Futurists...and the 'End of Work'

Summary:Predicting the future is easy. Figuring out how we live in it is much harder.

I was watching Jaron Lanier, an early Internet pioneer, talking with FT Business about the new digital economies, and why free information is not a good idea.

Mr. Lanier says he was one of the first in advocating digitizing the music industry and he used to argue that free music would enable artists to make money from live shows and merchandising.

The benefits of digitization are numerous. One of the benefits is that businesses can cherry pick the lowest-risk highest margin businesses and give away information services as a loss-leader.

He now says that this did not turn out well and that information should not be free because it doesn't create sustainable economies. 

Three wishes...

Good luck putting the Genie back into the bottle. Every industry undergoing transformation to a digital business is facing enormous disruption in transitioning to the new business models. The music and the news media are the most visible examples but there's plenty more.

The benefits of digitization are numerous. One of the benefits is that businesses can cherry pick the lowest-risk highest margin businesses and give away information services as a loss-leader.

Google does it all the time, other companies do it too, giving away content, apps, etc, that other businesses used to sell. 

Take a look at Craigslist, which cherry-picked free-classifieds and didn't have to produce the journalism that helped sell the classifieds ads. Craigslist only charges for job ads and its revenues were estimated to be $126m in 2012 and are expected to increase by  $27m to $153m in 2013.

It is clearing about $103m a year in profits -- not bad for a private firm employing just 35 people. But to make that money it has decimated the classified ads market.

A market that was worth $19.6 billion in 2000 had fallen to $6bn in 2009. The value of all those free Craigslists ads it gives away is more than $13 billion a year.   Craigslist has likely destroyed more than $100bn of revenues over its long span. And it's responsible for tens of thousands of lost jobs.

But it's not Craigslist's fault, it's simply the power of the Internet, a basket of virtually free, standardized publishing technologies, which manages to devalue every business it touches (except healthcare).

Digital destroys economies, creates ever smaller ones...

If a product or service can be digitized it can be produced or offered, for nearly free. If a business makes money on something else it can easily support "almost-free" to the detriment of other "non-free" businesses in that market.

Stewart Brand, a Bay Area publisher and techno-optimist, coined the infamous phrase "Information wants to be free" in 1985.

"Information can be free" -- is what he's actually saying. And because it can be offered for free  -- it often is. And software too, the open source movement is a perfect example of that trend.

We face a future that will be defined by the end of work - it can become a golden age or one of horrific consequences.

Mr. Lanier is right about the need for developing sustainable businesses and the inability of free information to provide a means of wealth creation, especially when the competitive strategy du jour is the simple bludgeon of scale: the biggest, most efficient computer platform, wins.

Backing away from the future...

It would seem a better use of their time if futurists such as Mr. Lanier focused on the future, and less on going back to the past. Developing sustainable economies won't be done by going backwards in time, a direction that Mr Lanier seems to be pointing.

We face a future that will be defined by the end of work - it can become a golden age or one of horrific consequences. Horrific because we have no means of dealing with this type of future. We have nothing that has prepared us for it. We only know how to punish and ridicule those that don't work. But what if there is no need to work? 

We need to figure out how we deal with the end of work -- it's the most important problem we face bar none.

There's more than 7 billion of us and we've all have to get jobs? We have hugely productive manufacturing and other technologies that operate on enormous scales and create all manner of things at extremely low unit costs. 

It doesn't require all 7 billion of us to produce the things we need for a sustainable, healthy, vibrant society. Yet we will impose austerities and false shortages to create scarcities, even famines at times, in a bid to monetize markets.

Irrepressible technologies of mass abundance

We have at our disposal immense, irrepressible technologies of mass abundance, yet we constantly seek to muzzle them, to create sustainable economies that are only sustainable within the GDP metrics that made sense in the past.

It doesn't add up, it doesn't make sense, and it's because we don't have the language and the concepts to even begin to know how to talk about living in a world that celebrates the end of work, the fruits of thousands of years of progress.

Don't look to Silicon Valley to create tens of milions of jobs, unless they are replacing hundreds of millions of jobs elsewhere.

Yet we insist that 7 billion people work, or else they are failures, failed societies, failed countries, failed economies. The Internet is helping to create a lot failed economies, it's what it does best.

Our technologies overall, replace more jobs than they create, that's why they are successful. Don't look to Silicon Valley to create tens of milions of jobs, unless they are replacing hundreds of millions of jobs elsewhere. That's what Washington DC and all other governments don't understand about innovation.

We need a new way of understanding the future and coming to terms with it on its terms -- and not those from our past way of thinking. That's going to be hugely difficult but we need to start now. 

Predicting the future is easy, figuring out how we live in it is much harder. 

Topics: Emerging Tech

About

In May 2004, Tom Foremski became the first journalist to leave a major newspaper, the Financial Times, to make a living as a full-time journalist blogger. He writes the popular news blog Silicon Valley Watcher--reporting on the business of Silicon Valley.Tom arrived in San Francisco in 1984, and has covered US technology markets for leadi... Full Bio

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