Auctioning Off the Top Slot in Your Reading List

Or, A Nicer Way to Commodify Attention

Observation 1: I read/​listen to a lot of public intellectuals—podcasters, authors, bloggers, and so on—and I frequently find myself thinking:

Ugh, I hate it when this guy spouts ignorant nonsense about [some domain]. And he’s been doing it for years. I wish he would just read [relevant book]. Then he’d at least be aware of the strongest counterarguments.

Observation 2: Sometimes podcasters/​bloggers will poll their followers with questions like, “Hey guys, who should I interview next?” or “what book should I review next?”

Having observed these things I wonder if they could be improved by monetary transactions.

For a specific example, it would be cool for David Deutsch to let the highest bidder choose a book for him to read and review. If we’re lucky (or spendthrift), we get to see him finally give a considered response to the particular claims in Human Compatible or Superintelligence or Life 3.0.

Less specifically, there are a lot of cognoscenti who command substantial influence while holding themselves to disappointingly low epistemic standards. For example, Sean Carroll is a science communicator who dabbles in a little bit of everything on the side; and although I consider his epistemic standards to be above-average, I can tell he has not read the best of Slate Star Codex. I think if he did read a post such as “Asymmetrical Weapons”, there’s a decent chance he would feel compelled to raise the bar for himself.

I have some close friends who sometimes spew (what I perceive to be) ignorant drivel. For some of them, I might be willing to pay a surprisingly high price to see them write a review of a book that cogently challenges their stupid priors. I would pay the highest price for friends that I already know can update on sound arguments, I would pay a lower price to find out if a friend has that ability, and for the attention of the hopelessly obstinate I would not want to pay anything.

Why This Wouldn’t Work

  • It’s easy to underestimate how pervasive and sticky those signaling/​tribal motivations are. The gains from trade available here might not be enough to overcome the pressure to protect narratives and maintain appearances.

  • There might be perverse incentives. Maybe the cognoscenti want to charge more, so they reduce supply (that is, they read less). Maybe they spout more ignorant nonsense in order to increase the bids.

Those are just off the top of my head. If you can think of more/​better reasons please share.