Trading in people
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #66

Bits, not atoms, may be the matter of a knowledge economy, but they are not the source of its value. The value in such an economy lies in the people behind the bits. Sometimes this is more apparent, as in the business of consistent content, which cannot be divorced from its creators; sometimes less, as in the business of diverse content, where traders profit in collecting - but not creating - a variety of information. But the value of people is most obvious in the middle ground, in the dynamic resources of the Internet where content - under the guise of free- flowing discussion - arises out of an informal jumble of creators.

Such content is consistent, to a degree. In recent years the quality of discourse on most Internet newsgroups has declined, due to the influx of 'newbies' inexperienced with cyberspatial protocol. Nevertheless, the coherent and useful content in a large proportion of newsgroups, mailing-lists and other dynamic resources such as the reader-driven 'threads' of HotWired - an on- line pseudo-publication - is an indication that informal groupings can be very good creators.

In effect, many such sources of consistent content have collective originators, the implicit cooperatives that form between individual contributors. Content produced this way is often more valuable than that produced by a single creator, due to the variety introduced by several points of view and the complementary skills of contributors. Trade in such dynamic content will fall somewhere between the models of value-in- diversity (between members), and value-in-consistency (within the group as a whole).

Why do groups of people gather to create valuable content without any notion of profit? Why do experts in, say, biocomputing, write detailed descriptions of their work, and continue to contribute new ideas without any direct benefit? The answer lies partly in the Internet's academic origins, partly in the new economics of the infosphere.

There are three components of this trade in dynamic content, this trade in people. There are the participants themselves, who create and share the content. There are the clients, who want access to such content without creating any of their own. There are the traders, who tell the clients with a variety of needs where to look. And there is a business model for each.

The role of traders in selling dynamic, live content is the same as the one they play with static, dead content. Just as they would collect static content and profit off the client's need for order amidst diversity, they would compile indexes of sources of live content, making a marginal profit on everything from anarchy to zoology.

The interaction of participants follows a different model, of the cooking-pot market. Biocomputing experts describe their work on- line as they would on paper in the academic world from which they come. Other participants, in groups discussing the media for example, may not be academics but have the same implicit expectations of this model - that, while putting in the content they create, they will get more value from the content that others, collectively, provide.

The role of the client, not producing content but only consuming it, is obviously not that of the participant. Although it is possible to treat all of the infosphere as one cooking-pot market - where till a few years ago almost everyone put in about the same as anyone else - and for the present this is how the Net works, things will change. As cyberspace grows to encompass more of the planet, there will be a stratification among its people, with different levels of production, and prolific content creators will (and already do) begin to feel cheated. So those who consume more and produce less, at least relative to a particular group of 'participants', become 'clients'.

To such clients it is the consistency of content - its reliability and relevance to some topic - is what matters, not whether the creator is an individual, a formal organisation, or an implicit cooperative. So a client wanting to benefit from a live resource should, in some way, pay the collective of participants that creates it. As the participants are only grouped informally, this may be a little difficult.

Solutions may come from technology such as digital money, or, more likely, reputation systems that manage the credibility - in a sense the value - of individuals. They may come from new forms of advertising. But at any rate they will reflect the fact that, in a knowledge economy, trade is foremost in people.

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