Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Reputation Economies

I've been thinking quite a bit about reputation economies lately. I think I first came across the idea in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, where the coin of the realm is "whuffie," the measure of how highly (or lowly) others rate one. eBay and Slashdot are existing examples of these kinds of systems. In Magic Kingdom Doctorow presents a pretty convincing portrait of a reputation economy as a viable structure for a post-scarcity society. If technology has progressed to the point where everyone is effectively immortal, and nanotechnology or the like is capable of producing any and all material goods one might want, what else is going to motivate people to provide goods and services?

John C. Wright does something similar to this in his Golden Age trilogy. There's still an overarching capitalist society, but on an individual level all of one's immediate needs are provided by technology, and artists and craftspeople seem to be more motivated by the prestige than by any monetary gain (the coin here being computer processing time). But it's really in the negative formulation that Wright gets closest to a reputation economy, since the most severe punishment that the civil authorities can mete out is a kind of "internal exile," cut off from all contact with other people.

I've always wondered whether the world of Star Trek worked something like a reputation economy. Since the Original Series it's been explicitly stated that the Federation doesn't use money. Star Fleet officers aren't paid for their services, and everything that an individual needs is provided to them free of charge. Clearly, though, there's some sort of economy at work, else why would the Picard family continue to labor in the fields to make their wines, or Joseph Sisko work all day in the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant. Outside the Federation, and among Federation citizens who deal with outsiders, there's still a cash economy (usually gold, or "latinum" pressed between wafers of gold), which must account for the ability of the roguish elements of the Federation to put together the scratch needed to purchase their own warp-capable ships. But within the Federation, and certainly on Earth, there's no cash and no currency. The only conceivable answer is that the patrons of Sisko's restaurant, and the folks that buy Picard wines, exchange some sort of reputation or prestige with the craftsmen involved. This isn't ever mentioned in the canon, so far as I know, and so the idea, much less the unit of exchange, is completely hypothetical, but it seems to me the only answer that makes any sense.

Now, the thing is, so far as I know the cash-less economy of the Star Trek future predates the notion of a reputation economy by a wide margin, years if not decades. So what exactly did the show's creators originally have in mind when they stated categorically that the Federation had eliminated the need for money?

I suspect that the Star Trek people were assuming that someone had come up with a computer program that automatically calculates the worth of each person's work to society and rewards them with credit on that basis. You still occasionally see articles by Socialists claiming that this can and should be done.

By the way, you have worked out that reputation economies are a very effective way of institutionalising discrimination against small and vulnerable minority groups, haven't you?
Cheryl, you may well be right about the ubiquitous "computer" being the answer to the riddle. Roddenberry and crew seemed to look to computers to fix all sorts of problems, so why should the economy be any different.

But to be honest with you, no, I hadn't actually considered the ways a reputation economy could be abused to discriminate. My first instinct was to say that all economic systems have been twisted to allow for the isolation of and discrimination against minority groups, but then it occurred to me that no other system could do it quite as easily as something like Cory's "whuffie" could do. In a cash economy, people can always decline to spend their money on goods and services provided by persecuted minority groups, but barring some sort of coordinated boycott, those kinds of decisions are largely independent, on a bigot by bigot basis. With a system like whuffie, everyone would be able to keep track of the choices of everyone else, and it would certainly be much mount an effective freezeout or boycott. I'm not sure, though, that this is a fatal flaw. After all, capitalism allows for discriminatory practices, but society has constructed legislative controls to limit blatant discrimination to some degree (it's arguable how well). Perhaps a reputation economy would need to have some other factor or value besides just prestige, to act as a similar control.

