A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Tomorrow, serendipity is for the rich

At Ignite Sebastopol a few months ago, I gave a presentation about the feedback economy and serendipity. It’s the result of a much longer tirade, which I’ve included below.

Two big economic shifts

The two biggest economic shifts of the early Twentieth century were the rise of the American middle class through cheap credit, and with it, the rise of women in the workplace which generated additional disposable income.

The start of the twenty-first century was the move from atoms to bits. With it, many hierarchical, monolithic organizations found that the barriers to entry they’d erected had crumbled, as others were able to disintermediate them for free.

One side effect of this flood of digital information was that attention was scarce. Herbert Simon observed that we live in an world choked with information, and that what information consumes is attention. In other words, today’s scarce commodity is information.

Consider Amazon and the publishers. Amazon’s move to e-books and the success of the Kindle lowered the cost of selling and delivering books. The publishers—middle-men, used to controlling the means of distribution—fought back with a price hike.

It’s a fight for attention

That was just a battle in the war. The publishers didn’t realize that they’d already been outflanked, because the battle wasn’t about bits, or channels, or pricing: it was about attention.

Amazon responded by announcing that it would now become a publisher of its own imprints, and hired some editorial heavyweights to get things starting.

Let’s be completely clear: there’s nothing traditional publishers can do to counteract this. They’re fighting an attention battle with channel thinking.

Hundreds of other companies have tried to flatten the publishing industry unsuccessfully. They’ve failed because direct-to-reader publishing isn’t about digital delivery. That part is easy. It’s the attention that’s hard, and it’s Amazon’s command of audiences’ attention, through its portal, branding, and legion of Kindle users, that makes it able to disrupt an established industry.

So that’s where we are today. To recap: In the mid-twentieth century, the rise of the middle class, consumer credit, and the entry of women into the workforce fuelled economic growth. In the end of the twentieth century, the switch from atoms to bits gave us ubiquitous computing, a rise in content creation, efficient supply chains, and a shift in power away from those who owned the means of transmission and towards those who could command the market’s attention.

What’s after an attention economy?

So what comes after an attention economy? GDP is a hungry beast, and to further improve our productivity as a society, to prop up our credit scores and our way of life, we’ll need to find more efficiencies. Those will come from feedback loops and lives led by algorithm.

Tomorrow will be a feedback economy.

Today’s mobile phone isn’t just a phone. It’s a brain prosthetic. It extends our ability to think. It overcomes our own limitations: we can remember everything; we have the sum of human knowledge just a click away. Phones are how we connect to the machine.

We need our phones’ help. As humans, we still run on jungle-surplus hardware. We’re really good at learning from some things: fire, sabre-toothed tigers, social rejection. But our limbic brains are horrible at long-term, delayed-gratification thinking, however. We eat badly; we fail to exercise; we get distracted. Prosthetics can overcome this, telling us how much exercise to do, what to eat, how to sleep, when to work, and so on.

The Quantified Self movement may be in its infancy—where the Homebrew Computer Club was a few decades ago—but its rise is inevitable. The wall at an Apple store bristles with ways to turn your iPhone into a life-logging tool.

Today, self-analysis is down at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, and the like. But it’s quickly moving up: tools like Rescuetime tell us whether we’re productive; Gottafeeling tracks how we feel and correlates it with other factors.

The rich have had this kind of external feedback for a long time. Personal assistants, trainers, and life coaches have helped them achieve levels of efficiency, stay in shape, and set the unrealistic standards that fill the pages of celebrity magazines. All that external feedback management costs money, though, so thus far delegating the management of delayed gratification to others has been the domain of the One Percent.

Quantified selves for everyone

That’s going to change. With the rise of ubiquitous, always-connected prosthetic brains, we’ll all be part of feedback loops. The quantified self, at scale, leads to a feedback society. Gary Wolf’s excellent piece on Piotr Wozniak, a man who’s living his life by algorithms he spend decades working out, gives a glimpse of what this might be like.

It’s no big stretch of the imagination to think that this becomes mandatory, or at least strongly encouraged through free markets.

Consider health. Countries with socialized medicine already prioritize the treatment of productive members of the society: it’s the only way they can stay solvent. A 20-year-old gets a new knee before a 70-year-old. And end-of-life care, which is the most expensive, is where things get trimmed back (Tea Party threats of Death Panels notwithstanding.)

Faced with a ballooning Boomer population and rising medical costs, social medicine chooses to help those who help themselves. And prosthetic feedback technology is the at the core of this self-help.

“But wait,” you say, “that’s only weird European countries. What about free markets?”

In capitalist systems, the same thing happens. It’s just a product of market forces. Consider a car insurance company that gives lower rates for drivers who agree to a GPS they can access or a speed limiter. Or insurers who decline coverage when they find pictures of people smoking on Facebook, contrary to what they’ve said in their insurance profiles. It’s not hard to see an HMO offering better rates to those willing to share weight, blood pressure, and so on; the US Congress has already (unsuccessfully) tried to pass similar laws.

It’s not just health. Employers already track their workers’ use of social networks and “leisure time”; the digital exhaust an employee generates is there for the mining. Shipping companies maintain their knife-thin margins by tracking drivers’ progress with startling accuracy.

What’s wrong with a life lived algorithmically?

Which brings me to serendipity. When your life is driven by algorithms, it’s hard for chance to happen. Pressed into service by an ever-tightening feedback look, there’s little time to stop and smell the roses. As any writer will tell you, creativity on a deadline is difficult.

Once, only the important people were really connected. That guy with the suit and the huge phone? Super important. Today, only the truly rich can be disconnected. They’ve got people for that. Call my assistant; we’ll do lunch.

Forget wage slaves. Tomorrow the 99 percent will be feedback slaves. A vacation will mean ignoring your agents for a while: turning off Rescuetime; sleeping in even though your Lark tells you to wake up; eating that second slice of pizza, Loseit be damned; taking the cab even though your Up says you need the footsteps.

Today, only the wealthy have personal trainers and coaches. Tomorrow, luxury will mean being able to live outside the feedback loops that shackle the rest of us.

Here’s the Ignite presentation I gave, which was substantially trimmed down with the help of my Strata co-chair, Edd Dumbill. I took out much of the economic meandering.

Generally speaking, when I’m working on a presentation I start by writing my thoughts down as prose; then I put each sentence into speakers’ notes, and find imagery or diagrams that helps with comprehension. Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s chaos. With Ignite, the constraints of a 15-second, 20-slide deck mean that the prose needs more pruning.

In the end, the speakers’ notes were much more succinct; I’ve posted them on Google+.