On The Reputation Economy

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Cory Doctorow

Thanks to many, many, unspecified technological advances, the world has become a Utopia. In “Bitchun Society”, death has been defeated – you upload your mind every night while you are asleep, and if you happen to die, your last upload is downloaded into a cloned body. You just lose a day. Scarcity and the problems of resource allocation have all been conquered. People join together in voluntary associations as needed to do what needs to be done.

Jules “works” at Disney World, where he and his friends and colleagues have taken it upon themselves to keep the theme park running. But his vision of what the Haunted Mansion should be clashes with his rival Debra, who has completely different ideas.

One day, Jules is “killed”. Restored from his backup, he finds that Debra has used his “downtime” to move in on his “territory”. Now Jules must fight to reclaim control of the Haunted Mansion, while figuring out who killed him – and why.

I suppose we should give authors a bit of a break on their first novels. Very few artists create masterpieces on their first time. So when the plot-motivating murder mystery gets pushed to the background, and a lot of the characters are rather flat, it’s understandable and forgiveable. This is primarily a story of social ideas, anyway.

But I find fatal flaws in one of his ideas….

Doctorow’s economy is based on something called “whuffie” instead of money. When everyone has equal access to the necessities of life, and even many of what we’d call luxuries, there’s no need to work for a living. “Whuffie” is a form of reputation or social credit. Of course, there’s also instant “online” access to anyone’s whuffie score.

Let’s say that you like this blog post. You’d give me a few Whuffie points to show your appreciation. I can then use my status as a famous writer and trade my accumulated whuffie for a dinner at a nice restaurant. They’d get to put my photo on their wall, letting everyone know that a famous writer dined there, and thereby earning whuffie points. And everyone who worked there would get a few more points of their own simply by virtue of working at a restaurant where a famous writer dined. Of course, I cannot spread myself too thin. If every restaurant had a photo of me on the wall with a signature attesting to my enjoyment of their food, then it wouldn’t really mean that much. In a strange way, it’s as if one’s wealth was based on Facebook “likes” or online reviews.

This idea seems to be popular among libertarians (the government cannot control it!), SF fans (it’s created by one of our own!), and many online communities (the Internet makes it possible!).

Now this might be workable in theory, or in small communities, but in the real world, I think it’s got insurmountable problems.

What about the crap work that MUST be done?

At some point, your society will grow to the point where a division of labor will be required. It’s a logical outgrowth of the fact that people have different talents and abilities. Economies of scale come into play, too. Not everyone can be expected to have their own vegetable garden. Once you start specializing your tasks, it’s natural that some tasks will be seen as “better” than others – regardless of their actual value to the society. Sure, at the size of a village, you can rotate the task of dung-gathering so no one has to be Baldric for any great length of time. Or you can assign it as a punishment. But when you get to around city-size, you’re going to need a full-time squadron of Ed Nortons to deal with the sewage. And you can’t put it off and pretend it doesn’t have to be dealt with.

Some jobs are always going to have more prestige than others, and will thus have a better reputation than they deserve. This is reflected in current salary differentials. The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player is roughly ten times the average salary of a firefighter. Does that mean a baseball player is ten times as valuable to society as a firefighter? Of course not. But that’s how we pay them.

In a reputation economy – heck, in any economy, there are going to be tasks that no one will want to do. And many of them will require specialized skills, so you cannot force people to do them or rotate the task around. The only way to encourage people to do them is to artificially inflate the amount of “whuffie” they get for doing them. Ah, but that means you’ll have to have some sort of regulatory oversight to assign and monitor their “wages”. And that means a government with a regulated economy, which is exactly the sort of thing these libertarians oppose!

The other, even more fatal problem with a reputation economy is the sheer fragility of a reputation. Heck, you don’t even have to go back to the Dreyfus Affair to see how institutionalized paranoia, knee-jerk reactions to incomplete or erroneous information, or even insane overreactions can ruin lives and destroy careers. Even things outside a person’s control (guilt by association) can affect a reputation. These days, how much “whuffie” do you think a Muslim has?

All these utopias require that everyone be equally high-minded, noble, and idealistic and will put society’s needs over their personal gain. Anyone who knows human nature or history knows that’s not going to happen.

If someone steals money or other physical property from you, you have legal means to recover it. If someone ruins your reputation, it will take a hell of a lot of effort to get it back. And even then, there’s no way of truly and fairly getting compensated for the loss.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Othello, Act III Scene iii


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