New Institutions for a New Economy

The Obama Administration is seeking to wrest the economy away from a depression while addressing several interconnected and growing crises. Borrowing and taxing, we are creating jobs. Redistributing assets, we are seeking health care for all, a reduction in greenhouse gases and an effective educational system.

And we’re seeking to do this in the midst of a profound transformation of society.

Old conventions are crumbling as our traditional vertical, hierarchical institutions are coming down. The consumer economy and its evil twin, the free market, are greatly diminished. The Obama Administration, as it seeks jobs and engages in crisis management, is not concentrating on what institutions might replace those that are disappearing. At this point in the process, a little vision and a little money might go some way.

Global horizontalization is being driven in part by the rise of the Internet and cell phone technologies. Conventions have emerged that allow the most visited sites to achieve the most visibility. The most popular videos, blogs and presentations achieve success in part because there are web applications that allow those presentations that receive the most attention to be rewarded with an elevated status in the form of prime positioning. At this time, it is all a rather entertaining kind of organized chaos, with an emphasis on the organization.

The time has come for the government to step in and enhance the rewards provided to website content creators who succeed in achieving long-term social goals. The potential benefits are enormous.

There are three areas that can grow at exponential speeds, and they are serving both industries in crisis and citizen users of the web: media, education and art.

Government funds can pay for news stories, lectures and art appearing in the form of videos and text on the web. The more visitors and the more time they spend watching and reading a piece, the more funds the creators receive. At a certain level, the amount of money dispersed to production operations decreases as it becomes clear that they have enough traffic to raise funds through traditional advertising.

The government can be seeding the amateur and professional production of news. Print is disappearing. Traditional media are withdrawing from the collection of high quality information. By encouraging the collection and creation of quality content, the government would be creating a new set of institutions and making their productions available to all for free. By receiving a penny for a visitor that stays a minute or more, a creator of a news piece has the incentive to go out and find news, make news or share news happened upon by chance. The government, by funding a new news business, creates jobs, begins a new institution and offers high quality information to a population starved for high quality content.

Reward great teaching by making the work of teachers universally available. Reward teachers by using a formula that takes into consideration the number of viewers, the relative popularity of their discipline and how well their viewers perform on tests.

Most classes will continue to be in person, but the government can fund the creation of videos of those educator-performers most adept at connecting with their students while successfully communicating the information. Again, micro payments would be distributed as rewards. Professors might work in concert with performers. For example, trained actors could conduct scripts written by academics. Interesting synergies might emerge. A result would be a massive surge in high quality educational videos. Students would arrive at testing facilities to take tests and receive credit for what they’ve been watching on the web.

With the government funding new institutions in media and education, American net users become the new consumer and decider of what they see. The government rewards content creators based on web visitor behavior. There are no government contracts, no lobbyists and no decisions on how to disperse assets. This paradigm can be applied to the third area, art, where government funds could encourage a blossoming of content in several creative arts where work can be reproduced in digital format.

Consider that a dance troupe could produce a video that is viewed by a certain number of visitors, resulting in micro payments for the artists. Amateur or professional musicians whose work is visited and revisited would find they receive payments for their productions. Musicians and dancers working together would not seek a grant but would seek video production capabilities. The government would have to choose which arts they would be paying. The line between art and entertainment is not always clear. But it would not be the government deciding who gets funded. Traffic would mediate taxpayer assets.

Watercolor painting would not translate, but the comic arts, for example, could experience a dramatic rise. The comic artists, tethered to disappearing print, could receive micro payments and experience an explosion. At this time, fewer than 100 American comic strip and panel artists make a living.

Let the “wisdom of the crowds” spend taxed and borrowed money by rewarding individuals and teams producing high quality content in the areas of media, education and the arts. We’d be spending our own money on quality productions, with no intermediaries between the consumer and producer. The potential is vast. Creativity could exponentially increase in areas languishing for lack of funding and attention. The possibility for synergy is unlimited as educators, journalists and artists work together to produce pieces that have qualities of each.

Consider that we don’t actually categorize productions so that they have to be any one of the three. It would only be necessary that a piece qualify for one of them. Imagine news stories about artists, artists producing educational pieces and educators lecturing on the media.

Imagine a world characterized by what we have in common.

Let’s build new institutions by having government fund the web.

ANDREW LEHMAN operates ANDREW LEHMAN Design, Ltd., a web firm with over 400 clients specializing in local businesses and non profits. He is co-director and founder of the 1100 organization, Peace, Justice and Environment Project ( Andrew is on the board of directors of In These Times.