Banking on Time: Interview with Ted Wallach – THNK FSTVL

Ted Wallach is another colleague from THNK who wants to see Time Banking transform the way our economy works. It’s a very bold vision and a radical idea, but Time Republik, Wallach’s company, currently has over 25k test users exchanging time with one another for assistance in other ways. (The interview cuts off just before the end when the field recorder died, but the majority of the interview is intact.)

Can you introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your project, the Time Republik?

Sure, thank you for having me, Heather. My name is Ted Wallach, I am the CEO of Time Republik – a global, digital time bank. Time banking is basically using time instead of money, but that kind of changes everything… We have a money-less marketplace where people can go and they share services that they want to give to others and “earn time,” or they can use “earned time” and get services they need.

Is it a bit like barter?

It’s not like barter, because unlike in barter where one person needs what the other person has and the other person needs what the first person has; it’s uncoupled exchange. So, the first person might need what the second person has and the second person needs what the third person has and it opens up a circle. As the circle gets bigger and bigger there is more opportunity for the individual, even though the individual is only bringing the same thing they brought before. They now have access to so much more.

In addition to that, we have introduced a “digital time wallet.” The DTW allows us to go outside of our website. Anyone who is an online content creator can take our digital wallet and can put it on their site. So, for example, if they’re a blogger and someone comes by and says, “oh I really like this blog,” rather than just liking it and then maybe they get enough likes to turn into a monetization possibility, if they have “earned time” they can actually give that time to the blogger, directly, and the blogger can take that time that they’ve earned, go back to the marketplace and maybe get a graphic designer to help make the blog prettier.

In addition to that, we kickstart projects. Which is the same idea as renumerating content creators, except now you have a full project. So if you want to build an app and it’s going to take 100 hours, it’s 50 hours from a coder and 50 from a designer. I go to you and say I really want to help you build your app but I only know how to teach magic! Well that’s okay. I can go to the marketplace, teach magic. I get 10 hours for teaching them. You get more hours from someone else and go get your coder and your developer.

In this system is all time equal? Say you are very good at one thing but maybe not so good at another thing but you want to offer both. Can you offer both?

You can offer both … “is all time equal?” is an interesting question.

To understand it at a simple lever, if you want to think as time as currency, you could say for arguments sake that all time is equal in currency terms. However, time is not actually a currency… because, we are measuring the amount of time something takes, not the value or the estimated value (as money is trying to figure out) of what the potential return on investment is in the future. So in essence, it’s not that all time is equal, it’s that we don’t measure value.

Okay. So in the system, what sort of metrics do you have to ensure quality and credibility … trust, basically.

Sure. Couple of different metrics: one metric for the community, as we grew from 20k users to 25k users..

You have 25k users?

We now have over 25k users, but we are still completely beta prototype, but launching any day now. We haven’t told anyone about it yet so we are still inside the garage, getting the car ready to drive.

So you are still accepting feedback?

We are totally accepting feedback, love feedback. The amazing thing is that even though we are still inside the garage we had over 25k people from over 110 countries show up to help us test out our product and give us a lot of great feedback.

But, what we found, going from 20k to 25k users, we found that trust, empathy and dignity actually grew. Which is antithetical to what you would expect. As the group gets bigger, you might expect trust to go down because there’s more people and you don’t know as many.

How did this happen?

This is just my hypothesis, but my belief is that because of the way time-banking actually turns transactions into relationships. And that, each interaction or each transaction is not the end-all and be-all of the experience, but actually the opportunity to build social equity into the entire network. Which you come to realize that if you give service really well, then the whole thing works better for you, personally. And if you receive service well, then the whole thing works better for you personally, too. I think that in a market economy paradigm, we don’t necessarily have an incentive to give service especially well, or give more than we are paid for, or vice versa.

But in Yelp or AirBnB you do have an incentive to leave feedback for someone and you have an incentive to get good feedback or your reputation falls.

Yes, we use a very similar feedback mechanism, for now. We are working on a more robust one, but right now what we do is we have qualitiative responses from people who write in what they think and how they feel about it. So that way there is a quality control that you can go in and see before you choose a service provider. In addition to that, we have the star system. Now I don’t love the star system but it’s working for now. What’s really cool is that 95% of the traffic, so far, has garnered 5 stars, but we are early in the scale. That’s early adopters and might not continue into the future.

What about people who don’t have that much time but they want to be part of the network and they want to input in a quality way, or at the opposite, people who have lots of time but aren’t an expert? How do you accommodate for the different levels?

So we don’t accommodate for the different levels people put in. We find that, actually, you’re getting so much more value using time instead of money that it’s not really part of the concept to value time differently or even to value time at all.

What’s kind of amazing is we did an initial study and found that in market economy terms, if you put in $1 worth of time, you actually get out, on average, $2.60 in return value, which is pretty incredible. Typically, that sounds like a pretty high risk investment, but actually, it’s a pretty average return. At scale it should change, it should get bigger, but that’s something we have to wait for.

Do you see this as something that exists alongside the current currency-based financial system?

Yes. It is absolutely a complementary tool to money. It is absolutely a complementary tool to the market economy. If you want to think of it in operating system terms, they are just two different operating systems. But they can run at the same time without a problem. So, if you have a Mac and a PC, you can send emails between them. It’s the same thing with time banking and the market economy.

