Kudunomics and the weightless economy

/ 19 November 2009

Sam Bowles, once at Amherst and now at the Santa Fe Institute, has had a remarkable career as an economist. These days he has been thinking about something close to my heart: “the weightless economy.” As described by Ethan Zuckerman after a visit by Bowles to the Berkman Center:

The big idea behind Bowles’s recent research is that some of the fundamental laws of economics – notably Adam Smith’s invisible hand, may not work in the “weightless economy – the economy that can’t be weighed, fenced, or conveniently contracted for.” Rather than being based on material wealth, knowledge-based economies are based on embodied and relational wealth. In these economies, individual-posession based property rights are difficult to enforce, and socially harmful to enforce.

Network wealth is the contribution made by your social connections to your well-being. This could be measured by your number of connections, or by your centrality in different networks. A simple way to think about this is the number of people who will share food with you. Embodied wealth is a combination of what you know and how strong you are. It measures factors like hunting prowess and grip strength. Bowles asserts that we’re moving from a history where network and embodied wealth mattered more that material wealth – we briefly (for about eight thousand years) moved into a world of embodied wealth, and now we’re moving back.

It might be time to look back to the Pleistocene.

I’ll have to look for the archived presentation when it appears, the topic sounds dense and I’d love to give it a careful listen. I think it may open up my thinking about copyright issues and fair use, though. We have to come to some sensible place with regard to “intellectual property” and I’m not sure how to get there. I hope Sam may help.


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