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The Internet Is Slaying the Middle Class

In "Who Owns the Future?" Jaron Lanier examines how the Web eliminates employment and job security, along with revenues that give the economic middle stability.

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And then, you know, along a similar vein at that time early audio recordings, which today would sound horrible to us, were indistinguishable between real music to people who did double blind tests and whatnot. So the thing is, why not just paint the real person, because painting was really a lot of work. It takes a long time to paint a portrait. And you have to carry around all the paints and all that, and you could just create a stack of photos and sell them. So in the beginning photography was kind of a labor saving device. And whenever you have a technological advance that’s less hassle than the previous thing, there’s still a choice to make. And the choice is, do you still get paid for doing the thing that’s easier?

People often say, well, in Rochester, N.Y. — which is a town that kind of lived on the photography business — they had a buggy whip factory that closed down with the advent of the automobile. The thing is, it’s a lot easier to deal with a car than to deal with horses. I love horses, but you know, you have to feed them, and they poop a lot, and you have to deal with their hooves. It’s a whole thing. And so you could make the argument that a transition to cars should create a world where drivers don’t get paid, because, after all, it’s fun to drive. And it is. And they’re magical.

And so there could really easily be, somebody could easily have asserted that photography is so much easier than painting and driving cars is so much easier than horses that the people who do those things — or support it –shouldn’t be paid. Working in a nice environment — if you go to Sweden and you visit the Saab factory, it’s really nice. Why should you even be paid to do anything?

We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?

Right. Well, until about the year 2000 or so, some jobs had been destroyed by new technology. This goes back to the industrial revolution and earlier. But more jobs were created than those destroyed. So what changed?

Of course jobs become obsolete. But the only reason that new jobs were created was because there was a social contract in which a more pleasant, less boring job was still considered a job that you could be paid for. That’s the only reason it worked. If we decided that driving was such an easy thing [compared to] dealing with horses that no one should be paid for it, then there wouldn’t be all of those people being paid to be Teamsters or to drive cabs. It was a decision that it was OK to have jobs that weren’t terrible.

So it wasn’t inherent in the technology. In other words, there’s nothing inherently different about digital technology or the Internet than there is with factory technology or the assembly line or these other technological shifts that have developed?

Yeah. I mean, the whole idea of a job is entirely social construct. The United States was built on slave labor. Those people didn’t have jobs, they were just slaves. The idea of a job is that you can participate in a formal economy even if you’re not a baron. That there can be, that everybody can participate in the formal economy and the benefit of having everybody participate in the formal economy, there are annoyances with the formal economy because capitalism is really annoying sometimes.

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