Daniel Estrada on Bruce Sterling’s “The Caryatids” As a Model for the Attention Economy

Daniel Estrada is a big fan of the Attention Economy, which he describes as

one part Augmented Reality, one part Internet of Things, one part Use-Theory of Value, and one part Cognitive Surplus. I am utterly convinced that an attention-economic system will ultimately replace both money and centralized governance as the dominant method for large-scale organizational management.

And he sees Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids (which I reviewed here) as the best illustration of such an economy in science fiction. In my opinion Sterling has some rivals for that honor. The D-space in Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom(TM) (which I reviewed here) — like Stirling’s, a semantically tagged virtual layer, accessible through HUD spex, visually superimposed on physical reality — is an equally vivid and appealing development of augmented reality. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is probably the single best depiction of an entire post-scarcity, post-money economy governed by the peer-to-peer ethos. And the fictional universe in which Star Trek: The Next Generation is set deserves honorable mention as such an economy; the grades in Starfleet Academy and the ranks in Starfleet itself, arguably, are just another kind of whuffie.

In any case, Sterling’s depiction of a society centered on commons-based peer production is brilliant and evocative, and Estrada’s analysis is well worth reading. Below is an excerpt from the article describing, in Estrada’s view, the essential features of such a society. I strongly recommend you also go to the original and read the extended excerpt from Sterling, which portrays it in action.

1. First and foremost, individual agents are driven to explore and produce by natural incentives and according to their own interests. In this case it is hunger and the need for food that drives the work, but we might imagine a similar system in place where food and other basic needs are abundant, and where individuals can pursue other interests freely as they see fit. The point is that the system is self-organized and operates without centralized control. Instead, central control is replaced by the distributed coordinating infrastructure in the web itself. This is similar to the way ants self-organize, by laying pheromone trails in the environment, through a process known as stigmergy. An attention-economy system would provide the basic infrastructure to leave the necessary digital trails to help us all self-organize in a very similar fashion.

2. An attention economy rewards the individual’s learning, labor, and expertise. The sensorweb knows what everyone has spent their time doing; it knows who has developed which skills at what tasks, and therefore knows who might be helpful in engineering future tasks. Being able to quickly and effectively find the relevant experts is absolutely central to solving the division of labor problem, and this system solves the problem in a bottom-up, distributed fashion. It’s the sort of thing we’d expect to find in a genuine meritocracy: the more work you do, the more glory you have. Moreover, everything that everyone does contributes to that system, so there’s no dead weight and every brain cycle is part of that system’s overall development. Using education and skill mastery as the basis for organization, instead of centralized control and mastery, is what allows communities to genuinely self-organize. Self-organized consensus behavior will be to future Digital societies what freedom and representative democracy was to the Industrial Age.

3. Objects themselves have detailed personal histories. With the sensorweb, a plant can tell you its type, its uses, its ideal growing conditions, and so on. In his non-fiction design manifesto Shaping Things, Sterling makes a convincing argument in favor of tracking all objects over their lifecycles in a very similar way. Tracking garbage and waste in particular is a critical aspect of sustainability, but in general the more spimey things you make the the most coherent the network that connects them, the better we’ll be able to manage our collective resources.

4. Finally, and this is most important of all, Sterling’s passage above provides a vision of what an alternative economic management system looks like with his description of the sensorweb’s “glory”. In the Attention Economy, individual agents (and probably all the objects as well) will “glow” in a way that indicates relevant features of their use-value in different contexts. Imagine needing your keys, and being able to look around the room and see your keys glowing bright and distinct from all the other objects. Imagine being in a crowd and being able to tell with a single glance if one of them is malnourished, or if there is a doctor nearby to help, because all the starving people glow red and all the doctors glow bright green, and a flip of your AR goggles will let you instantly see which is which.