The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
Dec 4, 2007

This past weekend I watched The Scoble Show. In it, Robert not only recorded Tim Berners-Lee’s presentation, but he got to interview the architect of the World Wide Web. How cool is that?

The presentation was about the Semantic Web, and the changes that are happening all around us. He was pushing for the development of a new science, called “Web Science,” where we need to develop people who are trained in this new science — people who will be able to study mass amounts of data combined with human interaction, and to create mathematical models of webish behavior. Oh, if I was only 18 again…sounds like a very cool field of study!

As an analog electrical engineer, I’ve spent a lot of time modeling the behavior of components and systems. But the difference between my modeling of a synchronous demodulator with a rotary variable differential transformer (no I didn’t just make that up!) and the modeling that Mr. Berners-Lee is talking about is huge. My models have purely physical variables. His models have others…like people and their behaviors.

“But you can’t model people’s behaviors,” you might say. On an individual basis, perhaps, but on a mass basis, I think you can. Because we all live in a place that has some sort of “rules,” and that there is some sort of pattern that a community will fall into when the individual parts are following those rules. Chaos Theory is based on this principle.

During his presentation, he talked about the fact that email was an example where nobody did the math. As the cost of email plummeted, nobody took into account the “social” variable. If it costs the same amount of money to send out one email as it does to send out a million, why not send out a million? Thus the birth of SPAM.

Email is a frictionless system. And friction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had an old physics teacher that once said, “Friction is what keeps the threads from falling out of your clothes. It is the force between your shoes and the floor which allows you to walk forward. If there were no friction, we’d all be naked and and unable to stand or walk!” How’s that for a mental image?

So, taking Mr. Berners-Lee’s challenge, is there a way to play with the social-friction variable of SPAM? I think there is.

Let me ask you a question? Which is a larger number, the amount of email you receive or the amount of email you send? Everyone I’ve asked has answered with “Duh. Receive!”

Okay, so what if we instituted the following economic model for email? It has two rules:

  1. every email that you send debits your account a penny.
  2. every email that you receive credits your account with a penny.

At the end of the month, reconcile the accounts and since everybody receives more email than they send, we’ll all make money, right? Well, not so fast. The heavy users of the network, those who send out millions of emails, will have a hefty bill waiting for them.

By adding friction into the equation, we’ve now changed this from a huge socio-economic problem to a simple accounting one. The only question is the system’s behavior. Is the system stable? Will it seek equilibrium — meaning that there is a match between the number of emails sent compared with the number of emails received?

This idea isn’t unprecedented. Telecom companies with peering agreements have done it for years. Energy companies, who put power into the grid or natural gas into common pipes are always accounting for who is using what. “A molecule-in is a molecule-out” is how it was once explained to me. Therefore, if we have the ability to count molecules-in and molecules-out, or watts-in and watts-out, and still do a final reconciliation at the end of the month, why can’t we do the same thing with email?


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