Archive for crowdsourcing

Nomicly, My Frankenstein Prototype

Over the last two weeks, I’ve transitioned from high-level planning and concept definition for Nomicly to really putting together a prototype. (What Nomicly Is.)

I decided in mid-October that it was time to put together a prototype but, honestly, being a mere hobbist-programmer I was a bit daunted by the challenge.

Reminded by this quote from Göthe, I got started:

Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.

I think of that quote often actually. I’ve found it to be very, very true. To get excited, we need to engage the vision in our mind and build a plan around it. But to maintain that excitement—to build upon that excitement and create actual momentum—we have to get started.

Caveat is that, imho, it is important to prioritize and delineate a minimum viable product so that the investment of time and effort (and stress and vexation) is adequately rewarded with meaningful, tangible, or visible progress.

I believe I’ve largely been accomplishing this balance.

As of writing this, it is possible to

  • Register using FB or Twitter (or standalone)
  • Create new ideas
  • Create ideas specific to a question or topic (i.e. have a focus to the ideas)
  • Vote on ideas

I’m also nearly done with a “Hot or Not” variation where players can choose between Idea-A and Idea-B.

That is almost my definition of the MVP.

I still need to help create a “users” page where people can access feedback on how their ideas and participation is creating consensus within Nomicly. I also still want to bake in a smidgen more game-like mechanics because I find “gamification” to be an interesting area to explore within innovation. (A lot of design thinking is around ‘play’ as a tool for accessing creativity and innovation. Games are also fun.

This quote from Bing Gordon also helps:

If you want to have employees or customers who were born after 1971, you need to understand the lens through which they see the world…It’s the new normal for people born after 1971 to see the world as games…

I also need to work on the basics of the analytics but I’m not anticipating anything overly complex for the short-term. I am talking about a mere prototype.

My amazing wife is going to help with beautification since CSS is far from a forte of mine. We lovingly refer to the beautification as the ‘lipstick on pig’ phase.

I’m quite excited about the progress I’ve made and I should have something worth poking at by Thanksgiving.

As exciting as that goal is, it’s really just the very beginning. I’ve got quite a roadmap ahead of myself ranging from product-focused enhancements to funding to 3rd party implementations.

So, while I’m excited and pumped and gaining momentum daily, it’s all balanced by the knowledge that a long, difficult path lay ahead. Göthe is right that our mind will grow heated, but Nietzsche is also right about the consequences of starting:

To make plans and project designs brings with it many good sensations; and whoever had the strength to be nothing but forger of plans his whole life long would be a very happy man: but he would occasionally have to take a rest from this activity by carrying out a plan—and then comes the vexation and the sobering up.

My First Crowdsourcing Project

Sitting at CrowdConf the business summit this afternoon (the pre-conference conference), someone commented to me that since I worked at Servio/Cloudcrowd for nearly 3 years I was an ‘old timer’ for crowdsourcing. That got me thinking back to when I first experimented with crowdsourcing–or at least the comment got me thinking about this later once I was home.

The first time I used crowdsourcing for my business objectives was for Power 9 Pro in 2008.

There are a lots of examples–all of Power 9 Pro was arguably “crowdsourced” but the example that really sticks out in my mind as a proto-crowdsourcing model was the development of the writing team.

Long before the dreaded “Panda update” from Google, I knew that unique, value-driven content was king on the internet. But how could I quickly compete with the volume of content needed to be found?

Even then, SEO was largely about structured keyword-dense content, so I knew to compete with businesses and people who’d been posting content (and had brand clout) for years before Power 9 Pro ever showed up on the scene I knew I needed to create a team of distributed writers. I certainly didn’t have a budget to pay for full-time writers and I was busy making sure the company’s products were being sold to stores.

Turn to open-call for writers.

I focused on the Magic: the Gathering community of players (a niche), knowing my content had to be authentic because crap writing on Magic is obvious to anyone who has played for longer than 10 minutes. This was a key element to me learning about community motivation first-hand.

Now, while this was a small-scale operation, it did provide me enough experience and insight to make my next major product/service: crowdsourced SEO content writing. This is a big service application for Servio and it’s pretty interesting to think about how a simple experiment could be applied to a much larger system (with some tweaks of course).

