime soon.

trust

I said it before: money is an agreement. And the foundation of all agreements is trust. When the agreement fades into the background of our consciousness, it’s a sign of trust. When it jumps to the foreground, usually that’s because the trust is being questioned.

If we want to operate our own currency, we must deal with the problems that could violate trust or call it into question. We must take responsibility for a host of issues, so people can trust its operation:

technical integrity: any system needs to be correct, secure, and reliable. It’s not ok when you can’t get your money because a system’s down. It’s not ok when people can hack the system and steal it from you, or create it arbitrarily. It’s not ok when your personal information is shared or exposed without your knowledge or consent. There are a lot of really basic issues that you only think about when something breaks. We need to think all of them through and address them reasonably well before anything breaks. ‘Good enough’ is a very high standard.

economic integrity: in a monetarist system, the money supply needs to grow (and shrink) with the value produced by the economy. That relationship needs to be protected, or either inflation or deflation will result.

In Greco’s you standard, the currency is backed by various issuers within the system. They have an interest in sustaining a high level of trust in their currency. Doubt in a particular issuer may or may not lead to doubt in the entire system. They need to issue only as much as they can stand behind. That can be regulated.

If the amount a merchant is allowed to issue is based on circulation through their account, we will need mechanisms to ensure that there is real value being exchanged. A pair of fraudsters could pass money back and forth between accounts to drive up their circulation and increase what they can issue. This would only have short-term benefits for them, but that short-term mentality is known to occur in human beings, and it would be a liability for the rest until they figured out what was happening. Better to prevent it.

In a commodity-based system, any accounting of a commodity needs to match the supply of the actual commodity being traded. Again, that relationship must be guarded.

operator integrity and transparency: it’s been said that the best way to rob a bank is to own one. That also applies to currency operators. There are probably a million scams you could run by issuing your own money. Any currency operator who won’t talk about that possibility openly is not someone you should do business with.

A system is only as good as the people who operate it. There’s no way around that. You have to trust some human beings, be they bankers or currency operators. Currency operators must keep a very high standard of conduct. They must be subject to the same rules as the rest of the merchants working in the economy. That includes any rules they enforce. They may need to establish independent authorities to ensure the perceived and actual integrity of the system they operate. Additionally they must keep open and transparent records of their own transactions so trust in the entire system can be sustained in the community.

cultural integrity: Any system that depends on feedback from its participants needs that feedback to be fair. Any Web 2.0/true information age-currency system is going to use such feedback. That system needs to allow a community to judge the value its members provide fairly.

timing and government interference

 I’ve said it elsewhere. I think what I’m proposing is legal, at least in the US. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. If such a system were successful and spread virally and rapidly, I would not be surprised to see opposition from government and various vested interests. The question is, could it improve people’s lives and self-determination enough that they would stand up for it? Could we make such opposition politically un-viable?

The success of any currency project started right now would be a matter of luck. There are a number of needles that must be threaded. The one thing that gives me confidence is the fact that anyone who protects the old system will be paid in its currency: dollars. And if the dollar system is as corrupted and weak as it appears to be, something will have to break out and take its place. I have a few ideas about what that should look like, but that doesn’t mean my vision will win this particular lottery.

I’ve quoted Milton Friedman elsewhere: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

There are a lot of ideas one could support this way, and a lot of possible reactions of the government to their spread in a crisis. If we can manage to enable people to sustain and improve their lives in the presence of a crisis, I wouldn’t assume hostility.

Though one other danger might be co-opting: government entities might join a you standard system, but would need to abide by its rules. If, for example, some municipality (or nation) were to legislate some special status for itself (for example, like the equivalent of legal tender), it would undermine trust in the whole system. That should be resisted. Perhaps interest-based lending is useful for some things: financing wars comes to mind.

possible outcomes right now

So if you were starting a currency project now, I’d imagine there would be several possible outcomes:

facebook success: you build something that navigates the obstructions listed above and succeeds massively, taking over the world. This could be great news for you or anything you built, but questionable at a systemic level. It might replace an old intellectual monopoly  with a new one, unless it supported a variety of monetary models. It might also establish a real business monopoly too, unless it was based on an open federation of services, like email;

local success: what you build doesn’t take over the world, but it does succeed on a local level. It helps that local community survive the coming transition, and serves as an example of community self-sufficiency;

good failure–communities learn new tools: the Netscape outcome. Your partial success invites more effective competition, that effects the change you set out to make. You don’t get to take over the world, but maybe your ideas do.

The other risk here is that the design space for currencies is much broader than the design space for browsers, so maybe your ideas take over, but maybe someone else’s ideas do. Maybe their ideas are better than yours, but maybe not. The best man does not always win;

good failure–career transition for you: the Marc Andreesen (founder of Netscape) outcome. For something big to happen, individual people have to take risks. Their expectations matter. So, even if you try and fail, you care about what happens to you. This is the individual version of the ‘good failure’ story above: what you build doesn’t quite work out, but it has a big influence. At the end of the process, you’re no longer just a coder (or whatever role you had before): you have changed the world and you have a new role in it;

bad failure: total fizzle. Your ideas don’t catch on, the transition happens, no lessons are learned, or the wrong lessons are learned. The new economic world has none of the tools you built. You must make your way in it with the rest of us, with the same resume you had before.

doing nothing

All this is predicated upon the belief that risks associated with establishing an alternative system are smaller than the risk of doing nothing. That’s a belief I do espouse. Of course the power elite might respond to the viral breakout of an alternative system with a heavy hand. But by the time such a system got on their radar, the idea of an agreement based, community-initiated system would have spread dramatically. So if (when) the shit hits the fan, they’ll have new tools in their back pocket. They’ll have an alternative to heading for a bunker in the countryside. They’ll have a civilized choice.

