Need a Kidney? There’s an App For That

Mike Lacher has an interesting post on the Timothy McSweeney blog, in which he presents an pitch for a new app that will allow you to bypass (no pun intended) “old medicine” and crowd-source a new organ, should you be unfortunate enough to need one.

Surgeon 2

The app’s developers do a good job of explaining just why their approach is better:

Just open up our app and tell us your age, blood type, and what kind of organ you want. Then we’ll show you nearby transplanters who have the organs you need. Because of the old-economy hegemony of Big Organ Transplantation, we can’t call our transplanters “doctors,” but that’s fine because “doctor” is an archaic term that doesn’t even begin to gel with the decentralized, crowdsourced disruption that is our new economy. Millennials don’t need “doctors.” Millennials need organ transplants that fit easily into their always-connected lifestyles.

Worried our transplanters aren’t totally qualified? Just check their star ratings. When transplanters give great service, maybe by removing a tumor they find during the transplant, or by offering an iPhone charging station in the operating facility, our users will give them great ratings. Similarly, if a transplanter gives not-so-great service, by arriving late or abandoning the user in a bathtub full of ice with two large incisions marking where their kidneys once were, our users will give them just one or two stars. When you’ve got our star rating system, you don’t need some wall full of diplomas to know your transplanter will take good care of you. That’s the beauty of the crowd.

Some people will read this post as a satirical romp and leave it at that, but dismissing this as only satirical speculation would be a mistake. We live in an age of amazing biological innovations, and those innovations pose some interesting economic questions. I discussed this topic when I reviewed Michael Mandel’s book, “What Money Can’t Buy” (, In my brief review, I noted that the book “is really a social essay on America’s transformation from a country ‘with a market economy’ to one that is ‘a market society.'” By market society, Mandel refers to a society where markets allocate everything, even things that should be allocated by, in his opinion, non-market mechanisms.

The future that Lacher points to is not that hard to imagine: someone is denied a transplant by his local hospital and so he turns to social media to find an organ and someone willing to perform the operation. Is that really so hard to imagine? Can anyone really say that is not something he would do, if staring death in the face?

I think Lacher’s serious point is that technological innovations are taking us into an era where new markets spring up overnight. The market for organs can arise as spontaneously as any other. It is time for serious economists to think about how such a market might come to life and to start considering its implications. The fact is that economics and philosophy are far behind biology and medicine these days, and while the app Lacher laughs at is not on iTunes yet, it’s not something hard to imagine.

You can read the full Lacher piece here:

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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