Cognomics: what is the market price of your mind?

Last year, I came across a post about a very interesting study of CAPTCHA economics (in fact, this post is a slightly expanded re-post of an email I sent to a mailing list in Agust 2010).  CAPTCHAs are the little boxes you see on login pages across the web. They are meant to prevent software bots, run by spammers, crackers and other Internet bad guys, from pretending to be real users and abusing web services.
The key feature of a CAPTCHA is that it's a puzzle that is very easy for humans to solve but very hard for computers. So to defeat the CAPTCHAs, the bad guys have created online "farms", platforms where people are payed to solve the CAPTCHAs for them.

Leaving aside the nefarious nature of the application, it is fascinating to note that this is one of the first large scale instances of humans renting out their brains for a few seconds at a time. It raises the question: what is the market value of your mind? Or more precisely, of your ability to think? In a sense, of course, billions of people are renting out their brains every day by doing cognitive work in exchange for a salary. But normal employee/employer relationships are complex in ways that are not fully captured by price alone, in other words it's not a commodity. But with the CAPTCHA farm, you get as close as possible to cognition as a commodity.

Note that I said "one of the first" instances... There's another bigger one that's been around much longer: advertising. When advertisers pay for ad placement, they are paying for your attention, so in a sense they are renting your mind. Particularly with Internet advertising, the advertiser literally buys a few seconds of a person's attention, one person at a time. This was a big meme during the dot-com era, the "attention economy".

So, if indeed there's a market for cognition, how do the prices compare across these two sub-markets?
  • Spammers* pay O($1) per thousand CAPTCHAs solved.
  • Advertisers pay O($1) per thousand impressions
First observation: In both cases, they are paying to get your mind for O(10seconds). So the mind is really a commodity worth the same whether you are renting it out to store and propagate a commercial message or to do some computation!

Second, if you draw a little diagram of the flow of value, the cognitive supply chain as it were, the two are like mirror images of each other, with the same values circulating in opposite directions. Like electrons and anti-electrons in the same circuit! Here's what we get clockwise for the advertising business:

Advertiser → $1 → Publisher → (payload) → User → (profit from product) → Advertiser

And here's what we get, anti-clockwise for the web-spam business:

Spammer ← (profit from scam) ← Publisher ← (payload) ← User ← ($1) ← Spammer

Funny stuff. Spammers are like the anti-matter to the matter of advertisers, the evil twin from the underworld.   Fortunately, they are not quite symmetric in size. It's a lot harder for the bad guys to grow the same size as legal ads/content ecosystem!

Note: of course, the main difference between the minds rented for ads and the minds rented for solving CAPTCHAs is wealth... Rich people's minds are valuable to advertisers,  poor people's minds are useful to spammers. But despite this split along wealth lines, the prices are of the same order of magnitude.