The Future Of Work: In A World Full Of Information, Many Gaps

Writing this essay, I am doing what I do with most of my time: sitting at a desk, ensconced in my iMac’s blue glow, creating, reading, sorting, or sending some immaterial thing or another. I talk to my friends about this sometimes. And despite the radically different lives they lead—some are world-famous CEOs. Others are painters—they all do the same thing. We are computer operators who specialize in email.

A strange thing about this work is that it is difficult to estimate its consequence. Working on an assembly line, it would be quite obvious how many widgets one produced in a day, and the value of those widgets. Building a house, one could look at the progress each week, the rooms framed, the concrete poured, the windows installed. But this relatively new digital work leaves in its immediate wake only fatigued hands and eyes, and a cascade of digital activity that is more difficult to apprehend. And I don’t just mean this metaphorically: For all the track-ability of digital activity, there is so much activity that it is hard to track, and even harder to analyze.

What are we all doing all day? What is the impact of this work? What is attached to the other side of the pulley?

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When Mother Teresa Drives a Ferrari

Why “Compassionate Capitalism” is kind of a scam.

Imagine a store in your neighborhood that sells toilet paper for a dollar a roll. Each roll costs sixty cents to manufacture and sell, generating forty cents net profit. You typically buy ten rolls a month, generating a total of four dollars profit for the store’s proprietor.

Now imagine that an entrepreneur, Henry Hygiene, has an epiphany: toilet paper is a massive, unrealized lifestyle branding opportunity! Everyone needs it but no one loves it. What if a new brand spoke to the consumer’s unique personal style, home decor, and ethos? Henry sets out to start this brand, “Flush,” and opens a store next to the old one, offering rolls in hundreds of different stylish prints. In order to make the switch a no-brainer for the consumer, Flush sells its rolls for a dollar, too. And then Henry adds the coup de grace. He announces that for every roll he sells, he’ll donate a nickel to a new charity that provides toilet paper to orphans in Bangladesh. For each roll sold, then, the company will net thirty-five cents, less than its competitor, but a perfectly fine profit. Of course, Flush will heavily promote its charitable business model to consumers. They will learn that buying Flush means buying style and justice.

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Bitcoin for Rockstars: How Cryptocurrency Can Revolutionize The Music Industry

There is an incredibly boring problem in the music industry for which Bitcoin offers a potentially fascinating solution. In fact, I think this might be one of the coolest and most immediately worthwhile applications of distributed ledger and payment network technologies such as Bitcoin.

The problem is simply that no central database exists to keep track of information about music. Specifically, there are two types of information about a piece of music that are critically important: who made it and who owns the rights to it. Right now, this information is fiendishly difficult to track down, to the great detriment of artists, music services and consumers alike.

Decentralized, open-source, global cyryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ripple (full disclosure: I am an investor in Ripple Labs, which is developing this currency) offer a model for how we might address this bedeviling status quo. By applying the technical breakthroughs of these networks, we can sensibly organize data about music for the first time in human history and, more importantly, reinvent the way artists and rights-holders get paid.

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The Digital Media Layer Cake

Legacy content providers can still be in Fat City. But only if they overcome fear and greed.

I’ve recently come to think about digital media’s competitive environment as a layer cake with 7 distinct layers. These are, in ascending order:

  1. Hardware
  2. OS
  3. Connectivity
  4. Apps
  5. Creators
  6. Advertising (sometimes)
  7. Content

Each layer requires those beneath it to reach the consumer, whose ultimate interest is primarily the content itself, but who also cares a great deal about the convenience and experience of discovering and accessing that content. For example, if I want to watch my favorite new show, Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, my goal is to get the show exactly when I want in as few steps as possible. This can only be done by what is an astonishingly complicated hack: I must rely upon a deal that Tim and Eric have done with the Cartoon Network (creators), a licensing deal that Cartoon Network has done with Apple (content), Apple’s distribution through the iTunes Store (app), Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner service (connectivity), iOS (OS), and my iPad (Hardware). If I want to hear the two new Prince albums, by contrast, I might rely upon a different slice of the cake: a license that Prince has given Warner Music Group to distribute his albums (creators), a license that Warner has granted to Spotify (content), Spotify (app), Verizon Wireless (connectivity), Google’s Android (OS), and Samsung (hardware).

