Monthly Archives: June 2013

The post-wage era

Further to the earlier post: Ian and I had a discussion the other day of a scheme thats been implemented on the Web. It’s a pay-to-recommend thing: you have a social network of ‘friends’ who, when suggesting a product for purchase that results in a sale, get a little payment. Proponents tout it as a way to get a little money for what people do naturally. Both Ian and I view it as a Ponzi scheme, like other network marketing ‘opportunities’ that pollute human relations with suspect motivations.

Here’s a better idea, started by Ted Nelson in his astounding book on hypertext, which started the whole thing, and referred to just last week by Jaron Lanier in the NYT. Every bit of information online is tracked as part of a micropayment system; no ‘information wants to be free (as in beer)’. Whenever someone links to, browses or downloads a blog post you make, or a comment, or a photo you put up on Facebook, you get a little credit in your web account. When you do the same, a little payment from you to the author. Your information is now your property, and you earn a little money from it. Lanier reckons this is how we save the middle class. At the very least, it corrects the imbalance between the vast numbers of people posting original material, drawing connections between existing material, editing and curating, and the relative few who take the money out of the resulting system by virtue of being the infrastructure providers.

Go read Nelson. He thought about many of the issues we’re facing in our plan-less stampede to the Net, and tried to implement much of what he came up with. It’s worth revisiting, now we all have real world experience of the problems he foresaw with his thought experiments.

MLS online

I just signed up with MLS online so I could watch my local team, the Seattle Sounders, squonk Vancouver tonight. The game is being broadcast on something called the NBC Sports Network, and I just get tv off the antenna on the roof, so I bit the bullet and plonked down money for the official online live streaming version. Goood, I thought, they’ve got a Roku channel, so I’ll just lean back and enjoy.

Turns out this game is blacked out. Nationally. Because NBC Sports say so. So the MLS won’t allow me to watch my local team on their streaming service, even after I pay them.

The customer service guy said the service was better for following out-of-area teams, so, for example, if I lived in Florida I’d be able to follow the Sounders, but its less possible if I live in the region. To which I responded, if I lived in Florida I’d probably be following a Florida team, wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I want to follow my local team?

Fail. Refund. These guys are having a hell of a time figuring this newfangled Internet thing out. I’m off to watch European Champions League.

The future of work

For a few years, I’ve been thinking about the problem of work in the West. It’s been apparent at least since Bertrand Russell’s lifetime that, as globalization and more specifically automation came to be employed in the workforce, there’d be less of it to go around for the average first-world laborer (yes, I know that terminology is out of date). As that happens, the cost of labor goes lower, and the problem of a living wage looms for more and more people.

It’s become much more apparent in the last few years, with the stagnation of incomes, the massive increase in part-time jobs, the introduction of automation into what were traditionally white-collar domains like law, accounting, research.

This should be a cause for celebration. We’re on a trajectory toward a world where menial labor is becoming a choice, not a necessity for staying alive, where we get to choose to spend our time doing meaningful work that imbues our lives with joy (sorry for the utopian hyperbole). But we still have the fundamental problem: in our society, remuneration for labor is how you stay alive. No work, no pay. So for every advance toward the mindless-labor-free world, there’s huge and justified pushback from those whom it should benefit but who would be deprived of the income required for a decent standard of living.

The problem is the link between the income required to live, and the work required to maintain that income. So long as the Protestant work ethic is a major driver in our society, it will not be feasible to just hand out money to those unwilling to work. Passing minimum wage laws are a stopgap that arguably create as many problems as they solve. Welfare systems are subject to abuse, and engender resentment by those upstanding citizens who support the idea of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Just the other day, though, I realized that we as a society went through this once already. The transition from wage to salary for the professional classes is exactly the decoupling of work from income that I’m thinking of. Wages are paid for a certain amount of time spent doing a minimal quality of work, where the unit of value is the work-hour. Salaries are paid based on the job to be done, with the unit of pay the job to be performed. There’s a notorious elasticity in the amount of time a worker spends ‘at work’ when they’re salaried; the expectation is that the job will be done. In contrast, wage earners are meticulous about the amount of time they spend at work, and when (overtime, holidays, …) because that’s the unit of value in their work life.

Salaried employees negotiate income based on how much they need to live. Salaries can be a measure of how well someone does at their job. There is a much looser connection between the ‘amount’ of work in a salaried position and the income earned than the connection in a wage position.

We need to find a mechanism like this for the coming world of work, where income and labor are much less directly connected. That way, we can all share in the riches of that world without consigning those who aren’t CEOs or come from wealthy families to just scraping by.