It's hard to claim that blockchain-based technology is the foundation for a future economic revolution without acknowledging that smartphone applications delivering on-demand services through “gamified” experiences are instigating an economic revolution in the present. Uber, AirBnb, Facebook and many other apps are transforming transportation, hospitality and media industries by providing a comfortable, even fun, online experience to users. They’re doing it through the use of game mechanics that enable applications to “leverage people's natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, or closure.”1 Understanding these apps requires us to develop an understanding of games.
Games are a form of structured play that use rules and rewards to keep people engaged. In many games, the reward is explained as a “victory condition”, which is the set of things that need to take place for the game to be won (ex. checkmate). But in many other games, including the game of life, players accumulate rewards instead of “winning.” There are many possible types of rewards in games, but the two most popular and important for economics are points and badges. Points are tokens that players earn by engaging in certain activities. Sometimes games allow players to spend their points on items in the game (ex. new costume for an avatar) or trade their points with other players, enabling them to engage in economic exchange. Badges are issued to players to indicate their achievement and status. They often enable the user to access additional rewards such as hidden levels, special deals and other game play options. Unlike points, games often restrict players from trading badges. Their primary use within games is to signal reputation. If points can be viewed as money, then badges can be viewed as credentials similar to diplomas, credit ratings or top secret clearances.
For example, Uber gives potential riders a Grand Theft Auto 2 style map interface to show you all the cars swarming around you. In exchange you give them your location information when you want a cab. Uber drivers get a Crazy Taxi-style interface. When the ride is done, everyone exchanges points/dollars and badges/reviews. Users are incentivized to treat each other with respect to earn positive reputation metrics that enable them to continue playing and unlocking rewards in the form of discounts for riders and higher pay rates for drivers.
Game mechanisms aren’t limited to the provisioning of low-skill on-demand services. When Github combined Git version control with social networking features, they gamified open source software code development by making it easy to see who was making consistent and important contributions to high profile open source software projects. Since people with good Github reputations can more easily get paying jobs and other opportunities, they spent a lot of time documenting their code contributions through it.
In the real world, caterers are using gamified mobile platforms to manage the scheduling, coordination and payment functions they need to feed large amounts of people. Even Amazon's warehouse logistics systems have gamified elements that show users how quickly they’re performing functions and compare them to others. Just because an experience is gamified doesn’t mean it’s fun. What it does mean is that the people who create the game have the ability to very precisely configure game mechanics to get the outcomes they want. Managers are being replaced by constantly optimizing reward mechanisms. Customer service representatives are being replaced by tweaks to automated messages and user flows.
The idea that everyone is becoming an on-demand service provider guided by a gamified smartphone application terrifies lots of people concerned with worker rights. How can we prevent platforms for exploiting people? How can we resist the massive concentration of wealth that comes from the centralization of previously decentralized industries? Where do unions fit in? Some people are turning to the state to regulate these platforms out of existence, but the capacity of governments to tame networked communication technologies and blockchains is questionable. Instead of resisting through the state, many people who are concerned about these issues are focusing on using the rapidly expanding set of open source and open data tools and techniques to develop their own platforms that embody their values.
A good example of the type of open source solution being developed is the “e-hail” data standard proposed by New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos2. This open data specification would allow any app developer to send and receive requests for taxi cabs to each other, eliminating the need for a third party app like Uber to connect riders and drivers together. Similar efforts could be launched to combat the domination of the short-term rental market by AirBnb, or the on-demand home care market by Handy.com. Kallos’ proposal has yet to turn into a product or service we can evaluate, but the need for open data standards becomes increasingly clear as the cost of app development continues to come down and local service providers (such as legacy cab companies) release their own Uber-style apps. Open data standards are the only way all these apps will be able to share information and provide users the experience that they want.
One type of enterprise that many technologists in the “social justice” community are eager to see emerge are democratically controlled “platform cooperatives”. These “platform coops” don’t view their users as consumers from which they must extract wealth, but rather as users and peer worker/owners who can share in the risks and rewards of the platform. This idea has received lots of positive attention from people with strong critiques of the dominant, venture-backed startup platforms like Uber and AirBnb, but very few platform coops exist, and the few that do find it difficult to compete with startups that have raised massive amounts of venture capital, much of which is used for marketing as opposed to technology development.
Whether a platform is a cooperative, venture-backed or even a blockchain-based decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), all of these contain the potential for delivering a finance without force because each one can abstract the financial transaction, removing the need for the use of fiat currency at the point of sale. Uber could work as well with US dollars as it does with Bitcoin. In fact, it’s already begun to accept Bitcoin in Argentina to avoid regulatory hurdles created by that nation’s government3. Is there any doubt that, in the event of a significant fiat currency crisis, platforms big and small wouldn’t do the increasingly easy technical work of enabling their users to pay with Bitcoin and the myriad of other cryptocurrencies in circulation? In this regard, we’re just a crisis away from mass adoption of cryptocurrencies.
1. Wikipedia contributors, ‘Gamification’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification#Techniques ↩
2. Catherine Young, ‘City Asks Taxi Regulator to Create Universal E-hail App’, Epoch Times, December 9, 2014, http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1132832-city-asks-taxi-regulator-to-create-universal-e-hail-app/ ↩
3. Pete Rizzo, ‘Uber Argentina Enlists Bitcoin Partner in Fight to Continue Service’, CoinDesk, July 5, 2016, http://www.coindesk.com/uber-argentina-bitcoin-partnership/ ↩