I was recently posed this question: "The most important way in which the internet and online social media are changing our world is [fill in the blank]." My standard answer is that it changes the balance of power between individuals and institutions. But this was a sophisticated audience of economists and students.
So I challenged the audience to consider the following: For much of human history, there was no economy based on trade and fungible goods. People operated in small groups and fended for themselves.
Our world today is a mix of people still subsisting with almost no income, people generating (and consuming) surpluses, and other people consuming surpluses generated by others. Many activities that were previously performed "for free", such as sex and home maintenance, are now frequently outsourced and counted as economic output.
But the internet is changing that in a way that may befuddle companies, which view it primarily as an economic platform.
Many individuals go online with no intention of buying something. They are there to find out about the world, catch up with friends, play games, listen to music or chat - and, increasingly, to get the attention of other people. Thanks to highly productive surplus economies, they can spend a lot more time being economically inactive.
The question is whether we will start doing more and more intellectual work for free or barter, becoming more like our ancestors. Instead of producing food or housing, we will produce amusement and content for one another, without engaging in explicit (taxable) financial exchange. The economic and psychological implications of this are profound. It seems clear that most people gain self-esteem and mental health from doing something useful.
For economists and traditional businesses, at least, this future disturbs traditional notions of economic growth. If we generate our own economic surplus without accounting for it - what the American writer Clay Shirky calls "cognitive surplus" - how will it affect reported economic data and, ultimately, shape incentives and activities? Will a world of cognitive surplus make us more environmentally responsible, guided also by the inclusion of externalities in the prices of physical goods, so that we end up "consuming" fewer physical things and spend more on virtual value?
This attention economy is not the intention economy beloved by vendors. Rather, attention here has its own intrinsic, non-monetised value. Just as we are driven to spread our physical DNA, so apparently do we have an urge to spread our virtual identities, so that we cannot be erased. Instead of physical descendants, we offer our virtual selves to posterity.
Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world