Cory Doctorow: Reputation Economies are a BAD IDEA

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Zarpaulus Zarpaulus's picture
Cory Doctorow: Reputation Economies are a BAD IDEA

It's kind of obvious that Rep networks are based on "Whuffie" as portrayed in Cory Doctorow's novel "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom".

Just yesterday, Doctorow realized it was necessary to clarify that he was trying to portray Whuffie as a dystopian element. It has all the bad traits of conventional currency and then some.


Whuffie has all the problems of money, and then a bunch more that are unique to it. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, we see how Whuffie – despite its claims to being ‘‘meritocratic’’ – ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top. Once you have a lot of Whuffie – once a lot of people hold you to be reputable – other people bend over backwards to give you opportunities to do things that make you even more reputable, putting you in a position where you can speechify, lead, drive the golden spike, and generally take credit for everything that goes well, while blaming all the screw-ups on lesser mortals...

...It’s bad enough when the meritocratic delusion takes root in a money-driven economy, but reputation’s one percenters are even more toxic. They can go spectacularly bankrupt, financially ruining their investors, and promptly raise another fortune to gamble on.

Reputation is a terrible currency.

Currencies need to serve as units of account – so you can price every­thing from vintage Star Wars figures to anti-fungal cream and calculate their total worth. They need to serve as media for exchange, so that someone who has Ken­ner Star Wars figures and needs anti-fungal cream can convert one to the other. They need to serve as stores of value – so you can convert your action figures to something more stable that you can use in your dot­age, in case Star Wars ceases to be cool in another 50 years.

Reputation is pretty much useless for any of these things. Instead, they’re literally popularity contests: ‘‘more people like me than you, so I win and you lose.’’ In theory, this kind of jerky behavior will cost you reputation – but in reality, many people are delighted to treat such jerks as ‘‘strong, de­cisive people who tell it like it is.’’...

...One notorious example is Peeple, the vaporware app launched in Sep­tember 2015, which (it was announced) would let you rate other human beings on a scale of one to five. If you wanted to highlight the dystopian nature of Whuffie, you need go no further than this vision for Peeple. If it ever took off, it’d be a lever that the likes of Gamergate could use to destroy your’s employment and personal life, possibly permanently, just by mass-one-starring you...

...But Peeple is a modest effort compared to ‘‘Citizen Scores,’’ the for-now-voluntary service run by the Chinese government in partnership with Tencent (a huge social media and games company) and Alibaba (China’s answer to Amazon). Your citizen score is visible to everyone the government wants – buying socially approved items, undertaking approved leisure activities, adhering to rules and regulations, and socializing with other high-score individuals. Of course, not doing these things makes your score go down. Just being friends with low-scoring individuals drags your own score down, creating a powerful incentive to conform.

Mandatory Citizen Scores are being phased in over the next decade, and with other ‘‘soft’’ tools of control developed by China, it promises to be more powerful than any overt coercion...

...Citizen Scores are a near-perfect expression of reputation economics: like most other forms of currency, they are issued by a central bank that uses them to try and influence social outcomes. In this case, those outcomes are perfect obedience to the state.

SHDNick SHDNick's picture
This is a good thing! It

This is a good thing! It parallels some thoughts I've been having about the anarchists and the rep networks. Perfection is boring, so the anarchist system should not be perfect, not if you want to tell interesting stories about it.
I think Doctorow's first point is the best, that reputation systems still lead to inequality and the "little people" getting screwed over. When you've got a lot of rep to burn, you can put together some impressive projects and are probably first in line to get a big rep bump when your project pays off for people. The people at the top are also quite well-placed to see disasters coming, though, so it's possible that they can get out of the way, distance themselves from the project, and get a patsy to take over as public "face" and take the rep hit if the project fails. On the other hand rep's not anonymous, so if the bigshot who leveraged their own reputation to start a big project steps away from it, that's probably a bad sign. You might need to let things run for awhile, let the project build up an identity and reputation of its own, before stepping away like that.
Rep systems also don't perfectly solve the externality problem that dogs market capitalism. If your project annoys a few people but benefits lots, the affected minority basically doesn't have a recourse, at least not one in the rep system, since their downvotes will get lost in the upvote flood. Likewise, screwing over a "business partner" is likely to go really well for you if cutting them loose benefits the rest of the projects stakeholders.
The Peeple example is also a possible driver of conflict. What happens when an anarchist is targeted by an @-network version of a twitter mob? Or someone stalks you and devotes themselves to keeping your rep down by lying about you?

As for the other points, rep isn't a unit of exchange; if you have (original, genuine) Star Wars toys and need antifungal cream, you go whip up a batch of antifungal cream in the cornucopia machine. Maybe you ask a favor for the blueprint if it isn't open-access yet, or wait for a month or so until it is. If anything, the larger problem is that you can't share priceless Earth artifacts equally with the whole habitat. If you wanted to turn them into Rep, who do you give it to?
Citizen Scores are top-down, imposed on a population by a political elite who designed it to reward and punish behavior that they've defined. Anarchist rep networks... well, I could see someone feel like that if they're totally at odds with their neighbors. I think it's likely that they've mostly avoided the problem so far, just because they're still a relatively small, self-selecting group. That said, I could totally see someone getting stuck on one of those habs that doesn't let you have a body or use the farcasters if your rep's not high enough. And if your rep gets TOO low, just going by the rules you're still ok, entitled to your basic citizen's allowance, but you're going to have a very bad time if everyone gets it into their head that you're a corporate spy or saboteur, since you won't have a good reputation to shield you, or likely any friends.

boomzilla boomzilla's picture
social abstraction layer

I'm presently reading "Debt" by David Graeber. In this book (and in some other anarchist ideologies), there are references back to pre-agricultural societies being anarchistic. You get this particularly in "anticiv"/"anarcho-primitivist" types likes Zerzan and the Unabomber.

