Friday, June 21, 2013

Jaron Lanier’s Version of Work’s New Age – Fresh Ideas on a Permanent Problem

Another book on the jobs crisis was released last month, although the author didn’t call it that.  Computer science luminary Jaron Lanier published Who Owns the Future?, which deals with changes caused by the Internet, not all good. 

Lanier dealt with the automation side of Work’s New Age, the name I use for our era starting in 1973, in ways that build on the thesis of the book of that name I released a year and a half ago.  He outdid my examples of eBay and Twitter being major innovations without General Motors-level job counts, by naming Instagram and its succession of much of 14,000-worker Kodak with 13 employees.  Related to my prediction of more resources coming from communities, he discussed how much work is being done in them without what he called “formal benefits” such as wages and other compensation.  He said that we were losing a tacit agreement that work should be paid, even when easy and enjoyable, and that would mean, in effect, the end of the middle class.  Although it might be well and good for people to get nonmonetary advantages for tasks they perform, that would not be enough – as he put it in an interview in Salon last month, “when I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old.”  And, I might add, eat.   

Even more disturbing, Lanier talked about the end of democracy, caused by people not being able to participate in the market and “outspend the top.”  Channeling Work’s New Age Principle #13, he said that “markets can only function if there are customers,” and said that “winner-take-all capitalism” could not survive.   

I could go on comparing Lanier’s ideas and mine – although I do not know if he ever saw Work’s New Age, they are intertwined when not essentially identical – but one of his notions, mentioned by me but developed more by him, is worthy of special attention and concern.  For decades now, we have had more and more people paid not by salary but for each assignment.  In California, they called that the “movie model,” whereas, with my background, I knew it as the “project model.”  It seemed to make good sense for everyone – the professionals would earn more per day of concentrated work, and could then move on to other efforts with other organizations, as their skills would still be in high demand.  They would be free to choose which ones they wanted, and to take time off for training, education, or personal reasons.  There would be no annual limit of three vacation weeks.  Independent contractors, working anywhere from a day to several years, have become more general examples of this trend.  Such entrepreneurs, and in effect that is what they are, could use social networks to ensure maximum efficiency in finding gigs, which is also the right way of thinking about such short-term engagements.    

The point Lanier made is that such a system, even in fields with high demand for work, frequently does not succeed.  He gave an example from the world of hip-hop music, which has been using such a scheme for a long time, and said that only about 50 performers in the country are actually “making a great living” that way, or have solidly middle-class annual, not daily, incomes.  He estimated, even with good demand, easy marketing connectivity, and people with ever-increasing technical skills, that number for all areas of music in the United States to be in a “low number of hundreds.”  By comparison, as of 2010 there were still 176,000 people employed by others as musicians and singers.  When you add the pressures of being in effect in business for yourself, and the need to, as Lanier put it, “sing for your supper for every meal,” we have a problem. 

So it is with other creative fields.  Most independent authors earn little or nothing.  The millions of blogs like this one rarely provide a solid income, and often provide none at all.  Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff.  Lanier called those with such creative occupations “the canary in the digital coal mine,” as other professions would soon be in the same situation.  Even those who have great success among huge numbers in their fields aren’t doing nearly as well as comparable people working for others, as per Lanier’s example of a towering YouTube star, one Jenna Marbles who has had a billion views of her videos teaching young women about makeup and the like, and earns about $250,000, much the same as most, not just a few, of America’s 691,000 physicians and surgeons.      

When labor doesn’t get paid as it used to, what permanent solutions are there?  In Work’s New Age I advocated a guaranteed income, not enough for the lifestyles to which most of us have been accustomed, but, along with universal health care, enough to ensure a reasonable survival.  Since then I have also come out in favor of shortened work hours.  Lanier recommended micropayments for people making now-free creative content.    

That could help, but would that be enough?  We will need to address that issue sooner than some may think.  The possible end to federal money-creating programs may force the issue, as if we get a recession even those who think the jobs crisis is temporary will soon remember these below-10%-unemployment days as good times.  We don’t know the right way out of it, but we need to start talking.        

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