There will always be spare change

nobeggars

“There will always be change,” wrote Thomas Friedman in his 2012 column “Average Is Over.” “But the one thing we know for sure is that with each advance in globalization and the I.T. revolution, the best jobs will require workers to have more and better education to make themselves above average.”

Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen borrowed Friedman’s title for his most recent book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, but his emphasis, in surveying the opportunities opening up in today’s labor scene, is not exactly on more and better education. “I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy,” Cowen writes:

We can expect a lot of job growth in personal services, even if those jobs do not rely very directly on computer power. The more that the high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them, sometimes for high wages and sometimes for low wages. This will mean maids, chauffeurs, and gardeners for the high earners, but a lot of the service jobs won’t fall under the service category as traditionally construed. They can be thought of as “creating the customer experience.” Have you ever walked into a restaurant and been greeted by a friendly hostess, and noticed she was very attractive? Have you ever had an assistant bring you coffee before a meeting, touching you on the shoulder before leaving the cup? Have you gone to negotiate a major business deal and been greated by a mass of smiles and offers of future friendship and collaboration? All of those people are working to make you feel better. They are working at marketing.

I would just like to interject here that I am feeling better.

It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future. At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better. Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved.

Welcome to the mendicancy economy.

Cowen uses a happy metaphor to sketch out the contours of interpersonal competition in this new world:

The more that earnings rise at the upper end of the distribution, the more competition there will be for the attention of the high earners and thus the greater the importance of marketing. If you imagine two wealthy billionaire peers sitting down for lunch, their demands for the attention of the other tend to be roughly equal. After all, each always has a billion dollars (or more) to spend and they don’t need to court each other for favors so much. There is a (rough) parity of attention offered and received. Of course, some billionaires are more important than others, or one billionaire may court another for the purpose of becoming a mega-billionaire, but let’s set that aside.

Compare it to one of those same billionaires riding in a limousine, with open windows, through the streets of Calcutta. A lot of beggars will be competing for the attention of that billionaire, and yet probably the billionaire won’t much need the attention of the beggars. The billionaire may feel overwhelmed by all of these demands, and yet each of these beggars will be trying to find some way to break through and capture but a moment of the billionaire’s attention. This in short is what the contemporary world is like, except the billionaire is the broader class of high earners and the beggars are wealthier than in India.

That’s an awesome analogy, really felicitous, but it has one big flaw. What billionaire is going to drive through Calcutta in a limo with the windows open? I’m sorry, but that’s just nuts.

UPDATE (9/6): Cowen offers an even sunnier speculation today: “It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment. After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.”

Remember back when we were beggars? Those were good times.

Image: “undesirables” by shannon.

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Big Internet

lost

We talk about Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Ag. Maybe it’s time we started talking about Big Internet.

That thought crossed my mind after reading a couple of recent posts. One was Scott Rosenberg’s piece about a renaissance in the ancient art of blogging. I hadn’t even realized that blogs were a thing again, but Rosenberg delivers the evidence. Jason Kottke, too, says that blogging is once again the geist in our zeit. Welcome back, world.

The other piece was Alan Jacobs’s goodbye to Twitter. Jacobs writes of a growing sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the ubiquitous microblogging platform:

As long as I’ve been on Twitter (I started in March 2007) people have been complaining about Twitter. But recently things have changed. The complaints have increased in frequency and intensity, and now are coming more often from especially thoughtful and constructive users of the platform. There is an air of defeat about these complaints now, an almost palpable giving-up. For many of the really smart people on Twitter, it’s over. Not in the sense that they’ll quit using it altogether; but some of what was best about Twitter — primarily the experience of discovery — is now pretty clearly a thing of the past.

“Big Twitter was great — for a while,” says Jacobs. “But now it’s over, and it’s time to move on.”

These trends, if they are actually trends, seem related. I sense that they both stem from a sense of exhaustion with what I’m calling Big Internet. By Big Internet, I mean the platform- and plantation-based internet, the one centered around giants like Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and Apple. Maybe these companies were insurgents at one point, but now they’re fat and bland and obsessed with expanding or defending their empires. They’ve become the Henry VIIIs of the web. And it’s starting to feel a little gross to be in their presence.

So, yeah, I’m down with this retro movement. Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet.

But, please, don’t bring back the term “blogosphere.”

Image: still from Lost.

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The Glass Cage: early reviews

automationandus

I’ve been encouraged by the comments on The Glass Cage that have been coming in from early readers and reviewers. Here’s a roundup:

“Nicholas Carr is among the most lucid, thoughtful, and necessary thinkers alive. He’s also terrific company. The Glass Cage should be required reading for everyone with a phone.” —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“Written with restrained objectivity, The Glass Cage is nevertheless scary as any sci-fi thriller could be. It forces readers to reflect on what they already suspect, but don’t want to admit, about how technology is shaping our lives. Like it or not, we are now responsible for the future of this negligible planet circling Sol; books like this one are needed until we develop an appropriate operating manual.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience; professor of psychology and management, Claremont Graduate University

“Nick Carr is our most informed, intelligent critic of technology. Since we are going to automate everything, Carr persuades us that we should do it wisely — with mindful automation. Carr’s human-centric technological future is one you might actually want to live in.” —Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants

