Collaboration, reputation and a new economy

The idea of an economy posited on recognition is not new, but I found an interesting description of a precedent: scientific research.  In Chapter 8 of “The wisdom of crowds”, James Surowiecki described the publication of the first issue of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, wherein the editor worked to persuade scientists to forgo sole ownership of ideas hatched in secret in exchange for recognition amongst one’s peers.  This was a radical change from the way discovery and invention had been carried out in the Middle Ages, where it was confined “to a secretive exclusive few”.  He makes the point that this was possible because of the near-zero-cost nature of replication of scientific knowledge.  Unlike physical things of the time, copies of knowledge were effectively cost-free.

As many have noticed, lots of things are becoming cost-free to replicate.  So what has worked so well for science could well work for other fields, and that’s what we see in, for example, the open-source software world where people work for reputation.  The missing element which is just starting to happen is the institutional support that recognizes the ultimate commercial value in such work.  Large companies are seeing the value in reusing chunks of other people’s work, and in releasing chunks of their own employee’s labors to the public domain, often simply in exchange for attribution.

As more and more human artifacts become amenable to zero-cost replication, the idea of the reputation economy becomes more relevant.


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