What is Wealth?

Kaliya: What is Wealth? Isn’t it many things? You can have a wealth of information, a wealth of physical things, a wealth of land, a wealth of money, a wealth of friendships and relationships…

Jean: Wealth is the collection of currencies. It is the accumulation of a currency. Think of water being poured into a container, and then, in some cases (tradeable), it can also pour out. So wealth is the fullness of that container.

image courtesy of bettlebrox

Kaliya: Mmm….

Jean: And yes, all the things you listed, I would include as forms of wealth.

Kaliya: Googling “wealth of” one gets wealth of networks, wealth of the rainforest, famously “wealth of nations” from Adam Smith…”wealth of communities” from Bill Mckibben – Deep Economy

Jean: We could also speak to this in terms of capital and access to capital accumulating to form wealth.

Kaliya: Capital is a stock of something?

Jean: Capital – yes exactly, it is the stock of something, part of a flow – probably not an end in itself, but for the purpose of producing something.

Kaliya: Like Donella Meadows talks about in Thinking in Systems articulates how systems work in terms of stocks and flows – in a forest the stand of trees is the stock and the flow “in” is the new trees growing and the flow “out” is the trees that are cut down for lumber.

Jean: Right, so, you suggested some forms of wealth, which is wonderful, and this is parallel to the forms of capital we hear people talking about in recent years:

  • financial capital
  • political capital
  • human capital
  • social capital
  • natural capital

And to know that we have these forms of capital, we have a currency that acknowledges it, and wealth is the accumulation of the flow of it. Accumulation in financial flows is what we most often think of, but it is also the accumulation of political flows of attention and influence, or wealth of the human capital as in the accumulation of skills and abilities.

Kaliya: But some are so intangible, like a “relationship” and “trust”

Jean: Yes!

Kaliya: Why do we have to MEASURE these things, they just are….or they are feelings.

Jean: Some of them are not really measureable. They might just be sortable or even acknowledgeable.

Kaliya: Sortable?

Jean: I might say one politician has more political wealth or political capital than another, but I may not be able to put numbers on it precisely,but I can see the evidence of it in the world.

Kaliya: Like what?

Jean: Anything from count of people at a rally to the public perception of their integrity.

Kaliya: I guess an over arching view is that wealth is that it transcends “money” – that to limit thinking about wealth to money is narrow.

Jean: The political influence is wealth, the framing of an issue is evidence of it, or the success of that framing is, anyway. Yes, wealth transcends money.

Kaliya: Influence is wealth ….mmmm. Yes, via relationships. Is there “negative wealth” from not wanting to damage a relationship via actually criticizing and calling something for what it is?

Jean: Well, there can be a poverty of influence, for example or a dearth of social connections.

Kaliya: Or overwhelm at trying to manage the ones I have

Jean: Yes. :) So when we are talking about wealth, we are talking about the flows that contribute to prosperity, happiness, and welfare. – the sound or prosperous state of a person or thing.

Kaliya: And then I don’t want to use proprietary tools where the site I am in “owns” the information/relationship data I put in, when they are my connections I want to have them be autonomously mine.

Jean: Yes, when you give that site with proprietary tools your relationship information, you are giving them some of your wealth. Now, it could be that this form of your wealth is non-rival, so it might not diminish the wealth you have. They can, however, terminate me in their system.

Kaliya: If I violate the terms of service or something

Jean: Yes, I am not saying it doesn’t have complex issues to consider and consequences to be aware of.

Aggregating Currencies

Kaliya: We were talking about the different forms of currencies last time. Can you explain more about acknowledgement as a form of currency?

Jean: Sure, why don’t we talk through an example.

Kaliya: So like I was recognized by Fast Company as one of the most influencial women in technology – is this a kind of unmeasurable recognition?

Jean: Yes. It is acknowlegded that you are, but it isn’t clearly measured. If they are serious about it, they will disclose their combination of metrics with qualified influence testimonials.

Kaliya: mmmm… – ok – I think they just made some phone calls.

Jean: So let’s imagine, instead, they came to that through a combination of speaking engagement count + online mentions + 5 testimonials by other influencers.

Kaliya: I see.

Jean: So what I described is an aggregated currency… because it is one currency that is taking into account several others. It is aggregating the currencies of count, mentions, and testimonials into most influential woman in tech.

Kaliya: So one currency can be the culmination of several others?

Jean: Yes, this happens often, and it makes meaning from many bits of information, making it easier for us to understand and work with. However, that aggregation often covers up interesting information. For example, we don’t know, when we hear most influential woman in tech, what that currency means exactly. How much can we trust it? With the count+mention+testimonials possibility I mentioned, we know more about what the most influential woman in tech means as a currency. There is often a tension between sense-making and the meaning lost in aggregation.


What are currencies?

Kaliya: What is a currency?

Jean: Currencies make the invisible visible. A currency is the thing being measured or seen. So… we are motivated by currencies to take actions…those currencies can be acknowledged, perhaps measured, and maybe even traded. We can think of currencies as anything that incentivizes a flow…

Kaliya: mmm… flow?

Jean: Let me share more currencies, so you have a sense of the spectrum.

Jean: So postage stamps are a currency, as are movie tickets. Postage stamps and movie tickets are both bought and then traded in. Airline miles are a tradable currency. Metrics for your company are a currency, but those are not tradable.

Kaliya: So, stamps are currency because when you put them on a letter the post office recognizes it and then agrees to send it on.

Jean: You trade in money, get a stamp, trade the stamp (get it marked) and it pays for the service of mailing.

Kaliya: In the tech side of the identity conversation we also call these “tokens.”

Jean: Yes, tokens. Usually when people talk about currency, they focus on the tradable forms, or even just specifically on money. But a currency like your grades might be measurable, but it isn’t tradable. You can’t give someone your grades.

Kaliya: Yes there was a whole thing with the US Mint and how people would buy $10,000 of one dollar coins on credit cards to get airline miles – they took the coins when delivered (free of charge) to the bank and paid the credit card bill.

Kaliya: ohh – so, measurable things are also currencies?

Jean: Smiley faces in social media are a currency. Yes. The height of CEOs is a currency.

Kaliya: How so?

Jean: We respond to height as power. It changes our behavior. We are more likely to have taller CEOs. And we can measure how tall they are. But they can’t trade their height to someone else.

Kaliya: mmm… so is skin color, in a culture that treats people differently because of it, also a currency?

Jean: Yes, skin color also acts as a currency. Having the appropriate skin color in a culture that sees that as a difference will afford you privilege (or restrict privilege).

Jean: There are currencies we can acknowledge or maybe sort, but we can’t measure them. Skin color isn’t really measurable, but we can certainly acknowledge it and probably sort it.

Kaliya: so currencies can be tradable, measurable, and acknowledged (but not measurable).

Jean: Right, these are concentric circles. So all currencies are acknowledgeable, some of those currencies are also measurable, and some of the measurable currencies are also tradable.


Kaliya: externally “seeable” – is that another way to understand it?

Jean: Yes, When I finally understood what a currency was, I had this matrix moment of seeing the whole world in a state of perpetual flow, and it was all being modified and directed by currencies.

Next Steps for Reputation Currents

We have explored some of the foundations for identity, and our next step is to explore currency. We talked about identifiers, identifiers in a digital context, and Digital Bodies and User-Centric Identity so far. We have named the following conversations to share over the next several months:

  1. What is a Currency
  2. Aggregating Currencies
  3. What is Wealth?
  4. Forms of Wealth
  5. Agreements – The Basis of Currency
  6. Acknowledgement Currencies
  7. Reputation as form of Acknowledgement
  8. Identity, Reputation, and Currency – Reputation is where an identity has a currency
  9. Social Capital – wealth, reputation, and networks

As the conversation agenda shows, we will weave back from currencies into identity, especially as we look at and explore reputation. Thank you for joining us.

~ Jean Russell and Kaliya Hamlin

Digital Bodies and User-Centric Identity

Jean: Kaliya, we left off our last chat talking about digital bodies and the importance of context with identifiers. Can you say more about digital bodies?

Kaliya: Well lets start with physical bodies – we have just one of these. So when we walk around in physical space people recognize us because we are in the same body we were last time. We only get one and over time is ages but basically it doesn’t fundamentally change and we can’t “get another one.” Last time we talked about identifiers and having the ability to have a globally unique one that you could take with you around the web. This gives you a freedom to move between websites and take your “digital body” with you. The difference is that in digital space you could make yourself several different “digital bodies or identifiers” that were globally unique that you would use in different contexts.


Jean: I am already a second body by creating the first digital body, right? Since it isn’t my physical body?

Kaliya: :)

Jean: So having many bodies is even more to keep track of and create?

Kaliya: The digital identifier you create that points at you – is like another digital body. Maybe you want to just be http://www.jeanrussell.com everywhere on the web. Maybe you want to have a professional life “identifier” and a personal life “identifier” that separates those two aspects.

Jean: You mean I can manage those bodies instead of having each platform define them for me?

Kaliya: Yes. An example that was brought up yesterday here at Super Nova by danah boyd was that of a teacher. That a teacher is working in front of children – they can’t be seen to be sexual (having a normal dating life) or drinking alcohol (as a normal social adult). So this is an example where someone in that profession would create an identifier they use to connect to their students on social networks and comment on blogs etc.

Jean: Right. That makes sense. Even in my physical body in the analog world, I am showing different facets of myself in different contexts.

Kaliya: They need to have a different identifier they use for their social connections to other adults – in their dating/social life. That same teacher might be politically active – as they have a right as a private citizen to be and those political views well within the spectrum of points of view that are acceptable might not be “the same” as those in their particular town or neighborhood – say a strong environmentalist in a very coal producing town. So they want to take action and voice opinions and share with others who are other active citizens. They would need a different digital identifier for that.

Jean: So, it feels like an advantage to have the ability to manage these digital bodies based on the context they show up in? And thus the community they mesh with in that context?

Kaliya: Back to our first conversation it would be great if they didn’t have to get a new identifier each time they went to a different environmental site – a portable one for them within that context of environmental activists. Yes, contextual management is important. The tools to support individuals doing this are just beginning to be conceptualized and developed.

Jean: So what I hear you saying Kaliya, is that we need our digital bodies to be a reflection of the facets of ourselves and the intersection of those facets with the communities we participate in. This is not defined by platform as much as it is our practices online.

Kaliya: Yes – an we need open standards that give us the freedom to move around the web with identifiers (digital bodies) from one website to another. This has to do with the underlying architecture of the social web that platforms build on. How we use these platforms and tools is complex. To have good practices, we need development of “web” (which had internet below it) and then on top of that is a layer where identifiers are – and applications that use them. then there is an emerging set of standards to move information we generate in social contexts around between sites these are called activity streams. So a website is a context, a group within a site is a context too. Each google group you are in is different – its own cluster of people.


Jean: Right, although there might be some overlaps, that can’t be assumed that I want to show the same facet of myself to all of my google groups.

Kaliya: There are sort of meta contexts – so a network of environmental activist sites would be an example of that.

Jean: Right, a site like Zanby does that for One Sky. Or Ning, or is that more of a tech context and not a purpose context. [Kaliya: and neither uses OpenID]

Kaliya: I guess you can think of it as topic contexts and platform contexts. One of the issues is that most platform contexts do not support being able to switch between different login/handles/identifiers very easily at all. You might have a personal yahoo account and a professional one, on ning too, same deal.

Jean: Right, like on twitter, I was working around that by using api clients or using different browsers!

Kaliya: Right, or logging in and logging out. Mozilla is working on a project to help people manage their ID’s within the browser. The platforms would like us all to “just have one identity” and not switch between but this is not realistic.

Jean: Right, getting back to that teacher example – she may want to be in touch with students on facebook… and want to keep her personal life in a different name there. So we have a social practice for doing that, but the tools don’t yet adequately reflect that.

Identifiers in a Digital Context

Continuing the conversation between Jean and Kaliya about identifiers:

Jean: Can you explain what identifiers mean in the digital environment?