As I said, Power 9 Pro is conceivably a fully crowdsourced project but the screening for writers after an open call to everyone (albeit with a focused open-call), learning how to guide the “crowd” of writers on what is not necessarily an intuitive writing style (SEO) particularly for a culture raised on flashy journalism with pun-filled headlines, and at the same time rewarding/motivating people to keep at it.

That experience alone set the stage for me diving head first into crowdsourcing of all sorts.

And the adventure continues! :)

Top Three Challenges for Crowdsourcing Companies

After two and a half years focused on crowdsourcing, I’ve had plenty opportunity to reflect on the challenges for businesses, both new and established, looking to introduce crowdsourcing projects. Here’s a short list of what I consider to be the Three Challenges for Crowdsourcing Companies.

Building Crowds

One of the first challenges a crowdsourcing company will encounter is building a crowd to sustain the business model. In many ways, this is the same challenge any business starting out has always encountered: getting people to use the service.
Building a crowd for your business is a marketing activity. It is not an engineering activity.
There’s often a misconception about this but make no mistake, if people (“crowds”) do not know about your crowdsourcing site, it will fail.
Now, just because the acquisition of users to power the crowd is a marketing activity does not mean engineering should be the “go-fers”. Quite the opposite is true.
Strong engineering and metrics-focused product teams help provide the discipline and face-based processes that really enhance marketing teams’ efforts at acquiring and sustaining users, customers and crowds.

Maintaining Crowds

Maintaining Crowds is similar to Building Crowds, except that after you get a crowd to your site, the challenge is keeping them there.
It does not matter whether you pay users in real money, coupons, points, bitcoins or coconuts, your crowd is a set of free software users visiting your website. If you want to keep these people, arguably the most important asset you can posses, it’s important your crowdsourcing site offers a combination of stickiness (through pay, rewards or infrastructure), autonomy, achievement, community, notoriety, and personal-attainment. The exact combination for your site can only be determined through experimentation, so getting started early in the process of reevaluating site interactions and direct user feedback is important.
For crowdsourcing companies conducting business, the quality challenge is not to just to ensure accuracy but also to create a sensible, fair system under which the crowd’s work is evaluated.
So, while Facebook has to provide stickiness, community and autonomy, it doesn’t have to worry (too much) about the output from its user base.
People on Mechanical Turk or CloudCrowd are judged constantly on output quality, so if the crowdsourcing business does not provide the right environment for people to be judged, the users will feel ostracized or unfairly punished, invariably resulting in an exodus.
Whereas acquiring new users is more heavily weighed by marketing efforts, product and engineering efforts are the focus for sustaining crowds (i.e. once the marketers get people to the site, do the engineering and product teams provide people a great site for doing work or participating in crowdsourcing projects? or do they find a confusing site or one with unclear rules or unfair community interactions?)

Building Consistency (at scale)

The holy grail of crowdsourcing is the scale of potential output. How many “manhours” can your crowd produce in a single hour? How many millions of workitems were completed last month?
The on-paper math for crowdsourced labor is staggering.
What we have to keep in mind is that the users are humans, not machines.
This results in a variance of output. Crowdsourcing processes, while perhaps fashioned after assembly lines, does not always produce output like one.
This is an area where the most innovation for crowdsourced labor is occurring.
My advice, to be concise, is to explore balancing algorithms, crowd peer-reviews, high-reward for good work, and real risk of expulsion or penalties for poor work.

Game Theory and Nomics

Stanford University is offering a free game theory class that I’m enrolled in. I’ve been interested in game theory since reading The Art of Strategy last year.

As a quick aside, I actually read the book because I wanted to be sure to properly align the incentives of Servio’s workers on CloudCrowd. That is to say, on CloudCrowd we have some really awesome workflows that involve allowing workers to receive bonuses for correcting work they’re reviewing (rather than rejecting the work and only getting a low-base rate for rejecting flawed work). We also have a workflow that sends rejected work back to the original worker for “self-corrections.” Our workflows are quite fascinating to me because we’re building a work platform that (as long as I get to contribute) will continue to align itself more and more with how “the real world” works. However, because of the complexity in our workflows, it was important (as the product manager determining payouts, expected user behavior, policies around eligibility, etc) that I have a fairly strong handle on the relevant game mechanics governing worker interactions.

