Mind Matters

The Commodification Problem, Universal Basic Assets, & Social Innovations

Hello, wherever you are -


  1. I published a new essay - The Commodification Problem: Writing, Markets, & Individuation.

  2. Universal Basic What? From income to assets. Douglas Rushkoff & Mariana Mazzucato on going deeper than handouts, moving from UBI to UBAssets, and a look into Social Wealth Funds.

  3. Comparing technological innovations and social innovations.

New Essay: The Commodification Problem: Writing, Markets, & Individuation

The internet flattened the publishing landscape. Publishing writing to a sizable audience used to require a lengthy & expensive process of production and distribution. Now, anyone with internet access and an idea can publish to a global audience with zero marginal costs.

As illustrated by Lawrence Yeo:

Great! … right?

The market for writing used to be separate from the act of writing. Now, we’re increasingly writing from inside the market. Writers still in their earliest, most impressionable stages of learning how to write are plugged in to immediate feedback loops - whether through personal blogs, newsletters, Medium, Twitter feeds, and the like. There are undeniable benefits to this publish-as-you-learn style writing; feedback is a swift teacher.

But as the metrics of digital engagement become our writing mentors, we should ask: who’s really teaching us, and what are we learning?

These feedback loops extend from existing consumer preferences. They aren’t the preferences of highly-trained writers, or literary veterans, but a grab bag of internet users. The feedback loops teach an alignment between productive imagination and consumptive desires. They teach creators to produce what consumers want. What consumers are willing to pay for - in money or attention - implicitly sculpting the taste of creators themselves.

The ability to write in ways that consumers want, that generates engagement, is very helpful for writing as a commodity form. If you’re writing to build an audience (ultimately as a resource), to sell a product, to market a brand, then learning this kind of writing that meets mass-market preferences is invaluable.

But we intuitively recognize commodity writing as a different form than writing as a craft, or a psycho-technology for individuation. “They’re just in it for the money”, we might scoff. And this is really my point, my apprehension about this whole world of digital writing:

I worry that taste itself is being commodified, and writing is just the latest bastion of individuation to give way.

As writing becomes an increasingly commodifiable form, as markets for writing become omnipresent and easily accessible, the standardizing force of market dynamics threaten to wash over the stylistic indiosyncrasies that develop best in the solitude of one’s own taste.

I’ll finish with a passage from the essay:

Writing is a psychedelic practice, in that it is literally ‘mind manifesting’. Each word concretizes your otherwise nebulous haze of conscious experience. Words get absorbed by the page or screen in front of you, into an ongoing construction of a linguistic mirror held up to your interior world. Writing well is the skill to construct a good, faithful mirror. The mirror becomes a perceptible object in the world, as if ideas are liquid in the mind, but freeze as they spill out. You can then react to these frozen shards of your own experience, respond to them, and so yourself, converting more of that inexhaustible liquid nebulosity into concretized ideas, spiraling into deeper and deeper engagement with yourself. 

To commodify this process is to manifest yourself in utilitarian terms, to give a marketable shape to the freezing, and so making, of your own mind. This is why talk about the kind of consciousness today’s global, electronic capitalism is producing isn’t all metaphorical. The tendency towards commodifying increasingly intimate areas of our lives - especially those contemplative practices through which we explore our own potentialities, or interior nebulosity - is literally recreating us in the image of the market. We manifest our interior worlds in such ways that they might generate healthy returns on investment. 

We create ourselves in order to sell ourselves and earn the living we so inexplicably awaken to, and so precariously maintain.”

Read the Full Essay Here

Universal Basic What? From Income to Assets

As you may know, I’m big on the prospects of something like UBI to incite, and democratize, our collective capacity to do more interesting and valuable things with our lives than merely earn our livings. But there’s a lot of thoughtful critique about UBI out there, and UBI alone might do more harm than good.

