a new era of knowledge
In 1959, management theoretician and consultant Peter Drucker declared that we were starting to move into a new age, where value would mainly be generated by using ‘grey matter’ rather than muscle power. Convinced that knowledge would become society’s most valuable asset, ahead of arable land, raw materials, gold or the workforce, he called the new phenomenon ‘the knowledge economy’. Although Drucker was not very well-known among the general public, his term ‘knowledge economy’ is now in widespread use. He could not of course foresee the amazing shakeup brought about by the Internet boom, but he did give the knowledge economy a serious leg-up. The Internet has of course fostered the advent of a generation hungry for knowledge and delighted to have the means of passing it on to others at a speed unprecedented in human history. Every second, huge volumes of content are generated and shared by Internet users all over the world. Which of course immediately makes us think of the collaborative encyclopaedia Wikipedia, whose volunteer contributors have already uploaded thirty million articles in 280 languages, and every day 25,000 more articles are added. In addition, there are ‘help’ sites and question-and-answer sites, some for a non-specialised audience – such as Quora and Reddit – and some for a specialised audience, including Stack Overflow and Github. Not forgetting of course the wide range of platforms set up to enable people to express themselves: YouTube, plus also Medium, the social networks, blogs, and social e-book platforms such as Wattpad.
Although Drucker was correct in foreseeing that knowledge would come to be disseminated on a grand scale, the originators of that knowledge rarely receive fair compensation. With the exception of a handful of media-savvy YouTubers, most content creators don’t get a penny for their contributions. The Internet has proved itself an excellent vector for information transmission, but when it comes to remunerating value-creation or exchange, for the moment it doesn’t seem to work very well.
SHIFTING TO A KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY
A Wikipedia-style approach based on tokens
tokens IN THE SERVICE OF KNOWLEDGE
Some people today are putting their hopes on the blockchain as a means of bridging the remuneration gap. This technology has become famous worldwide because it underpins the vertiginous rise of bitcoin. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger sees such potential here that he has joined a new version of the famous open encyclopaedia called Everipedia. In December Everipedia announced plans to convert to using blockchain technology. The intention behind this move is to build a new knowledge database which, unlike its older cousin, will be entirely decentralised and will also remunerate contributors. Everipedia will use cryptocurrency tokens called IQ, which are intended to be exchangeable for bitcoin.
Tokens have made the headlines recently with the boom in Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) – i.e. an emission of a new cryptocurrency or specific crypto-tokens by startups working with blockchain technology, as a means of financing projects or funding a new company. Holding tokens means holding a financial stake in the company, which makes ICOs a hybrid instrument somewhere between an Initial Public Offering (IPO) and a crowdfunding campaign. Those who believe in a project can buy tokens in the company involved, which enables the company to raise funds. If the venture succeeds, the tokens gain in value, and their holders can get rich. On Everipedia, tokens will be used to remunerate people who write content and/or edit and correct articles written by other users.
FOSTERING ENCYCLOPAEDIC KNOWLEDGE
“What I look forward to is a knowledge marketplace, so that people are incentivised to contribute what they know.”
In order to earn tokens, content must be approved by the author’s peers. When an Everipedia member submits an article for publication, s/he is required to put one of his/her tokens on the table. If the article is approved by the other users, s/he takes back the token, plus an additional sum for the article contributed. If the article is refused, the author loses the token. The same principle applies if a user wants to edit an article that has already been published. The system tries to avoid situations where an unscrupulous person tries to get rich by inundating the site with low-quality articles or by submitting a blizzard of dubious corrections.
Everipedia currently has 17,000 registered users, a few thousand of whom are really active. Compared with the 32 million Wikipedia registered users, 140,000 of whom have written or edited an article during the last thirty days, this is a low figure. However Everipedia’s basic aim is not to wrest supremacy from Wikipedia or build a knowledge bank that is more profitable because of the buzz around the blockchain but to provide a decentralised alternative and test out the possibility of running a distributed database that remunerates contributors. “I’m more drawn to the philosophical, epistemological benefits,” Larry Sanger told Wired magazine. “What I look forward to is a knowledge marketplace, so that people are incentivised to contribute what they know.”
