Esther Dyson made me think very differently

07Jul09

The Summer issue of strategy+business, the consistently excellent publication of global consulting company Booz & Company, features an interview with thought leader, entrepreneur and investor Esther Dyson.  This “long-standing champion of high-tech innovation foresees a fundamental shift toward more transparent institutions and a more relationship-driven economy.”

This lengthy interview covers a wide array of topics, including the broad one of the evolution of marketing and marketers.  She describes Google’s business: “It’s just-in-time marketing to people who are already looking,” and argues that there’s no way to build that kind of business in traditional ways.  Within this framework of how people interact with the Web, I was particularly struck by her concept of the Nonmonetary Economy.

S+B: What impact will this have on the economic future of, say, the media industries?
DYSON: “As science fiction writer William Gibson put it, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.’ We’re starting to see the impact, first in professions like journalism, where the boundary between professional and amateur is unclear. But one underlying issue is a decline in the importance of monetary rewards for work, at least in the part of the world where people’s basic needs are already met.

Businesspeople still don’t get the strength and importance of nonmonetary markets. Marketers assume that people want to do things that cost money — and therefore generate revenues for someone. But using Facebook doesn’t cost anything. Yes, some resources are consumed, and the site needs to be paid for somehow, but from the users’ point of view, it’s mostly outside the commercial sphere. In general, more and more people will spend their time on free entertainment and activity, just as they did a century ago. Twenty or 30 years from now, you’ll see some parts of the world much richer, the West relatively poorer than it is today, and much more of the economy returned to a nonmonetary, non-transactional, relationship-driven base.

S+B: How would that be different from what we have today?
DYSON: “A lot of people in the West are discovering that they have more things than they really need. Now [on the Internet] they have a way to spend their time that costs almost no money. The economic downturn will accentuate this trend, and many people won’t ever really go back.

S+B: Do you really think that could happen on a mass scale?
DYSON: It’s already happening. Many people work much harder on a World of Warcraft role-playing team than they ever work in a paid job. They are very skilled and they do painstaking work, usually for only brownie points and recognition, because that work gives them a feeling of control and camaraderie.

Inventory management requires many of the same skills as World of Warcraft. Could you actually get teams of 12-year-old boys to do inventory management? They would do very well at it if they saw it as a game. But how could you motivate them?

It’s a mystery, and as an investor and as someone who’d like a better-run world, I’d like to solve it. Whatever makes work unpleasant, it’s often not really the nature of the task itself; it’s the involuntariness, and the fact that you can be punished by the person running the game.

But if World of Warcraft isn’t work, it’s also not traditional consumer entertainment. People pay to use the platform. The challenge for marketers is to fit into that model. And so far they’ve been clueless.”

To the degree that Ms. Dyson proves correct (and her investing record makes me like her chances), the implications are staggering.  It got me thinking of the evolving future of education and training as game-based exercises in which participants don’t try to learn new skills, but use available tools and rules to accomplish goals — which is the point of every game extant.

To use Esther’s inventory management example via 12-year-olds turned loose on the challenge, it requires a fundamental  shift away from skill development to outcome production.  If your team figures out a way to produce the desired outcome, do I really care whether or not you’ve acquired specific skills, in the traditional sense?  Which is more costly, developing courseware, training and paying salaries for a dedicated population of instructors and inventory management apprentices, or the cost associated with hosting a robust game environment in which a large, ad hoc, virtual team crowd-sources a tested solution by expending hundreds of hours each in trial-and-error experimentation to figure out the best way to get all the goods from various suppliers to various customers in different places on different dates?

I’m not a gamer, but just from all the reading I’ve been doing recently, it appears that most games include a large number of variables and the most intentionally vexing obstacles the game developers can concoct.  And thousands or, in some cases, millions, of gamers globally pay money to see who can figure it out first and most elegantly.

In this context, aren’t Linux and Wikipedia really just global games, in which countless wizards voluntarily spend a lot of their time, unpaid, trying to perfect a constantly moving target, purely for the psychic reward of having accomplished some noticeable aspect of an unattainable goal, and the acclaim of those they consider peers?

Henceforth, I will read all those gaming blogs very differently, now with an eye toward shifting from my long held “learning” perspective to an “outcome” perspective.

Your thoughts?

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One Response to “Esther Dyson made me think very differently”

  1. 1 Cris Kinross

    Your post made me uneasy until I realized the source of that uneasiness. You are too far removed from the topic of gaming to truly ‘get it.’ You are studying gaming, and all of the relevant social relationship/new world order opportunities as if you are learning chemistry in school: by reading about it. Just as with chemistry, gaming requires that you get in there and blow something up to truly understand it.

    I challenge you to come down and step into the world of gaming to see what it is actually all about. (Or we can play in Vegas). One way or the other, you need to play and experience it to understand it. The experience will change the way you read about it.


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