Decentralized coordination of intelligence

Copyright 2003, by Alec Rawls


Imagine if those who shared some particular set of political or cultural interests started paying for online content that they thought was worth their time. That group would gain a huge advantage because their intellectuals would be supported in our society. In particular, when the mainstream media, with its numerous little bastions of monopoly power, are almost entirely controlled by one political party, paying for content online allows alternative viewpoints to be supported.

The technology for making these payments is not mature yet, but it is available. Ideally, support should be on a unit basis, maybe five or ten cents per short article. Micro-payments that small are not yet supported. The PayPal fee schedule on donations, for instance, is 30 cents + 2.2%. As a practical matter, then, donations have to be lump sum rather than item by item, but this is only a small hurdle. Have you found my writings worth your time? Then please consider paying me one tenth, or one hundredth, of the value of your time (or of what you are willing to sell it to your employers for) for the time you spend here.

That's right, I've lured you in. This is the introduction to my donations page. But realize what road we have an opportunity to choose here. If this direction is followed, it will lead to the decentralized coordination of intelligence. As people pay for what they find worthwhile, information will accumulate about who has similar judgment about what things. (The accuracy of this information can be increased by people taking another few seconds to submit numerical ratings of merit for what they are paying for). It will then be possible to compile this feedback automatically and use it to formulate personalized predictions of what individual users will find most worth their time, based on what other individuals who display similar judgment have rated most worthwhile. Such a system will allow everyone to act as everyone else's eyes and ears, which will allow current editorial bottlenecks to be bypassed.

The accuracy of the predictions offered by this kind of "rating engine" is a function of the ratings base that it has to project from. As more people use it, predictive power will increase until at some point the predictive power will be such that payments will probably switch to the same up-front format as for other consumer goods. People will prefer to spend a small fraction of the value of their time attending to what can be expected to be worth their time rather than waste a large fraction of their time looking for what is worth their time. Efficiency and desert will both be served. Less time will be wasted, and merit will be both disseminated and rewarded automatically.  Until then, dissemination of judgment and the rewarding of merit depend on the socially concerned action of individuals. It is up to each of us to spread the word about what is worthwhile, and to pay for it, so that those who speak for us can continue to do so.

All it requires is for lots of people to take five minutes to enter their credit card numbers one time at PayPal. All PayPal wants is thirty cents a pop. We can deal with that, until we can convince them to give us something like a 12.2% fee schedule on the first $3 (the point beyond which 12.2%  becomes greater than 30 cents + 2.2%), on the condition that donators have a positive PayPal balance (in which case PayPal does not have to bill the credit card, reducing its transactions costs to almost zero, a matter of automated internal accounting). That kind of pure percentage fee schedule will allow true micro-payments. Until then, we just need to make our payments to each other lump sum instead of pay as you go. Wait till you figure you owe me a buck or two, then send it along. PayPal will come around (or risk losing out to who will) but there is no need for us to wait. As is, PayPal is offering We the People an unprecedented opportunity to break the mainstream media monopoly on who gets paid for their contributions to public discussion. Let's take advantage of it.


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