Law in the Internet Society

Mechanization, Disintermediation, and Service as Currency in the Transitional Economy

-- By MatthewCollins - 28 Jan 2013

What Is a Job?

“Jobs” have taken a curious meaning in the American lexicon. Jobs are not simply roles we need served in order to tend to a large society with high product/service demand and complicated products and services. Jobs measure a president’s success. Jobs are a way to distribute wealth to the poor. Jobs fill some basic human need to contribute to society (thus maintaining a “strong workforce”). Jobs are the path to one’s personal larger share of society’s resources.

In many lines of argument relating to America’s recent economic problems, jobs qua jobs are the solution. It is irrelevant that the jobs may be an inefficient use of our human capital; all that matters is that they get wealth (in its economic meaning only) to the poor without nasty “redistribution,” that basic human to work need is filled and a strong workforce is maintained, and people are set on the path of the American dream.

But of course, jobs are just roles we need filled. If one primitive human could gather enough food, water, and shelter for the rest of his social group, the others needed not work simply for the sake of working. The resources were there regardless, and they could pursue other things (say, discover fire or invent the wheel). Given that menial work in service of a higher individual has never adequately distributed resources between laborers and owners (and especially isn’t doing so today), that no expressly individual need is fulfilled by performing boilerplate and menial work in service of another, and that the American dream is measurably more existent in countries not named “America” than it is here, creating jobs that aren’t necessary roles does no good. The cavemen are not better off with another of their number hunting, and notably worse off when it costs them the warmth and advancement of fire.

Mechanization and Disintermediation

For some time, we needed many roles filled. But two forces have worked to hamper labor demand in America in recent years – mechanization and its similarly technology-driven brother, disintermediation. The former has gone some way to removing the need for our most basic labor jobs – construction, mining, product assembly – by replacing human workers with machines. Not only does this save human health and dignity, but it’s more efficient – and thus makes purchase price cheaper – to have a $160,000 robot with a ten-year lifespan doing the job of an hourly worker (that’s even assuming equivalent output).

Disintermediation, meanwhile, has done away with even white collar jobs. With the communications potential of network technology, those who formerly brokered the exchange and distribution of goods are no longer necessary. We hardly need the print newspaper when its content can be endless reproduced at zero marginal cost, and its very content-aggregating purpose is less necessary when those closely connected to the news can simply communicate about it directly to everyone instantly. The machination of the record industry – talent evaluators who know what people like and thus what is worth investing in, distribution teams working on the logistics of getting recorded music into consumers’ hands, transactional attorneys – is moot when a musician can record and distribute an album using increasingly cheap hardware, free editing software, and a post to the internet for all to access. Even universities, intermediaries of knowledge, are beginning to face the realities of disintermediation in the internet society.

What this means, then, is that many of the roles we used to need filled are no longer necessary. A large part of our economy was creating capital-intensive (human or otherwise) goods and distributing them. As these roles are filled by machines (both robotic and networked) it does us no good to work solely for the sake of working. But in the misunderstood concept of “jobs” there lies a kernel from which an approach to finding roles in the transitional economy can be created.

A New Way to Make a Living

That idea: that humans have a desire to uniquely contribute. Not worded so by those who understand working qua working to be a good thing – those who think that any contribution is fulfilling – the idea that humans desire to contribute still lies at the core of making a living in the internet society. There is, of course, no fulfillment in simply doing a mechanical task, being a replaceable piece earning you and your family a small slice of resources in hopes of a promotion. That promotion, though, offers the potential of fulfillment, not simply an increased share of resources; it offers the possibility for distinctly human and distinctly individual decisions and behaviors to have meaningful ramifications.

Humans don’t simply wish to contribute – they crave to contribute in a way that is not only unique to them as humans but unique to them as an individual member of the species. By offering unique services, humans can work as individuals offering something only they can offer. In doing so, they can earn compensation not present for endlessly reproducible goods with average costs fast approaching zero. Eben has discussed how Madonna now works with LiveNation? , a concert promoter, as opposed to a standard record label; although her music “product” has an average cost approaching zero, her performances are still experiences impossible to capture and distribute. Lawyers are more valuable as counselors than as transaction costs or knowledge banks as websites like and Google become even better embraced. Teachers are better-suited to add value to information rather than simply broker its distribution to students.

In economic terms, this is more efficient – resources are not allocated improperly and goods can be as cheap as they should be. In sociological terms, individuals are acting in ways more fulfilling to them, the ultimate goal of any society (if some read economic efficiency as the means to that goal). And in temporal terms, this economy can bridge the gap to a more complete realization of the sociological potential of network technology.

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r2 - 28 Jan 2013 - 05:47:41 - MatthewCollins
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