When I read Cognitive Surplus late last year, I first learned about the “Nomic Game.” I’ve been a little obsessed with how we can leverage the Nomic Game, as a principle if nothing more, to create a collective consensus building platform ever since. I think I’m on to something here, and hearing the founder of Votizen speak at a TedX conference (via YouTube) affirms this belief. Remember, one of my first inspirations for the Nomic Game was the Occupy Wall Street movement and their inability to create an actionable, cohesive consensus—it’s worth noting that a “leap of faith” assumption, to use Eric Reis’ term, is that social movements of today—political involvement methodologies of contemporary society—need to “catch up” with normal business and consumer technologies. I mean, we’re still using an electoral college for presidential elections, and from what I can tell the system was only in place because of the technology available during the 1800′s (i.e. horse drawn carriages). We’re still using horse drawn carriage paradigms for elections!? This is mind numbingly retarded to me. (If that bothers you too, check out what Jennifer Pahlka is working on. It’s pretty awesome.)

Coming full circle to the Nomic Game, the concept was originally proposed by a political science professor Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment, and Suber used the game as a way of illustrating how The Constitution works for his students. One of the main lessons of the game is that through self-amendment, “unalienable rights” can be revoked through a consensus of modification of the “unalienable-ness” of a right. It’s a very interesting read, albeit a bit dense.

One of the first questions I had when thinking through the Nomic Game was “What are the game theory implications of the Nomic Game?”

This question isn’t as straight forward as you might expect. To understand what I mean here, let’s walk through a simple mental game.

Particularly in the fashion I plan to implement it, the Nomic Game helps people establish consensus around ideas. Another word for “idea” in this scenario is “belief,” and this is an important point. (Background: In game theory, beliefs and motivations play a key role in understanding games where players play multiple rounds before completing the game. And, the Nomic Game is exactly that.)

At first we may think (without the math, aka “a priori“) the (weakly) dominant strategy is to simply agree with ideas so that we can arrive at a consensus and move to the next problem. That is, if we all agree with an idea, then as a society we will (presumably) receive the same utility. But, as an additional premise, we’re not just working with bland ideas like “let’s go get a cup of coffee,” we’re dealing with important ideas like “we should stop the production of nuclear arsenals.”

Now we’re treading into a contentious area.

My beliefs about the implications of stopping nuclear arsenal production come into play. Tangential beliefs about what it means to no longer produce nuclear arsenals need to be evaluated. Moreover, is it a weakly dominant strategy for me to agree with an idea that does not properly align with my belief system even though I may access some utility by doing so?

If we take a step back for a moment, we can see this same weakly dominant strategy at play in our political election system today: Your choice for the next president (or Senator or whatever) is Twiddle-Dee from the Republican Party or Twiddle-Dumb from the Democrat Party. To be a bit more explicit, the argument, “I don’t want to throw my vote away” is a tacit consent that the the political actor (the voting citizen) is taking the weakly dominant strategy of choosing the “most likely person to win.” This is playing the dominant strategy.

Whew, I went over a lot here but I didn’t reach my main goal. I wanted to explore a formula for the utility of a Nomic Game player but I have to go to work. Next time!

(Btw, I’m still looking for a better name than Nomic Game. What do people think of “nomic.ly”?)

Car Ownership Unpopular With Younger Generation (Because Car Ownership Is Stupid)

My mother-in-law sent me this article from the NYTimes on Sunday. It’s an interesting piece on the decline of car ownership among the “younger generation”—basically Gen-Y’ers/Millennials. I think this makes sense and it’s a topic she and I discuss frequently.

Here is my response (as it relates to crowdsourcing two paragraphs down):

It’s scary (and kind of hilarious) to imagine what this means:

The five-year strategic vision that Scratch [a consulting arm of MTV] has developed for Chevrolet, kept quiet until now, stretches beyond marketing to a rethinking of the company’s corporate culture. The strategy is to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” breakout hits.

I imagine people fist pumping as they walk down the halls screaming “where are the guidos!?” :p

I hope the car industry goes the direction of the horse-drawn carriage. we need better solutions to transportation than stupid cars. there’s no scale.

