Futurists...and the 'End of Work'

Futurists...and the 'End of Work'

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

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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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. 

Topic: Emerging Tech

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19 comments
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  • I quit.

    We are fast becoming a World which consists only of the the poor and the obscenely wealthy.

    The obscenely wealthy should get together and agree on a a standard "don't kill the weathly stipend" for us non-workers. This stipend would be $50,000 a year, plus an Xbox 360, and would be paid to the 99% in return for us not "getting angry" at those who hoard most of the money.

    It's not a bad deal... with 99% of the people making the same amount of money, prices would stabilize, Dominos pizzerias would flourish, and I would get some serious TV-watching done.
    shoutout
    • I approve and also vote for

      Oral massage at Starbucks and Macdonalds, as they portrayed in a movie.
      patrickco
  • Very good article

    Disruptive technologies cause businesses, careers, and professions to fail faster than they can be replaced or real people can adapt. The classic example is buggy whip making done in by the automobile. I think that the practice of economics is becoming another failed profession. It is being destroyed because all its models fail to account for the exponential effects of technologies pointed out by this article. One of the first models to fall was the traditional concept of comparative advantage.
    Sir Name
  • Big difference between less work and no work

    How were you planning to digitize food, coffee, plumbing, houses, travel (we're a long way from "Beam me up, Scotty!"), etc., etc., etc.?

    Even in the digitized world, there will always be work to be done. There is no perpetual motion machine. Information still needs to be produced, and that production has to be paid for, whether by the consumer or the advertising that is provided with the free information.

    Capitalism, free of government intervention other than to protect the rights to property and free trade, is unbelievably well-equipped to deal with whatever the future may bring. If people someday are able to work 4 hours per day instead of 8 and make a good living, that's just super. But it's never going to 0. It is when the government thinks it knows better than Capitalism that we start getting into trouble.
    FDanconia
    • re:

      The recent years of unfettered capitalism are exactly what has led us all into today's stagnant wages, constricted job market, business meltdowns, vanished retirement savings, and complete lack of hope that things will ever get any better. If you Ayn Rand followers ever really got your utopia, it would be an unparalleled holocaust for over 99% of the population of the formerly developed world.
      Sir Name
      • You realize...

        That "complete lack of hope" is all in your head right? In every measurable way, be it access to nutritious food, access to clean water, clean air, medical care, education, entertainment, decent housing, safe working conditions, ETC. people in modern societies enjoy an unprecedented standard of living.

        I have no idea where, when people exist among a rising standard of living that has only gone up during their entire lifetimes or the last 200+ years, the idea pops into peoples heads that it's all headed into the toilet.
        oncall
    • More work for those at work...

      In the 1960s in the UK there was much talk about the future "leisure society" and preparations were made, Leisure Centers with sporting facilities and swimming pools were built, etc, all because we would be working shorter weeks. What happened is that those working were loaded with even more work. Productivity per worker is a key metric and if it isn't going up, the economy is stagnating.

      Yes, there will always be work to be done, but it doesn't take all of us to do it. We can take turns, maybe. But will those not working still receive the fruits of others' labor? Not in this society. So what are the billions supposed to do if they aren't needed?

      If buying goods and services is a necessity, in order to keep people employed, then maybe that can be considered "work." So surely we should get paid to buy the products that others make so as to keep a virtuous cycle of sustainability going. That's exactly what happens when governments lower taxes, or provide tax breaks to stimulate the economy -- they are paying others to keep buying. When you look at it that way, it doesn't make sense to run an economy that way. What other ways could we do it, without having to constantly having to produce ever large amounts of things, and having to then buy ever larger amounts of things? We'll pollute and heat up ourselves into oblivion -- clearly that won't work. Because we don't all need to work to produce the things that make for a healthy, vibrant and happy society. How do we get there? It's a massive problem, and it's a cultural problem, and no amount of technology can help us solve it. We have to do it by first recognizing where we are headed and then laboriously reprogramming our thinking and attitudes, and creating a world that celebrates the end of work. It's going to be enormously difficult.
      Tom Foremski
  • Futurists -- of the Past

    As an old geezer, I remember that when my father read the 1950's futurist prediction of "mostly leisure time by the year 2000," his reply was, "Yeah, it'll be called joblessness."
    LilaWagner
  • TOM -- Let's define "WORK."

