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.
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)
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).
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?
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.