The Economy of Identity

Canadian writer, William Gibson, is one of the most important science fiction authors of recent years, and generally considered to be the greatest practitioner of the cyberpunk style. Several movies have been made from his works, the most well-known being Johnny Mnemonic. My favorite Gibson work is the short story, New Rose Hotel, which was made into a film that did it no justice at all.

Gibson has an idea about the future that he uses repeatedly in his writings: tomorrow’s movie stars will sell access to their very perceptions so that audiences will be able to experience being those stars. The stars will compete with one another to lead outrageously interesting lives so as to attract bigger audiences.

This notion has appeared in Gibson’s writings since the 1980’s, and while it is still not possible for us to actually access another person’s perceptions, Gibson brilliantly anticipated the exponential increase in popular interest in how other people live. That interest is manifest in the volume of media dedicated to chronicling what celebrities do, and especially in the reality television phenomenon.

This curiosity about other people’s lives is often dismissed as uncultured. However, I believe there is a fundamental economic motivation for it.

In an affluent society, we value our time and our money, so before we invest either of them in a purchase or an activity, we want to know if it is worthwhile. To figure that out, we turn to other people, listening to their advice and observing their behavior. Since the ‘80’s, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and other mavens have been accumulating billions by offering people lifestyle advice, and audiences have gone from simply listening to advice to enthusiastically looking at how other people live.

The development of the World Wide Web, and especially the phenomenon of blogging, has dramatically increased our access to other people’s lives and views. We can read each other’s reviews of products, music, films and other things, see each other’s digital creations, our photographs and videos, and we can watch one another using Web cams.

Thus, we are, in effect, in the state that William Gibson envisaged. We are able to plug into each other’s perceptions. Some people’s perceptions are more interesting than others and the more interesting people have larger audiences. Individuals are competing for attention.

Harry Knowles exemplifies this state of affairs. Badly injured in a bizarre accident involving a runaway cart full of memorabilia, Knowles learned how to use the Internet on a computer purchased from the estate of his recently-deceased mother, and started, which featured movie news and reviews. His site swiftly gathered an audience, and simply by virtue of publishing his opinions of films along with gossip that he had acquired, he became famous. He now gets admitted to industry events, and has been appointed the film critic for Penthouse magazine.

Knowles successfully inverted the traditional economics of opinion. Traditionally, a publisher would invest vast quantities of money to publish and distribute magazines and newspapers with opinions, and those opinions would be opinions of the publisher’s employees. A few other individuals could get their views published, in the form of letters to the editor, but those letters would be selected and tweaked by the publisher’s editors and no-one could count on getting their letters printed regularly. However, Knowles, merely for the price of a computer and Internet access and hosting, was able to parlay his unique style of expressing his views for a celebrity that is a marketable commodity, yielding advertising dollars, gratuities, and jobs.

So, as Gibson saw, we very much want to plug into each other’s lives, and the Internet makes it possible to that. This state of affairs creates an economy of identity.

The groundbreaking work of Doug Walter, Martin Gudgin, Steve Millet, Kim Cameron and others has shown the virtue of understanding identity as a collection of claims, claims we make about ourselves, and claims that others, and especially institutions make about us. The relative importance of the various claims that are made about us varies by context. When I buy from—as I very often do—my own claims about my user name, password, and shipping address, are important, as well as my credit card company’s claims about my credit card number, its expiry date, and billing address. When the King County traffic police stop me for speeding in my Mustang—as they often do—the only claims about my identity that are important are the claims the State of Washington makes on my driver’s license.

Now, when we visit, we are making a claim about Harry Knowles’ identity: we are claiming that Knowles is someone who has opinions about movies and knowledge of the film industry that we are interested in. When we do that en masse, as Knowles’ audience has indeed done, then should someone ask, who the hell is Harry Knowles? the answer is that he is someone who has a big impact on our consumption of the film industry’s commodities, and that influence is something that he can sell. In short, claims about someone’s identity can be a saleable commodity. They certainly are in Knowles’ case, and Martha Stewart’s, and Oprah Winfrey’s, as well as in the case of reality television stars like Richard Hatch who can parlay public interest in their very lives into marketing dollars.

I expect that this economy will grow. In fact, I believe it is the most fundamental economy of an affluent society: our basic needs having been satisfied, we start to wonder about how to spend our time and money. Our most important need becomes to figure out who we are and what to do with our lives. The existentialist tradition in philosophy, which descended from Kant, highlighted that, but, at least until Jean Baudrillard, missed the utter banality of the answer: we find out who we are and what to do with our lives by watching other people and copying bits and pieces of their ideas and activities The need to know who we are and what to do is a very material need: it is a prerequisite to our consumption and to how we expend our labor power as long as we have any option at all. Of course, if one is starving, one will eat anything, but if one is not starving, why and what shall one eat? One eats when others that one chooses to follow eat, and one eats what they eat.

Until recently, profiting from supplying this need has required ownership of prodigious means of production: printing presses, film studios, radio stations and the like, and before that, royalty or a religion. Today, it requires access to a computer and an Internet connection, which is commonplace in affluent societies.

Our society will evolve … no: it is evolving in this way: we are all competing for one another’s attention, although only some people, including folk like Harry Knowles and Robert Scoble, live their lives accordingly, devoting themselves to that competition. Winners will become gurus of certain domains, with followers who subscribe to their ideas, their views and their choices. Winning will yield wealth, because having a following is a valuable commodity, perhaps the most valuable one of all.

Economies tend to become more efficient over time. What can we expect to result from efficiencies in the economy of identity?

First, the importance of privacy is going to diminish. It is going to be properly recognized as that part of one’s life that one does not care to publish, for various reasons, most of which would have to do with the risk of undermining one’s personal brand. So, anticipate, for example, being offered the opportunity, when making a purchase, of publishing the fact that one has made that purchase. If you are one of my gurus, then I am very interested in knowing what you buy, because I am seeking guidance in my choices from you. The value of publishing your choice may far exceed the value of the commodity you are purchasing, so, based on your identity, the cost of your consumption may be reduced to zero. We already know that celebrities are given a great many things free of charge, especially clothing and accessories, because their use of those things will generate sales worth far more than the cost of the giveaways. The rationalization of the economics of identity will simply shorten this circuit of value, giving everyone the options of making their selections of commodities public information and paying for that information on the spot.

Second, our access to others lives will increasingly be contingent on supplying information about ourselves. Why? Because the value of your interest in my opinions and my life is greatly increased if I have demographic information about you. Then I can not only sell the fact that I have followers, but the fact that I have followers of a particular type, to whom more targeted marketing is possible. So, today, you can simply subscribe to Scoble’s blog. Soon, to get the primo access, you’ll be required to supply some information about yourself, and when you retrieve his posts, a little near-real time auction will play out in the background as Scoble’s celebrity, measured by the exact size and demographics of his following at that instant, is exchanged for some marketing dollars that buy a few inches of advertising space in the post. And you’ll probably want what is advertised there. How else would you know what to want?

I also predict that access to this blog will continue to come cheap.