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Choosing Headphones

Beats headphones have driven a revolution in the consumer headphone market, increasing the average consumer’s level of consideration over headphones and the associated prices to be paid for them. Jimmy Iovine had a great, although somewhat predatory, insight: that if he positioned headphones as a fashion accessory, people would pay fashion prices for them. The real product, in other words, wouldn’t be the headphones themselves, but their aesthetic and social currency. As I heard Jimmy explain many times while I was signed to his label as an artist, he had in fact started with the idea of selling sneakers, but then realized that he should sell “speakers, not sneakers.” It worked. People bought lots of them.

Yet these people didn’t believe that they were paying a massive premium for design, hefty packaging, and marketing; they also thought that they were buying a tool to hear music “the way it sounded in the studio!” As computing has gone mobile, so too has the majority of music listening, and people love music so much that they’ve proven willing to spend hundreds of dollars for headphones three times as large as their phones in pursuit of exhilarating listening experiences. I don’t blame them. Great music deserves to be consumed on great playback equipment. Unfortunately, most people aren’t buying it, and certainly not in Beats and many of their high-priced copycat competitors.

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Beating The Eating (Robots)

One of my favorite technology provocateurs, Marc Andreessen, recentlycontributed to the conversation regarding whether robots will progressively eat all of our jobs. His conclusion: they won’t; but even if they do, it’s not much of a worry. I do share Andreessen’s view that this won’t happen as soon as alarmists might imagine. The sci-fi cultists who believe it’s just around the corner espouse a speculative utopian faith in accelerating, compounding technological singularities that I struggle to take seriously (Google, please forgive me for underestimating your majesty if you do become our government three years from now).

But I suppose I have always just assumed that robots will eventually eat all of our (current) jobs. And that seems like a wonderful thing for humanity in the long run: liberation from machine-like labor, flexibility to explore our most genuine passions, and lots of free-time to spend as we wish with those we love. Marc describes this potential future, as well:

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Why The Elitist Fine Art World Should Lose Power

I know practically nothing about the fine art World, which means that I write about it with little authority but complete impartiality. For those of you who will bite my head off for these thoughts: I invite you to explain to me why I’m wrong. Nothing excites me more than changing my mind, so I look forward to your disabusing or confirmation with equal excitement.

Here’s my experience:

I decided several years ago that I wanted to start refining my visual knowledge and taste. Having gone through a massive transformation as a listener of music since I began making it, I knew how learning felt. What used to sound like one unified “thing” to me — a song — crystallized into multiple parallel streams of information as I studied recordings. I came to hear an arrangement as a geometric dance between separate voices, a patchwork of distinctive feels of time and pitch. The bass might pluck slightly behind the tempo, the piano urgently pulling things forward in opposition. In short, I came to hear the music in far greater detail as my brain learned to identify and perceive the individual elements of it.

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Overcoming Capitalism's Greatest Shortcoming

I was so excited to wake up today to my friend Leon Neyfakh’s well-researched summary of the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI):http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/02/09/should-government-pay-you-alive/aaLVJsUAc5pKh0iYTFrXpI/story.html

This idea, of delivering to every citizen (in a nation or, ultimately, in the World) an unconditioned cash transfer, has a long lineage of supporters spanning the ideological spectrum, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Milton Friedman. I first encountered the concept when I read Phillippe Van Parijs’s work in a philosophy course during my sophomore year of college, and it struck me for its reasonableness and simplicity. If our goal is to provide every citizen with as much “real freedom” as possible, Van Parijs argued, then we must untether income from labor and give everyone a minimum income capable of supporting a healthy and safe life irrespective of their work choices or capabilities.