Doing nothing seems to me like the bigger risk. The current system is an intellectual monopoly, and it’s showing its flaws, and it seems to be producing catastrophes every few years, and they’re getting bigger as time goes on. Maybe utter collapse will come when Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in August. Maybe it will come when Greece or Portugal or Spain defaults. Maybe it will be the catastrophe after that.

Or maybe utter collapse isn’t coming at all. Maybe we’re just witnessing the acceleration of a system that produces catastrophes by its design. Maybe people need to just get tired of it and take matters into their own hands.

The most important thing is education: people need to understand that it’s possible. It’s possible for them to take charge of the way they account for the way they produce value. It’s possible, and here are some ways to do that.

The next thing is trust. They need to learn to be trustworthy to each other. They need to learn to rely on each other, and build a web of trust that doesn’t rely on some distant authority with its own problems. The bottom line is this: when people build trust together, they can build wealth together.

money hacking: my politics

This is the fourth article in a series. The previous ones are

So I feel uneasy about the near-to-middle term economic future. I feel like there are a lot of challenges we face as a society, and we’re going to have to go back and rethink a lot of things to get through.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. I do have political sensibilities behind this. They’re kind of… unusual.

There’s this dualism between liberalism and libertarian conservatism in American politics that I’m unsatisfied with. In economic liberalism, there’s a focus on human value, and an idea that human beings deserve support and care. Society should provide a baseline level, a ‘safety net,’ that keeps people from falling into destitution, and it does that by some amount of redistribution of wealth. In libertarian conservatism, there’s an idea that society has scarce resources that need to be managed, so historically, we defined an economic game to manage those resources. Those who play the game well deserve to keep their rewards. (Never mind that the game we chose was predicated on uninterrupted, infinite economic growth, and stands in mathematical contradiction to the scarcity conservatives are concerned with. But that’s certainly not the fault of today’s conservatives.)

Both of these ideas presume the game itself. They presume a game whose rules aren’t completely understood by most folks in the debate. Liberalism has some amount of redistribution around the edges, but it presumes the same game as libertarian conservatism.

And it fails both sides. From a liberal perspective, redistribution has not lifted generations out of poverty. And from the other side, there is enormous (and growing) human potential lying unfulfilled. I think the problem is not just the game itself, but that there is limited room for establishing new games with new rules, that might solve this problem and others in better ways.

The debate about socialism versus capitalism feels very twentieth century to me. I’m much more interested in exploring the new possibilities information technology opens for us. I hope the previous articles give you a sense of what I’m talking about.

I’m interested in thinkers like Kevin Kelly more than Karl Marx. Kelly’s ‘Out of Control’ [free download] was formative for me. I think it’s best to approach economics as a branch of systems theory. Liberal though I may be, I’m not a fan of centrally controlled systems. I’m interested in self-organizing systems, games, new ideas and abstractions applied to economics. I want to add degrees of freedom to our civilization’s operating system, and help people find new ways to create more justice and prosperity together. Thus, open architecture economics.

in knowledge is power; in wisdom, humility

If you ever get an email from me, you’ll notice a line at the bottom: ‘In knowledge is power; in wisdom, humility.’ These are serious watchwords for me. Initially, I put them there so that if I said anything arrogant in the body of the email, people would have something to call me on: I’m more sensitive to my hypocrisy than my arrogance.

But as an idea, it took root and spread into my thinking about a lot of things. The deepest way to make it relevant here is: understand the limits of your ideas. There’s very little in economics that is not subject to legitimate debate. That doesn’t necessarily mean split-the-difference is always the way to go.

It also says this to me: pursue approaches that are experimentation-friendly. Maybe your bright idea works well in your head, but when real human beings in the real world start trying to use it to rip each other off, it will be tested. Economic ideas need a laboratory where real people can try them out in the real world.

This, to me, is a big failing of globalism as it’s currently conceived: it forces a uniform economic architecture on the entire world. It creates an intellectual monoculture. And if it’s flawed or ill-adapted to changing conditions, that architecture doesn’t accommodate new systemic ideas well. It doesn’t compare well with, say, the Internet. A neutral Internet allows lots of sophisticated, powerful systems to be built upon it: email, the Web, Bittorrent, and so forth. It’s designed to support new architectures and systems, without imposing a lot of its own priorities.

techno-economics

I think technology and economics are two halves of the same thing. Together they bracket the operational capabilities of a society. Talking about economics without considering technology tends to lead you to miss revolutionary possibilities; building technologies without considering their economic dynamics  tends to lead to, well, unforseen economic dynamics. I suppose people in the music industry have an understanding of what I’m talking about.