In real world examples like eBay, one's valuation of another requires some sort of justification. Perhaps unjustified valuations would carry a lesser weight. Or else it could be nearer to Amazon's "People Who Bought this book also liked this book" approach, where the worth that someone places an another is dependent on the valuations made by trusted sources, and those trusted sources would be made up of those specifically approved by the individual; therefore, if a group of bigots begin unfairly downchecking individuals based on some discriminatory criteria, others who are more open-minded would then downcheck them, and so on, until the bigots have essentially isolated themselves from the larger economy. It wouldn't take too many such groups imploding in full view of the public to serve as handy object lessons.
I don't think the show's creators thought very deeply about the economy; I think they just figured money wouldn't exist in a utopian future, and left it at that. In the same way that discoveries from one episode were usually forgotten by the next episode, I think the long-term implications of most things in the show were ignored for the sake of convenience.
Ted, I don't doubt that's true of Roddenberry and the original series. But by the time of the franchise spin-offs (TNG, DS9, VOY, ETC, ETAL) the bar had been raised a bit higher than that, surely. There's a howler moment in the first season of Next Generation (which still bore the heavy imprint of Roddenberry's direct involvement), when the Enterprise-D finds a sleeper ship from the late 20th century. Sadly, no Ricardo Montalban on this one, but a generic assemblage of Suburban Mom, Texan Oil Guy, and so on. The Texan Oil Guy wants to phone home to his bank, to check on his investments, as soon as he gets out of a cryogenic sleep of a few centuries, and spandex-clad Jean Luc Picard rather haughtily tells him something along the lines of "Oh, we've evolved beyond the need for money, you primitive ape." On first viewing, I cringed, and it only worsened in repeats. Bags full of cultural sensitivity for all manner of bumpy-headed aliens, but any for the product of an earlier era of your own culture? Not for a second.

I like to think that the folks behind DS9, at least, put some kind of thought into it. After all, they were the ones who introduced the notion of a latinum-based economy happening out there on the frontier. I could, as always, be giving them too much credit, though!
Here's a discussion thread that may be relevant:


In particular, see comments 30, 33, and 34.

(Also, in the course of digging up that thread, I came across this.)
Wow, thanks, Ted. The economic discussion on that thread is very enlightening. I'm in the process of tweakin the economic system in the space opera I'm workin on (hence these ruminations about post-scarcity economies) and a lot of that discussion should prove quite useful.

As for the other link, and the debate about the role of latinum in the discussion thread, I'm baffled. I'd always thought that my interpretation of the economy of the Federation was correct (and obvious), but it seems that I've conveniently ignored evidence that conflicted with my position. I stand by it, though. If you look at the list on the Ex Astris Scientia page (which I've actually stumbled upon recently, googling for other space-opera stuff), virtually all of the "Pro money" evidence they cite falls into one of two categories: Unrefined Star Trek (which I'd define as TOS through the first two seasons of TNG) or Outside the Federation. I say "unrefined" because the worldbuilding of the ST universe didn't really start firming up until the third season of TNG, I'd argue, ironically after the series' creator was out of the picture. Up until that point, they would absolutely do just as you suggest above, and toss things in to any given story without considering the implications, and without ever referencin them again. But from the third season of TNG forward, there seemed to be a more concerted effort for verisimilitude, and things hung together better. Of course, at the end they started to break down again (which could account for the odd business in that Voyager episode), but that's just entropy setting in.

So writing off the earlier evidence as being before things were codified, the evidence supports my claim that the Federation is a cashless, reputation based economy, but that those outside the Federation may still have cash economies, usually latinum based. I'm just surprised that other ST fans haven't come to the same conclusions. Am I alone?
It would be nice to think that people would rally round and protect minorities in a "whuffie" system, but I don't think it will happen in the case of genuine minorities. Discrimination against women or persons of color would be hard because there are lots of them and they can vote too. But suppose Pat Robertson were to decide to launch witch hunts against known Wiccans? If 20 million Fundies dumped on someone, would enough other people to to come to that person's defense? We've seen recently how some other Christian leaders have been afraid to confront Robertson about his more outrageous pronouncements because he's too popular and might turn on them. That's "whuffie" in action for you.
Cheryl, I certainly take your meaning. But wouldn't a wackjob like Robertson be able to do the same in a purely capitalist society, as well? Hell, he's tried to do so in our modified capitalist economy, with varying degrees of success. While it might be measurably easier in a reputation economy, I think that any purely economic system is open to the same abuse, and that speaks to the need for other forms of social control, instead of relying just on economics. So a purely libertarian reputation economy is right out.

