Daddy, what’s a “job”?

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff has a column at CNN called Are Jobs Obsolete that’s worth a read. I want to endorse it as a thought exercise, which I believe is his main point. So much of our jobs debate occurs in this very narrow frame boxed in by the specific and path-dependent way that we currently structure our economic lives. Rushkoff’s thoughts are valuable as a thought experiment, if nothing else.

Here is the condensed version:

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

There are some problem bits, like noting that the corporation is a relatively new phenomenon (by that standard, what aspect of economic life isn’t?) I also think his discussion of jobs and technology is wrong in one part, but it’s not worth discussing here. There are any number of major practical objections that must be leveled if anyone tries to make any recommendations based on this line of reasoning – and I’m still puzzling over them – but I’m not sure it’s useless either.

Here’s what I wrote in my post on peer production and David Roberts’ “Medium Chill” which I see as roughly in line with the sort of speculation Rushkoff is engaging in:

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.

The bolded line squares with Rushkoff’s headline. All of this needs to be viewed as extremely tentative. It could all be mostly wrong; it could be 100% wrong. It’s not actionable at this point. But I’m giving some thought to how we might experiment with it around the edges.

It could also be that we don’t need to end jobs, as much as we need to end certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps some sort of information-production jobs can be peer produced while certain service jobs simply can’t be. Maybe we’ll be nurses or baristas 20 hours a week and then spend another 20 of our own free will creating information goods. That’s far fetched, but probably not quite as far fetched as many people think.

Peer Production and the Medium Chill

If you haven’t read Grist’s David Roberts on his idea of “The Medium Chill” go do so now. David is a great writer on energy politics – my day job – but I’d venture to say this is my favorite post of his. He’s also collected others’ responses here and here. I want dive into one dimension that has been mentioned only briefly. First, here’s David:

The medium chill involves what economists call satisficing: abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.

The case for this is quite compelling in my view. And David’s main reasoning behind it is that many people would be happier this way. If we all worked less, we’d get to spend more time with loved ones, perhaps we’d exercise more, make more friends, devote time to our hobbies, etc. And there’s good psychological research suggesting that these things are quite important to our happiness and mental well-being. There’s actually good reason to think that achieving some level of mastery at work is an important source of happiness, but it’s unlikely that we have to spend 60 hours a week to derive that benefit, nor should we accept that work is the only context in which to achieve that sense of mastery. That gets me to what I want to explore: how the medium chill might also make us, in some sense, more productive. David hits on that briefly in one of his follow-ups:

More and more labor is shifting into informal/voluntary non-market contexts, a trend that’s both inevitable and desirable. Clay Shirky once said of Wikipedia that it is “best understood not as a product with an organisation behind it, but as an activity that happens to leave an encyclopedia in its wake.” More voluntary activities will leave useful social resources in their wake in coming years, especially when the first large cohort of computer-literate retirees arrives.

Matt Yglesias wrote something along these lines over a year ago:

Meanwhile, it’s more possible than ever for people’s non-commercial labors to have a meaningful impact on the world. I think open source software is exciting. I think amateur mashups are exciting. I think digital distribution of albums recorded on the cheap by people playing music for fun while holding down day jobs is exciting. I think fan fiction is exciting. I think people who work at universities and other non-profits writing blogs to inform and entertain is exciting. I think people diligently recording the progress of their neighborhood and organizing for a better city is exciting. Wikipedia is, of course, indispensable these days and Wikileaks is doing a tremendous job.

I wonder where this will take us. At the moment the cohort of people with the most opportunity to engage in non-commercial activities—retirees—is the very same cohort that’s least inclined to avail itself of digital technology. When Web-savvy people start retiring, I think we’ll see an explosion in non-commercial production. And can we extend it to other kinds of information goods beyond music and writing and brief amusing YouTube videos? Is open source pharmaceutical development possible? And if it’s not possible, what policy changes might make it possible?

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.