Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?
Jack Worthing: Well yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell: I’m glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.
Transport Lady Bracknell to the present, implant a geek’s brain in her bean, give her a zillion bucks and a Macbook Air, and she’ll begin dreaming the dream of Max Levchin:
I sometimes imagine the low-use troughs of sinusoidal curves utilization of all these analog resources being pulled up, filling up with happy digital usage.
Yes, it lacks that Wildean snap — though “happy digital usage” provides a witty little twist at the end — but it’s memorable nonetheless. The sentence comes from Levchin’s keynote speech last week at the DLD conference in Munich, Germany. He describes his talk as “crucially important,” and I have to crucially agree. It’s required reading. Though not in the billionaires’ club, Levchin is one of the Silicon Valley elite—computer scientist, cofounder of PayPal, buddy of Peter Thiel, Yahoo director, restless entrepreneur, big thinker, venture capitalist, angel—and his speech provides the clearest view yet of the grand ambitions of our would-be techno-saviors.
Levchin refers to “humans” as “analog resources,” a category we share with “cars, houses, etc.” The tragedy of analog resources is that they’re horribly underutilized. They spend a great deal of their time in idleness. Look out into the analog world, and you see a wasteland of inefficiency. But computers can fix that. If we can place sensors and other data-monitoring devices on all analog resources, including ourselves, then we can begin to track them, analyze them, and “rationalize their use.” For Levchin, “the next big wave of opportunities exists in centralized processing of data gathered from primarily analog systems.” We already see the beginnings of this trend, he says, in the rise of “collaborative consumption,” in which the spare capacity of analog resources like cars and houses is matched, via digital exchanges, with underserved demand. “A key revolutionary insight here is … the digitalization of analog data, and its management in a centralized queue to create amazing new efficiencies.”
But what we’ve seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg. What’s really exciting is the possibility for rationalizing the use of the most underutilized analog resources of all: people. Declares Levchin: “We will definitely see dynamically-priced queues for confession-taking priests, and therapists!” And then we can move on to maximizing the utilization of the human mind itself:
How about dynamic pricing for brain cycles? We have been maximizing utilization of very high-value, very low-frequency specialists — today you can already rent the brain of a data-mining genius via Kaggle by the hour, tomorrow by brain-hour. Just like the SETI@Home screensaver “steals” CPU cycles to sift through cosmic radio noise for alien voices, your brain plug firmware will earn you a little extra cash while you sleep, by being remotely programmed to solve hard problems, like factoring products of large primes.
Yes, he’s serious. This is Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus” idea taken to its logical, fascistic extreme.
As soon as the general public is ready for it, many things handled by a human at the edge of consumption will be controlled by the best currently available human at the center of the system, real time sensors bringing the necessary data to them in real time. … This is going to add a huge amount of new kinds of risks. But as a species, we simply must take these risks, to continue advancing, to use all available resources to their maximum.
If this is a bit too abstract for you, Levchin brings it down to an everyday level, describing the kind of practical business services he and his colleagues are actually developing:
On a Saturday morning, I load my two toddlers into their respective child seats, and my car’s in-wheel strain gauges detect the weight difference and reports that the kids are with me in a moving vehicle to my insurance via a secure message through my iPhone. The insurance company duly increases today’s premium by a few dollars.
No need to think of analog resources in the aggregate anymore; networked sensors allow us to monitor and rationalize the utilization of each individual resource, each person in isolation. But you can go even deeper. You can begin to rationalize each individual’s internal resources. Imagine, as Levchin does, that everyone is hooked up to physical sensors that minutely monitor their health and behavior and send the data to a centralized processing system. An insurance company “looking at someone’s heart rate monitor data could make their cardiovascular healthcare cost-free.” Of course, if you engage in risky behavior (do you really want that third slice of pizza, or that third beer?) or have some suboptimal health reading (did your heart just skip a beat?), an alert from your insurer, or maybe your employer, or maybe the government, would immediately come through your smartphone notifying you that your health care premium has just been increased. Or maybe your policy has been cancelled. Or maybe you’ve been scheduled for a brief reeducation session down at the local office of the Bureau for Internal Resource Optimization.
This is the nightmare world of Big Data, where the moment-by-moment behavior of human beings — analog resources — is tracked by sensors and engineered by central authorities to create optimal statistical outcomes. We might dismiss it as a warped science fiction fantasy if it weren’t also the utopian dream of the Max Levchins of the world. They have lots of money and they smell even more: ”I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.” It’s the ultimate win-win: you get filthy rich by purifying the tribe.
I could use a smoke.