    You're clearly a very bright fellow. Even if you use a kind of phrase that has a tendency to drive me batty. "There's more than 7 billion of us" which should be "There are" or something akin to that. But ignoring a too common English error -- What kind of "WORK" are we talking about?

    If it's manual labor. You're right on. But while "work" in my looooong lifetime -- HAS included being a deckhand on freighters and a factory worker while in college in Detroit on a bunch of automobile production lines -- much of my "work" was/is involved in thinking, scheming, planning writing, photographing and the patenting of 27 inventions. Few, if any of them might not be doable by currently conceiveable machines in the near future.

    So the jobs of physical and near physical labor -- like doctors in operating room procedures, will be with us for quite a while.

    The problem will clearly be how do we adapt and teach the low skilled and uneducated world workers to a life of the Mind Muscles instead of the muscles of the hands.

    THAT is a question that may, in part, be solved by what is happening now with the world-wide dissemination of knowledge.

    George Margolin
    PATENTOR
    • Passion versus work

      I define work as things I don't enjoy doing. Fortunately, most of what I do doesn't fall into that category :)

      There's a lot of chatter these days about finding your passion, to be passionate about what you do. The subtext however, is that it's code for "do what you love because you won't be made much to do it so you might as well love it." If you love it you'll do it anyway, which means you won't be paid (much) because you'll do it anyway. Teachers, nurses, charity workers, musicians, journalists...
      Tom Foremski
      • re: Passion versus work

        Yes, but will doing what I love feed my family, pay my mortgage and other bills, put my daughter through college, fund my retirement, etc? If it does, I'm a lucky guy. If not...well.

        I am lucky in that I get paid to do something I enjoy - software architecture and development - but I have no sense of security in it. These days I have both a full time job and a separate consulting LLC with a partner. I work two professional level jobs in order to (barely) sustain the middle class life that a generation ago was a lot easier to manage. At the rate things are going, it's ultimately unsustainable.

        The vast wealth transfer to the very rich from everyone else has got to stop or society will break down.
        Sir Name
      • In which case . . .

        "I define work as things I don't enjoy doing."

        In which case, I haven't "worked" at many of my jobs, yet I still got a regular paycheck :).

        I'm not sure an economist would really agree with that definition of "work."
        CobraA1
  • Two ways to get to the no one works place.

    1. A self replicating universal replicator is invented. Digitalize everything and simply tell the replicator what you want and there it is.

    2. Magic..
    CutRightSharpening
  • Oh lord...

    Another "we're running out of things to do so we'll all just sit around surfing the web while magic fairies deliver finished cars and clothing and doodads" sci-fi channel article. Nope, not by a LOOONNGGG shot are we out of things to do. For starters, there are still about 1.4 BILLION people on this planet without any access to electricity. Any idea how much WORK is going to have to be done just to get those people out of the dark ages much less up to a modern standard of living? There is so much to be done if we would just get out of this "history ends with the current generation" mindset people are in.
    oncall
    • Assumptions

      You're assuming that business is prepared to fund all the work to roll out electricity to these people. Only if there's a profit in it. With ever increasing automation, the question is whether building out infrastructure in the hope of exploitation of their cheap labour is worth it. Altruism is great, but rabid capitalism won the day. Even if it is worth employing much of Africa, it will come at the expense of labour in the first and second world that's now becoming far less competitive than other option.
      andygrace
  • Fundamentally unsustainable.