GM is kidding itself if they think they’re going to attract young purchasers with stupid lemonade colored cards–and Scratch probably knows it but wants the consulting fees (i.e. “just doing their job”).

The real trend for “the young generation” will be around collective ownership—sharing assets to reduce costs.

Consider: if it costs 60 to 80k to get a decent college education, arguably the bare minimum needed to even start getting into the “middle class income brackets,” and most of this money is procured through student loans, then the “youth of today” will have debt considerably higher than “our parents’ generation,” hence postponing starting family, purchasing homes and cars, etc. outside of home ownership, 20 years ago people would be hard pressed to find 22 year olds carrying debt in the 80k range. That doesn’t even count the people who choose to go to graduate school.

So, yeah, while it’s the right decision to “…abandon the hard sell,” it doesn’t affect the long term trends or take into account the social changes happening due to the internet and an awareness that “collective ownership” is viable and doesn’t have to look like some scary vignette from 1984 or “the evil Soviet Republic.”

On a slightly unrelated note, did everyone checkout Bill Moyers & Company this week?

Pushing Forward on the Nomic Game

I was able to get a few more hours into the Nomic project today. Not quite to the point where it’s even remotely presentable (even for this dirty of an experiment) but some good progress.

It took me a few minutes (as in 60) to get back into the groove of writing code, but I’m now recording new ideas and just about ready to start allowing voting. I forgot to implement a few things with regards to the ancestry of an idea but getting that in will only take a few minutes.

The Nomic Game will be a pretty clunky version even when I get voting in because I won’t have a notion of “people” yet. :p I’ve been waiting to get the bulk of the ideation process in place first before moving on to user identification. Then I can address issues such as “who gets to vote” and “limiting votes”.

To identify people, I plan to use Facebook and make the Nomic Experiment a Facebook app so that I can leverage their authentication process.

Ideally I’ll have time to setup the Twitter API so that users can auto-feed their ideas to Twitter. I’ll probably “ship” the prototype without it though because I’m eager to get feedback on the base concept.

Hopefully this prioritization (ideas and votes before people) doesn’t bite me in the butt. I tried to make sure I had some design thinking in place to account for people and I believe the highly modularized approach I’m taking to the code will give me the flexibility I need. I haven’t built any unit tests yet, but I plan to! (I say this knowing I’ll probably rely on ad-hoc testing for the foreseeable future.)

You might have noticed that I keep referring to the project by different names “nomics”, “nomic project”, “nomic experiment.” This is the result of not having a name for it! It really only occurred to me recently that I’m probably the only person who wants to call this “Nomics”.

Got any ideas? Maybe Idea Factory? That’s what I put in the meta description. But I haven’t even spent a lick of time looking for domains. I’m figuring that has to be the least important aspect of the app–at least until a day or so before I want to release it.

If you somehow stumbled across this post and have no idea what I’m talking about, read my first post specifically on the Nomic Game or this post where I first started contemplating the need/value of the Nomic Game.

The Nomic Game Schema

So I haven’t updated on the Nomic Game since the first post.

For the reader who was perplexed by the “philosophical design” of the Nomic Game, here’s where I took this crazy ramble:

Reflecting on the “philosophical design,” I produced this set of notes:

some notes i had jotted down

Don't mind the handwriting. I can read it! ;-)


From these notes, I created these tables:

+-------------------+
| Tables_in_nomics |
+-------------------+
| community_admins |
| community_list |
| community_members |
| error_logs |
| following |
| ideas |
| people |
| votes |
+-------------------+

I have another table to create called “plans” which are just going to be collections of ideas. Long story short, I reasoned that a “plan” is really just the collection of a number of small ideas. I felt ‘plans’ were an important notion to capture because if the Nomic Game can generate real action (as I hypothesize is possible), then there needs to be some way to collect “ideas” into a “plan”.

What I thought was particularly interesting about my contemplation of ideas was the exploration of “sentiment.” Related to another project I’m working on, I’ve been looking through different models to understand “decay” rates. I’ve been studying up a bit on Normal Distribution, and some other fun things.

When I applied some of this decay and Normal Distribution thinking to the notion of a “sentiment,” I arrived with this basic behavior:

A general model of sentiment.

