Friday, October 19, 2012

Value, attention and Big Data

A number of themes continue to converge for me since the last post. Again, I apologize for the rambling assemblage of these thoughts - my aim is not to produce a polished work - but to just get some thoughts out. Eventually I hope to bring this series of posts together into a more coherent piece.

I had an interesting discussion with my son-in-law during a wonderful family Thanksgiving weekend (my daughter and he are making me a grandfather). We were talking about my favourite topic - the digital environment and the fundamental restructuring of the economy. Warren is a singer-musician in the Montreal group Plants and Animals and so as an artist and performer knows quite a bit about the changes in the economic conditions of related to 'intellectual property'.

I brought up the perspective that Oscar Hidalgo had discussed in his Edge conversation (that I discussed in the last post). The idea of producing value versus the capacity to 'appropriate' at least some of that value in return. How do you make a living generating value (music, art, literature, ideas) in an environment where such value is so easily replicated, reproduced, spread? Wikipedia solves this problem by becoming a non-profit foundation. I have asked many people where the value generated for 100s of millions of people on the GDP of different national economies? Facebook on the other hand has a much more difficult time trying to appropriate enough of the value it generates - it is increasingly force to attempt to cannibalisticly 'monetise' information derived from its own users behaviour as well as making as cumbersome as possible for each person to exist this environment with all that they have invested into it. Thus far, users continue to extract enough value for themselves through the formation of communities.

Warren being a musician complained of the degradation of quality that new technologies have wrought on the popular consumables of music. I appreciate his artistic sensibility to the fidelity of sound. My son is an artist as well and have learned to appreciate is aesthetic sensibilities. Warren's perceptions about quality made sense to me - but I also thought about it differently. Most of my experience of music was less dependent on the quality of the sound - but on what I brought to the experience of my hearing the music. It was not only the 'quality of my attention' as a passive recipient of 'the signal' but the quality of my active attention - what my imagination was able to provide in terms of creating or at least augmenting my experience.

There are two issues here. How to make money in an digital environment when any digital good is essentially beyond control and of course we must also acknowledge and feed the creative commons that is he wellspring of our creativity. And the shift to an 'Attention Economy' (I'll talk a bit about this later).

The problem may at least partial arise due to a misplaced application of 'private property' to creative goods. It's not that private property doesn't have a place - but as a method of 'appropriating value' it may not be 'appropriate' (pun intended). As a means of certain types of resource it is very useful. But in the digital environment with digital goods the paradigm is not scarcity rather it is abundance - and network economics are about the increasing returns of network effects. This is a dilemma between the old paradigm of trying to appropriate value from intellectual property ownership and generate increasing value from network effects.

Kevin Kelly has a nice small piece "Better Than Free" that talks about sources of appropriating value based on what is actually scarce versus the natural abundance of the digital. I'm not sure if Kelly provides a satisfactory answer to Warren's problem of how to make money from performance art. But maybe there is also something more in the attention economy.

This week I was introduced via Twitter to @AJEbsary by @wikisteff. @AJEbsary has a fantastic blog The Attention Economist. I can't do it justice here, but it inspires some thoughts related to this thread.

Adrian outlines very comprehensively and concisely a history of thinking about the attention economy. My preliminary thinking is an extension of what the discussion with Warren brought up - e.g. the active creation of quality via the participation of the experiencer, my previous post referring to Hidalgo and Big Data, and the notions of new forms of measurement arising from Big Data and generating new institutions.

Is the quality of attention separable from the quality of experience? I don't think so. Is the quality of experience measurable objectively?  Take pain for example. There is not objective measure of someone's pain - the best that can be done is to ask someone to frame their experience by asking 'On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you rate your pain?'. While we can understand the relative intensity represented by this scale - there is no way to know that one person's 7 is equal to another person's 7 - we simply understand that relative scale. This is the essence of money - subjective perceptions of value using the illusion of precision of a number scale as the basis of exchange via a 'price mechanism'.

Marx was partially right in his analysis of the source of surplus value coming from value extracted from workers, what he didn't account for was the equally surplus value that was extracted from consumers of goods. Even when something is purchased at a cost that exceeds production costs a consumer may extract more value from his experience with the consumable than was involved in the production of the consumable. This may be a foundation that enables 'rent seekers' to function extracting rent from original producers for access to consumers and extracting rent from consumers for access to what producers produce. The classic example is the Music Business and their need to own the 'intellectual property' produced by musicians so they can monopolize access to music from consumers. This surplus value is also what I discussed with Warren about how much of the 'quality' of the music I heard came from what I brought from my own imagination and how my mind tended to 'fill-in' the gaps in fidelity.

So although we can track our eye movements, record neural activities, there may never be 'objective' measures of the quality of attention. But that may not be a significant problem - since we have been able to develop an mechanism of exchange that is also based on subjective perception of value - that we call money. The key is a new form of currency that can arise from the application of subjective perceptions of value to the experiences we have - as a form assessing value. Everybody has a stake in having their own contributions (in whatever form) also assessed if those assessments can form the basis for a type of social/attentional currency.

There are many limits that remain in the idea of an attention economy - chief among these is that the quality of attention will likely remain impossible to measure objectively as well as relationship between creativity and attention. By this I mean that the creative process generally involves many sorts of 'oblique' types of attention - moments of percolating on subconscious levels - of processing problems below he level of consciousness - this level of attention is fundamental to the creative process. Objective types of measures may indicate distraction from 'tasks-at-hand' but are part of a profoundly complex attentional computation that surface results apparently serendipitously.

I believe the attention economy is fundamental to the digital environment, but may only be leverageable via a capacity to provide a type of ubiquitous subjective rating of experience & contribution. And like money currently (which is now mostly 'bits' information) these can form the basis of an exchange mechanism allowing intangible/experiential goods to be 'free' and the value generated to also be appropriated by all of us in a new form of political economy.

This rambling theorizing won't help Warren and other artists soon, but without a theory we have no way to progress.