Mid-June Check In: Inventories

June 14, 2021

When I first started writing this blog last July, I identified two areas of interest that I wanted to focus on. One was something I call assertional making—the creation of cultural artifacts that perceptibly preserve the human attention that made them[1]. The other was to identify ways that anyone could make a living through assertional making, which was the subject of my October check-in from 2020. The motivation for this exercise was pretty simple—a lot of the people I know appear to be stressed out and unhappy a lot of the time[2]. The solution to this problem is easy to describe—give people more security in their lives and more freedom to pursue what they find meaningful[3]—but difficult to implement.

After I settled on those ideas, I bounced around a bit. I initially thought that I’d be making business plans, basically—identifying specific crafts that would allow people to make a living without working as much as a minimum-wage job requires. I abandoned this approach because I found that I wasn’t able to offer much value—I enjoy sewing and ceramics but I’m not a good representative of either as a craft, much less a livelihood. I don’t have much charisma, a broad social circle, or any particular silver-bullet idea, so being an organizer wasn’t on the table. What I do have is experience building software systems and adapting things to unique needs. Does the world need better software systems? I think so. Do I know enough to make a good start on building them, even if I’m bound to get some things wrong? Yep.

So I started there.

One thing that I noticed from my earlier explorations of crafting was that if you are a maker, there are a lot of companies that will give you things in exchange for letting them own your relationship with your customers (if you are not a maker, then you are likely to encounter a similar dynamic in which social media companies give you services in exchange for owning your online social interactions). For instance, they might provide a platform on which you can sell your goods, or include you in an app that customers use to purchase services. My impression is that these services function similarly to pump-and-dump schemes. First, a group of venture capitalists pays a group of software-makers to build a platform. They use pricing, publicity, or compensation incentives to attract a workforce. Then, once the workforce and their customers have created a market, the venture capitalists use their position as intermediary to extract rents. In this way, the venture capitalists encourage workers to invest their lives in the service and then, once a sufficient number have invested more than they can afford to lose, the venture capitalists change the terms of the relationship. This situation creates and then takes advantage of worker precarity in much the same way that humans might dam a river to feed a waterwheel.

But there’s a very interesting thing about these exploitative business models which makes me think that they’re uniquely vulnerable to direct frontal assault: from the perspective of a worker or a customer, they don’t do very much. That is, after the initial period of development and market-creation, there is not a lot of feature-development that a customer or worker would notice in a positive sense. For instance, imagine an online craft marketplace that has existed for, say, 15 years. Probably 90% of the customer-facing functionality of the system would have been in place within the first 3-5 years. After that point, the focus within the enterprise turns to extracting rent through a variety of strategies—fee increases, monetizing behavioral data, advertising, etc.

This has an interesting implication. If it is true that the features that people want out of such a service are finite—that is, you can “finish” building the service the way one finishes building a house, with much less investment required for ongoing maintenance—and if it’s possible to deliver that finished system to the people who want to use it, then such a system should outcompete any predatory intermediary in the long term. That is, if you can make a system that provides an equivalent level of functionality to what the rent-seekers are peddling, and not tie it to an exploitative business model, the people who use that system should be able to get more value than if they were using the exploitative service.

It is when we start haggling over the specifics of that argument—the questions like “can a reliable low-cost, low-maintenance federated system like that be built” or “would such a system be vulnerable to the malignant social dynamics we see emerge in other loosely-controlled social systems” that I start wanting to talk about taking inventories. To my mind, the relevant standard in an effort like this is to look at what exists now, and then try to improve on it in a way that doesn’t obviously lead to dead-ends later. That is, we have enough information already, just from looking around the world, to observe the types of things that people tend to do and use. We can see cases where the status quo is obviously distorted for the benefit of capitalists. Simply correcting that distortion—preventing the owners of capital from siphoning off an arbitrary percentage of the value created by everyone else—seems to be an uncontroversially-worthwhile goal. There are many problems in the world beyond predatory capitalism, but it’s hard to imagine that reducing the effectiveness of predatory capitalism would make any of them worse.

I’m getting closer and closer to the point where I can demonstrate a proof-of-concept of “a system that provides an equivalent level of functionality to what the rent-seekers are peddling, not tied to an exploitative business model.” At first it’s going to be a blog. Then it’s going to be a federated social network. Then it’s going to become a marketplace[4]. I am designing this system in a way that gives each participant full control of their participation and the artifacts of their attention. Over the next few weeks I’ll be summarizing my work so far and introducing the alpha version of this system.

  1. I explored this idea in more detail in two early blog posts: Honoring Personhood in Material Culture and The Virtue of Making Things Badly. ↩︎

  2. I’m personally less stressed out and unhappy now than I was when I was working on commercial software, but the state of the world still seems pretty perilous. ↩︎

  3. By “freedom” in this context, I mean both freedom from interference and positive capability. For instance, if you are allowed to take time off for mental health, but doing so would jeopardize your financial security, then that would not qualify as “freedom to take time off for mental health” in this context. I’ve written before about how I feel that “work” is a bad basis for allocating resources, and I stand by those arguments. ↩︎

  4. I feel like I need to qualify these assertions.

    By “social network” I mean that it will be a system that allows people to publish their own media, see what their friends publish, and interact with that published stuff in familiar ways.

    By “marketplace,“ I mean that part of the core feature set of the system will be integration with existing payment processing systems. My focus will be on integrations with services like Stripe that process credit card transactions. I’m not very interested in cryptocurrencies.

    I’ll be satisfied that I’ve met these goals starting when I’ve plausibly completed those features, and from that point on as long as there are more than 0 people using the system and enough room for one more person to join. ↩︎