And when new technologies emerge for economic mechanisms themselves, you have an intersection of powerful levers for social change. Any economic theory that doesn’t take that into account seems badly incomplete to me.

forced understanding

I think one problem with the current economic order is its lack of forced understanding. There are a lot of details that the casual user of money doesn’t have to understand to use it. By ‘forced understanding’ I mean you have to understand things in a complete way to make use of them. For example, in Greco’s you standard, you are hit over the head with these details: how does money enter and exit circulation? How do I make use of those mechanisms to produce wealth? This puts a premium on understandability, simplicity, and good user interface design.

But it also makes a distinction between ‘understandability’ and ‘dumbing-down.’ The current system is ‘dumbed down:’ you get money, and you spend it, and you don’t need to care how it was born into the system, or how it will die.

But you’re also left scrambling to get it from those who have it. Ulimately, you’re at the whim of those who control its production for the system. Your sense of its abundance or scarcity is a matter of luck more than mastery. You might be a master of some skill that is in demand, but you have no handle on where that demand ultimately comes from.

Widespread mastery of monetary operations at a societal level seems to me like a good thing. If there’s a way to make that knowledge more accessible and useful, we should pursue it.

the information age

The information age may feel like it’s in full swing. iPhones, mp3s, music and newspaper and movie and publishing industries collapsing and reshaping, capital zooming through computer networks… there’s been a lot of change the last few years.

I’m of the opinion that it’s still in its infancy.

The Information Age can be described in a lot of ways, but the relevant patterns here are: industrial capacities in individual hands, and  flexibility. So, desktop manufacturing is beginning to get exciting: your Reprap/Makerbot will be a manufacturing plant. People are beginning to grapple with how to make big tools more flexible and accessible. Your laptop is now a mixing board and recording studio (and a million other things), you can rent a some space on a server and get your own radio/tv station or spread your own crackpot ideas to the masses (I resemble that remark!) The industrial is personal.

That logic can apply to the way you account for the wealth you produce.There isn’t a reason to delegate that to Wall Street and Washington anymore. It can be democratized. The foundational framework is here. It’s now a design problem: how do we take the means to manage an economy and turn them inside out? How do we make them easy enough to use without diluting their power? How do we make them as easy as money is now? And how do we do so and enhance economic integrity?

the holographic economy

When everyone has industrial capacities at their fingertips, the economy will have a holographic structure. If you break a hologram, you’ll find you can see its entire image through each piece. Much like a hologram stores its entire image in every part of its structure, I think the economy of the future will replicate fundamental production capacities across its entire structure. Global trade may be unrestricted, but people will meet their needs by using capabilities close to home as much as possible, and exchanging and sharing capabilities globally.

This economy will be more responsive to changing environments and cultures. This economy will be more resilient, responding to catastrophes through distributed capabilities. This economy will exploit economies of flexibility rather than scale.

But a holographic economy needs a holographic system of accounting for its wealth, a holographic, highly adaptive monetary system. It can’t have a hypercentralized financial capitol (Wall Street) organizing its investment (and siphoning off  an ever larger share for itself). As fast as Wall Street operates, it isn’t close enough to the real action to respond to more than crude quantified signals.

And information technology operates like crack cocaine for Wall Street: it’s not helping. Systems like high-frequency trading cause problems faster than humans can respond. I think Wall Street is basically becoming an economy for machines and not people. It’s informational in its capabilities, but industrial in its pattern of ownership and operation.

I’m essentially advocating a human-scaled, human-paced, human-serving information age.

The next chapter: problems and pitfalls.

money hacking: gamification

This is the third article in a series. The previous ones are

Computer technology opens up some interesting possibilities in the design of currency. When currency is bound to paper, it can only do the things paper can do, but if you have computers at your disposal, you can add interesting behaviors and dynamics.

These are some interesting ideas one could apply. I like a couple of them, and one I haven’t decided about.

the you standard

This is a concept from Thomas Greco’s ‘The End of Money and the Future of Civilization.’ My name, his idea. This is not all of his idea. His book has a lot more interesting details. I highly recommend it.

The ‘you standard’ is a modification of mutual credit. In the you standard, when your balance goes negative, you are actually issuing a currency you back with your own goods and services. You are obligated to accept your currency at full face value. No one else is. This diagram shows how currency would flow:

Adapted from Thomas Greco's 'The End of Money and the Future of Civilization'

Bob wants to buy a drum set from Dave. So Bob initiates some new currency, and pays him with it. Dave buys dinner at Penelope’s restaurant with Bob’s currency. Penelope buys something from Xavier, and so forth, until the currency circulates back to Bob, who is obligated to accept it and retire it. Bob can then issue new currency. The rest of the chain has no obligation, but if they trust that Bob will make good on his obligation, they should accept it.

Note: no interest paid, no growth imperative. If Dave makes better drum sets, he can charge more if he likes, but if not, there’s no dynamic in the economy to force him to. If Xavier has kids who grow up and start circulating currency, the economy also grows. But if he doesn’t, no one goes bankrupt.

currency rating

With the you standard you would have a currency rating system. When someone buys from you, they give you a rating. This rating gives others a way to judge the value of your services and whether your prices are reasonable. If your customers think you aren’t giving good value for their money, they can give you a low rating, which will reduce the value of your currency. Likewise, if they think your prices are reasonable and/or your services are excellent, they can give you a high rating and increase the value of your currency.