SPREADING THE LIGHT OF KNOWLEDGE ACROSS THE BOARD
Increasing the reliability of users’ opinions
THINKING AGAIN ABOUT USER OPINIONS
A peer-to-peer database is also far more reliable that an encyclopaedia based on a centralised server. Everipedia’s founders claim that, unlike its famous counterpart, it is completely immune to censorship. “If everyone on the team got abducted tomorrow, the site would keep running,” says Everipedia co-founder and CEO Theodor Forselius. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, where many articles fall foul of the official censors, and Turkey, where people cannot access Wikipedia, citizens can still access Everipedia, and can even earn a little extra money by publishing content. However, Everipedia is not the only company running this kind of project: Lunyr has also set out to build an encyclopaedia using blockchain technology.
Meanwhile the Knowledge.io platform is planning to use the blockchain to re-think product assessments and user opinions published online. Like Everipedia it uses a system of ‘knowledge tokens’ to pay contributors. In order to assess their competence levels, Knowledge.io uses a complex system, based on votes from other users, plus linguistic analysis techniques applied to user-published content and to the public data shared by that user. Knowledge.io uses these two parameters to draw up a graph linking each person with the various topics on which s/he expresses an opinion, plus his/her corresponding knowledge level. The company then uses the graph to build a ‘knowledge score’ which indicates the contributor’s level of erudition on the subject and impacts his/her remuneration.
Knowledge.io points out that people can use their tokens to purchase products directly on the platform. In addition to remunerating content creators, the goal is also to make user opinions more reliable. The company points out that Internet users and social network members can nowadays go online and inform each other about good and bad products sold by brands. The problem is that it is difficult to judge with any degree of certainty just how trustworthy a given influencer is. Data such as the number of visitors or ‘followers’ can easily be manipulated and brands may be paying people to say positive things about their products in exchange for free samples. Knowledge.io intends to use its ’knowledge score’ to change all that, by providing a reliable indicator of contributor’s expertise that cannot be falsely manipulated.
NEW PLATFORMS FOR NEW TYPES OF KNOWLEDGE
BROADENING THE RANGE OF E-LEARNING opportunities
Online education has really taken off in the wake of the Internet boom. Delaware, US-based global market research and consulting service provider Global Market Insights predicts that the e-learning market will be worth $240 billion by 2023. In fact this is a multi-faceted phenomenon. You can learn new skills just by watching videos posted on YouTube. You could also follow online courses on a platform such as Coursera. However, one of the most promising segments is peer-to-peer knowledge transfer. This might mean a personal development coach dialoguing with his/her clients twice a week to monitor how they are progressing with their life’s goals, or a legal advisor offering remote services for an hourly fee.
However the web still does not have an efficient way of remunerating peer-to-peer transactions. With this in mind, Experty.io has set up a website that enables learners to pay their mentors in cryptocurrency. Transactions are rendered secured through ‘smart’ contracts, a set of protocols encoded in the blockchain which are triggered when certain conditions are fulfilled. Going back to the example of the legal advisor, s/he could for example opt for a per-minute rate for consultations. This information would then be relayed to the customer, who would be free to accept the rate or go for a less expensive advisor. Every time a person calls on such services, a smart contract will be triggered, automatically taking the sum owed from the customer’s cryptocurrency wallet and transferring it to the advice provider.
BRINGING TEACHERS AND STUDENTS TOGETHER
Moreover, teachers and students don’t need to register on the platform: Experty.io goes directly to them. “We decided to detach ourselves from the traditional approach, which means you build your own marketplace where users come to look for an expert,” Experty.io founder and CEO Kamil Przeorski told the audience at the Next Web conference held last year. He explained: “The market is already saturated with services where people who are looking for knowledge can easily find an expert. We wanted to take advantage of that instead of starting from square one.” So all Internet users have to do is create an account on Experty.io and share their contact information on the platform which they normally use, whether one of the social networks, their own website, a special platform, etc. When a teacher and a student get in contact with each other, the call is automatically made via Experty.io. The financial transaction will then be carried out automatically in cryptocurrency.
If these various initiatives turn out well, the blockchain could become a very useful tool for creating and disseminating knowledge, worthy of the long-lived humanist dream of free circulation of knowledge. Perhaps the 21st century equivalent of Encyclopaedia Britannica will be written using the blockchain.