Emergent Tech

Your attention has value, personal cryptocurrency will advertise it

ICOs meet advertising in the end-game for the gig economy

By Mark Pesce


Cryptocurrencies open the door to a world where everyone has their price.

To understand why, consider Ethereum, a cryptocurrency that rests on the distributed ledger tech described by Satoshi Nakamoto in his 2008 white paper but includes a scripting language. That makes it, quite literally, "smart money.’

The idea of smart money was so interesting that back in 2015, enthusiasts exchanged their Bitcoins for still-largely-imaginary Ether - and in so doing, established a "price” for those Ether. And thus the “Initial Coin Offering” (ICO) became popular. At the time it seemed a practical way to get the Ethereum project funded, but it also defined an economic model for successful cryptocurrency launches.

Since 2015, the number of cryptocurrencies have grown exponentially, each new ICO asking buyers to exchange expensive Bitcoins for worthless tokens. That’s worked surprisingly well, as punters look to cash in on a cryptocurrency market that makes tulip mania seems almost restrained.

For every hundred ICOs, perhaps one creates a coin that has any practical value - and those prove the most popular.

One that's raising eyebrows is the In Basic Attention Token (BAT). The brainchild of Javascript creator Brendan Eich, the BAT offers a currency that allows advertisers to disintermediate publishers, paying Web users directly - in BAT - for their precious eyeballs. Hit a Web page, and, for every ad that loads on screen, BAT accrues in your account.

BAT would seem to cut publishers (such as our beloved Reg) out of the equation, but that’s only half of the ecosystem. Users gain the capacity to pay publishers directly for their content - in BAT. While that seems like more work - today, advertisers pay publishers directly - it’s also much cleaner, creating a wall between publishers and advertisers and a bond between publishers and readers. BAT has been engineered to fix some of the "original sins” of an advertising-driven Web, and it’s as good a cryptocurrency use case as any we’ve seen.

The ICO for BAT therefore sold through all $35 million in tokens in just 30 seconds.

Now comes a longer battle, convincing advertisers and publishers to offer BAT (and the associated Brave browser) as an alternative, and, eventually, as a replacement for the advertising-driven Web.

BAT seems a straightforward idea: in an "attention economy” it monetises (or at least tokenises) your attention. It also sends another signal: all attention is equally valuable. While we like to believe we live in a broadly egalitarian culture, we’d have to admit that a doctor's attention means more (and is worth more) than the attention of a truck driver - at least in the examination room. The value of our attention varies by task. Some of us have very expensive attention, at least some of the time, because we’ve spent years growing our expertise. Little of this architecture of the human world can be squeezed into the one-size-fits-all solution of BAT.

There’s an obvious solution to that problem: we all need our own coins.

Personal cryptocurrencies complete the great project of the gig economy, allowing us to offer a price for ourselves in every market, at every task, in real time. Our time will be worth just exactly what someone is willing to pay for it - in their own coin, of course. If this seems a little too rational and difficult to manage, imagine all of it hidden behind a hundred clever apps that perform all the marketing-making, pricing, and currency exchanges seamlessly and invisibly. You’re never aware of anything other than the increasing value of your horde of coins. When you’re in demand, your price goes up. When you’re available - or simply underskilled - your price goes down. All of that happens via the invisible hand of the market, massaging seven and a half billion different cryptocurrencies.

These "personal coins’ won’t make dollars obsolete; they’ll make them invaluable, as the universal medium of exchange. They may be all we ever see, while underneath, our coins argue it out for supremacy in a global marketplace of talent and attention.

If this world market feels a bit weird - as if the future has suddenly zoomed close - keep in mind that we’re more than merely economic entities. We can choose to give our time and our attention - to our families, our friends, our communities, and our civic society. As we put a price on everything human, we need to remember there are some things money can’t buy. ®

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