And if you refuse to accept your own currency, the buyer can mark you as ‘in default’ and crash the value of your currency. This would need to be a little complicated–you’d have to be able to reverse it, for example, if there was a misunderstanding, that kind of thing. It would need to be verifiable and auditable.

When you pay in someone’s currency, your electronic wallet checks the ratings online and proposes a payment, based on the issuer’s rating. The seller doesn’t have to accept it at all, and they don’t have to accept the default values, but it should be easy to transact.

A given transaction might use currency issued by a number of people. There would need to be an easy user interface to review those currencies and accept the default proposal, or begin negotiations on that basis. There’s an example below.

If you happen to accept a lower-rated currency, that would give you an incentive to reach out to the issuer and see if there’s any way you can help them improve their rating. The system could include social networking facilities to help people support each other. This would constitute a cooperative incentive.

Fairness of ratings is a cultural issue. In your community, you would need to establish a culture of trust, and establish standards for ratings. You would also want  to provide some kind of meta-moderation mechanism–some way for a community to establish and maintain fairness in ratings.

I’ve thought about allowing ratings above 100%. I’m not sure it’s a good idea. It’s a subject for experimentation. I think of 100% as a rating of ‘satisfactory or better,’ and anything lower as an indication of some kind of problem. That would be a way to head off the inevitable ‘grade inflation’ problem–define an upper limit, and define the semantics of different ratings well.

design for recirculation

The system could also include a social network that would know the network of relationships, including the seller and the issuer. Part of the buying process would be to find the currencies you hold that are issued by others in the seller’s network, and default to spend the ones with the shortest chain of relationships.

Maybe that’s confusing.  Here’s an example:

Say Dave wants to buy a stereo from Alice for $80. Dave holds $30 issued by Petula ($Petula30), $60 issued by Bob, and $50 issued by Xavier. Bob and Xavier are in Alice’s network, but Petula is not. Xavier’s rating is 100%, but Bob is at 92%. Say Dave’s smart wallet offers Alice $Bob60 and $Xavier24.8o, for a total of

60 * 92% = 55.2

+   24.80 *100% = 24.80

= $80.

Dave’s smart wallet would automatically generate the offer. Thus the system would try to circulate someone’s currency back towards them, so they could retire it and issue new currency easily. If Alice had had bad dealings with Bob or Xavier, she could counter with a lower rating or refuse their currency altogether. Most of the time you’d accept the default offer.

One problem such a system would need to solve at some point is insurance: if an issuer dies or goes out of business for some reason unrelated to its ability to deliver, you’d need to have some way to make the holders of their currency whole.

separation of measure

OK, so we all can circulate our own currencies together. We need a common yardstick for everyone to measure their currency against, so we can exchange it conveniently. Initially, you’d probably use the local currency (dollars where I’m at). That would allow sellers to post prices in one currency, and would minimize the mental adjustment as people got used to circulating a new currency. If (when) the local currency became unstable you’d have to switch that measure to something else, probably some commodity.

Note: I’m using the word ‘measure,’ not ‘standard.’ A ‘standard’ implies backing–someone somewhere has an obligation to accept your currency and give you gold or dollars or services or whatever, on demand. ‘Measure’ is just, well, a measure. You’re saying ‘I’d exchange this amount of gold for this amount of currency in an open market.’ And you’d be free to make that exchange.

The other nice part about measuring value that way is that you can have different kinds of currencies circulating within a system, and still allow people to post a single price, if they so choose. People could even exchange currencies of different designs on that basis, and apply discounts to values in negotiation as they saw fit. It would make for an experimentation-friendly system. Think you have a good idea for a currency system? Implement it with a separated measure and plug it in to the broader system.

It would be useful to have some of the measured commodity in circulation, to ensure stable prices. It’s one thing to say ‘I’d exchange this currency for some commodity’ in the abstract, but quite another if you could go down the street and get some of it. If you’re using dollars, that would be easy (now), but with silver, for example, you’d probably want actual coins widely available.

loop finding

Loop finding would help a new currency expand in a population. Basically, as people join, they identify buyers and sellers they already do business with in the network, and others who aren’t in the network, and recruit people to close loops of circulation.

demurrage

Bernard Lietaer describes the counterintuitive appeal of demurrage better than I can. Basically, it’s currency that decays in value over time in a scheduled way. So if I pay you $100, in a month’s time that money would become, say, $99. This creates a ‘hot potato’ effect on currency–people don’t want to hold it long, they want to spend it, which forces circulation, and discourages hoarding. I think there are pros and cons to the concept. I haven’t decided at this writing whether I endorse it or not.

It’s a controversial idea. Some have said it’s ‘not capitalism,’ which is not something I feel strongly about either way. Basically, it drives the value in the economy towards assets other than money–in demurrage, money is for exchange of value, not storage of value. I think of it as sort of the purest notion of  ‘monetary system as social operating system,’ emphasis on ‘social.’ I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing.

It’s comparable in effect to inflation, though its effects are more evenly distributed. If it was all that was in circulation, it might be successful, though people might tend to circulate other things as currency. In a mixed-currency, experimentation-friendly environment (which I do endorse), I’d predict people would be reluctant to accept it. It might circulate at lower than face value.