“Carr brilliantly and scrupulously explores all the psychological and economic angles of our increasingly problematic reliance on machinery and microchips to manage almost every aspect of our lives. A must-read for software engineers and technology experts in all corners of industry as well as everyone who finds himself or herself increasingly dependent on and addicted to gadgets.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Artificial intelligence has that name for a reason — it isn’t natural, it isn’t human. As Nicholas Carr argues so gracefully and convincingly in this important, insightful book, it is time for people to regain the art of thinking. It is time to invent a world where machines are subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity.” —Donald Norman, author of Things that Make Us Smart and Design of Everyday Things; director of the University of California San Diego Design Lab

“Most of us, myself included, are too busy tweeting to notice our march into technological de-humanization. Nicholas Carr applies the brakes for us (and our self-driving cars). Smart and concise, this book will change the way you think about the growing automation of our lives.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure

“Nick Carr is the rare thinker who understands that technological progress is both essential and worrying. The Glass Cage is a call for technology that complements our human capabilities, rather than replacing them.” —Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus

“I read it without putting it down. I think it is a very necessary book, that we ignore at our peril.” —Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary

“This sweeping analysis from journalist Carr outlines the various implications of automation in our everyday lives. He asks whether automating technology is always beneficial, or if we are unwittingly rendering ourselves superfluous and ineffectual, and cites examples where both might be the case, such as fatal plane crashes attributed to an overreliance on autopilot; the deskilling of architects and doctors caused by occupational software; and the adverse mental effects of GPS. … The book manages to be engaging, informative, and elicits much needed reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications of over-reliance on automation. Carr deftly incorporates hard research and historical developments with philosophy and prose to depict how technology is changing the way we live our lives and the world we find ourselves in.” —Publishers Weekly

“Important.” —Kirkus

The U.S. edition of The Glass Cage will be published on September 29; other editions will be published simultaneously or in the coming months. I’ll be out talking about the book throughout October and will be posting a schedule of events soon.

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Playtators and their fans

Of sport and Men_web

“Man’s failure is yet more intense in the face of the triumph of ineffable things than in the face of heavy things.” —Roland Barthes, What Is Sport?

The videogamer has always been at once player and spectator, in the action and yet removed from it. Watcher and watched, entertainer and entertainee, warrior and couch potato, the videogamer was fated to become the broadcaster of his own amusements, and that makes Twitch and its success — Amazon is buying the game-streaming juggernaut for a billion dollars — something of an inevitability.

As Roland Barthes long ago noted, modern spectator sports usually involve an object that acts as a mediator of the competition: a puck or a ball of some sort. The mediator is the main focus of the violence, which helps keep the bloodshed within civilization’s tolerances and hence suitable for the metamedium of the screen. The videogame, which has as its very field of play a screen, adds further layers of mediation to the already unreal world of the spectator sport. What exactly are we watching when we watch Twitch? We’re watching a screen through a screen, virtual reality twice removed. It would seem to be media all the way down: sport as pure symbol, or, in Platonic terms, pure shadow.

It’s not blood, said Godard; it’s red.

Image: still from the 1961 film Of Sport & Men.

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Taking measurement’s measure

rulers2

“What can’t be measured can’t be managed” goes the old saw. But what Peter Drucker is reported to have actually said was “What gets measured gets managed,” which is altogether different and altogether wiser. The wisdom becomes clearer when we get the rest of Drucker’s remark:

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.”

It’s dubious and dangerous, Drucker is saying, to take what’s measurable for what’s important. But he’s also saying something much more radical, even subversive: Some things that can be measured shouldn’t be.

A whole counterculture could, in our big-data moment, be constructed on that one thought. Can you imagine Google or Amazon or Facebook announcing, “We have decided to stop measuring stuff in order to spend some time considering what’s actually worth measuring”? No, today’s ethos is simpler, easier to execute: “If you measure it, the meaning will come.”

“Measure” itself has a few meanings, and it’s worth keeping them all in mind. Consider something Robert Frost said, in speaking to college students in 1956:

“I am always pleased when I see someone making motions like this — like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness.”

Measure in measurement, too, would seem advisable.

Image: Marcin Wichary.

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Worlds of wordcraft

william-blake-night-thoughts

I enjoyed James Gleick’s review of Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime today, particularly the ending:

Poetry and logic live in different places, after all. Poetry has patience. It reaches into a dark vastness. But computer code has powers too. “It acts and interacts with itself, with the world,” Chandra says. And it changes us along the way. “We already filter experience through software — Facebook and Google offer us views of the world that we can manipulate, but which also, in turn, manipulate us. The embodied language of websites, apps and networks writes itself into us.”

Must one learn computer programming, then, to qualify as literate? Of course not. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of code, though. One of these days code will be aware of us.

If Gleick means conscious awareness, then I can’t say I share his confidence. There’s still a hell of a lot of undiscovered country between here and there. (If he means unconscious awareness, that’s a done deal.) Anyway, Chandra’s book sounds excellent.

Image: William Blake.

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Shattered

The unboxing ceremony has begun.

unboxed

The photo doesn’t do justice to the remarkable texture of the book jacket. Even if you’re not planning to buy The Glass Cage, you’re going to want to make a stop at your local bookstore just to touch the cover. Bring some band-aids.

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