What I like about Umair Haque is that he gets you thinking. So here is some of that, in all its grossly oversimplified, yet decadently free-associative glory:

  1. Some time ago, prices on the greater part of offerings stopped reflecting market value and basically started being made up, such as the loss leaders of Edison or Gillette.
  2. Wages, what fund most peoples' consumption, likewise stopped being directly related to revenue and thus to profit.
  3. At the same time, the range of offerings increased exponentially, blurring the line between necessity and convenience.
  4. Wages and their increases became just as arbitrary as the prices of the things people bought with them.
  5. Consumer credit picked up the slack — wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, around the same time as the mass adoption of the credit card.

This is what I see: the signals aren't getting where they need to go and this is happening across the board. Prices are made up, wages are made up, profits are made up, demand is made up, money is made up. Nobody knows what anything is worth anymore.

Find me somebody who isn't a securities trader who can genuinely tell me, to the dollar, what the value of his/her contribution is. Oh wait, they can't either because despite being securities being the few things whose prices are still established in an open market, their contents are the most made up of all.

So, yeah. It's like we're in a dream world and can't tell what anything is worth anymore. It's like we need a new unit of measurement. I'm thinking action — joules of energy times seconds of attention.

The Attention Economy is Nothing to Sneer At

As Randy Pausch famously said, time management is an engineering problem. Everybody has a finite amount of time on this planet, a figure that for most of us is by no means definite. This makes it difficult to envision that we can only achieve a finite number of goals. Focusing our attention on one thing invariably means something else will have to go unattended. As such we should be continually asking ourselves: is what I am doing right now worth a guaranteed lost opportunity later?

Real Physical Energy, Not Power Crystal Energy

Getting from one state to another costs energy. Not the touchy-feely kind of energy but the kind that powers buildings and vehicles, the kind that is becoming increasingly important in the public discourse. An average person costs between about 6 to 10 megajoules a day to run, and can convert a percentage of that into productive activity. That's about the equivalent of between one and two incandescent light bulbs running constantly.

An athlete can consume up to about 50 megajoules a day, but we should expect that to be the extreme upper bound of efficient disposal of that kind of energy on the part of an individual person. With this in mind, we could say that the rise of obesity cases equates to energy not being efficiently disposed of, and indicative of a bad energy policy overall.

It's important to recognize here that all human achievement has had to come into this envelope at some point or other. Where a given obstacle has exceeded it, we have built tools or cooperated with one another, or both. The former demands knowledge and skill, the latter a story with a theme, a plot and a happy ending✱. The question here is ultimately do I need help? — regardless of whether it comes from a machine or a friend. In both cases, it's our attention and what we choose to do with it that directs us.

✱ Huge fat asterisk: the theme of the story is a purpose or goal, which could motivate others for any reason. The plot is what our collaborators have to do. The happy ending is the value proposition, what they get out of it.

Achievement is Probabilistic

At best any undertaking is a lottery, which means it has three dimensions: the value of the prize, the cost of the ticket and the odds of winning. Unless we have agreed not to manipulate any of these dimensions, there is no reason not to, assuming doing so is worthwhile. Sometimes we can manipulate the ticket price or the prize value, but the dimension most interesting to us is the odds, because if they are too slim it makes no sense to buy a ticket, no matter how little it costs or how valuable the prize is.

We learn best by failure, because presumably when we win we're too busy enjoying our winnings and moving onto other things to understand why it happened. But we can increase our chances of future success by employing a controlled type of failure known as experimentation. We can understand experimentation as intentionally purchasing a cheap ticket we have no expectation of winning and take a small loss to get the requisite information to stack the odds of making a future bigger win to the point of near certainty.

It's important to recognize, though, that this is not the same thing as merely trying. This is where the narrative of the 21st century diverges from the 20th. Trying is analogue. Trying is heuristic. Trying implies some kind of internal fortitude, such that if you were just good enough, you would be successful. In reality it's more like flapping your arms really hard and expecting to fly. Past a certain degree of complexity there is little utility in just trying, because even in the freak chance you succeed, you won't know what you did, and probably wouldn't be able to do it again.

Perhaps Yoda said it best: Do or do not; there is no try. I'm sure George Lucas intended the remark to be mystical and sagacious but at the perceptual level it's perfectly accurate. Paradoxically at the physical level, there is only trying and no doing.

One more thing. I said at best above because the rules change when dealing with other people. Other people can observe us and change their behaviour, such that instead of doing what we expect of them, they can do the opposite, or something completely different. The best we can do in this scenario is make it more valuable to cooperate than to defect.

And Discrete

By merely existing, we have a continuous, fluid effect on the universe, which is largely indescribable except to say that it is pretty messy despite being infinitesimally small. However, we seem to perceive and communicate in symbols, which at their most fundamental level rely on being able to tell the relative difference between one form and another.

This is important to understand, because as noted above, there is no guarantee anything we ever do will have an effect. There are only certain principles that underpin what activity has a pretty good chance of producing an expected result:

Wizards and Muggles

Absent a rigorous definition of a process, you get magic. Suffice to say it will likely support some number of priests, carnies and astrologers in perpetuity, but they share a common problem: if something works and you don't know how, one day it'll stop working and you won't know why.

The way we have (until very recently) organized information has created nothing short of a class divide between wizards and muggles. Wizards would exploit the ignorance of muggles and take liberties at their expense, but everybody was okay with this arrangement because most of the time one muggle's wizard was another wizard's muggle. The only people who completely lost out were muggles who weren't also some kind of wizard. The upshot is that much like Dame Rowling's lucrative franchise, this configuration is completely made up.

This kind of divide is exactly what you get when information is expensive, and a great deal of it is now cheaper than dirt. Magic is what you get when you don't have the capital to invest in rigor. It's a heuristic, much cheaper than an exhaustive process at the expense of failing sometimes. But capital requirements are relative to the endeavour, and it seems that much of what we once couldn't afford to take on, we can now scarcely afford not to.

There are people in various predicaments in the world, good and bad, who are there as a result of being associated with a narrative, which may or may not have been their doing, that casts them as the agent of some result or other, which may or may not actually be true. Likewise there are ample people in limbo who could perform, but lack the narrative that grants them the license.

Information, however, is not confined to pedigree, because bits don't care where they come from. The claim to exclusive rights over some domain of knowledge or skill is losing its legitimacy. Those who insist on remaining wizards will be branded as holdouts and treated with suspicion and prejudice until they either give up their secrets or are relieved of them.

Implications for How We Think About Value

So if trade secrets and proprietary information are becoming less viable means of extracting value, what do we do instead?

Well, perhaps we could start by not trying to extract value and go back to good old-fashioned generating it instead. We do this by concentrating our attention on making things we want that other people also want, not by getting in between people and what they want. We don't have to worry our position in life as an intermediary until we try too hard to enforce it.