J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

“First they came for the musicians … “

Yesterday I read a thread on ambient artist Biosphere‘s Facebook page that made me reflect on the ongoing economic revolution centered on replication and automation. Biosphere posts that he is weary of his music being pirated and feels resentful (a natural and understandable sentiment) and is met with a flurry of comments.

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Most of his fans are supportive, but many roll out the same tired arguments attempting to justify their own stealing or somehow blame the artist, including:

  • It’s not really stealing if the original copy is still there
  • If I buy it myself then I should be able to give it to whoever I want for free
  • People only steal because record labels are bad — you should offer it on Bandcamp (the artist already does)
  • People wouldn’t steal if you offered it in high quality physical formats like vinyl (the artist already does)

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Some so-called fans go so far as to call Biosphere an “old man yelling at the cloud” (Simpsons reference), perhaps in jest, perhaps not. Either way the implication is that artists should just accept that their music becomes available for free, everywhere, approximately one day after it is released (and sometimes well before).

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Should we? Maybe so.

Recording artists are the canary in the coal mine of the replication/automation disruption. We’re the first to fall. Yes, we can sell T-shirts and tour, but our main source of income — music sales — has evaporated. A few million streams on Spotify might net you a couple hundred bucks, not even enough for a single month’s rent.

YOU are next. Whatever you do, replication/automation will destroy part or all of your livelihood. The “wealth creating” production mechanism that includes replication of digital files, fully automated processes, intelligent algorithms, 3D printing, and autonomous robots will sooner or later replace your job.

The euphemism “disruption” means replacing jobs with these automated processes. Those who own the automated system make a ton of money. Everyone else loses. Wealth is further concentrated at the top.

As industries, music, publishing, and news have been hit hardest so far. Car production and driving services are probably next. Our nation’s 3.5 million truck drivers may be hit hardest.

This is the economic utopia we’ve all been waiting for, right? Computers and robots are doing all the work! Perfect … I’m going to reduce my work week to four hours. My typical day will consist of artistic pursuits in the morning (making beats, or writing a blog post or a chapter in my novel), then going out for lunch with my friends, then a long afternoon of Dungeons & Dragons, then going out to drink wine with my friends. Or maybe I’ll play Civilization V for eight hours straight, or binge read Neal Stephenson. Lifestyle of the future! (Your preferences may vary.)

Oh wait I still have bills. How’s this all going to work?

This Is the Third Disruption

We’ve been here before. Two other times in human history (at least), a massive technological innovation has radically reduced the amount of work required for humans to thrive and survive, while simultaneously concentrating wealth in the hands of the few until the masses could claw it back.

The first was the plow + horse combo. Agriculture. Throw in pottery for food storage and you’ve got winter covered. Yay no more starvation!

Of course this leads to property rights and serfdom and monarchy and really poor peasants. And slavery. Eventually the slave peasants revolt and manage to create democratic governments, at least in some places.

Then comes the industrial revolution. Mass production destroys most traditional jobs and children work in toxic factories from dawn until dusk. Then comes the labor movement and basic environmental regulations and the work week is reduced to forty hours and children get to breathe clean air and go to school instead (condensed version).

Here we are in the midst of the third disruption. In much of the world we have some level of democratic representation, labor protections, and environmental regulations, so it’s not as bad this time around. Still, wealth and power are rapidly consolidating in the hands of the few, and those few are doing their best to roll back the prior mentioned rights, destroy the middle class, and make all the base are belong to them.

And yet, a Star Trekkian replicator utopia is within our grasp. What’s the missing piece?

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What Won’t Work

The sharing economy is not a real alternative. The sharing economy is really three things mashed together (actual sharing, barter, and subletting). Aspects of the sharing economy which actually involve sharing things is good. City-owned public bicycles, for example. There are still problems with the bicycles being stolen or trashed, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea in principle.

In other instances “sharing economy” is a euphemism for plain old disruption. AirBnB undercuts the hotel industry. Uber undercuts the taxi business. There is no actual sharing — it’s cutthroat capitalism.

The sharing economy boosts efficiency and makes use of unused resources. It’s part of the ongoing automation/replication disruption, not an alternative to it. It generally pushes prices down, which is good for consumers, but terrible for anyone trying to make a living.

Another approach that won’t work is expanding means-based welfare. Expanding the “safety net” leads to a race to the bottom, citizens scrambling to meet the means criteria in order to receive benefits, even if this means working less, producing less, having more children, or defrauding public agencies. While I don’t think getting rid of all means-based welfare is a good idea, liberals like myself should understand the reasoning behind Murray’s Law; it is one of the central tenants of conservative thought. Even diehard liberals like Nicholas Kristof point out there are serious problems with some means-based welfare benefits.

