Sunday, May 10, 2009

HTTP and Metacurrency

For anyone not paying attention to the Internet (and since you are reading this blog, I consider that highly unlikely), the last fifteen years have seen a massive transformation in almost all nooks of society due to this marvelous invention. The Internet itself has been around for decades in various guises, but it wasn’t until the advent of the World-Wide-Web (from now on “WWW”) that the Internet gained mainstream acceptance.

The WWW was built on a few remarkably simple yet profound principles. At the core of the WWW is HTTP
(hyper-text transfer protocol). HTTP is simply a way of having one person using a computer connected the web make a request for any information resource on any server also connected to the web. In other words, it is a way of saying “Hey, I want this information resource.” and then being able to receive the reply “Okay, here it is.” Requesting information from any computer on the network sounds horribly mundane, but think about how different that is from previous forms of mass communication. Previously, all mass communication had to pass through gatekeepers. The New York Times’ famous motto does more to illustrate this point than anything else: “All the news that’s fit to print.”

In other words, some authority or middleman had to approve your message for mass communication. Sure, there was freedom of the press, and, in theory, you could start a newspaper that printed the things you wanted to say, but how many people could realistically do that? Doing so was cost prohibitive for 99% or more of the population. HTTP changed all that. What sounds simple, “I want this information resource” / “Here it is”, is actually at the core of a new paradigm in publishing. Anyone anywhere can now instantly request any information resource on any server connected to the web. This ability enables direct communication between the consumers of information and the producers of information. A third party is no longer needed to mediate this exchange.

Today, we see the results of this amazingly simple yet profound pattern of communication. The newspaper business is about to go bankrupt. The music industry is in a similar predicament. Even advertising is floundering. Fundamentally, the democratization of communications has taken a GIANT step forward. All because of “I want this information resource” / “Here it is.”

Let’s now look at how this relates to currency. As Eric Harris-Braun has posited, let’s consider for a moment that a currency is a game we play among each other with an agreed upon set of rules. If we think of all currencies in this light, the equivalent statement of “I want this information resource” / “Here it is” would be “Here is a game I am playing” / “Here is a play in that game.”

Right now all our currency games are mitigated through an authority or middleman just as publishing was before the WWW. With dollars, banks are in charge. With commercial barter, commercial barter companies are in charge. Even with time-banks, a relatively benign form of currency, there is a central organization that is “in charge.” In theory, we can create our own currency providing organization, but in practice, who among us has the time? Doesn’t that sound a little like newspapers before the WWW?

Does this mean that the advent of a "MetaCurrency Protocol" (analogous to HTTP) will mean that currency systems won’t need people whose job it is to perform maintenance on the currency (brokering transactions, strategically signing up new users, etc)? Of course not. What it means is that anybody will be free both in theory AND in practice to start new currencies whenever they deem it necessary, and to effectively engage potential users of that currency.

Currently, if we want to trade goods and services, we need to use a currency created and administered by a them. We can’t opt out of these systems, because to do so would be to lose the ability to trade. This means we are coerced into playing currency games we may not want to play, or for that matter even know the rules of. In the new model, if the managers or the rules of a particular currency aren’t serving the needs of the users, users can go elsewhere without forfeiting their ability to trade. For example, I can still read the New York Times, but I can also get news from blogs. I don’t NEED the New York Times (or its analogs) for news anymore.

In short, this new “MetaCurrency Protocol” (or MCP) will create the same fundamental transformation in the domain of currency as HTTP did in the domain of publishing. Think of the possibilities. We have only just begun to discover our true potential as a species.

Please see “The MetaCurrency Project” for more details. Big thanks to Eric Harris-Braun and Arthur Brock whose work on same have illuminated these possibilities.


herestomwiththeweather said...

Although I'm in enthusiastic agreement with building more adaptable people-centric currencies, it seems this article is assuming that the current state of affairs only allows for privately governed currencies. As you know, if a currency is treated as a commons governed by the members of a cooperative, we can no longer use the "them" strawman.

Alan Rosenblith said...

This is a fascinating question that merits a lot of thought. I thank you for bringing it up, because it is at the heart of the matter. Obviously, I support cooperative governance.

However, that having been said, sometimes governance itself implies a layer of bureaucracy that separates people from the actions of the collective. A classic example of this is the morass of committees that is sometimes needed in cooperative grocery stores to stock even the most obvious items.

The action of the collective (stocking the goods) is separated from the actions of the individuals by a layer of governance. This is why I refer to the governing layer (no matter how inclusive) as a them.

Compare that with the kind of spontaneous collective intelligence that a well tuned sports team exhibits. The sports team doesn't have committee meetings every time there is a play in the game. They instead see the condition of the whole, and spontaneously adapt their behavior accordingly without the need for a formal layer of governance. All they really need to know are the rules and the goal of the game. Sure they prep themselves, but when the game starts, they are in the moment. Being in the moment is different from running plays through layers of committees.

Fundamentally, a person playing a game is doing so by their own consent. And if they don't like the rules, they are free to make up new ones, and invite others to play with them. This is the ethos I believe we need with currency. I hope this clarifies. For further information on collective intelligence, I highly recommend Jean-Francois Noubel's work at The Transitioner: