Alternate Scenarios Wanted

British author Charles Leadbetter critiques the “Digital Britain plan” for making broadband ubiquitous, much like the Obama Administration’s own plan. Leadbetter points out that both are flawed because they focus on infrastructure in a narrow way, failing to address the deep transformations that the Internet is making on network culture and economy. Read his response here.

This section is particularly important:

Accelerating the spread of broadband will not save these industries but make their predicaments more difficult. Here’s the truth: plans to invest more in digital technologies will only pay off if they bring further disruption to economies that are already in turmoil. We will know when politicians are really serious about the coming digital revolution when they start to admit that it will have to cause significant disruption to established business models if it is to pay off.

This is particularly tricky in the UK. The implosion of financial services, long the flagship of the services economy, means the cultural and media industries, in which Britain has a strong position, will take on an even more important role.

Leadbetter has this right and what he says can also be applied to the two countries that I work in, the United States and Ireland, but the problem for capital will come in monetizing what he calls “mutual media,” the rising ecology of bottom-up media production.

The problem with this model, also proposed by other authors such as Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky is that it does not give an adequate explanation of how to monetize such media or how to distribute wealth in a remotely equitable manner (let’s forget socialism for the moment, I’m talking about market monopolies, in particular the inherent power-law nature of networks and how we can have anything beyond Google). Let’s be clear about this: mutual media are incredibly successful not just because we can produce anything we want and upload it, they are successful because it has us producing content for free for corporations.

Make no mistake about it, the day that it dawns on the administration at the New York Times that there are bloggers out there who would work for free, for the fashionable cachet of a byline on a Times column, and that these bloggers are better than many of the Times’s own writers is about two weeks before the entire staff of the Arts & Leisure section finds itself looking for work at Starbucks.

The economy undergoing an unprecedented transition. The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk. Theory once again dreamed its successor era: if in the years between 1988 and 1994 theory seemed to be everything only to vanish, in the years since culture has seemed to be everthing, but on a much vaster scale, forming what appeared to be a new backbone in the economy (even if, as I’ve pointed out, it was finance all along). That’s vanishing now and with it, economic crisis is at our doorstep. There is no way out of this on the horizon. The wealth of networks is not in their ability to promote sharing or interaction, but in their ability to strip away jobs and destroy industries without proposing sustainable new ones.

For anyone who thinks I’m being pessimistic, I do hope you’re right and I’m wrong. Really, I do.

Alternate scenarios wanted. My only caveat is that I we don’t cook the books or take on more Ponzi schemes like the real estate bubble.

2 thoughts on “Alternate Scenarios Wanted”

  1. Alternative scenarios
    Couldn’t agree more. A lot of jobs done by the chattering classes are done so badly that we won’t miss them.

    Their choices are really to a) learn social media skills and run the networks or b) get so good at their jobs that someone is willing to pay them.

    Otherwise, yes it will be c Starbucks. Service management is important and will become more so. But it is a very competitive business and the only thing stopping it being taken over by migrants is the artificial constraint of immigration law. Competitive days are here.

    Younger people should do a or b or c or health or science. Science & technology are where the breakthroughs will be. We should also take into account that 1/3 of Chinese and Singaporean exports are high tech while 1/5 of USA and UK exports are high tech (and falling). It might be wise to learn Mandarin, Hindi or Arabic too.

    Not impossible. Just change. No reason to assume that because we had it good before that it would go on forever!

  2. Risk & Positives
    First of all, “the coming digital revolution” is here. And the anxiety that surrounds this argument only exists because it is a threat to the tightly knit relationships between corporations and government. Policy doesn’t change because of the “significant disruption to established business models” and also because it could mean a change in the centres of geopolitical powers. It threatens structure of free-market capitalism whose centres are in the first world.

    Perhaps there are many positives. Maybe the shift falls in the right place for the Global South? Shed the “there is no way out of this on the horizon” sentiment and realise that any first-world exceptionalism might and probably will be debased (there are a great many first-world citizens trying to make that happen too). We have to learn to work with these changes. Not feel threatened and somehow try to continue to exploit and prolong a shadow economy.

    Isn’t that network beauty?


Leave a Comment