Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Humans Win In The P2P Economy

There's been a lot of heat rising from Google CEO Eric Schmidt's recent assertions about a "race between computers and people" that obliges people to avoid jobs that machines can do. Initially, I suggested this was somewhat disingenuous, given the belief amongst the Silicon Valley elite that machines will achieve the 'Singularity', a state of autonomous superintelligence in which point they will outcompete humans to the point of extinction. Merely pushing people into a narrower and narrower range of 'creative' jobs only furthers that cause, since their creative output attracts the vast advertising revenues Big Data needs to build ever smarter machines.

But I also suggested there's an antidote, and today I want to focus more on that.

Not all Internet platforms finance themselves primarily by using free content as bait for advertising revenue. Since eBay enabled the first person-to-person auction in 1995, the 'P2P' model has spread to music and file sharing, voice and data communications, payments, donations, savings, loans, investments and so on. There are now too many such platforms to list. Even political campaigning has become a person-to-person proposition. In Japan a person can offer to care for another person's elderly parents in his city, if someone else will care for his own parents in another.

Like their meat-space counterparts - the 'mutual society' and the 'co-operative' - online P2P platforms enable people to transact and communicate directly with each other in return for relatively small payments towards the platforms' direct operational costs of facilitating the connection. The P2P model vastly limits the need for advertising, since the platform either enables participants to find each other or automatically matches and connects them using the data the participants enter. Through central service terms, each participant agrees with the others how the platform works and how their data is to be used. Typically, every participant has their own data account in which they can view their transaction history. Some platforms will allow that data to be downloaded, along with all the transaction data on the platform, and this is to be encouraged. Low charges make this a high volume business, like Big Data, but platform operators are able to achieve profitability without commanding the lion's share of the margin in each transaction. This helps explain why eBay is solidly profitable but has a lower market capitalisation than, say, Facebook or Google. It's a leaner intermediary - a facilitator rather than institution. That Wall Street attaches a lower value to a comparatively democratic and sustainable business model tells you all you need to know about Wall Street.

Google and Facebook might argue they are a kind of P2P platform. But aside from a few services, like App sales, they don't directly facilitate the negotiation and conclusion of transactions, so they cannot justify a transaction fee. Perhaps they might say they own the web pages and the servers or virtual 'land' on which their advertising is displayed. But that doesn't ring true. They provide the tools for users to create web pages, but if users did not build them there would be no facade on which to display ads, and no one to look at them. Besides, the supply of creative tools is a one-off, while users supply limitless amounts of data in return. Meanwhile, the advertising revenue that was once merely enough to sustain the Big Data ecosystem now dwarfs the value derived by all participants except the platform operators themselves. Any essence of mutuality - and humanity - has been lost in exactly the same way that banks grew from their mutual origins to capture more and more of the 'spread' between savings and loans. And just as banks now allocate most of the money they create to add financial assets to their balance sheets, rather than financing the productive economy, the Big Data platforms are investing in more ways to capitalise on free user data to lure advertising spend, rather than figuring out new ways to leave most of the value with their users.

Dealing with people and businesses over P2P platforms is a good way to use your own data to claw some of that value back.

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