Two models for measuring sentiment.

Without divulging the exact formula(s) that I’ll be tweaking to measure sentiment, the general idea is that as an idea moves from neutrality to agreement (or disagreement), it’s also building up an “area” proportional to the number of people participating in the idea. This is important (imho) because not all ideas will garner the same attention and so we wouldn’t want to present relatively unimportant ideas to people.

Using those two models, I think I can measure “consensus” (general agree/disagree) and also “impact of consensus” (how many people actually give a sh*t).

Anyone want to help me with this part of the project? I’m not an expert at statistical modeling and it’d be great to get some pointers. :)

Nomics – A Game for Finding Consensus

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been interested in how we participate in the policy decision making process. I went so far as to state that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements were a reflection of deep frustration with our political process. I say this because, despite differences in demands and world views, the two movements are populist in nature.

From my perspective, the big “ah-ha” moment was when I started looking around for how the Occupy Wall Street group was organizing itself. There were websites here, Facebook fan pages there, but nothing cohesive. Moreover, nothing that I could find represented a “this is what we believe and this is what we want”.

Of course, I then asked myself, “What would people use to reach a consensus?”

I thought of the Nomic Game.
Eric Reis, author of Lean Startup, once said (something along the lines of), “People spend a lot of time worrying about their ideas being stolen…need to just get it out there…and I’ll bet that even if you tried to have someone steal your idea, you couldn’t.”

I’d like to take that bet. I’m going to present some initial conceptual thinking I’ve done on the Nomic Game as a tool for organizing political though. I feel comfortable doing this because I agree that it’s highly unlikely that someone will steal my idea. Or more accurately, if the idea is “stolen,” it was “stolen” because the person who originally thought of the idea didn’t do anything to move the idea from “idea” to “reality.”

In terms of what is built, I have the database (mostly) designed/implemented and will likely have something “poke-able” by the end of the week. That’s my goal at least.

When reading the conceptual overview, you’ll note a bit about “community” at the end. A big challenge that we deal with at Servio is, “How do we know that particular person is qualified to participate in this project?” I’ve put in a smidgen of initial thinking in this regard and see “communities” as a v.future feature set. I believe a little thinking about “how to protect an idea from the wrong people participating” (i.e. people who aren’t qualified) because I think a major mistake at crowdsourcing companies is that they don’t think about “project guards” up front. (I spoke about at CrowdConf last year; here’s a blog post on it).

Conceptual Overview of Using Nomics to Solve Political Engagement—my notes

There are people.

People can create or modify ideas.

People can agree with an idea.

People can also disagree with ideas.

Goal: Find the best idea with the most consensus.

——

This means there needs to be a way to associate one idea with another, as in an anscestory of ideas.

That implies we have a root idea, partent ideas, and children ideas.

The root is a parent but not the parent of all ideas.

The root is the parent of itself.

The root can have many children but no ancestors.

The root idea is the ancestor of all present and current ideas.

Some parent ideas are children of the root idea but others are children of children of the root idea.

The root idea is a mere proposal for more proposals.

The root idea cannot be agreed with or disagreed with.

The root idea can only create children ideas.

Once a child idea is created, it can be modified, agreed with or disagreed with.

A modified child idea is a new child idea.

The new modified child idea’s parent idea is the one from which the modified child idea originated.

At some distant time in the future, ideas can be merged with other ideas to create new child ideas–child ideas with two parent ideas.

Also in the future, a child idea can be merged with its parent idea or ideas.

—-

To track the consensus of an idea, the count of moment of agreements or disagreements must be tracked.

A moment of agreement or disagreement is a point in time when a person evaluates an idea and decides to either agree or disagree.

There can only be one moment of agreement or disagreement per idea per person.

A person can change his mind from/to agreement or disagreement.

If agreement changes, the count of agreement or disagreement should equally change.

Another word for moment of agreement or disagreement is vote.

—–

A simple idea is a belief.

If a belief cannot be stated simply, it is likely ill-understood.

Complex ideas originate from a lack of understanding.

Ideas should be simple, at least to start.

Ideas should have a one sentence-ish summary.

Ideas should have a three to five sentence description.