I like the idea of a currency that models the depreciation of things. It would tend to make the $5 in your pocket approximate the value as the $5 thing you wanna buy, not just now, but in the future. That would make the relationship between buyers and sellers more equal. I like that, but I’m not convinced demurrage is the best way to do that.

The next chapter: money hacking: my politics.

money hacking: the origination problem

This is the second article in a series. The first one is Money Hacking. [a note: this post could easily be a book, or an entire library. My intention here is to point in what I think is a good direction for creative response to current events, not to explore these topics exhaustively.]

So you and your friends have gotten together and want to start your own currency. You have to decide, where will it come from? Within this economy you are creating, how will these amounts be born in the system? How will you acknowledge the value you create for each other? There are a lot of options. It’s important to know about different ways to originate currency, and how conventional systems do it. Here are a few options:

the world we live in–fractional reserve banking

Most of the dollars we know and love are not ‘printed’ into existence, by the government or anyone. ‘Printing money’ is a profoundly misleading turn of phrase. Almost all dollars are loaned into existence.

So, when you go to a bank to get a loan, the amount in your account goes up, but there’s no other account that goes down by the same number somewhere else in the bank’s computers. The bank has its own cash reserves to cover basic operation, so if you withdraw from your account, there’s something there to pay with. Generally, they’re supposed to have enough cash on hand to cover about ten percent of all the deposits. They rely on the trust of the community to continue operation. When that trust is lost, we call it a ‘run on the bank.’ That’s what the FDIC is there to deal with. But the  point is, all currency systems are founded on trust, including the dominant one.

Here’s some information on how the fractional reserve system came into being.

So, for almost every penny in the economy, someone somewhere is paying back a loan with interest on that money. That means that for the economy as a whole, there’s more money needed than exists. So either someone goes and gets another loan, and expands that demand, or someone goes bankrupt. It forces growth, whether or not there’s some other reason for it in the economy. If growth fails for some other reason, it breaks down: people can’t make loan payments, loans start going bad… sound familiar?

Forcing economic growth has good and bad effects. On the positive side, its forced expansion has lifted people’s standard of living, and created a lot of wealth for society, however it’s distributed. Jordan Macleod compares it to a booster rocket, lifting the economy from the ground into the orbit we now enjoy.

But it also means that the economic growth criterion outweighs all others. Depleting natural resources? Can’t stop the engine of commerce. If it stops growing it starts dying.

Fractional reserve banking also makes an economy with two kinds of people: people paying interest and people making money on interest. Remember, you pay interest even if you have no direct debt. Interest payments are a significant component of every consumer expense:

  • the mortgage on the shop you bought that TV in,
  • financing on all the warehouses and boats it occupied on the way from China to your place,
  • whatever small loans the companies and suppliers got to smooth out the bumps in their cashflow,
  • and the loan that originated the money itself.

Here’s a chart from a German website demonstrating the dynamic pretty well:

comparison of interest paid & gained

This is from Germany in the 1980s, but I don’t know a reason why the US in 2010 would be different (worse, maybe, but not a different pattern.) [If anyone can find a more up to date chart, maybe with American data, I’ll post it.] Note how much more interest low income folks pay than they receive, and how much more interest high income folks receive than they pay.

Kinda puts the whole debate about ‘redistributing wealth’ in a new light, eh? It’s a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich designed into the currency itself. You don’t need the Trilateral Commission to explain this. No conspiracy theories necessary, just a basic understanding of how money is created.

There have been a lot of comparisons between Wall Street and Las Vegas lately. But they usually miss one important similarity: the house always wins. And this is how that works.

Other problems with the concept are well documented.

[If you’re paying attention to the news, you know the  Federal Reserve created $600 billion dollars recently through ‘quantitative easing,’ which basically does amount to printing money. That has its own problems, including inflation risk. It’s not common practice, but if it started happening more often, it would not be a good sign either.]

the ‘gold standard’ and commodity-backed currencies

Commodities are the oldest form of currency.  Some are valuable because they’re rare, like gold. Some are useful: the ancient Egyptians used certificates backed by stores of wheat. So, the farmer would bring their wheat crop in to a municipal store, receive a receipt, and those receipts became a medium of exchange.

Commodity currencies have pluses and minuses. Pluses include basis of value: there is a value to the currency that is not arbitrarily assigned. Whether you use wheat as money or not, you can also eat it, so when you’re exchanging your wheat receipt for goats, you have a way to sensibly bargain with your seller. There’s always an element of barter in commodity currencies.

But again, it divides the economy into two parts: the part that produces the commodity, and the part that produces everything else. If you find a new gold deposit, but the rest of the economy doesn’t grow, you get inflation, and the value of people’s savings drop. If someone invents some new product category like computers, but no one finds a new gold deposit, then the rest of the economy suffers when people buy computers instead of, say, repairing the roofs on their houses. For a commodity economy to work well, the commodity has to grow with the rest of the economy. Maybe (maybe) for an agrarian economy wheat can work, under certain circumstances.

For an information economy, gold is probably not a good candidate. Gold’s growth has very very little to do with the production and exploitation of new ideas, unless those new ideas are about how to produce more gold.

Also, in a commodity economy, finding or creating that commodity is the most important thing you can do. If your gold mines use heap-leach mining? If that’s what’s most efficient, then that’s the best way, whatever the cost. If they fail, no economic growth for you, whatever else is going on in the economy.

barter

Barter is great… when I have something you need and you have something I need, and we happen to be in the same place at the same time, when we both have those needs. Otherwise, it doesn’t really work as an operating system for a modern economy.

mutual credit

In a mutual credit system money is spent into existence.