Kaliya: So, when I am at a dinner party with two Mary’s and having a conversation you signal who you are talking to/about via gestures and stuff – you layer in more info about who you are talking about. Or you might, in a conversation in digital chat, say “Mary R” or “Mary H” because you don’t have bodies and social gestures to layer in. So when we go into digital realm – on the internet, what is the context we are in. So when someone goes to a website and gets an account, they get a username.

Jean: Right, I do that all the time. What does that mean?

Kaliya: The site – often checks to see if anyone else has that username, if they do…you can’t have it because someone else has “that” identifier already.

Jean: So I might be able to get ‘Jean Russell’ on one site but not on another, for example?

Kaliya: Well likely you wouldn’t have a space in your username, so ‘JeanRussell’ or ‘Jean_Russell’

Jean: Ok, so no space, so the code can read it, but I might get ‘JeanRussell’ on one space but not on another, on that next space I get ‘JeanRussell6′

Kaliya: In a way, identifiers for people are like digital bodies, but they were weird cause they wouldn’t let you bring a “body” from another site/context into their site/context.

Jean: Every site you went to – every new site – they would make you get a new “body” a new identifier for that site. Ah… I don’t want to keep track of all those bodies. This is so annoying. I am one person. I want my name to be the same regardless of what site I am on.

Kaliya: Well yes – exactly, so the question is how do you have a unique identifier, that “works” for you across the whole internet. This is what OpenID does. It creates a way for you prove you “own” or “have control of” (as in knowing the password for an account). You need to be Unique within a bigger context then just that website, so the large sites allow users to take the identifier within their space and use it other places. So you can use your Yahoo! ID or MySpace ID and log into other websites. OR you could go and buy a domain name just for you – and use it. So I own http://www.kaliya.net and it is set up so that I can use it as my open ID.

Jean: Well that seems to make it easier. But I still don’t get how it is working compared to the JeanRussell who already signed into this site I am trying to get into

Kaliya: You are just JeanRussell within that context – that website. Identifiers in the digital world, to be effective – need to be unique globally. URLs are all Unique. There is a name space….and domain names – are unique, a global registry, makes sure that no two people/companies/organizations own the same domain name.

Diigo OpenID sign in
Creative Commons License photo credit: bpedro


Kaliya Hamlin and Jean Russell share a dialogue, learning from each other about reputations and currency. (I write in third person because I want to attribute appropriately to each, and yet this is done together). We have a sense of the overall map of ideas, and we want to start with some core concepts that the work depends upon.

We begin with identifiers. We discuss below what identifiers are and how they work in meat-space. Our next post covers identifiers in the digital context.

Jean: SO….What is an identifier?

Kaliya: An identifier is a pointer to a person or an object

Jean: A pointer to a person or an object?

Kaliya: There are generic identifiers – rose, cup, chair…

Jean: So a word can be an identifier?

Eames chair arrivedKaliya: Yes. To have a more specific identifier “the green chair over in the corner” identifies it (the specific green chair) …relative to others in the same context – a room, for example.

Jean: Okay, I think I get what you mean by pointer. An identifier allows you to identify something to someone else in a shared context.

Kaliya: Yes. So people’s names identify them in our shared social spaces. They are identifiers too.

Jean: So in meat-space we are using identifiers all the time when we use language together.

Kaliya: However, I am not my name, I have a name – it points to me. You have a name – it points to you.

Jean: Okay, so the name and what it refers to are not the same thing. One is pointing at the other. And there are different kinds of identifiers, then? Like chair is vague and green chair in the corner is specific and my name is specific to me, pretty much.

Kaliya: Chair is a generic identifier, yes. Well, it is specific to you in a social context. Green chair in the corner is more specific. I might want to identify a very particular green chair. I would look on the chair to find the manufacture serial number for it, or I might want it in my company/personal inventory and “assign” it a number identifier for that specific chair.

Jean: Right, so there are degrees of specificity in identifiers.

Kaliya: So people’s name are specific in a social context. They might be more or less “specific” because there is more than one person named Jean in the world and even with my name there is more then one Kaliya. But in my social world – the people I know – I am the only Kaliya. I know several Mary’s though so I have to get more specific when talking about them using a last initial or a last name.

Jean: Okay, so there is an element of uniqueness that is important in an identifier? To successfully identify the object, the identifier needs to be unique?

Kaliya: Yes, unique within the context.

Jean: So we seem to navigate this pretty well in our everyday lives, and we ask for more specificity when we need it.

Kaliya: Yes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juhansonin

Related posts by Identity Woman

A post on currency via twitter:

Some of you may know that I have roots in a community called Planetwork that has had an interest in ‘alternative’ currency and the role that digital identity could play a role in a emergent currency systems.

So, today my interest was peaked by this e-mail from Biz Stone at Twitter talking about an interesting new application being built on twitter.


What is Identity?

Last week at the ITU-T meeting in Geneva there were some folks making the assertion that Identity was all about one’s credentials starting first and foremost with one’s birth certificate. Clearly credentials that are abstract representations of our selves have value in our world and let us do things that we were not able to do when identity was just social. Much like the fact
Hernando DeSoto points out in the Mystery of Capital that abstract representations of ownership of things (like deeds of ownership of houses – that say you own your house) has value because now you can do new things you couldn’t do before when ownership was just social (my neighbors know I own my house because I do – no piece of paper says this).


And an older post.

Representational System Breakdown

cc: representational system breakdown – Hernando DeSoto & the Mystery of Captal
The below carbon copy mix up was in the same article as the Feinstein Article in the previous post. Really interesting and highlights the fragility of paper records that are still in abundance today. Again it highlights the challenge we have today – and explosion of records about ourselves. Every place we do business with. How do we manage this and know our ‘secrets’ are kept secrets.
Hernando DeSoto dives into the Mystery of Capital (I am reading the book now) and clearly articulates why it works in the west. We westerners don’t even see what it is and why it works because it just is. At the core are the representational systems that we use for things – the deeds for houses, the ownership of businesses etc. These documentation and representational systems are key to the efficient leverage and flow of capital. If we can succeed to new representational systems for people – persistent digital identity – the “big bang” comes in part from our being able to harness our own identities with a representation systems in new ways never before possible. …

Old IdentityWoman blog post

Mapping begins

I started mapping the nodes I know that make up the network.
Toward the left are more traditional currencies and alternative currency, also called community currency projects and people.
Toward the right, I added people who are going beyond money and into a broader field of currencies.
Blue objects are organizations or projects.
Green objects are people.
Where there are strong ties, I have connected them.

Rheonomy – Flow Management

What do reputation and currencies have in common? They both exhibit patterns – acting as currency information between individuals and groups.

Eric Harris Braun, co-founder of the meta-currency project, core participant in the open money project, and E. F. Schumacher Society board member posted to the Berkman Center Law Lab:

Eric Harris Braun

Eric Harris Braun

Money, as a medium of exchange, a unit of measure, and a store of value is the primary information system that coordinates the flows of goods and services through the economy.

We might then say: Reputation — as tokens, achievement markers, certifications and many more — is the primary information system that coordinate the flows of trust through the social sphere.

To understand how deeply these two relate, we need a new expressive capacity claims Eric:

What is needed is the development of a new expressive capacity, what could be called a meta-currency language that allows the social organism to organically develop and express formal information systems tailored to enabling and interacting with all the different types of flows that comprise it. We can still call these information systems currencies because they are about shaping flows, or currents. However, these currencies will take on a huge variety of new forms tailored to the kind of value that they are helping to build. Note that this is not a call to “monetize” social well-being. Quite the opposite, it’s a call to understanding that money as currently practiced, inherently destroys many forms of social well being. But formal information systems can, in fact, build social well being, and we are actually quite familiar with them: reputation tokens, formal achievement markers like grades/credits & degrees, certification markers like USDA Organic, and many more. But as things stand, we haven’t recognized that all of these formal information systems are related families in a larger coherent pattern. We don’t see this, because we don’t yet have the necessary expressive infrastructure, the language, and grammars that unify the structure and forms these information systems take.

What do you believe is the intersection or overlap of reputation and currency?