Monetization, Meaning, and Mastering the Art of Losing

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Tim O'Reilly on Technology and... Pete Boettke on Katrina, Ten Y...

This week EconTalk host Russ Roberts spoke with Tim O'Reilly, and the conversation ranged over the history of the Internet and the sharing economy, the significance of open-source software, climate change, income inequality, and poetry.

What did you take from this week's whirlwind episode? Use our prompts below (or pose some of your own!) in the Comments, and let's continue the conversation.

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1. Roberts defines the central human problem as one of meaning, noting that he finds meaning at least in part through his work. We want to know how YOU find meaning? And how do you define it? Is it close to Adam Smith's definition? Explain.

2. About halfway through the conversation, Roberts and O'Reilly discuss the plight of workers in the sharing economy. Roberts asserts that competition protects workers. O'Reilly counters that this works in theory, but not in practice. What is the root of their disagreement, and what sort of policy or policies might Roberts and O'Reilly be able to agree on?

3. Reputation is an important type of capital, and the notion of reputation seems to be constantly in flux in the digital age. How can reputation in the digital age be monetized? Will actions such as "liking" or "retweeting" eventually become monetized? Should they? To what extent are these accurate reputational signals?

4. What's your interpretation of the poem Roberts recites, "One Art?" What would it mean to "master the art of losing?"

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Greg Linster writes:

The concerns about the future of work bring to mind Thomas Piketty's work showing that the returns to capital have been greater than the returns to labor in the 21st century.

The common objection to any concern about the future of work is that more wealth creates more jobs. However, it seems unlikely to me that increasing collective wealth will create more jobs ad infinitum. As Gregory Clark pointed out in "A Farewell to Alms", draft horses once provided useful and economically efficient labor, but that changed thanks to technology. Why is human labor any different? Human labor may just go the way of draft horse labor.

Economists tend to worship at the altar of efficiency, but one of the main luxuries of being wealthy is that it buys you the freedom to do things inefficiently. We are, at our core, generalists. We often like doing things for ourselves, even when it doesn't make sense on efficiency grounds (e.g., high-paid individuals who cook their own meals).

For what it's worth, the idea of entertaining each other on social media, and getting paid for it, sounds like a very dystopian solution to me.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
Roberts defines the central human problem as one of meaning, noting that he finds meaning at least in part through his work. We want to know how YOU find meaning? And how do you define it?

From my philosophical vantage point, there is no "meaning" except the artifice which one willfully chooses to create in ones own mind. It can be found in anything, everything, and equally it can be found in nothing at all. I have found, as I have gotten older (and listened to a lot of Alan Watts), that I can now see the "illusion" of "meaning" for what it truly is: simply a whimsical creation of my own mind, like a painting on a canvas.

As a child, one is bombarded with the notion that life is gravely "meaningful". This notion is repeatedly re-enforced through religion and the grasping, selfish nature of society. You must do this, you mustn't do that, you should do this, you shouldn't do that.

However, as one starts to comprehend the actual enormity of the universe and can comprehend the staggering depth of time (where a trillion years is just a drop in the ocean of time), only then can one truly understand the fleeting momentary triviality of your own life, and of everything and everyone around you. The immense universe is essentially the same with or without you, and, given enough time, the effect of your existence will be absolutely nil.

I have faced that sobering realization and concluded that I may as well play the game of life as if it did "mean" something although I am fully aware that this "meaning" is a contrivance of my own making. I actually find that realization liberating. Life doesn't matter, so don't worry about it.

I have chosen some very ordinary, pedestrian pursuits to provide meaning to myself: try to be a good husband, be the best father I can, and try to enjoy the things in life that I find interesting, pleasurable, or satisfying. As one gets older, one also learns that we don't actually get to play this game of life for very long.

Jeff writes:

3) This has already happened. $200 for 27K "zombie" Twitter followers. They aren't real people, but it's a quick way to buy a false sense of legitimacy. Don't get any funny ideas, @EconTalker! Algorithms exist to sort out the faux followers.

