THE BLOG
04/10/2012 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2012

Reinventing Capitalism: Strange Currencies in the Marketplace

As a species, human beings have excelled at hedonistic adaptation. It's one of the main reasons we've become the dominant species on the planet, and have survived over the past 12,000 years, when many other animals that roamed the Earth far longer didn't accomplish anything resembling modern civilization. Dinosaurs had millions of years to evolve, but they never got around to developing a Gap Outlet, much less online shopping. Adaptation, altering behavior on a reward/punishment basis, and always staying ahead of the competition -- enabled humanity to create civilization and all the institutions, organizations, and social structures that evolved along with us. When coins and paper currency overtook the barter system, societal structures adapted and those with the gold wanted to hold onto the gold.

Modern capitalism and economic theories have only been around for a brief time in the history of humanity. And when it comes to economics, most of what's been written, argued about, and speculated upon was done so before the Internet Age. As the Internet continues to expand and morph into its next iteration, helping to reinvent and demolish one industry after another, one can easily imagine the Internet soon altering huge segments of how capitalism works in the digital age.

It's safe to say there's been no other time in the history of the world when so much information on peoples' purchasing habits has been gathered, stored, catalogued, and most importantly... used. Impulse buying is done quickly, with a swipe of a credit or debit card, without much thought as to how a person's overall buying timeline connects back to every other purchase ever made. Buying everything on credit or debit is now the norm in our society, and people who still use cash on a daily basis will soon become an anachronism, similar to those odd individuals who don't always carry a mobile communication device. If the constant tracking of one's buying habits already has a decades-long history, and everyone in society is now expected to be on-call and constantly tethered to a mobile phone, how does this consumer surveillance and over-connectedness play out in the long run?

One of the easiest ways a mega-corporation can change your behavior is to offer reward points to you for every purchase you make. And with smart phone and microchips becoming more prevalent in our daily lives, don't be surprised if you'll soon be able to accumulate points automatically, even in your sleep. You already receive points for special deals, so why not for regular daily purchases -- having your morning Starbucks Latte, drinking a Coke at lunch, or filling up at the same Shell station every afternoon. You'll get more and more points for buying, choosing, picking anything, anytime, anywhere. You'll become a walking preferred card for hundreds of global brand that will embed themselves into your behavior. And eventually, you may receive real rewards for your loyalty, not just rewards the corporation chooses for you.

Eventually a person could accumulate far too many points to spend in a lifetime, similar to the way some frequent flyers have racked up so many miles they just don't have enough time to use them all. Internet sites specializing in point trading could easily become the next big online business. Individuals could sign up and trade reward points with others, which would go toward buying tangible items on eBay or Swap.com. In the near future, it's easy to imagine companies like Facebook or Google creating their own brand of currency. A far fetched idea? Not really. Just ask anybody who's spent money on Second Life currency so they could buy virtual products or experiences. In a few years you might be buying Starbucks coffee with Star Bucks.

It's often been said by politicians that small businesses are the driving force of a healthy economy, and right now further growth of small businesses are what will create a more sustainable economy. Small businesses have struggled through these hard times, and adapted to the harsh economic realities. The complete failure of trickle-down economics has been apparent for some time, and new methods of achieving successes are tried daily, in every city in the country, online, and in every possible way. One proven method has been for small communities to invent their own currency exchange. In Traverse City, Michigan, the community developed a local currency known as Bay Bucks in 2006, and it's billed as the "homegrown local currency." And Ithaca, New York has been using Ithaca Hours as a form of local small business currency since 1991. In a pioneering, can-do spirit, their website proclaims Ithaca Hours "promotes local economic strength and community self-reliance."

More than one economic seismic shift could happen over the next several decades. Finding inventive ways to get off shaky ground and move toward a more a sustainable economic climate is certainly on everyone's mind. If capitalism has proven anything, it's that it serves our hedonistic sensibilities well -- providing citizens with everything they desire, all the time, if only they can pay for it. When a majority of the population agrees it's finally time to reinvent capitalism so that it works for the majority and not just the ultra-wealthy, the super rich may decide to openly condemn the same system they've championed for so long. Witness the voices of mega-rich capitalists who realized it was time to promote a better future and change the world. Bill Gates aimed higher, began a charitable foundation, and decided to use a portion of his sizable wealth to rid the world of Malaria, and Warren Buffett has suggested to other billionaires they should set an example by giving more, or at the very least be taxed appropriately to their wealth, while also using their riches to transform the state of the world. After all, the one formidable task huge amounts of capital can be used for is to improve lives on a global scale.