The Post-Labor Economy

Jaron Lanier defends money. (long, but excellent video rant here)


He begins in the same place I do, and Rushkoff does, essentially, that there is no longer a market for labor.

To be sure he only makes passing reference to limits to growth. I think those greatly complicate the situation.

But Lanier’s key point about money is, um, right on the money. Between smothering bureaucracy and cruel neglect, there stands only one possibility: a functional middle class.

And for this to happen, bespoke creative work has to be valued. There is no limit to the amount of art we can produce OR consume. We may be at the beginning of an immensely creative era, but only if we agree to monetize creativity. How to do this requires some careful thought. The idea that we are all in the midst of an endless apprenticeship (while traditional commercial and industrial modalities vanish all around us) doesn’t scale.

But I think we have to let go of growth, or many other things break. So that complicates the job; real things cannot constitute a vanishingly small part of the economy in any way that is stable. Else, you end up with a tulip crisis, of course.

Somehow this all has to be balanced, growth gradually and smoothly ended, fairly soon in the richer countries; somehow all the global constraints have to be fed into the incentive systems too. Nothing resembling government today is competent to do these things. But I don’t see how we manage without burning new constraints into the system.

It’s going to be enormously hard to even get people to understand the spectrum of possibilities.

I call it Morita’s principle; Akio Morita (the Steve Jobs-like visionary behind Sony for many years) frequently said “the customer does not know what is possible.”

This applies to our collective vision of the future. People are selecting from a profoundly demoralizing pair of implicit competing visions (universal poverty on the left; militarized wealth in a sea of poverty on the right, both in a diminished, biologically depleted world). We need to create a shared vision of a future that is something other than extrapolation, something other than a more comfortable car to be stuck in traffic in, something other than shabby and grim and dehumanizing.

But most of our customers, that is, the people who need to buy into some new more inspiring vision, are mostly stuck in their day to day problems and just want strategies to see them through the week, not the century.

We must ask people for a lot of thought and a lot of effort and some sacrifices. We cannot succeed without a positive vision of the future, something that no political party anywhere is offering in any credible way at this time.

(Recycled from Only In It for the Gold)



  1. He's an interesting guy, but a little odd in appearance, a bit like some students at MIT in the last century (well, pot calling kettle, but hey ...)

    Lanier is often described as “visionary,” a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills. In the nineteen-eighties, he helped pioneer the field of virtual reality, and he is often credited with having coined the term. He has also dabbled in film. In 2001, he advised the writers of “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s film about a dystopian future. Since 2006, he has worked as a consultant at Microsoft Research.

    More recently, he has become the go-to pundit for people lamenting the social changes wrought by modern technology. Last year, he published “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,” a provocative critique of digital technologies, including Wikipedia (which he called a triumph of “intellectual mob rule”) and social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which he has described as dehumanizing and designed to encourage shallow interactions. Teen-agers, he writes, may vigilantly maintain their online reputations, but they do so “driven more by fear than by love.” In our conversation about Facebook’s face-recognition software, he added, “It’ll just create a more paranoid society with a fakey-fakey social life—much like what happened in Communist countries, where people had a fake social life that the Stasi could see, and then this underground life.”

    Such objections have made Lanier an unusual figure: he is a technology expert who dislikes what technology has become.... “I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.”

    As cogent and piquant as all this is, and much as I agree with it, I'm not sure it's going anywhere.

  2. Marketista! The question of how we get markets to be ethical is IMNHSO an important one. I realize that complaining about them is just a whole lot of hot air, but living in the real world, I see it getting more rather than less influence, and increasingly amoral.

    (Rush Limbaugh (who is now complaining about Michelle Obama's late-night appearance promoting water) and his market spawn make millions pushing limits of public obnoxity. Religion, which used to provide restraints on immorality for believers (though some at the top reveal their hypocrisy by not practicing what they promote). I'm uncomfortably on the fence about religious benefits, not being willing to dismiss the deep seated convictions of the vast majority of humanity no matter how irrational I think it is to follow a god made in our image and call it the opposite.)

    However, worldwide ethics and becoming aware that we are a community of humankind that work together or fall together are essential, and I don't see the way. Two world wars brought a lot of people together, but events like Sandy and Boulder don't seem to do the trick at a broad enough scale.

  3. This just strikes me as a jumble of ideas that may or may not go together. I have no idea what you mean when you talk about "monetizing creativity" nor do I understand why we have to assume that we have only a choice between a horror-show version of Marxism (raging bicyclists!) or capitalism as "The Matrix" as both you and the long rambling unorganized and problematic video suggest. You seem to be concerned that resource use has been incorporated into economic theory in an unrealistic and ultimately harmful way but you still want to "monetize" . . . what exactly? . . . to do what, bring it into the economic system? Does the notion of a middle class even make any sense outside what we think of as a conventional mostly capitalistic economy? Or is your real point just that all this stuff is a mess now and that's why we need (but don't yet have) a coherent vision of where we're headed that we think is actually possible given our resource base? Don't feel obliged to clarify.

  4. " I have no idea what you mean when you talk about `monetizing creativity' ..."


    1. All current work is automated; owners of automation systems are no longer paying wages to humans.

    2. Owners of production still need people to buy the stuff (er, I think, unless they manage to make robots to do that as well) and people still need money to buy things like the robot-produced food so the system has to adapt to new ways of getting money into people's pockets

    3. More areas of human interaction become "monetized" (e.g. no-one just comes round for dinner; it becomes a norm to pay for it. This is actually happening in Greece currently though for quite different reasons; or e.g. an increase in the rate of monetized friendships maybe?) Or we invent whole new commodities that grow out of existing production networks or are completely separate from them.

    Nice quote: "the production of commodities is a cultural and cognitive process... Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities.... The same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and as something else by another." [*]

    If we are in a world that's moving away from human-centred production, the definition of 'commodity' that you need to maintain money flow can only either extend into areas of our lives previously uncommodified or into newly invented markets (or old markets formed into something novel).

    A rather happier view of that, though, would be humans moving back into artisanal production because (a) they have the time (b) they can interface with automated production products and (c) there will be a market for it. This is happening a little, but...

    [*] Kopytoff, I., The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditisation as Process in Appadurai, A., (Ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, (1986, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 64

  5. Though also there's Naomi Klein's image of a fortress world with different tiers where, at the very edge, you're basically human rubbish the system has zero use for.

    "What we are seeing is the emergence of a genuinely new new world order, one far more Darwinian than the first, second and third world. The new divisions are between fortress continents and locked-out continents. For locked-out continents, even their cheap labour isn't needed, and their countries are left to beg outside the gates for a half-decent price for wheat and bananas.

    "Inside the fortress continents, a new social hierarchy has been engineered to reconcile the seemingly contradictory political priorities of the post-September 11 era. How do you have airtight borders and still access cheap labour? How do you expand for trade, and still pander to the anti-immigrant vote? How do you stay open to business and closed to people? Easy. First you expand the perimeter. Then you lock down."

  6. That's not the way my dictionary defines "monetize" but if you want to use that definition, that's fine. In that case, since creativity has already been "monetized" (or maybe "commodified") in various ways - writers, singers, inventors, comedians, actors, composers, and even scientists, etc., all get paid for their work and there is such a thing as intellectual property, and copyrights and patents and so on, I'm guessing MT has something else in mind beyond simply extending that to more types of "creative" activity? I think I'll wait for MT to fill in the blanks, if he wants to. Will the quality of the discussion at the water cooler improve when I pay for it? Wait . . . there won't be a job with a water cooler to congregate by . . . .

    I'm also guessing that NK's fortress world is mentioned as a bad alternative future.

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