The system begins with every account at zero. Then, imagine someone buys a sandwich for five currency units. The buyer’s account goes down five units, and the seller’s account goes up five units.

The overall balance is zero. Negative balances are not charged interest. And there’s no intermediary to convince that you will repay the debt. Mutual credit systems do not have a ‘bank’ to create money.

In mutual credit, a negative balance is not inherently worse than a positive one. It’s just your balance in the system. If your balance is negative, then you have created money to circulate. If it’s positive, you’ve received money.

By itself, that isn’t enough–because everyone in the system is empowered to issue currency, it requires the trust of everyone in the system. And people could issue a bunch of currency and buy a bunch of stuff and then just walk away. Those flaws can be mitigated with a couple modifications:

  • charging people who walk away from the system–if you run a negative balance and then don’t accept the currency in exchange for your own goods and services over enough time, the agreement would allow the currency operator to bill you in dollars, if the dollar economy still works. If the dollar economy has problems, walkaways are not going to be a problem;
  • limiting people’s negative balance, based on the overall circulation in their account.

One big advantage of mutual credit is flexibility. Because mutual credit is a pure agreement, there are a lot of possible ways to modify it. There are ways to include some of the positive dynamics inherent in the other systems, and add other useful dynamics. That will be the subject of the next post–Money hacking: gamification.

One final note: I need to remind readers, I’m not an authority on currency systems. There are others who know more, and if I’ve missed anything important or there are any other categories of currency systems I should include, let me know. This is about lighting candles, not cursing the darkness. 

references

Margrit Kennedy: Interest and Inflation Free Money, at http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~roehrigw/kennedy/english/

money hacking

Global warming is a concern for a lot of people. I’m one of them. There’s this dawning realization that puny humans can affect the big world in big and (as far as we’re concerned) permanent ways, that minuscule increments of waste CO2 (parts per million) can affect the world for a very long time. It’s a problem, and a lot of people are trying to figure out how to fix it (while all of us are busy making it worse, but still, it’s on our minds. Better than complete unconsciousness, though not by much).

We used to think of nature as this thing that was so big, and we as humans were so small, that exploiting what we found seemed acceptable, and wasting what we used was fine. There was a mindset that didn’t concern itself with a systems role for human actions. We didn’t worry about ‘closing the loop’ because we didn’t think we wasted or used enough to worry about it.

Now we think we’re so smart when we build with FSC certified lumber and bike instead of drive and try to measure and reduce our carbon footprint. And I think it’s a great thing.

But we don’t bring that same kind of mindset to all the areas we could, in particular economics. Even fairly sophisticated news sources don’t deliver important aspects of the big picture.

We talk about money the same way people of the 19th century talked about air:

  • it’s this stuff out there, that comes into and goes out of our lives;
  • we need it to survive;
  • it’s undifferentiated, all the same stuff. Different countries use different currencies, but it’s all the same basic idea, mutually exchangeable;
  • it’s always been there. No one invented it. It seems like part of how the world works, and how it should work;
  • we never ponder what it is, how it’s created, or how it’s destroyed.

And what’s saddest, I think, is this: if we developed some sophistication in our thinking about money, it would open up large opportunities for people to develop and sustain meaningful, durable prosperity for everyone.

We leave economic sophistication to, well, economists, but also bankers, traders, analysts: people whose business is money. The financial industry. But money is the business of all modern humans. It’s the very operating system of our civilization. Modern humans can’t function without money in a modern way. Many of us would starve and die.

And you haven’t read the manual. Or even skimmed it. You wouldn’t know where to find it. After all, it’s someone else’s job to know that stuff and handle it. They’re taking care of it… right?

Right?

No, they’re not. That’s what we call the ‘Great Recession.’ Blame Wall Street, blame Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/the government; from the right or left, someone was too cravenly greedy or incompetent or shortsighted or all of the above.

And when we said ‘Let the financial people worry about all that complicated stuff,’ we trusted them. We did more than take out loans we couldn’t pay (though some did); we let them design the very architecture of our economy to enrich themselves at our expense. We let them assume a parasitic, heads-I-win, tails-you-lose role in the economy. When they do well, they profit. When they screw up, we have no choice but to bail them out, and they profit. Not a bad racket.

So what can you do? If you’re not willing to look into what’s going on and ask some questions about how money works or how it could work, not much. Maybe you’re a survivalist waiting for the big SHTF, and you’ll buy some land out in the country and a bunch of guns. Maybe you think the decline will be punctuated but slower, and you’ll scramble to get yourself on the happy side of the rich/poor line. But either way, you’re writing off any possibility of a future where prosperity is broadly shared.

I don’t think that’s necessary. If you’re smart and thoughtful, and you’re willing to do some homework, you could turn this crisis into an opportunity to help you and the folks around you get through the next few years. If enough folks do, maybe there’s hope for us all.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I think there are some good ways to think about the answers people are coming up with, and I think it’s smart to educate yourself about the options. I think it would be smart to take action soon.

what is money?

This is the core question. If you don’t think a bit about what money is, you are left with the ideas of others, including all the fine-print aspects they’d rather you didn’t think about.

