On e-mail as a means of exchange…

03/05/2004

I’ve had lots of conversations over the last few years about ways in which rising marginal cost could deal with grotesque abuses of online services. There are probably a dozen posts in this blog about that subject alone. Now the obvious example of a place where this kind of thing has been proposed has been e-mail – people have been talking about ways to get people to pay for e-mail “stamps” for years as a possible means of avoiding spam. Bill Gates has proposed another version of this scheme recently. His idea – ten-second pieces of computing time on the machine that sends the mail being given to some worthy cause (or to just solve some abstract puzzle). This would – apparently – be a gesture of good faith on the part of the sender that a spammer couldn’t possible match.

Now, my personal opinions about rising marginal costs have mainly been about how to deal with noise, distance and abuse in online communities. I once touched on the issue in connection with e-mail (only because e-mail was a suitable jumping off point) and ended up in an almighty fight with Cory Doctorow about it. Since that time, I’m still of the opinion that exponential graphs of effort or diminishing causality over space or increasing marginal costs (all features of the real-world) still have a role to play in how we solve gross abuses online. On the other hand I’ve seen no evidence that there’s a model that works particularly well with regards to e-mail. Certainly my experience of sending the fifty or sixty e-mails I send from my personal account a day (and the other fifty or sixty that I send at work) wouldn’t be radically improved by having my various computers churn through puzzles for twenty minutes a day.

With regards to the 1p-per-e-mail approach – I’m still of the opinion that a more successful version would be about the redistribution of money rather than the paying of it. What if the person you sent your e-mail to got the 1p you spent to send it to them and could then use that penny to send an e-mail in turn to whosoever they wanted. In those circumstances, most users (who get as much e-mail as they send) would be financially unaffected, the spammed would get a financial reward for all the rubbish they were forced to consume (there might even be a legitimate business model in collecting spam) and the spammers would end up paying much much more money than before.

This is not a new idea either, and nor do I think it’s a particularly practical one, but it does present some interesting opportunities to think about e-mail in very different (ludicrous?) ways – perhaps eventually even as a unit of currency that you write upon and distribute. After all noted currency is only an abstraction of value written on a rectangular piece of paper – why shouldn’t our future currency be based upon the transactions of plain text files…