One of my consulting contracts involves maintaining a complicated system involving fourteen public transit agencies and three private corporations, the sole purpose of which is to identify who is and who is not entitled to ride for free based on various medical and age criteria. Many times I have thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be cheaper, or at least simpler, to just let everyone ride for free?”

What Might Work

Expanding universal services helps. There’s no reason 100% of wealthy capitalistic societies can’t provide free public options for national security, emergency services, healthcare, education (including preschool, university, and ongoing adult), and waste management (I said options — I’m not suggesting we get rid of private school or plastic surgeons, though there are good arguments for getting rid of private military corporations). Wealthier nations could expand the list of universal public benefits to include water and even energy.

Still, there are limits to what a government can provide for “free” without running into major problems in regards to efficiency, waste, fairness, corruption, and preference incompatibilities. Dozens of nations have demonstrated that a public healthcare, emergency services, and education systems can be run efficiently and effectively. But food and housing are stickier wickets. Nobody points to public housing projects and says — “Look, utopia!” And most people don’t want 100 pounds of government rice delivered to their doorstep. There are sectors where the free market just works better.

This brings us to basic income.

But how do we pay for it? Will people stop working and being productive if they automatically receive enough to pay for basic expenses? These are questions for the next post.

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11 Comments

  1. mcslee

    “The sharing economy boosts efficiency and makes use of unused resources. It’s part of the ongoing automation/replication disruption, not an alternative to it. It generally pushes prices down, which is good for consumers, but terrible for anyone trying to make a living.”

    Yes! This. I think that point is often missed, especially in sharing economies where there is no equivalent of worker unions (I think some Uber drivers have started to attempt organization, but I’m not sure how that has gone).

    Sort of orthogonally related, I liked this article about Etsy:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/opinion/sunday/that-handmade-scarf-wont-save-the-world.html

    • Thanks for the comment Mark. Those companies (Uber, Airbnb, Etsy) do provide value and fulfill an important economic niche. Some, like Soko (http://shopsoko.com/) help reduce poverty by taking out middlemen and creating a more direct relationship between producers and consumers. But overall we need something more comprehensive to stop the bottom 80% from falling off an economic cliff …

  2. Paul Saffo has some good thoughts about how all this is unfolding … his 3/31 SALT talk (Seminars About Long-Term Thinking) is available on iTunes:

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/salt-seminars-about-long-term/id186908455

  3. Mark

    There is a good argument to be made that uncorrupt utility-style regulation will help somewhat.
    But this will not address the main point, which is that musicians have historically made their living from direct contact with the audience and the last several decades have been an abberation from the norm.
    I’d go so far as to say Glenn Gould was wrong, and if you can’t connect directly with your audience in a way that recordings cannot replicate, you’re not much of a musician, you’re more a production technician.

    • Or maybe you’re a composer, or lyricist, or arranger … none of whom necessarily connect directly with the audience.

  4. jezjohn

    Firstly I must admit to using torrent sites for watching TV. I pay for music via itunes and feel that musicians are undervalued when it comes to copying. Any copying without the artists permission is unfair & rude. If your friend was the artist in question would you copy and distribute their work for free? No I thought not so for fucks sake people have some respect.

    • Moral outrage appreciated, but the bigger question I’m trying to approach is how do we establish some baseline of economic security when many jobs are simply becoming unnecessary? Questions of compensation aside, torrent sites effectively *replace* music distributors. Soon robot cars will replace drivers, etc. Everyone is going to be disrupted and displaced. So how do we eat?

      As a society we are generating enough wealth and creating enough efficiency to substantially reduce the amount of work required to live and thrive, IF we can figure out a way to share the wealth a little more effectively. Thus my endorsement of Basic Income.

  5. Steven Walker

    Great read JD. I was was watching The Super-Rich and Us presented by Jacques Peretti. I was thinking about alot of the same topics you were discussing. I don’t know if there will ever be a perfect solution to these problems. I feel that your on a winner with expanding universal services. It would be great if oneday we could all focus on a common goal or mission to achieve something fantastic for our future children.

  6. This is a fascinating topic. I read “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, but funny enough somehow he lost my support when he started complaining about musicians (I, like you, am a working musician). I am torn between fear on the one hand of a future you describe, and on the other a sense that market equilibrium will naturally be found and/or a realization of new opportunities and value that I personally am trying to earn from thanks to the Internet.

    • Hi Alexa! From the looks of your website you have the talent and sophistication to make it work. New tech, distribution, and media outlets present new opportunities, and new careers exist (youtube channel owner) that didn’t in the past.

      It’s an interesting question — what will market equilibrium look like, and how long will it take to get there? What, if anything, will begin to reverse the extreme wealth concentrations we’re seeing?

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