The dignity of work in an age of free

The dignity of work in an age of free September 2, 2013

rosie_the_riveter1Does everyone have the right to work? It seems like a good question for Labor Day. I’m not talking about the sleazy use of the phrase “right to work” as a tactic to destroy labor unions. No, I’m asking: do we have a responsibility as a society to ensure that all who are willing to work have a means of doing so that will let them support their families? For the last thirty years, American society’s answer has been a resounding no. The assumption has been that the best guarantor of the creation of jobs is not to guarantee anything and let the market work its magic. But what happens when the information age creates increasing expectation for every creative product to be free and thus devalues real intellectual work so that an ever-shrinking island of lucky manipulators and aggregators of information are the only ones who actually make money?

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget which is a rather frightening prophetic book about the way that the creative career fields that used to define the middle class have come under a tight squeeze because of the way that the information age has evolved. The market pressures that are at play right are devaluing every career field that involves some kind of communication.

For example, when a newspaper like the New York Times tries to password-protect its content and charge user subscriptions, not enough people opt in to make it worthwhile since there are plenty of free information sources on the Internet that rely entirely on advertising for their revenue. So people stop buying newspapers and go to free websites instead, just like they stop buying CD’s and get Spotify instead, just like they stop buying books and get Kindle instead, just like they stop going to college and take online classes instead.

Lanier talks about the organization of a society’s labor in terms of twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the most primitive level of human society, work takes the form of subsistence farming. Once a society has found a way to provide for its food needs collectively, then other fields of specialization open up. An industrialized society has the capacity for both blue-collar and white-collar labor. Because people have their basic needs taken care of, they read books and buy CD’s in addition to groceries, which makes room for people to make a living off of writing and music.

But the downward pressure of the information age has created a phenomenon that Lanier calls “digital Maoism.” For those who are unfamiliar, Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong instituted a cultural revolution in which he attacked all the intellectuals in society and tried to make everyone into a blue-collar peasant, basically saying that any abstract work shouldn’t have value at all. Needless to say, it was a complete disaster. The paradox today is that it is actually the absence of any centralized coordination that causes an analogous phenomenon:

In the physical world, libertarianism and Maoism are about as different as economic philosophies could be, but in the world of bits, as understood by the ideology of cybernetic totalism, they blur, and are becoming harder and harder to distinguish from each other. [Lanier, 80]

The intellectuals are getting killed off not by Red Guard brigades who burn their books but by the reductionist utilitarianism which says that nothing which isn’t directly related to making the world faster and more efficient should be paid for. Our society is increasingly reduced to two categories of people: consumers and advertisers. As consumers, we are the ones tightening the same noose that strangles us as producers every time we do things like click and drag on Amazon instead of going to the local bookstore (if there are any that still exist).

The way that this phenomenon came into being is through the deceptive illusion of advertising which Lanier calls “the only product that will maintain its value after the revolution” (82). I wonder how many others out there like me are convinced that we have never bought a product because of an advertisement. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously manipulated in some way, but it feels like a scandalous secret that our television and Internet is free because of a total delusion embraced by our society’s corporations that they can control us with their spam.

But now this scandalous delusion which has seduced us into making improper assumptions as consumers is completely devaluing creative work, partly because as a musician and a writer, I have bought into the delusion so that I spend hours each day doing free work as marketing that may one day result in getting a record or book contract from the very industries that are collapsing under the weight of all the other wannabe musicians and writers who are creating free content.

Apparently it used to be the case that record labels and publishing houses could judge music and writing on their merits; now the question is how many blog hits and twitter followers do you have (i.e. Could you sell the book you want us to publish by yourself if we didn’t exist?). Since writers now carry most of the promotional burden themselves, the only reason to get a book publisher at all is to have the credibility stamp of somebody else reading what you’ve produced and being willing to risk something of themselves in putting their name on it. Again, it’s ultimately a marketing decision.

If it were possible to make a living as a writer today, I might be willing to make a go at it and consider that my pastoral vocation, but I’m not confident that books or any other form of writing that pay the mortgage will even exist in a decade or two. I can generate two to three thousand words a day in writing. It is clearly a major part of my vocation, but it’s not something I’m paid to do, and so doing it is always an imposition on either my job as a pastor or my marriage or my fatherhood or my self-care.

The problem is that there’s no way to coordinate all the writers and musicians in America to say screw this, y’all are gonna have to start paying us for the work we do. Because we’re simultaneously the y’all who doesn’t want to pay for it. And the vast majority of us who haven’t “made it” yet think that we can “make it” if we just suck it up and belt out enough free content to build our platform even though there probably won’t be such a thing as “making it” before too long.

One thing that Lanier wonders about is whether we’re going to enter into an era of patronage like in the old feudal world of medieval Europe where the uber-wealthy hedge fund managers become the new aristocrats who bankroll court musicians and writers and intellectuals. I guess I would need to start kissing up to Wall Street, so I can get a sugar daddy to pay me for blogging. I wonder what the breaking point will be for the creators in our society.

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