Ideas longer than this are likely too compelex and should be revised to be consise.

Access to ideas may require guarding.

All people do not have authority over all ideas.

There are communities of people.

People belong to many communities.

People who belong to some communities do not below to other communities.

People who do not belong to a community may or may not be allowed to access an idea.

Access to an idea is a decision of the person or community who propose it.

—-

An idea’s creator is the person who proposes it.

If two ideas are merged, the new merged idea’s creators consist of the originating ideas’ creators.

The root idea has no creators.

If the root requires a creator, the root idea is its own creator.

People are known or unknown.

Unknown people belong to a community of unknown people and no other communities.

Only known people can belong to communities of known people.

A community is a self-selected group of people.

Self-selected means that the people see themselves as consistently coming to consesus on ideas.

People can discover or create communities by identifying people who consistently agree or disagree with the same ideas.

An idea is only priviate to a community if the person who proposes the idea decides to make it so.

A consensus is the current balance of moment of agreements and disagreements.

There is no definitive consensus with an idea.

A consensus is a spectrum of agreements and disagreements.

There should be transparency into the specturm of agreements and disagreements.

There may also be a summary consensus which translates the spectrum consensus into either Agreement, Netural or Disagreement.

An agreement is when over 55% of moments of agreement occur.

If there is no majority of agreement or disagreement, 55%, the consensus is neutral.

People should create new ideas or modify ideas to resolve neutrality.

—-

People should be able to see what the parent or child ideas of the current idea are.

Occupy Wall Street, Developernomics and Management

A couple of articles from Forbes caught my eye yesterday and I wanted to spend a few minutes reflecting on the articles.

The first, “The Rise of Developernomics,” really dug deep into how developers are shaping society and are becoming the most important contributors to economic reshaping on the planet.

To some degree I agree; however, I think the author Venkatesh Rao exaggerates a little. He said more than once that all other professions were nearly unimportant to society. Rao also claimed that developers, on the whole, have not figured out how to actualize their true value. (Developers in San Francisco/Silicon Valley make a ton of money, so I’m not sure where Rao gets the impression that developers are underpaid.)

The two most salient points, from my perspective, were first that developers are underpaid and under appreciated. Rao’s second point, which I fully support, is that society better quickly recognize that developers are shaping the planet. Moreover, if your company is not participating in this revolution then you’re at risk of being completely marginalized and forgotten.

Rao writes:

And god forbid, if you don’t have a skill, like baking, which the developer-centric economy can actually use, you are in deep trouble. One reason the Occupy Wall Street movement is not having the impact it seems like it should, based on sheer numbers of people involved, is that many participants simply have no cards left to play in this national game of economic poker.

Absolutely agree and here’s why.

A few weeks ago, I took a cursory look into how the Occupiers were organizing themselves. I wanted to know how they were communicating with each other. Were there channels for Occupy Movements in Oakland to engage in political discussions with Occupiers in NYC? How were the Occupiers focusing their efforts and formulating political discourse that was less transient than their makeshift camps and drum circles?

Turns out there wasn’t much. Other than a few Facebook pages (notably with hundreds of thousands of ‘Likes’), I didn’t find much. Not even a simple phpBB online forum for capturing everyone’s perspectives. In all honesty, I wasn’t too surprised. My view of the occupiers is that they don’t have any real technical skills.

The sad part, in my opinion, is that setting up basic social interactive systems is pretty easy. It doesn’t take a star developer (a “10xer” as Rao refers to them).

Let’s turn to the second article and it’s relation to ‘developernomics’. The second article is “Now Every Company Is A Software Company” by David Kirkpatrick, also published in Forbes.

For me, the idea that all companies are software companies is not what I would consider a fresh idea. It’s a rather obvious trend.

What caught my eye was the following passage due to its relation to crowdsourcing and the flaw with the Occupy Movement I highlighted above. Kirkpatrick writes:

This transition to a new world of responsiveness and agility will be painful and require a new mind-set. “We can build organizations that are far more adaptable, far more inspiring places to work, far more innovative than anything we’ve seen so far,” says management thinker and author Gary Hamel. “But there’s a huge ideological challenge in doing that, because inside most huge organizations is a bureaucratic caste that believes it’s their role to make decisions.” Scott Cook, founder and chairman of ­financial­-­software maker Intuit, concurs: “The kind of leadership my dad learned in World War II—where the leader makes all the decisions and tells everybody else what to do—that’s the flaw in organizations.”

