Joshua Foust riffs on Evgeny Morozov’s takedown of the new technoutopian The New Digital Age of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, and winds up at Jaron Lanier’s weak-wristed response to the uncertainty of the postmodern world of work:
Of course, Lanier doesn’t have an answer. His idea – “sell your data” – only gets us part of the way there. Lanier correctly notes that the financial industry, governments, and tech firms thrive not on open data, but on expensive proprietary data (even Google, which claims to love openness so much, has a vast, private trove of your information it sells to advertisers). But his vision of selling data that is already freely out there to large data centers doesn’t make any sense. The reason those systems are already thriving is because the cat is long out of the bag.
“In a world of free information,” Lanier writes, “The economy will start to shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.”
It’s a bit late for that. The middle class has already begun to shrink, from both automation and from the torrent of free information about the public, monetized into the financial industry for the benefit of a few thousand traders on Wall Street (along with, let us not forget, incredibly abusive labor practices and banking systems). While it’s nice to think that monetizing one’s own information could create a new techno-middle class, the reality is that this is the same sort of high-minded digital utopianism that animates Schmidt and Cohen.
So where do we go from here? The post-employment economy is a scary and dangerous place — I’m learning this the longer I exist in the workforce as a free agent, not necessarily employed per se but also not without income. There are huge pitfalls (taxes can approach 45% for the first $50k of income) and uncertainties (who’s going to hire you for a project next), and it’s difficult to plan much for the long term. Yet, our society, economy, and even politics are based on the long term in their own ways. That is what a mortgage, IRA, pension plan, healthcare, and everything else we associate with adulthood is focused on — and it’s what animates the most vicious knife fights in Washington.
The scary, uncomfortable answer is that we really don’t have a solid idea of where to go from here. Wealthy people whose employers cover their healthcare, half their taxes, and provide a pension glibly suggest that young people simply “invent your own job” as if it’s that simple. The tech people, who were supposed to create the future, instead suggest reverting to a time that never existed (Lanier’s vision where we could “sell” our personal data for a profit) or a one-to-one recreation of our analog world online (Schmidt and Cohen).
The future is going to be marked by stable employment for the elite, and unstable employment for everyone else. Young people today will face more or less permanent underemployment, working far below their skills and capabilities. Poor and middle income people will face much the same. It leads to misleading jobs numbers (after all, being underemployed still gets one counted as “employed” by the BLS), and a false sense of prosperity as the 1% thrives from jobless profits.
Yet, rather than asking “how can we adjust our institutions to minimize the negative effects of unstable employment,” our thinkers are slinging around terms (“virtual” “digital” “monetize”) that were cutting edge in the early 90s, when Sandra Bullock blew everyone’s mind by ordering a pizza from her computer, than anything relevant to today. If we are going to create an economy of self employment — which is to say an economy of mass uncertainty — then we need to simplify things like the tax code, healthcare, and retirement (if that will even be a relevant term two decades from now). But instead of asking to simplify institutions and thus expand their capacity to adapt and help, we’re talking in nonsense circles about internet things.
I see some hope in the rise of placeforms (marketplace + platforms = placeforms) like oDesk and the like, some of which will figure out a way to disguise the freelancers in full-time employment clothes (albeit it, with highly variable income and a cafeteria-style pick-your-benefits-and-pay-for-‘em model). I envision the possibility of the Freelancers Union turning into an actual workers cooperative, and handling the back office side for freelancers, and maybe marketing their services.
But we will still be at risk, precarious, but operating as a connective, and cooperatively leveraging the inherent fluidarity of our way of working.