So in this way, are there certain sorts of businesses that you find have more synergy to connect with? Things also in the alternative economy space?

Ummm. I think this might be the answer to the question… just came up with this idea, I was in SF and driving around in Lyft, and what I found out was that you can actually tip your driver with Starbucks. Thanks Starbucks! You can get a coffee! We were like, hmm, what if you could tip with time? So taking something in the sharing economy or access economy, we see companies such as AirBnB or Uber as outsourcing trust to the company at some level, adding a third party to the trust mechanism, and in our service we are suggesting that we can evolve to a place where P2P trust can actually exist.

These interviews are part of something on the IPFS – the interplanetary file system. A decentralized wiki, advanced version of archive.org, where all of these conversations are stored and stored decentrally. Do you see something similar for time banking?

Absolutely. We are very excited about the blockchain and decentralization (especially when you start talking about taxes :). But that’s not the real issue. Money is an expensive tool and time is a much less frictionless tool but it also becomes especially more frictionless on the blockchain. So yes, we are interested in creating a “time coin” but that time coin will not be tradable with the Bitcoin or any other coins because time doesn’t equal money.

Would it then be a currency?

That’s an interesting question. I still think it would not be a currency. As I still think, if it’s used correctly, it shouldn’t turn into a currency because you shouldn’t be able to say, “Oh, you do this so well, even though it only took you an hour, I’ll give you 5 hours.” If it took you an hour it took you an hour. What we are really doing is we’re measuring the only scarce resource we have, which is time. All the other supposedly scarce resources that the market economy follows, it doesn’t seem to me that those are really within the priorities of human experience: coal, gold, oil, it goes on like that; whereas time, is the one thing that not only does everyone agree: an hour takes an hour; which might be the one thing that everyone agrees on… but in addition, everyone agrees that it is important. I don’t want to say “valuable,” but I want to say, “meaningful.”

Some people believe that their time is more valuable than other people’s time. How do you deal with that?

Yea, what we say is, “look, if you think your time is more valuable than other people’s time than you should work in the market economy with that.” However, in the market economy, while your time is worth more than other people’s time, it’s also being shaved. Every dollar you are getting is being shaved by: accounting, taxes, negotiation and a whole bunch of other things.

I just heard a statistic that 60% to 80%, sounds incredibly high, of freelancer’s money is being spent on accounting, taxes, new business aquisition, all of these things, all of this friction, basically, that comes from using: Money. Which is an expensive tool.

Certainly, Bitcoin is a less expensive, much less friction filled tool. But it still has one really interesting quality, that it shares with money. Money, Bitcoin, etc., are truly democratic in the sense that, rich and poor and everywhere in between, there is something extremely democratic about money, which is that it causes fear, guilt, anger and shame in everybody. I don’t know if we need a tool that does that. I think it would be nice to use a tool that doesn’t do that.

When I was working on complementary currencies, we had one requirement: a homeless person must be able to use it. In your system, is this possible? For instance, there are a lot of refugees in Europe right now. This sort of time-based thing could be interesting.

I think it could be fantastic, absolutely. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. Our senior advisor is Edgar Cahn. He was Robert Kennedy’s senior advisor and speech writer. He created a law school after Robert Kennedy was killed and kind of birthed time-banking out of there. It wasn’t the first time it had ever happened, but it was the first time it was happening in this way and it actually scaled to 32 countries. The way he does time-banking, though, and I highly recommend to go to see his Ashoke talk. He did things like change ex-cons into “homecomers” and set up a time-bank whereby they would stand on the street corners in East D.C. and shepherd kids to school through gang neighborhoods. Mothers were thrilled, the guys on the streets were thrilled, the amount of recidivism was changed completely, it was extraordinary and he has many many examples of this. What Edgar Cahn is extraordinarily good at doing is taking people who we all think in market economy terms can’t support the GDP or don’t have talent or don’t have value, etc., and find ways for them to contribute. It just goes to show how in the market economy, love, caring, trust, empathy, dignity … these are all things that are not valued because they are not considered scarce.

Time is the great equalizer.

Absolutely. And because of the decoupled exchange, people can contribute just what they are good at or just what they love doing.

What kind of technology do you need to use your service?

You need a smart phone that has data. We are launching our new site very soon: timerepublik.com in HTML5.

So this is the one barrier?

It is a barrier, but I just listened to NPR and what I heard, which I thought was absoultely extraordinary, in the refugee crisis, the one tool that has been incredibly powerful is that so many people have mobile phones and those mobile phones are extraordinarily powerful opportunities. And we have to figure out where people are and make sure that the services we are offering are put into a form where they are accessible to the most people. That way people can help one another by giving services to one another.

I’m sure you are familiar with the Japanese time-bank where you can bank care-hours. If you are younger, you can provide care for older people and these are banked and can be used for hours of care when you are older. Is this something that you used for inspiration?

We’ve used it as inspiration indirectly, because that’s actually Edgar’s new focus: care and caregivers.

This is the sort of thing where I can see an hour being worth an hour anywhere.

Yes, if we have to think in terms of the value of it. If we think of it in terms of reciprocity: back and forth. And think of it as flow. Then what we really are saying is, if I put in my passion and talent, and by holding on to the electric rail, I have access to the talent and passion of the entire community. So, there is a supply and demand issue, but nonetheless, in a way, that reciprocity means that you are in a flow of movement and possibility, which is significantly different from how our money works.

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