Kirkpatrick is right to point out that previous leadership models are coming under intense pressure.

I recently read Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus, How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators and one of his primary points in the book is that previous models of social organization have come under intense pressure and are on the whole no longer valid. Shirky is a Journalism professor so he focuses heavily on media-related changes. However, I do not believe it is a great stretch to see how our digitized and networked world is reshaping itself as a reaction to the technological capabilities and changes of the last two decades. Shirky calls the heavy consumerism of the 20th century an “accident” occurring because the media communication channels were heavily one-sided and that this accident will be fixed now that we’ve broken down the communication channels to allow anyone to contribute to the creative discourse. My blog here is an example of how “just about anyone” can participate in wide-net discussions.

It stands to reason that if society is changing because we’re now all contributing to the discussion that management practices will need to change too. And why shouldn’t they?

Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s presumptuous but old top-down management practices seem extremely archaic to me.

We don’t live in a world that even needs a dictator (i.e. CEO or executive staff) to make every decision. “Crowds,” positioned correctly, are capable of self-governance.

It’s probably scary as hell to shareholders to think that “regular old employees” are making the decisions at companies (or could be were management able to let go) but this is certainly the direction we’re heading in. I will go so far as to say that companies in the future will be collaboratively managed and new social organization tools will emerge to help focus the collaborative efforts of all (interested and willing) people at a company to make decisions and execute on those decisions.

Relating this concept back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, what we see is a lack of what Apache and Linux used to propel forward into something sustainable: a technological infrastructure. The Occupy Movement has the support of the people but it fails to see that it is 100% dependent on technology (what Rao considers the number one survival risk presented to anyone who does not respect the need for technology) and what Kirkpatrick is positing: All companies are software companies.

Rather than looking at the Occupy Movement as a “company” we could re-read Kirkpatrick’s statement as follows, “All organizations, movements and communities are software organizations, movements and communities.”

I am pulling heavily form Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus for an under-riding premise that all communities and movements of the future will rely upon digital networks for cohesiveness, and it’s this reason that I am seemingly taking the “people” out of the “movement and community.”

It may feel slightly dehumanized to read it in this manner but if we never forget that the software we build and use are merely tools for helping us accomplish some goal then the humanized aspect is a given. Meaning, I am not taking the people and society out of the Occupy Movement (or any social movement). I am simply trying to highlight that social activists need to start learning some coding skills if they want to remain relevant (and retain power) in the coming years.

So, in conclusion, yes we are living in a world where all companies (and movements) are software companies (and movements) and yes this is the rise of developer-centric economics.

The Dark Future of Labor – Crowdsourcing Gone Wrong

Distributed networks, the cloud, crowdsourcing. All are often lauded as harbingers of the future of labor.

But what does the future of labor look like? Or at least, what might it look like?

Since we can all stand around saying “crowdsourcing is the future of labor” without ever discussing how it’s the future or even getting remotely close to talking specifics, I thought I would send some time exploring the future of labor.

Ultimately, I see two main outcomes:
(1) a horrible distopia of repression where a sliver of the populace, much less than 1%, owns the vast majority of the means to production and the rest of the world lives on scrapes
(2) the dawn of a new golden era of human society where cooperation and creative collaboration free us from the constraints of too few supplies for everyone (i.e. the rules of scarcity no longer affect us as they do today and we all, more or less, get along)

The idealist in me really wants to just think about (2) and dream up how fantastic the future of labor society might be, but the cynic in me sees all signs pointing to (1), so I’m going to focus there for a bit.

My goal is to answer the following questions:

  • How does crowdsourcing fit in with the labor of the future?
  • What does it mean if all labor is in the cloud?
  • Who controls the means of production in the labor markets of the future?
  • How are people paid?
  • What role do governments play in regulating labor markets?
  • How do we arrive at this grand vision of the future?

I thought I would start developing this [cynical] image of the future through a short vignette. I look forward to reading your comments; if you find this short description a bit depressing, I promise one of my next posts will be a happier image of the future than the one below.

