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 / Summer 2009 / Issue 55(originally published by Booz & Company)


Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

Another airline tried an offer to introduce their premium frequent flyers to each other on the airline’s Web site. I thought, “How dorky is that?” I’m not interested in connecting with other people who fly a particular airline. I am interested in making better connections with the people I already know, and perhaps getting them to share a flight with me. This airline had the right general notion — to engage with their customers directly — but they were tone-deaf about the relationship. They would do better going through Dopplr, because consumers don’t necessarily want a brand-specific site. They want sites where the brands join, just like the people.

The Nonmonetary Economy

S+B: What impact will this have on the economic future of, say, the media industries?
DYSON: As science fiction writer William Gibson put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” We’re starting to see the impact, first in professions like journalism, where the boundary between professional and amateur is unclear. But one underlying issue is a decline in the importance of monetary rewards for work, at least in the part of the world where people’s basic needs are already met.

Businesspeople still don’t get the strength and importance of nonmonetary markets. Marketers assume that people want to do things that cost money — and therefore generate revenues for someone. But using Facebook doesn’t cost anything. Yes, some resources are consumed, and the site needs to be paid for somehow, but from the users’ point of view, it’s mostly outside the commercial sphere. In general, more and more people will spend their time on free entertainment and activity, just as they did a century ago. Twenty or 30 years from now, you’ll see some parts of the world much richer, the West relatively poorer than it is today, and much more of the economy returned to a nonmonetary, non-transactional, relationship-driven base.

S+B: How would that be different from what we have today?
DYSON: A few years ago, I looked at Internet and communications spending in some former Soviet states, such as Estonia. Most people there are well educated, but they don’t have a lot of money. They spend a high proportion of their disposable income on Internet access and cell phones. After paying their monthly fees, they usually don’t spend much on anything else; they opt out of the commercial market, and use the media largely for communication rather than buying things.

I think consumption patterns will shift toward that model. Rather than buy a T-shirt with a logo, a teenager will just post a badge on a Facebook page. This shift will fit in well with a much more frugal world. A lot of people in the West are discovering that they have more things than they really need. Now they have a way to spend their time that costs almost no money. The economic downturn will accentuate this trend, and many people won’t ever really go back.

S+B: Do you really think that could happen on a mass scale?
DYSON: It’s already happening. Many people work much harder on a World of Warcraft role-playing team than they ever work in a paid job. They are very skilled and they do painstaking work, usually for only brownie points and recognition, because that work gives them a feeling of control and camaraderie.

Inventory management requires many of the same skills as World of Warcraft. Could you actually get teams of 12-year-old boys to do inventory management? They would do very well at it if they saw it as a game. But how could you motivate them?

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