Sunday, December 27, 2009

A New Era of Cooperation?

The thing to do is to make it easy for people to contribute what they have to contribute. This is probably more important than providing an incentive because people have their own reasons for wanting to contribute.

DARPA's red balloon challenge was a study in how to recruit people. Not how to recruit them to your cause (anyone could have found the balloons, including people who hate MIT or any of the other organizations who competed in the challenge), but simply how to get them to contribute, by any means necessary. And how to out compete other groups who are trying to recruit these same people.

There is a tremendous amount of untapped human capital in the world. Some churches and charitable organizations thrive on directing this unused potential into good works and into spreading their message. Wikipedia, the open software movement, YouTube, and other examples illustrate that there is so much available human capital that it is literally being given away to groups that make it easy for people to contribute. In some cases the groups have incentivized contribution, but often the reasons for participation are private, known only to the contributor.

There are far too many people who have knowledge and ability that their current employers don't know how to put to use. Society would be greatly enriched if this potential could be made productive, but historically the costs of tapping it have been high. Today, technology compresses the globe into a single point where we all touch, and the costs are greatly reduced. But we lack the knowledge and institutions that could enable us to coordinate our efforts at low cost. The corporate bureaucratic model is a highly successful model for coordinating efforts in a world where the costs of coordination are necessarily high, but it took centuries to develop that model to its current incarnation, and it will take time and experimentation to learn how to most effectively leverage the internet.

A Market of Ideas
Is it possible that with the right model many more of us could be freelance engineers, researchers, programmers, editors, designers, advisers, writers...any profession that uses information as its coin? Shouldn't it be possible to build a sort of reverse eBay for projects, where money is auctioned off and the best contributor wins the auction? Maybe contributors don't submit completed work but instead provide a gist of what they can do, I don't know. There are difficulties to such a model, but mostly those difficulties are simply that we don't yet know what actually works. It's time to start figuring that out.


  1. There is a website that does this ( With a 45% rate of success, it seems to be a good idea.

  2. Roy,

    Thanks for the pointer! Very interesting!

    FYI, I'm keeping an eye on your blog I look forward to seeing more interesting posts!