Exchange and the web

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about how technology – in particular, networking – has been changing ‘stuff’ and how we acquire same. First, a couple caveats. This applies only to parts of the world wealthy enough to allow big pieces of their population to stop worrying about starving or dying of malaria/diarrhea/etc. – too often, these sorts of posts ignore the fact that there are a huge number of people who don’t worry about Mac vs. PC; they’re worrying about bad water vs. civil conflict. Also, I’m going to make a few plain ol’ assertions. I’m hoping they will be uncontroversial, but if not feel free to ket me know why you think I’m off base.

First assertion – the networked world gives us more information than we could have dreamed of, say, fifteen years ago. The span is both wide and deep – especially interesting for my purposes, has been the explosion of how-to info: Make:, Instructables and various subject specific forums.

Second assertion – the networked world reduces friction when trying to exchange things – eBay, Etsy, Lulu and (importantly) all the places folks gather to collaborate (think SourceForge, for example) and swap ideas.

…And an observation. It seems that as the world becomes more info -dense (I was going to say richer – in the $$ sense – but I’m not sure that’s the case), people’s appetite for uniqueness explodes. The crap we surround ourselves with has always had, as part of it’s purpose, a role in identifying us – we signal things to the world about our identity through our clothes, cars, etc. (but not our books, dammit). There’s a lot of give and take here – people want to show they are part of a big (mainstream culture) tribe, thus NASCAR stickers/clothing/etc. while drilling down into sub-tribes (Calvin pissing on a Ford, Calvin pissing on #24). Some people may drill down until they are a tribe of one – others start there – using their own taste as a guide (for better or worse).

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In the great internet tradition of 4-panes, I back-of-the-enveloped the diagram above; I think it plays well with unfounded speculation about modes of exchange. Before I talk about some of the panes, another assertion: markets are one way of allocating resources and exchanging stuff. They are not the only way (think reciprocity, barter, command economies, etc.) and may or may not be appropriate for every circumstance (see the use of magic market pixie dust in CPA Iraq).

Quadrant 4 – physical commodity items – was where the vast majority of post Industrial Revolution, pre 1945 activity took place and it still, I think, conditions how we think of exchange. This is the part of life where neoclassical economics got it’s start and still retains a lot of power (other things being equal). One note on the Scion xB – I moved it (right) away from the pure physical zone because there is significant software in automobiles today and included an arrow attempting to show a trend towards customization – modding xBs is part of Toyota’s marketing appeal/effort.

Looking at quadrant 2 as it edges to the upper right, it seems to me that more abstract and unique stuff lives in the world of gift exchange. As an abstract becomes less unique (drops down) , markets get involved – with differing degrees of success. The key issue, I think, is that in a society with ubiquitous digital technology, copying abstract stuff is not just trivial – it’s how things work. Extracting money from certain instances of copying (yes when I copy from the iTunes store, no when I sync my iPod, no when the song is copied from the drive to the DSP) is, empirically, problematic. Quadrant 3 is the world of the RIAA (suing our customers for a brighter tomorrow!) , the MPAA and others who are trying to maintain an analog (LPs, film) hold on a world where the copying djin has been released.

Quadrant 1 is the world of the hardware hacker, the maker, the english wheel and the torch. It’s the next big area of change IMHO (I think the revolution is well underway already – but there’s much more to come). As the xB shows, it’s where a lot of people want to do business. To be successful in this space, connection to the designer/maker, uniqueness and elegance are key. There are livings to be made here by people who are good at what they do. Simply having an idea and milking it won’t do though – the design/idea behind a physical object will be increasingly digitized and in a world of fabbers, a knockoff is just a 3D scan away. We may end up in a world of feedstocks, commodities (including unique/custom items knocked off in a fabber, based on a common software template), and craft – craft items being those things with a tie back to a human being that you as a consumer have developed some kind of real relationship with.

To put some of this in context, let me cite the example of a webcomic artist that I’m sorta familiar with. rtevens writes diesel sweeties. The core of his vast empire is a gift – he makes the 1s and 0s that comprise a strip available w/o charge to anyone who wants to look. He sells ad space on the site – converting eyeballs/clicks into revenue. He sells t-shirts – physical instantiation of POV and in-jokes from the strip – both niche-y and tribal (also socks). I’m sure he’d be unhappy is someone knocked his shirts off, but he churns them – some drop into the void; others are created. He’s definitely working in the top half of the chart – using (2) and (3) to drive each other. Not surprisingly, he’s got a very active web presence – encouraging that feeling of connection with the artist/maker.

So there it is. For non-commodity items: connection, uniqueness, gifts, standing against the fact that anything can be copied. For commodity items, the desire to move above the horizontal line – to differentiate. I’m sure there’s a lot to disagree with above – feel free – just an interim stab at figuring out the lay of the land; one that’s particularly important to me since both my chillun are artist/designer/craftsperson types.

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