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Science Should Be For Everyone

I think we need to retire the notion that science is somehow distinguishable from the broader pursuit of truthful knowledge, and that the people who do it are somehow essentially unique. For those of you reading this who are scientists, this might be a puzzling bone to pick but I assure you: the rest of us almost always feel left out of science, and this will continue to be the case unless you work diligently to include us.

The speed with which we move into the future depends on the extension of scientific thinking to the billions of people around the World who have yet to embrace it. This is to say only that I believe we can all work together better on moral and technological projects if we are all operating from the same shared commitment to the truth, the same epistemic premises and processes. Most humans alive today are not. There is an obvious, low-hanging layer of converts to be won: the masses of religious people in the frequently forgotten extremities of modernity. And the good news is that the global economy’s progressive annexing of Africa, Asia, and South America will set the stage for this conversion.

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My Concerns Re: Amazon's Drone Announcement

Jeff Bezos’s unveiling of Amazon’s drone delivery program last night has created tons of social media buzz, exactly as he intended, I’m sure. And this is justified. I think drones are awesome, and make tons of sense for tons of purposes in the future, including delivery. What I do think is totally unlikely, however, is that Amazon will have hordes of drones making deliveries by 2015 as Bezos sort-of suggested. One or two accidents where drones fall out of the sky and hit a baby and the FAA and other regulatory orgs will choke it. So…I think it was a bit misleading to go on TV and create this sensational conversation about how Amazon is about to do this at scale. And it’s especially suspect that Bezos did this on 60 minutes, a show that mainly old people watch and which might influence their retirement investment decisions.

This fits into a larger critique of Amazon that I have, which is that this is a shareholder-financed monopoly that shouldn’t be permitted to become the only store in the World. I say this as someone who spends more money with Amazon than any other retailer, and as someone who LOVES Amazon’s customer experience.

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Thoughts on Rashida Jones' Editorial on "Pornification"

I totally agree with Rashida Jones’s piece in glamour about the “Pornification of Everything:”http://www.glamour.com/entertainment/2013/12/rashida-jones-major-dont-the-pornification-of-everything

My own little addendum: any artist or entertainer should be free to do whatever they want. I don’t see it as any artist’s obligation to abstain from the easy advantages of selling sex. But the choice these girls (or any artists, myself included) do have is between being thoughtless and selfish or being awesome. Like other unjust social systems and norms, sexism runs on the acquiescence of most people. Just as we are defaulted into global capitalism and its consequent extreme global poverty, we (and especially female entertainers) are defaulted into this hypersexual culture. The thoughtless path is simply to participate. And any inklings of self-doubt about this path will be readily suppressed by a culture warmly embracing and defending it. People will call Rashida jones a “slut shamer,” etc. for voicing a wholly legitimate critique.

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False Choice and Climate Change

I have come to believe that there is a false choice represented in the debate around climate change these days. On the one hand, we are told, we may choose environmental conservation and productive moderation. And on the other, we are told, we may choose social and ecological adaptation along with unfettered development. Either we keep carbon at bay and India and China languish, or we allow the World’s populations to continue pursuing prosperity and bear the consequences of its externalities.

This analysis, obscured itself by the juvenile pre-occupation with the debate concerning the validity of global warming, obscures alternative possibilities that might preferably balance our valued commitments. Indeed, we need neither sacrifice ecological conservatism nor global prosperity.

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One Rule For Anyone in The Music Industry

NEVER TEXT, EMAIL, OR OTHERWISE INTERACT WITH YOUR CELL PHONE WHEN AN ARTIST IS PLAYING YOU THEIR MUSIC. IT IS INFURIATING TO ANYONE WHO HAS POURED THEIR HEART INTO A PIECE OF WORK.

I offer this advice without any cynicism or anger, and out of genuine respect and love for the thousands of people who work in the music industry helping artists like me do our thing. I also am not pointing this at anyone in particular, since I’ve witnessed literally hundreds of managers, A&R people, agents, and others do this. I know you don’t mean to be disrespectful, I get that you can at some level hear what’s happening while you have a conversation with a friend over text, and I appreciate that your time is valuable too.

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