Friday, January 8, 2010

The Future of “Open” Depends on Open Currency

I am going to make a bold claim. If we want the new modes of economic production we’ve seen thus far in the information age to become deeply ingrained in our cultural fabric, we must apply these modes of production to currency itself.

I take as my starting point for this contention a recent post by a musician who’s music I have long enjoyed: DJ Shadow. For those who don’t read his entire critique of music in the age of file sharing, it basically says musicians need to be reimbursed for their work if they are going to keep making good music. And he is right in this assertion. If we want to have a culture where people can specialize in being musicians, we must develop viable ways for musicians (and other artists) to be valued and supported.

One contention of what I will loosely call the “open movement” (even though that is mostly a misnomer), has been that anything information-based tends towards being free because there is virtually no cost to producing it at a large scale, and because information is a “non-rival” good (meaning that if I have it, I don’t prevent others from having it). I believe this logic is correct when it comes to valuing information-based resources in scarcity-based currencies such as the dollar. However, just because a resource such as music is no longer inherently scarce, doesn’t mean these resources shouldn’t be valued.

I fear that we may be accidentally walking into a trap in the crowd-sourcing / wikipedia age of "open." We are correctly realizing that scarce money cannot measure the value of that which is not scarce, but we haven’t yet collectively adopted currencies that can. If we want anything more interesting than the most mediocre culture to survive this transition, we must develop currencies that can enable our collective support of musicians / artists without the need for scarcity as the measuring stick.

Our money forces us into valuing only that which is scarce. I believe the fact that music has stopped being scarce is a VERY good thing, but if we can’t find ways of valuing musicians (and other content producers) in the post-scarcity era, I fear the cost of “open” will far outweigh the benefits.

Already we are seeing a global backlash to this new “open” culture because producers of content of all kinds aren’t being valued. Douglas Rushkoff at a recent web 2.0 convention contended that this culture of “open” (or "free") was largely a way for Google to profit off of the hard work of content producers. In the context of a scarce money system, I am afraid I must concur.

For me, the principles embedded in the “open movement” represent nothing less than the future of human civilization. If we want to see any of the real benefits of this future, we MUST MUST MUST apply the logic of “open” to currency itself. Only then will society have the tools it needs to appropriately value musicians and other content producers.

Societies are complex adaptive networks, and like all complex adaptive networks, that which provides value to the network MUST be reinforced. This reinforcement does NOT have to be done with a scarce currency that forces us into pathological competition with each other. Nor does this reinforcement even have to be done with a quid-pro-quo kind of monetary currency. But the reinforcement MUST occur if we want to encourage the production of value. The time is now for OPEN CURRENCY.