The question I've been pondering is how are individuals motivated to do more than just vegetate in a post-scarcity society. If you don't have to go out and work for your daily crust of bread, what prevents you from just sitting on the couch watching soaps (or the futuristic equivalent). There'll be a subset of the population that will write stories and paint pictures and compose music just to have an audience (cf. the wealth of fanfic on usenet, all noncommercial), but surely that can't account for the whole society. Something like a reputation economy seems a promising solution, but you rightly point out some serious drawbacks. Are there other viable alternatives that lack that same drawback, or others just as serious?
I'm just surprised that other ST fans haven't come to the same conclusions. Am I alone?

Not at all. Lots of other ST fans are also surprised that everyone else hasn't come to the same conclusions as them. :)

Pretty much all TV universes are inconsistent, and if we're going to try drawing any conclusions based on the evidence presented, we're always going to have to discard some pieces. Different people will discard different pieces, though; there will always be conflicting interpretations.

But even if we agree for the purposes of discussion that the Federation has a cashless economy, that doesn't mean that it's a reputation economy. Most of the "anti-money" quotes on the Ex Astris Scientia page suggest that humans work purely for their own betterment, not for status. As has been noted, a reputation economy is vulnerable to all sorts of misuses and abuses. For reputation to be the basis of what is shown about the Federation economy, human nature would have to be fundamentally altered, and once you assume that, what's the need for reputation?

(By the way, be sure to follow the link from Crooked Timber to Dan Drezner's original post for more discussion.)
He could, Chris, but not as efficiently. To do it in our economy he'd have to put in a lot of effort getting people to target the victim's employers, neighbors, local business and so on. With "whuffie" it is as easy as an email spam campaign.
I think the evidence for a reputation economy in the Federation is slim. However, the merit system within Starfleet functions very much that way.
Oh, why is everyone against me? Why can't everyone just accept that my opinions are objective fact?!

Okay. I give. I think I was clearly reading way too much between the lines when I rewatched the run of DS9 a couple of years back. But though I admit that a reputation economy isn't what the creators intended, I stand by my contention that it's what the Federation should be. All this stuff about working just for personal betterment (that clearly seems to be what they'd intended) is just malarky!

The question is still open, though, and I'm still puzzling out an answer. What economic system would a post-scarcity society be best served to adopt?
Depends on what you mean by "post-scarcity." Does that mean all needs are met, or all wants are met?

In general, people want more than just food and a roof over their heads, now matter how nice the food and the roof are. Most people, consciously or not, want to be of equal or greater status than the people around them; that comes with being a social animal. And because status is relative rather than absolute, there will always be a shortage of status.
Ted has highlighted something I've been thinking about over the past day. Environmental considerations notwithstanding (which could spawn a whole new thread), cash-based economies are not a zero sum game. Indeed, one of the advertised attractions of Capitalism as a social system is its capacity for general wealth creation. Although some people are always richer than others, with time everyone gets richer.

As Ted notes, reputation is relative rather than absolute. It is probably on a bell curve. Some people are more liked than others, and some are less popular. And as every rabble-rousing politician knows, one of the best ways to get popular is to find someone to pick on and make them unpopular. A reputation economy will have a lot of the character of the school playground.

This doesn't necessarily negate Lou's idea of Starfleet being merit-based, because there's an artificial baseline of being employed below which it may not be possible to fall without doing something really bad. Of course it is possible that Starfleet staff who are really unpopular get given red shirts.
Interesting. I'll have to give this some more thought. My initial instinct is to say that the hypothetical post-scarcity society I have in mind is one where the individual has no unmet needs, but may well have unmet wants. So that everyone, regardless of what they do or don't do to better their condition, will not fall below a certain baseline: they'll always have a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, in abundance. The "wants" would come in the form of better food, a nicer place to live, et cetera.

Of course, now that I think about it, that was precisely how I originally heard Billy Bragg describe the concept of democratic socialism when I was in college.
Yep, what you describe is pretty much what various European countries have right now.

It's been observed that, given the choice between making $50k/yr in a world where everyone else makes $30k, or making $1 million/yr in a world where everyone else makes $2 million, many people would choose the former. Past a certain level, the absolute size of one's income isn't what's important, it's the relative size.

If your neighbors have more of anything than you do -- whether it's money, attention, or something else -- you will tend to seek that out yourself. It's certainly possible for individuals to let go of this urge, even large numbers of individuals, but it'll be hard for an entire society let go of this.
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