Friday, December 09, 2016

Click You

Given the development of today's economic and technological trends,  a fundamental problem of the present is likely to dominate the future: due to various forms of technology and how that technology is used, there are meaningfully fewer jobs that pay a middle class income.  And if growth in these technologies continues, there will be fewer and fewer jobs that pay much of anything.  The obscenely rich will become more so, until the whole system is radically different or collapses into chaos.

The fundamental problem has been known since the 1960s, when one kind of remedy was first proposed: the guaranteed income, in which the government would pay everyone a minimum income so they could live and support a consumer economy.  The idea has been revived in various forms, and even tested in a few places.

But somebody has come up with another idea, to at least ameliorate the problem in certain sectors.  Jaron Lanier is a first-generation Internet guru, developer of virtual reality and as close to a digital philosopher as we've got.  His first book,  You Are Not A Gadget questioned the values currently supported by high tech, and his next Who Owns the Future? analyzed the economic situation, present and future--and proposed something of a solution.

I'm just starting the books, but there are a number of his associated talks on YouTube, both short and long.  I liked one of the longer ones, a talk at Microsoft.  It gives a pretty good range of his personality and ideas.

I can summarize this particular point with a couple of early paragraphs from Who Owns the Future?:

"I will argue that up until about the turn of this century we didn't need to worry about technological advancement devaluing people, because new technologies always created new kinds of jobs even as old ones were destroyed.  But the dominant principle of the new economy, the information economy, has lately been to conceal the value of information, of all things.

We've decided not to pay people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies.  Ordinary people "share," while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes."

People making these fortunes (in finance, insurance, etc. as well as the big Internet media companies), he argues, make them based on access to information that individuals produce on the Internet for free, as through social media.  The "elite networks" pay nothing for this information, and the people whose information it is, get nothing for it.  (Note that this comports with Bruce Sterling's point:while those who bought into borderless friction-free data have been immiserated by the ultra-rich.)

Lanier's proposal involves a system of micro-payments (sometimes called nano-payments) that essentially provide a small amount of cash for every piece of information anybody accesses for profit. That presumably adds up.  Something like this, he says, is essential if there is to be a middle class in the future.

He got to this analysis because he's also a musician, and he saw the bulk of middle class jobs in the music industry disappear with file-sharing and streaming.  There are lots of people posting music on the Internet, and almost none of them make an income from it.  He has also noted what the Internet has done and is doing to journalism jobs and entities.

He also notes that just as self-driving cars are about to put a lot of people out of work, if 3-D computer printing develops, alot of the manufacturing sector could shrivel and die.

Granted that this is an analysis based mostly on the Internet (though that is where business is going) and new technologies.  (At least in these speeches--there may be more in the books I haven't gotten to yet.)  There are other ordinary factors and likely extraordinary ones that will pertain--like the many disruptions and resulting economic changes due to climate crisis effects. Noticeable now, in a decade or two they are likely to be pervasive.  How these will interact seems outside the scope.

But I note Lanier because this the only new idea I've seen on this problem, and it might be a basis for discussion.  And he's a fascinating guy with a lot of knowledge to share.

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