A vignette of society in 100 years

Jonas paces around his 10 foot by 10 foot room. It’s almost time for him to start work.
The buzzer should sound any minute. When it does, the pannel on the wall will come to life, shifting from its opaque veneer to a touch-response interface with the rest of the world. He’s never had the funds to buy an impulse interface; the newest version from GoogleSoft abandons all the crude wires and surgical attachments as relics of the 21st century and relies exclusively on brain activity. It looks more like an old baseball cap than it does a high-grade systems interface.
Jonas doesn’t have an impuls interface and so he’s stuck interfacing with the world using his hands.
The buzzer sounds, shaking Jonas from his momentary reverie. He walks to the panel now lite up and sees his possible assignments listed along with the pay rates. He only has a few moments to select a job for the day and hope that he’s able to complete it before his allotment of net-time elapses.
Jonas once took the gambit and selected a job that couldn’t be completed in the allotment of time. He spent 3 full cycles trying to complete an assignment to track down a social terrorist leader who was accessing domicile-cells during off-cycles. The leader was accessing people much like Jonas, people who were otherwise indentured prisoners of society working during the allotted times, buying food with what credits could be squeezed from the system after completing projects and paying fees.
Jonas never did complete the terrorist job. He was close to pin-pointing the terrorists’ log-in patterns but when the work cycle powered backup the next day, the job had expired and was listed in his abandoned jobs. The bounty was gone and so were three days of work.
Because he hadn’t submitted any work for three full days and was marked as abandoning a critical-level job, he was docked a full work-cycle of net access credits and demoted one level, from Analyst to Specialist. As a result of the demotion, his pay rates were cut by 20% and he was to start at position-one again.
That one job cost Jonas months of effort when he tallied up all the ramifications. He almost lost his recently upgraded net portal. Jonas skipped lunch for two weeks to make sure that didn’t happen. After spending 2 years saving up enough credits to get the faster connection, he wasn’t about to go back to the dark days of scrapping by on the Sanctioned Minimum Net Speeds doing menial work like tagging citizens in food lines.
No, Jonas thought to himself, I am not going back to that.
Jonas didn’t know many of his neighbors, and he suspected more than one were not doing as well as he himself. He often heard whimpering toward the end of the work cycle.
Jonas lived next to an elderly man who had never married. It was he who made the sounds toward the end of the work cycle. What were once mutters of disgust about the working and living conditions of the Unified World Council had turned to pleading whimpers for more time to complete the project. The elderly neighbor Scott had been skipping lunches for three years straight and was now contemplating skipping dinner every other day. The work-cycle simply wasn’t long enough to for Scott to finish enough work to earn enough. Scott was old, nearing 70. He spoke of different times, when GoogleSoft didn’t supply, regulate, transmit and own every piece of digital communication occurring. He spoke of a time when the Unified World Council was a mere dream in the heads of peace activists marching on bygone and irrelevant government bodies. This was the time of his youth.
Jonas once spent some time researching this era. Of course, he didn’t have time to look too deeply into Scott’s stories. He only had 8 hours in his work-cycle and Jonas was more focused on achieving Specialist—he was a Junior Specialist at the time, working for net minimums and on a slow-as-sludge interface.
Jonas didn’t spend much time contemplating history. He always did well in his studies. One of his former teachers at Amazon told him he would make an excellent History Curator but combing through old texts to correct factual errors never held his interest for very long. He was good at it though. He typically finished timed exams in the top 1% of the class with 100% accuracy.
Glancing through the work catalog, skipping past Citizen Monitoring, which is almost exclusively spying on people Jonas doesn’t know, nor wants to, he selects Machine Training.
The jobs under this category don’t necessarily pay as well as Citizen Monitoring but Jonas is fast enough that the pay is nearly equivalent and the work is more fulfilling. Perhaps even more important, Machine Training fulfills prerequisites for testing for Program Analyst. If Jonas is able to pass that test, he’ll be able to access even better paying work—and potentially get the impulse interface before he turns 30.
Jonas sees a new machine listed, Grape Picker.
This could be interesting, Jonas thinks as he selects the job and begins reading the new section in the Machine Training manual dedicated to the Grape Picker.