Time is money. We often hear this phrase in a metaphorical sense, but what if it were actually true? What if time could be considered a medium of exchange just like the US Dollar, The Yen, or the Euro? Throughout this thought paper, we will explore why time is an excellent medium for exchange in information markets.
Why does money work? In order for something to be a medium for exchange, it must have certain properties. First, it needs some kind of value - it needs to be measurable. Money is measured in currency; time is measured in hours and minutes. Next, it must be divisible. Money is divisible into smaller parts, 1 USD = 4 Quarters; time is divisible into segments, 1 hour = 60 minutes. Additionally, a medium of exchange must be scarce or limited. Money is only produced in certain amounts, regulated by the US Treasury; time is limited by the number of hours in a day. Additionally, it must be widely accepted and understood. Money is understood as a form of currency - we compare products at a store by their price; time is used to measure progress - most workers in the United States are paid an hourly wage rate. Lastly, it must be exchangeable. Money physically exchanges hands from the consumer to the supplier; time is borrowed - I can let you borrow my time as a teaching assistant to better your learning. There are many more parallels that can be drawn between money and time, both as mediums of exchange. Since time is an obvious alternative to paper currencies, how can we leverage it in the information market?
We already exchange time for information. As a student, I spend 40-50 hours in the classroom each week - I am "spending" my time for more information (ignoring the fact that I have to pay tuition). In the workplace, we give up time to attend staff meetings, send emails, or play games on Facebook. However, all the previous examples are abstract concepts of information - what if we could actually measure time in translation to information? As an example, suppose Britannica were to make their entire encyclopedia available free online. Users would be required to watch a 5-minute video advertisement for every 60 minutes on the site. Immediately we can see that Britannica's information is being "bought" with the user's time. Instead of paying 30$ for a subscription, they are paying 5 minutes. The process for this exchange is highly parallel to that of current currency systems.
Time is actually better than money in a multitude of aspects. Money has physical barriers - it needs to be printed, circulated, and regulated. Time is an innate concept; it cannot be duplicated, so regulation is not an issue. Each individual holds his or her own time, so there's no need to circulate it or print it. Moreover, there's no need for a governing body to oversee its production - there can be no tax on time - it's not a good or service, but rather an abstract concept.
In conclusion, time is an acceptable medium of exchange for information. While sharing all the features necessary for currency, it is also naturally regulated by society and placed at a consistently high value. While we will never see time directly compared to money (e.g buy this now for 5$ or 2 hours), I truly believe that time will soon be exchanged for information. Looking at services that are primarily funded through advertising revenue, we can see the trend already beginning.
Seth Vargo is an engineer at Google. Previously he worked at HashiCorp, Chef Software, CustomInk, and some Pittsburgh-based startups. He is the author of Learning Chef and is passionate about reducing inequality in technology. When he is not writing, working on open source, teaching, or speaking at conferences, Seth advises non-profits.