Money is: an agreement. There’s this stuff, maybe it’s paper with numbers on it, maybe it’s numbers in a bank’s database, maybe it’s strings of shells collected on a seashore. Whatever form it takes, there’s an agreement that it has value, and people accept it in exchange for things.

Sometimes that agreement has the force of law: that’s what ‘legal tender’ means. If someone pays you with a sufficient amount in dollars in the US, you can’t sue them for nonpayment. A court of law in the US won’t accept that.

Now, that doesn’t answer a lot of questions. Like, where does it come from? How does it get created/enter/exit the system? What does it do along the way? Are there different forms? How do they interact?

But it’s useful to think of it as an agreement because we make agreements all the time. ‘Let’s meet at the Cultural Center at six.’ ‘I’ll watch the baby while you go to work.’ ‘I’ll give you $60 for those shoes.’ It’s possible to make our own money agreements with your friends and business associates. Which basically means, starting a private currency.

Whoa, John. Is that legal?

Well, it depends. In some countries, no. Germany, for example, though there are some projects they are allowing to proceed. In the US, a few things are important:

  • make sure it can’t be confused with US dollars–currency notes should be visually distinct. I wouldn’t even use the word ‘dollars’ at all. We aren’t talking about counterfeiting;
  • don’t use the words ‘Legal Tender;’
  • pay your taxes. You’ll probably have to pay them in dollars (at least for now). If you can get a local taxing body to join your agreement, all the better.

That’s as much as I know about it. If you’re concerned about getting in trouble, consult a lawyer. IANAL.

wait–money is an agreement?

Yes. That’s it.

Maybe it’s pervasive. If you’re surrounded by people who don’t accept the same currency you do, that would be hard to keep up, unless you’re a survivalist. Maybe under ‘legal tender’ laws the word ‘agreement’ isn’t quite right, because you’re not really free to decline. But with the way things are going these days, you might want some other choices available to you. And anything you and your friends and  business associates come up with will have to be just that, an agreement. Possibly a legal one.

But just to be clear: when you and those you do business with agree on a price, you’ve just defined the value of the currency you’re transacting in. That’s where that value comes from as a currency, and nowhere else. You can use dollars, strings of beads, cows, gold dubloons, or anything as long as you all agree to it.

If you use a commodity currency, your currency may have use-value, about which more later.

what does money do?

Money, as we currently use it, has three basic functions:

  • it is a store of value. So, instead of storing all the food you’re going to need after you retire, you have money in a retirement account to buy food to eat after you retire;
  • it is a measure of value. So, you can use it to compare value between items. An orange has a value of some number of dollars (in the US). A car has another value. You can compare them and assess the relative value of the two things;
  • it is a medium of exchange. So, if I have the right amount of dollars and you have an orange, I can exchange my dollars for your orange.

There are problems associated with using the same tool to do all those things, and different ways to deal with those problems. More on that later. Bernard Lietaer’s transaction.net goes into those issues in some depth.

Next: Money hacking: the origination problem.

references

These are books and sites I have found useful in beginning this thought process. If you have suggestions, please post them in the comments.

Bernard Lietaer’s transaction.net, especially Community Currencies

Thomas Greco’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization

Jordan MacLeod’s New Currency: How Money Changes the World as We Know It

metacurrency.org has some interesting ideas about a generalized concept of currency

the Cyclos project

a complementary currency plugin for Drupal

geekcred p2p digital currency

intelligent software, stupid software, and Unix-philosophy software

I had some experiences with some spectacularly bad software over the past few weeks. BMC Software markets this confusing ball of stuff, with some internal boundaries I don’t understand well. My interface to it at work is called Remedy–it’s how I make requests for stuff like a server to run software on, or an account on a new system.

It has some intelligence, or tries to. There are ways to route requests. How do I get this thing I need from the Company? Well, it comes from some part of the company, and the software assumes you don’t know where that part is, and it gives you a few abstracted ways to specify that. Sometimes it grabs it out of your description of the problem you want to solve.

Or, you know, tries to. In practice, you do know where things come from, or have ways of finding out, so you make your request, you email the relevant person with the request number, they go in and correct whatever mistakes you or the system made so the wrong people don’t receive it and cancel it and they get credit for the work, and then they get to work.

Anyway, I was struck by how poorly this works, and I reflected on my experiences with using intelligent software. There seems to be a continuum of intelligence:

Highly intelligent software: Google is the example that comes to mind. It spell-checks my most obscure searches, and can tell if I want to do a search or convert between units. Its intelligence makes it easy to use, like having an assistant. It also gives me the option of bypassing its intelligence.

Stupid software: the BMC example above seems to fall in this category. As does Clippy, Microsoft’s intrusive office assistant thing that popped up and annoyed you, before Microsoft woke up and killed it. As does Microsoft Word’s document formatting, which I find infuriating. I often spend more time battling it than I do writing my damn document.

Unix-philosophy software: software that relies on the intelligence of the user. It’s not trying to be intelligent. It assumes you are, and gives you tools to do what you wanna do without getting in your way.

The Unix command line is the canonical example. Unix tools like grep, find, and sed are examples of tools that do particular things, do them reliably and predictably. They put a burden of expertise on the user, but they make sense. The boundaries between what grep and find do make sense. The way they talk to each other makes sense.