There are already measures of your digital ability to influence the conversations. This has been monetized, too. Vine stars leverage their abilities to gain and maintain followers to the tune of $20K/6 sec clip. Brands are willing to shell out this kind of money for "air time" since it's a spot on millions of people's Vine feeds. So, yes digital influence "should" be rewarded because of its ability to recruit consumers.

However, let's look at non-digital medium. We pay enormous sums to hear influential people speak on matters of policy or politics. Yet, I've found an inverse relationship between the level of someone's fame or influence and how interesting/insightful their talks are. They've staked out their positions and everyone in the room knows the speaker's thoughts on the subject before the speech. What unique insight is everyone waiting for? I think it's more of a signaling function; the host organization is showing who they can recruit (or afford) to speak and its members are showing they have a ticket to the show.

It's far more interesting to hear those who haven't "made it" or aren't looking to "make it." They are no incentives holding them back from telling a crowd what they really think; they'll concede points and acknowledge limits to their claims. That's who we should incentivize to speak, yet the human desire to be near a celebrity holds us back.

jw writes:

Mark,

"However, as one starts to comprehend the actual enormity of the universe and can comprehend the staggering depth of time (where a trillion years is just a drop in the ocean of time), only then can one truly understand the fleeting momentary triviality of your own life, and of everything and everyone around you. The immense universe is essentially the same with or without you, and, given enough time, the effect of your existence will be absolutely nil. "

Keep studying. It turns out that the universe is much stranger than your description. Sentience may be extremely rare (we MAY be the only ones in the galaxy - probably not in the universe) and sentience may greatly influence the universe, quantum theory is just that weird.

Other concepts like quantum immortality may also exist. Time is still an enigma. And there is always Pascal's wager to consider.

Your existence may not be as insignificant as you believe.

(I understand that this does not help to answer the original question...)

Fred Kavanaugh writes:

On the second question, we have a confusion of categories. Tim O'Reilly is talking management practice - what do managers do and how it affects the workers (despite the mission statement and code of conduct says). Russ is talking about economics - the effect on workers as a whole in the economy.

O'Reilly talks about the horrible swing shift - double shift that can occur at the companies. It's not that they don't have a right to do this or the necessity at a given store, but that the policy to schedule the workers on this punishing schedules come from a Big-Data top-down methodology from the corporate headquarters and the CEO's and responsible managers can delude themselves with the mental knick-knacks of free market economics of emergent orders and responsible frontline managers and the full Dilbert treatment. If a frontline manager at Starbuck's decides to ignore the scheduling system once. . .he'll get an email. . .the second time . . he could easily get a pink slip and the system will roll on. A humane manager disobeying the Scheduling system will have the job prospects as the Soviet manager trying to be efficient. When Reilly talks about protecting workers and raising the issue . .it's to say that the corporation is chewing up employees and there is no practical way to stop it - short of the company going bankrupt. . . .an unfortunate managerial outcome, but not an important economic one.

The firm will abuse its workers with these systems as long as the costs of abuse do not exceed the benefits of the scheduling system. Reilly is only saying that the managers should be aware of the consequences and that misapplying free market verbiage to a managerial system is no solution. . no better than applying managerial methods to economics (the Russians have many vivid and obscene terms for the practice under Stalin). "Markets" will not save the firm from the consequences of the abuse of the workers. . .it may save the economy from the continuing consequences over the long haul, but the firm will die. His remarks about Schultz, the head of Starbucks, is simply that Schultz is responsible for what happens at Starbucks and he had to decide if he wanted his company to make a short term advantage from grinding up workers as a standard practice. But the shibboleth that the crazy schedules will work itself out inside Starbucks as if there was a functioning market within a tightly controlled and managed organization like Starbucks is categorically absurd.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

Like Russ, I find meaning in my work. On the other hand, I don't particularly derive meaning from the fact that I get paid for it. It's hard to see how Russ's work translates into income for his employer[*], so it doesn't seem like that's why he finds meaning in it, either. I suspect that we're seeing an increasing split between work as a source of meaning and work as a source of income, particularly as manual labor becomes less of a scarce resource and limiting factor in production.

I see the eventual future of work being some sort of Norway-style minimum income, nobody doing unskilled labor, but everybody working with the skills they have, which may or may not be marketable, since that wouldn't matter so much.

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