The Edgy Post-Industrial Economy

Last week, I wrote about the workforce becoming more freelance and the policies that have been proposed to deal with this change.  In this post, I continue the discussion about work in general and more broadly economic trends.

According to the standard measures, the economy is doing ok.  But there are unsettling, even bizarre, trends that make people feel anxious about their economic future.

For example, much has been made about the shift of jobs to China and India – even in popular culture.  About ten years ago there was a movie, Outsourced, about an American who was sent to India to train his replacements.  

But last month, the New York Times had a story that “Chinese Textile Mills Are Now Hiring in Places Where Cotton Was King”.  As manufacturing costs in the US become relatively competitive again with China, Chinese companies are buying American plants and sending their workers here to train Americans on how to do their jobs – jobs that were once in the USA.

I’ve noted before in this blog that the nature of work life is changing in ways that are more fundamental than whether the work is in the US or China or whether you work as a freelancer or in a traditional job.  Ross Perlin pulled together a list of some of these changes in an article in Fast Company magazine.  Its title: “These Are The New Rules of Work: Forget everything you’ve always known about work. The rules have changed.”

Here’s his list:


But it’s not just that the nature of work is changing.  Many people worry that old jobs are disappearing and new ones not being created fast enough to replace the old or that the economy is not just changing, but somehow imploding.  

For example, in the cover story of last month’s issue of the Atlantic Magazine, Derek Thompson provided a thorough analysis of these issues in an article titled “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?”


Of course, there are other, more positive responses, to the changes that are happening.

Some workers love the changes, as Karoli Hindriks, who runs a service that identifies global job opportunities, reported in “On-Demand Employment: How Today’s Workers Are Choosing Journeys Over Jobs”.

Finally, and reminiscent of the old phrase “the King is dead; long live the King”, Robin Chase (founder of ZipCar and since then an evangelist for the sharing economy) has written “Bye, Bye Capitalism. We’re Entering the Age of Abundance.  The old model of unwieldy behemoths is giving way to a new one of collaboration. Welcome to the world of Peers.”


© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

A Sharing Economy?

[This is a continuation of my previous blog post about the changing meaning of money in the Internet age.]

In the movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”, this bit of conversation took place –

Gillian: Don’t tell me they don’t use money in the 23rd century.

Kirk: Well, we don’t.

The implication of this dialogue is that in two centuries we will have evolved from a monetized economy to something different.  But what is that?  Is it like the sharing economy? 

This is a huge topic and one that is hard to get a handle on. 

There have, of course, been scholars of the phenomenon.  Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers brought initial intellectual focus on the phenomenon with their excellent and wide-ranging 2010 book, titled “What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise Of Collaborative Consumption”.   (Unlike many others, the book covered or at least touched on the questions I ask in the rest of this post.)  She extended these ideas to larger companies in the Harvard Business Review – “Sharing’s Not Just For Startups”.


More recently, New York University Professor Arun Sundararajan, has been the academic leader on the sharing economy.  You can see his views at NYU and in his talk, “Our Collaborative Future? Ownership, Equity and Growth in the Sharing Economy”.   He has also launched an experimental platform, PeerCollaborative.

But part of the problem in understanding the “sharing economy” is that the phrase has been used in different contexts.

First, to go back to Star Trek, there is the idea of an economy without money.  One could assume this is based on some form of barter or non-monetary rewards.  Historically, of course, barter economies don’t go far.  Rewards that don’t include money have been a prominent feature in the Internet, with the people who write and edit Wikipedia entries as the most obvious example.

In his book, “Who Owns The Future”, Jason Lanier asks how people will be compensated in a digital age where so much of value is in the form of ideas (and observation of human behavior).  His solution is a system of micro-payments whenever one of our ideas or patterns of behavior is used for some other form of business.  Thus, if someone used one of your creative products, they would have to pay a small fee.  If Google sold some advertising based on data about your life that you made available to them, you would get a piece of that ad revenue.

There are all kinds of issues and weaknesses in Lanier’s book – which he mostly admits to.  But it’s worth noting that his aim is admirable: he hopes to monetize these Internet activities to preserve enough income for everyone so that the middle class survives the growing inequality that seems to have accompanied the ascendance of the Internet.

Despite its noble aims, there have been numerous critiques of his proposal.  Among the more interesting are “Jaron Lanier’s Strange Fantasy” and “Facebookers of the World, Unite!”.  But what replaces monetary compensation still remains an outstanding issue.  Can we live on sharing alone?

Time banks and time-based currency is another form of non-monetary payment, although it predates the widespread use of the Internet.  In its simplest version, people exchange their time – an hour of plumbing for an hour of web design, for example.  The example of sharing and collaboration on the Internet has provided additional justification for the advocates of time banking.  So there has been new attention to it, as you can see from this ABC News report earlier this year and more recently this TV story, “Forget Bitcoins, what about time as currency?”.


And then there’s what has come to dominate the meaning of “sharing economy” – for-profit business services like Uber and AirBnB.  One sharing aspect of these businesses comes about because not everyone has to buy an asset, like a car, for it to be available.  Another way is when a person makes available – “shares” – an asset he/she owns, like an apartment. 

The growth of these “sharing” services has not been without complaints about:

  • Abuses of the people delivering services – like the complaints against Uber by drivers who feel insufficiently compensated;
  • Abuses of the people receiving services – like the fear of attacks by guests of AirBnB hosts or the trashing of the host’s apartments;
  • Various violations of state and local regulations intended to protect consumers and ensure properly functioning markets.  (You might want to see the recent, November 19, session of Legal Hackers NYC and Launch LM concerning “Legal Issues in the Sharing Economy

To an extent, I’d chalk up these problems to the newness of this approach to business. 

For me, though, the longer term issue is whether these services are as transformative as their advocates claim.  Are these “sharing economy” businesses more than just another example of the way that the Internet can help decentralize business activity and decompose hierarchies? 

While decentralization is not unimportant, the answer would seem to be no.  These businesses, by and large, have not fundamentally changed the role of money nor set out to provide a way to measure the increasing share of human activity that is intangible services and digital products. 

Perhaps a version of Bitcoin is needed that is not merely another currency that can be exchanged for dollars or euros, but can instead be used as a measure of time given, resources shared, and data or creative product provided.  Whatever the answer is, I hope we don’t have to wait until the 23rd century to figure that out.


© 2014 Norman Jacknis