As complex as they may be, they serve a powerful philosophy: simple tools that work together to accomplish complex things. Pieces of a puzzle that has a sensibility behind it. A consistency that allows you to make predictions about how they work, even if you don’t know their function exhaustively.

They eschew intelligence, by design. Grep knows what you can tell it, on what terms, in what language. Grep knows what you do tell it when you invoke it. It knows what the end of a line of text in its input looks like. It knows little else.

Wikis probably belong in the same category. They are simpler than Unix command-line tools, arguably better designed, but they do exactly what you tell them to. And you can integrate them with other tools in all kinds of interesting ways.

The intelligence here is also in the designer: not just in anticipating my needs, but also in an appreciation of the limits of their understanding, and the thought to give me power in flexibility.

Google, on the other hand, knows a great deal. Google sits on one of the biggest piles of data, if not the biggest, in human history. Google is actively analyzing that data, pulling intelligence out of it, making it useful.

And Microsoft? When Microsoft Word screws up the formatting of my spec, once more, there’s no way for it to learn from my frustration. There’s no accumulation of information. It thinks it knows what I want, and it’s usually wrong, and there’s no way to train it. Which is why I hate using it.

So we see a distinction between software that is stupid and software designed with no pretense of intelligence in the first place. And we see what it takes to make software that is intelligent: software that can collect information and learn from it. Whether or not it is using a process behind the scenes that humans would describe as ‘intelligent,’ the effect is the same.

It’s awfully hard to do that well–Google spends billions on making and keeping their one-line entry tool smart. It’s also difficult to make intelligently designed, powerful yet simple tools, that talk to each other in useful ways. I don’t know how much Microsoft spends making their document formatting engine, but I have a feeling most of it is wasted.

rethinking my TV

I come home from work, I flop on the couch, and I grab the remote, and I start surfing. Nothing captures my attention for more than a few minutes. I watch a little, a commercial comes, I surf on. There’s nothing I really want to see. But I keep channel-flipping.

And I hate it. I’m not a disciplined person, and I hate having that box in the house, because it’s so tempting to flop on the couch and just watch. I waste so much time that way. It’s a primary source of self-loathing.

I’d like to be more active in my community. I’d like to read more and pursue more interesting technology. I’d like to spend more of my time in a useful way.

I’ve lived TV-free, and I liked it. But there are things on TV I want to see. Not that many things, and I want to be disciplined with my time. But I do enjoy The Sopranos occasionally. And I like Angel, though the series is ending.

If you could design a home entertainment system around your values and intended lifestyle, what would it look like? How could you build it out of commercially available parts?

I want a TV interface designed around the way I want to live. An intentional entertainment source, not a festering distractiion. Here are some ideas:

  • no receiver. Get a DVD player, get a monitor, and watch only DVDs. No antenna, no cable. Get news from NPR and the Net, the way I do now anyway. Only watch things I’m willing to pay to see.
    The pay-as-you go plan creates a nice artiificial scarcity. I would have to spend the money and the time to get the DVDs, so I’d need to be motivated. I’d be less inclined to waste time watching things I don’t care about seeing. This could dovetail nicely with services like Netflix.

    The minus is, this solution does not give me all the shows I want to see. I could get some of my favorite shows on DVD, but I couldn’t get some of the best up-to-date shows this way, like the Daily Show, and I couldn’t get sporting events, though the ones I really want to see are few and far between.

  • A PVR without the “channel” abstraction. That is, TV not organized into streams of video content that you can move through sequentially. Only recorded shows, no live viewing. No surfing, only a database of upcoming shows, with times and short descriptions. This makes finding new shows more of an intentional act. You would still see ads for other shows, but you wouldn’t get caught up in something you didn’t intend to see in the first place. Could be an interesting open-source project.
    The minus is, you can still watch enough content to eat arbitrary amounts of your time. It deals with an important source of distraction, but not the volume.
  • A PVR without “Season Pass” functionality. There are some of these available. You can record as much as you want, but the PVR can’t automatically accumulate episodes of a particular show for you. This could give you more control of the level of distraction.
    My experience with my roommate’s TiVos is that you get this huge backlog of stuff you do want to see, and you can blow a whole afternoon easily. But if I didn’t get around to seeing it for a while, how badly did I want to see it in the first place? Procrastination can betray my true priorities.

    The minus is, you can still watch enough content to eat arbitrary amounts of your time, just by acquiring bad habits. And some shows have excellent hooks to keep you watching: Alias comes to mind. It helps with the volume of distraction, but it doesn’t deal with it effectively.

  • Video from the Net. The current solutions are not too bad. If you want to download over a broadband connection, store and display on your TV, there are a number of systems out there. The user interfaces for finding and browsing Internet video content from a couch are not yet mature, but that’s not a bad thing.
    Some resources are streaming-oriented, and they seem less convenient for home-theater watching. The Daily Show is an example, the website has streams embedded in the web page. How am I supposed to go full screen with that? I don’t want to watch TV at my desk.

Anyway, I don’t have it sorted out completely. I’ll probably go wiith the monitor/DVD thing at first, and if there’s enough interest in a limited PVR, and I have time, I might pursue an open-source project, perhaps a fork of Freevo or MythTV.