I, like many other people, was utterly entranced by Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Cory Doctorow’s breakout book, it posits a post-scarcity world where the economy (and production, and access to things) is determined by “whuffie”. Whuffie is tracked by an ubiquitous computer network – and it’s an absolutely fascinating idea. Finally, we would see “economic” success determined by merit and acclaim rather than by manipulation and lies. Sure, there would be some problems to fix along the way – how to keep people from scamming the system or simply being negative to everyone they see – but the basic concept couldn’t be too bad, right? A system that doesn’t hurt anybody, but still requires (and rewards) “useful and creative things”.
It’s several years since I’ve read the book, and I’m no longer sure that a reputation economy would actually create the kind of justice that Doctorow – or I – hoped it would. The concept of providing a baseline of sustenance – something also endorsed by Marx, Keynes, and most compassionate people – and then allowing a mechanism to rise above it sounds like a way to escape things… if people were rational.
However, this does not seem to be the case. Constantly, the social “upper class” has distinguished itself from the commoners. Some methods were behavioral, such as the time of day that lunch was eaten (which directly caused the different terms for lunch, dinner, and supper) and the shift of names like Brittany from upper to lower classes. However, the easiest and most consistent method throughout history was through economic surplus. The upper class had more money and more leisure – and therefore, could act and dress and do things that simply were not feasible for most other people.
The change – which Marx could not foresee the full impact of – is a large part of why Marx’s foretellings of doom never truly came to pass. The massive amounts of surplus generated by the Industrial Revolution started a huge change in the ability of people to ape the upper classes. In turn, the upper classes had to move towards sillier and more expensive pursuits. (Yes, that is the reason for “high” fashion and “high” culture.) But these pursuits have – largely – become behavioral instead of purely economic. The line in the USA has gotten economically blurry – and our prior lack of clear behavioral class distinctions has gotten things very muddled indeed (where members of the upper class openly mock intelligence, for example).
This sort of thing puzzled Keynes – and would have puzzled him far more if he were alive today. He figured that once people got enough to get by, that the intense desire for more would go away. It hasn’t – and status is a large part of the answer why. Further, it’s pretty obvious that merit is not the same thing as economic compensation. As before, status (and the ability to get unique and rare status symbols for oneself) is a primary drive in these endeavors. The rarity of these symbols is important – because as the symbol increases in frequency, the less status it confers.
So, let’s say we get to a truly post-scarcity society. Whuffie would suddenly become a social status marker. Unlike the reputation points on eBay – clearly tied to an actual transaction – thumbs up and thumbs down, neg-repping and pos-repping, and the like appear to be more related to status and reinforcing in-group ideals than any kind of functional transactional economy. Whuffie – and other “reputation economies” measure something, but it sure doesn’t seem to be economics in the traditional sense of the word.
That said, you can currently find the Whuffiebot on Twitter (though I’d argue that Favrd is perhaps a bit more like what Whuffie would really end up being), and there’s even a book coming out next year (The Whuffie Factor) examining social networks in business.