#4 post

the economics of caring

the last week was exhausting on a bunch of different levels, but as i type this out on Sunday night (and edit it on Tuesday morning) i am filled with a little bit of hope and optimism that the future we all desire is one that can be achieved.

a photo i took on my walk in Kansas City shortly before writing draft 1of this post.

the economics of caring 💸

from a young age we are taught to think of certain adversarial market dynamics as normal. in the US, for example, banking and finance, insurance, and more recently social media companies are usually framed as competitions between competing interests. the insurance company makes money when they don’t have to pay out on a claim. the bank earns money by loaning you money, hoping it takes a while to pay back, and charging interest on top of the principal. social media are not optimized for your well-being, but rather are incentivized to generate more advertising revenue by keeping you in the app as long as they can.

even at a more granular level, choosing between stores can reveal some of these underlying tensions. for example, if i choose to buy groceries from a store like Walmart or order a product off of Amazon, as opposed to buying them from a store that is more local at maybe a higher cost, i am declaring through my actions that the lower cost good wins the competition over the local resilience of my community.

and while the snapshot in time of a receipt certainly tells one story, the economics of caring and the long term health of your community is something that is increasingly possible to be quantified.

today, i’m going to look at the idea of cooperative economics, the ability of digital platforms to enhance and empower cooperative economic institutions, and then end by showing how the notion of financial engineering can leverage economic thinking and creativity to solve the issues that our most important to our communities.

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and Douglas Rushkoff discussion on Team Human podcast 🔁

i had planned to write another post about R. Buckminster Fuller because i don’t think i did his particular flavor of genius enough credit last week and wanted to dive into more of the specifics about his work, his motivations, and his attempts to make the world a better place. however, i decided to change my mind while listening to Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast, Team Human. i was already filled with excitement after seeing that the guest on this week’s show was Jessica Gordon Nembhard because she is one of the scholars whose work i have read the most this year. their discussion did not disappoint.

among the ideas they explore are the history of cooperative economics.

if you are unfamiliar with the idea of cooperative economics, i would encourage you to first check out the Wikipedia page, here. generally, the idea undergirding cooperative economics is that people, by pooling their resources, can organize in ways that make everyone better off than they would be as individuals. as one of those ideas about sharing resources equitably between people, cooperative economics usually gets unfairly lumped in with ideas like communism and socialism that have resulted in lots of deaths around the world and that people have strong feelings about. however, as they touch on in the discussion, the history of cooperative economics is usually more grass roots.

this work in cooperative economics seems to be a bit of a corollary to Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons (and overcoming the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons), but more focused on individual economy than the sharing of resources.

among the interesting examples of people practicing cooperative economics are the underground railroad, churches, mutual aid organizations, communes, and cooperatives. if you want more information about these ideas, i recommend checking out Jessica’s book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. if you’re looking for something shorter, her article “Community-Based Asset Building and Community Wealth” provides a great examination of how people working together do better collectively or communally than they can working alone.

this broader of idea of individuals pooling together to do things that seem unfathomable is one that i think is underexplored and that deserves to be revisited in light of the advance of new, digital platforms that reduce coordination costs.

here’s an example provided by Steve Jobs about the possible future for organizations disintermediated by digital platforms.

@Omg_Keynes discusses the OnlyFans platform in a different substack📈

this transition seems a little obscure, but i promise it is connected.

if you are on instagram or twitter, i recommend checking out @omg_keynes for some funny memes. however, there’s also some pretty interesting content available through those sites, as well. for example, and in tying into this week’s post, the economic model of the OnlyFans platform is quite interesting. for those who don’t know, OnlyFans has become a site where people can subscribe to content creators for a fee; lots of the content creators are produce adult content or exercise videos.

i got into looking at OnlyFans as a platform to reduce the negative impact on sex trafficking and other illegal activity while doing some research for an initiative that sprung out of the MIT Computational Law Report and was really surprised at actually how many interesting design choices the platform had made. the registration processes reduce the likelihood for forced work/coercion that is popular in human trafficking. the payment between fans and creators sees creators taking more of the money home than they would if they had to go through traditional channels. and the app itself scales in a way that is obviously desirable based on the financials listed above.

this gets to a unique insight that emanates from computer ethics — platforms can scale the ways that businesses function and operate. as a concept, computer ethics is a subfield of information ethics concerning ethical, social, and political issues arising from the widespread application of information technologies. this is to say, computers have unique properties that enable them to do things that would not otherwise be possible. to demonstrate this idea, think of an analog version to OnlyFans. a user has some subscribers that they provide a piece of content to - let’s say a photograph. for each subscriber i have, i have to take a photo, get the film developed and make copies for each subscriber, then i have to go to the post office, and mail the copies to all of the subscriber. after a certain point, the economics of having lots of subscribers becomes a burden because the time value of the money will reach some maximum point where i’d be spending all my time taking photos, developing them, packaging them, and shipping them. if we imagine this same transaction for something like an exercise video, the costs are even higher.

with the internet and with platforms, i can simply upload a workout video, a list of the exercises, and pictures of me 1 year ago and now to a platform like OnlyFans, and they take care of scaling the business to as many customers as i am possibly able to handle.

in the same way that platforms can scale traditional business models, like that of OnlyFans, i think there is an even more exciting opportunity to look at platforms as an opportunity to encapsulate different experiments with cooperative economics among members in a network.

Andy Lo talks financial engineering as a way to cure cancer 🏥

last year, when i was auditing the Revolutionary Ventures course at MIT, i got to hear Andy Lo do a riff on this lecture about using financial engineering to cure cancer.

i highly recommend watching this if you have 20 minutes

this lecture fits in with this week’s theme - the economics of caring - because it shows that even if you are only trying to do things for the money, coming up with ways to take care of people can align all of the financial incentives to make caring for others something that actually makes money. looking at the idea of a cancer megafund as a cooperative economic institute, i don’t think many here would think this is a bad idea.

if we started to think about how to allow individuals to very quickly spin-up digital platforms that supported lofty ideas for cooperative economics, then our communities would be in a position to actually support a more growth-minded ecosystem instead of a more extractive one.

tying it all together 🧶

as the pandemic rages on and the world continues to face big challenges and uncertainty, there’s an opportunity for everyone to do better together. by combining thoughtful design with human care, i think there’s a strong case to be made that the future that is possible is collaborative and generative instead of adversarial and zero-sum.

sort of self-promotion: if you’d like to check out an examination of what some of these collaborative and generative organizations might look like, i encourage you to read John Clippinger’s article that i edited/produced about Reflexive Mutual Organizations, available here.

updates 🔜

MIT Computational Law Report - Release 1.3 📚

we will be producing our next point release in the next week or so

MIT Global Ventures Course 🌎

meeting at its regularly scheduled time this Thursday

music 📻

the last couple weeks, i’ve been really into a couple songs that really form the anchor for this playlist. the first is Uncertain Smile by The The. the second is Pack Yr Romantic Mind by Stereolab. there’s something in both of these songs that feels similar. they’re both kind of in that 80s wave of alternative music and they both have a kind of interesting texture to them.

notes 🔬

Sciences Po lecture slides and demo page ⏏️

last week, i gave a lecture to Megan Ma’s class at Sciences Po on Legal Reasoning, Interpretation, and Artificial Intelligence and i cobbled together slides from a couple different decks that i had used previously and then made a demo app that people can play around with. each is linked below

  • demo slides —> link

  • hackmd page —> link