Part of the issue seems to be that, in modern technological societies, our social intelligence is not nearly sophisticated enough to track all the work needed to deliver something like (say) a smartphone to my house. There is a concept in anthropology, "Dunbar's number", that asserts the "natural" size of a human's social group is between 100 and 200--anything beyond that, and you just don't interact with other people, so much as abstractions of people. It seems to me that, presently, money is the abstraction layer for our globe-spanning sociality.

So, anyway, how does one implement anarchy in such a way that it can scale--scale to the 1 million people on Locus. Scale up to the 10's (100s?) of millions of people across the entire solar system who use @-rep. Honestly, I don't have a good answer.

Really, I'd argue that the rep network is a sort of government in and of itself. (Similarly, I'd argue that even pre-agricultural people had/have government: traditions, popular and unpopular members, etc).

To the credit of the EP writers, the in-universe voice in the Rimward chapter describing the Autonomists even acknowledges that their anarchy is an on-going process (he describes, for instance, a sort of proto-warlord hoarding resources on their hab).

(I made a lot of assertions about anthropology and politics in this post, and I may be very misinformed about one or many of these issues: my apologies if so!)

uwtartarus uwtartarus's picture
Rep isn't a currency though,

Rep isn't a currency though, and that is what separate Whuffie from @-rep. The rep networks are scores, not credits, which makes them closer to the Citizen Score thing that PRC is implementing, so I imagine that C-rep (CivicNet) is very much like Citizen Score, to some degree, but @-rep is part of the Autonomist Alliance elements, so it rewards people not being dicks, including to corporate shills, and with the massive panopticon/sousveillance, if you start organizing a twitter mob, gamergate style, against someone, you'd best be doing it for a genuine cause, because if you're being a shit, then it will turn on you. Or so I would assume.

Also, most anarchist habitats are less than 100 people, so the whole 'humans can only handle groups of 150~ ish people' becomes less of an issue. Ultimately the @-rep is supposed to just be a sort of trust system so that autonomists can tell whether they should be doing bare minimum hospitality for someone, or if the person is a cool customer who you can fully trust. It is like an extended reference system ("Carl says this guy is legit, so no worries, let him join our group project").

Contrary to such evidence: Phelan's Recourse, a thoroughly autonomist, Scum habitat is also described as dangerous without having patronage of higher @-rep folks, so take this all with a grain of salt. That is why everyone is armed in autonomist space.

Exhuman, and Humanitarian.

SHDNick SHDNick's picture
I'd say rep is one of the big

I'd say rep is one of the big ways it does scale. You could, theoretically, deal with up to 100~150 people without a rep score, more than that with transhuman upgrades or help from your muse. Rep being system-wide gives you a basis to trust beyond that. Total unknown coming in from the Belt? Check their rep-scores to get a first impression.

uwtartarus uwtartarus's picture
SHDNick wrote:I'd say rep is

SHDNick wrote:
I'd say rep is one of the big ways it does scale. You could, theoretically, deal with up to 100~150 people without a rep score, more than that with transhuman upgrades or help from your muse. Rep being system-wide gives you a basis to trust beyond that. Total unknown coming in from the Belt? Check their rep-scores to get a first impression.

That's kind of what I mean, that @-rep at least is the "is this guy a psycho-dick who will stab me in my sleep, or can I trust him aboard my hab?" system rather than an economic model. The New Economy is not an economy per se, it lacks major market forces, because its a way to quantify hospitality and reputation, not economic production. It is a system not designed for thousands of people living in close proximity to work together on major projects so big that you could have people weaseling their way out of a foreseen mess. The Titanians made the kroner economy just because it is hard to organize a state around "no money, just don't be a dick."

Exhuman, and Humanitarian.

Zarpaulus Zarpaulus's picture
boomzilla wrote:

boomzilla wrote:

Really, I'd argue that the rep network is a sort of government in and of itself. (Similarly, I'd argue that even pre-agricultural people had/have government: traditions, popular and unpopular members, etc).

Even hunter-gatherer bands have chiefs or elders.

GreyBrother GreyBrother's picture
One thing that is also to

One thing that is also to consider is, that the people who fully embrace Anarchy and rep "economies" distribute trust differently.
The Rimward - i think - has a sidebar showing an Anarchist who visits a Inner System hab and is surprised how distrustful everyone there is.

I'd say, rep societies are just different, not necessarily worse than ones using currencies. We're - as players - just used to currency.

Panoptic Panoptic's picture
I see pure rep economic

I see pure rep economic systems as working much more smoothly in small, mono-cultural groups. e.g. Outer system habs following one variant of anarchism. If there are multiple groups with clashing cultures and expectations, trust will be reduced and the rep system becomes a club to beat "the other" with.

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