On one hand, I do think UBI would enable us to restructure our time-use, and the dynamics we do (or don’t) participate in, which might be a strong catalyst in remaking how we live. On the other hand, critics like Douglas Rushkoff seem right. UBI alone would hardly change the subterranean economic architecture:

“UBI…obviates the need for people to consider true alternatives to living lives as passive consumers…if Silicon Valley’s UBI fans really wanted to repair the economic operating system, they should be looking not to universal basic income but universal basic assets…The only meaningful change we can make to the economic operating system is to distribute ownership, control, and governance of the real world to the people who live in it.”

Concentrated assets act like planets in space. With enough mass, enough asset concentration, spacetime warps towards them. Wherever you place or redistribute things in the system, it all inevitably flows back towards the center, the concentrated assets.

Especially at the top, income is largely a downstream effect of asset ownership. Change needs to reach as far upstream as possible.

There’s a lot of high-level work in support of this thinking. Here’s a clip of University College London professor Mariana Mazzucato echoing Rushkoff’s concern (should begin at 53:02):

Elsewhere, she writes:

“…instead of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is a ‘handout’ that the Silicon Valley wealth creators like to support, how about a dividend for users who helped create the wealth in the first place?”

A 2016 paper by Thomas Piketty & co. on distribution and inequality concludes:

“In our view, the main conclusion is that the policy discussion should focus on how to equalize the distribution of primary assets, including human capital, financial capital, and bargaining power, rather than merely ex-post redistribution.”

UBI is ex-post redistribution, while a dividend received from something like UBAssets is what Mazzucato calls pre-distribution - operating further upstream, or deeper in the societal ‘source code’ as Rushkoff likes to say.

The best work I’ve found on developing how UBA might actually work is being done by Matt Bruenig. He’s put together a proposal from front to back on how to implement UBA. His opening thesis:

“In this paper, I propose that the US government tackle the problem of wealth inequality by creating a social wealth fund (swf) and issuing one share of ownership in the fund to every American. After the fund is created, the government will gradually accumulate assets for the fund to manage, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. As the assets under management increase, the value of the shares held by the citizen-owners will increase, causing wealth inequality to fall. Although the citizen-owners will not be permitted to sell their shares, they will be paid a universal basic dividend (ubd) each year from the investment income earned by the fund.”

In it, he details everything from the motivation for the project, existing programs we can learn from, and how to create, invest in, and manage the fund.

He even includes a visualization of what it might look like for an individual to access a dashboard of their stake in the fund from their iPhone:

If you’re interested, check out the full proposal:

Read Full Paper

Technological Innovations -> Social Innovations

Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen recently published an essay titled How can we develop transformative tools for thought? In it, they describe their work:

“The work is really about exploration of an open-ended question: how can we develop tools that change and expand the range of thoughts human beings can think?"

Such is the mentality of technological innovations - searching for new tools that’d plug into the existing social matrix, and unlock previously inaccessible potentialities.

I’m interested in the same outcome - changing & expanding the range of thoughts human beings can think - but as the result of social innovations, meaning democratic agreements to simply do things differently, to reorganize ourselves.

This is the heart of how David Graeber sees democracy:

if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”

As I wrote about in The Commodification Problem, our current social arrangement pursues the freedom to earn, rather than freedom to live. Maintaining that we must still all ‘earn’ a living rests upon the claim of scarcity, which may be as much a product of our social organization, our laissez-faire approach to the concentration of asset ownership, than any natural constraints (essay forthcoming on this).

Imagine a world where we democratically share in the dividends of collectively owned assets, combined with progressive taxation, a debt jubilee, and whatever else you’d throw in this bag, all to find that a living no longer needs to be ‘earned’. I imagine this would be far more psychedelic an experience than developing new transformative tools for thought, or even dropping a few tabs of acid.

The enormity of life would be laid at each of our feet, with the instructions: go ahead, explore, and have fun.

Or, as Mary Oliver’s instructions for living suggest:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

Deconstructing Sensory Experience - Meditation Map

On Michael Taft’s excellent meditation podcast - Deconstructing Yourself - he just released a ‘map’ of the process. Maps are inherently partial and incomplete, and Michael knows this, but they can be incredibly helpful.

I found his map perfectly suited to the language of our times, and fun to explore. Check it out here.

That’s all.

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