    When the world economy started becoming financialized back in the 80's, we've seen a huge increase in the number of people on the planet, and in the number of people employed in the financial services sector. Most of those jobs are now redundant. The clerical nature of the work leant itself well to be automated by machines.

    When you go and see a bank to take out a loan, buy mutual funds, discuss risk tolerance with someone with an MBA, you're really just talking to a person who, unknowingly to themselves, is a professional actor. They are there to provide a "human" side to the financial, debt producing machine that drives a consumer economy. They provide zero value in actually helping you to improve your long term survivability on this planet by making sound investment decisions. In fact, they may try and steer you toward more expensive products that improve their commission and the banks bottom line. If you really need to be in the stock market, just buy and index ETF and hold it, and you will do as well as making 50 trades a day. Anyways, the question here is, once this transaction is complete, what was produced?

    It is the financial services sector and financialized economic model that has painted us into a corner. With nothing being produced, and a consumer economy precariously balancing on a mountain of debt, what happens when interest rates sink to just about zero and stay there (we're pretty much there already), but still that is not enough to encourage debt backed spending and keep people consuming?

    Unless we change the way we administer our society, economic models, and system of governance, the numbers are simply not in favor of the 99%.
    TrollsBgone.
  • I agree...

    With a lot of ideas presented in this article and the comments.

    It's not realistic to think the current economics paradigm will continue to be valid in a future where machines (digitalization + robotization) will do for us (for us?) the most of the work, and where indefinite growth will necessarily bump against a finite world (even more finite if we want to preserve environment). If you want to compensate the greater per-human productivity (boosted exponentially by digitalization + robotization) creating new needs to be satisfied and thus the need for more resources, you’re just accelerating the speed to reach the physical limits, even if we manage to stop the increase of population.

    This may not happen tomorrow or the day after, but sooner or later it will. Other solutions of the past, like spreading into new territories (planets?), don’t seem very feasible nowadays nor in the future, if Einstein’s principles are to be kept… And other solution of the past, destroying everything to start from the beginning, isn’t very appealing.

    One economy of the past that could give an idea of an “End Of Work” future is that of slave work based societies, but they had an almost infinite world to deal with.

    So we really need to change the paradigm. When I hear “solutions” for present crisis situation based, for example, in delaying retirement and increasing work hours, I think we’re going just in the opposite way. It’s just nonsense to delay retirement and have young unemployed. Unfortunately, I may have an idea of the problem, but no idea of the solution…
    morgan_flint
  • Keynes forsaw this

    "The leisure dillemma" he called it.

    It's coming. The stupid thing is we're creating artificial scarcity on the wrong commodities.
    We need to make labour the artificially scarce commodity.
    We need to do this via a global overtime policy that gradually reduces the hours worked per person across the board in all nations.

    Failure to do so will result in a very bitter war.

    The world leaders after WW2 made a gentlemans pact to always keep the supply of labour restricted. We've forgotten that lesson. So, inevitably, we're doomed to repeat it.
    myne-819b4
  • 'The End of Work'

    This subject has been kicked around for almost TWO decades, but no clear answers.

    Truth is, there will be plentiful 'manufacturing' jobs as we embrace new technologies, but those entities which control existing technologies, like fossil fuel, will seek to hold back the emergence of new industries...The reasons?...Simply greed.

    Because all identified 'isms', i.e. socialism, capitalism embrace a control mechanism at their core, the idea of 'freedom from work', at least in the physical realm, or the free distribution of information, technology or even food, requires such a shift in human thinking that, at present, it is unimaginable...Someone must always be top dog, and enforce that dominance in a way that enslaves humanity.

    So this changeover will require a change of mind, and of heart or soul, that is currently not going to happen...In fact, this changeover will require an acceptance of what is called the Gospel' or 'good news'...Mankind does not have to be a victim of slavery.

    In any case, a very good article, and excellent comments from everyone.
    FrankDialogue