Shutting up talkers

Robin Hanson suggests that time is a scarce, yet unpriced resource in group conversations, conferences, and seminars. We are all familiar with the conference participant who talks too much, this is really just tragedy of the commons. So let’s attach a price to talking.

Robin argues that each person should receive a fixed number of tokens. Every now and then a buzzer will go off randomly. If you are talking when the buzzer goes off, you lose a token. If you lose all your tokens, you can’t talk any more. So presumably you will speak only when you feel it is important, to conserve your time. My note: I don’t see why the randomization is necessary, why not just use something like chess clocks to limit how much each person talks?

Robin and I have talked of trying this out. Would it work? I can see a few problems:

1. It may violate fairness norms to shut up a person who has lost all of his tokens.

2. Without rationing, smarter people can persuade/bully their way into talking more, and this is better than giving everyone equal time. (Note: you can have non-egalitarian variants of the scheme, or perhaps allow people to donate their tokens to the smart.)

3. The methods and procedures of implementation may distract from the discussion. Imagine the buzzer going off in the middle of your briliant point.

4. Conferences are not about ideas production, they are about the production of publicity, and the device does not work toward this end.

I am most concerned with #2 and #4, but I still see merit in the idea. If and when we try it, I will let you know, let me know if you have ever tried some version of the proposal.

Here are some other wild ideas that Robin likes, most or all of them wilder than the buzzer idea.

Addendum: Here is Robin’s own description of the idea.


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