Conan O'Brien, Jaron Lanier And the Status of "Talent"

Posted by: Nanette Byrnes on January 13, 2010

It’s not news that workers are struggling. Unemployment’s at 10%. And as my colleagues so deftly describe in this week’s cover story, more of those who are working are doing so as temporary help, hoping for enough salary at month’s end to cover both the rent and their health insurance.

How is that imbalance playing out for the creative class, the knowledge worker that was thought to be emerging as the bedrock of the US economy of the future?

Two very different people have shed some light on the issue this week.

One is late-night jokester Conan O’Brien, who built his career in TV the old fashioned way, working his way up the ranks of one of the original networks, to eventually land as host of one of its oldest shows, The Tonight Show. The other is internet pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier. Known for popularizing the term “virtual reality,” Lanier became famous in the 1990s as a forceful proponent of the promise of web-based sharing of intellectual and artistic work.

O’Brien and Lanier are each concerned with their own medium and situation, but in their critiques they shed light on a common truth. In a US economy based on knowledge workers, creativity, and in many ways entertainment, the talent that dreams up the ideas, the jokes, or the computer code, isn’t being treated very well.

O’Brien argued in his goodbye note to his job and NBC, that it was network mismanagement that hurt his show, and that he didn’t want any part of a misguided attempt to fix one bad programming strategy with another. “My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work,” O’Brien writes before signing off with a tacked on joke about his hair.

Lanier hits a not-dissimilar note in his new book “You Are Not A Gadget.” In his write up of the book in the New York Times John Tierney explains that Lanier sees the web as having evolved to a point of reducing creative people to “the new peasants”.

Lanier blames the cultural norms of the web, technology and other things for dampening the quality of our society’s creative endeavors overall in recent times. “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier writes.

I don’t exactly feel sorry for Conan O’Brien. He’s in the big leagues, he gets the big bucks, sometimes that doesn’t end well. And it would be easy to relegate Mr. Lanier to sleeping in the bed he’d help make.

But they do raise a question worth considering: How will the economy really right itself, if the people that should be creating its future are treated as so unimportant?

Reader Comments

logic

January 13, 2010 2:30 PM

One would need to make long term creative work financially rewarding. Realistically that would mean severely curtailing offshoring, H1-B visas, and immigration in general. Will that happen? Nope. That would hinder accruing wealth for key people in the 1-3 year timeframe, so it won't be allowed.

So yes, creative people, no matter how well educated or talented, will be downwardly mobile in future years. The new peasants.

Squeezebox

January 13, 2010 4:24 PM

All of America is waking up to the reality Hollywood lived with for years. There's no such thing as job security, and you're only as good as your latest contribution. That's why the movie stars demand multimillion dollar salaries, because they know that they might never get work again. They pay for their own retirements. They pay for their own benefits. The old way of working for one company for life is gone. Everyone needs an agent to sell their talent for this gig or that, just like stars have agents negotiating their pay and perks. The open market will determine what anyone is worth.


On the other hand, you are expected to produce or you're out. Conan O'Brien was fired because his ratings weren't as good as Jay Leno's were in the same time slot. Jay lost his earlier time slot because his ratings don't equal CSI's. A lot of the executives who bill themselves as superstars need to produce super results or they'll get canned.

Steve

January 13, 2010 4:50 PM

I still miss Johnny Carson - that guy was funny. Jay was pretty good but I don't believe he ever approached Carsons' level.
As for Conan replacing Jay I just never saw that, I'm a pasty white guy have never found Conan particularly funny.

AJ

January 13, 2010 5:20 PM

If employees can switch from job to job when times are good, bosses are very capable of switching from employee to employee when times are bad. This is simple supply and demand.

At the same time, it should be noted that just because you are a knowledge worker, you are not automatically entitled to your job, holding bosses at ransom. If anything, Conan's situation shows that there is plenty of demand for knowledge workers (e.g. Fox), even for those who are essentially let go.

This article smacks of BusinessWeek putting together something without care in order to be timely (on the much-hyped Conan story). BusinessWeek, readers expect better.

AJ

January 13, 2010 5:24 PM

If employees can switch from job to job when times are good, bosses are very capable of switching from employee to employee when times are bad. This is simple supply and demand.

At the same time, it should be noted that just because you are a knowledge worker, you are not automatically entitled to your job, holding bosses at ransom. If anything, Conan's situation shows that there is plenty of demand for knowledge workers (e.g. Fox), even for those who are essentially let go.

This article smacks of BusinessWeek putting together something without care in order to be timely (on the much-hyped Conan story). BusinessWeek, readers expect better.

Ken

January 13, 2010 9:53 PM

Is the current economic situation so different from any downward turn, job, or career field loss of the past? When we place all of our eggs in one basket and we drop the basket, a whole bunch of eggs break. We call our economy the creative economy or the knowledge economy... how far off is that from the agriculture economy (which crashed) or the industrial economy (which crashed)? If we would spread our eggs out into different baskets, we might get to eat eggs for breakfast once in a while. That would take real creativity. What we fail to keep in mind is that stability and growth require change and progress (evolution). It seems to me that evolution is fueled by creativity and vice versa. There are too many road blocks to economic solutions being handed to us though (indebted government officials, redundant bureaucracy, mob fear tactics, individual complacency, etc.) The answers don't lie "out there", they lie within the individual and within communities. If you don't want to clean eggs off your floor so often, take a risk and participate in economic decision making. Create meaningful jobs and inspire others to do the same. Make sure you don't copy your neighbor's job making trends however, because your other neighbors will copy you... and then we know what happens to our eggs.

Anon

January 14, 2010 4:21 PM

@Squeezebox:
Conan hasn't been fired; if anything, NBC is trying desperately not to lose him on a show. The issue as it stands is that putting Jay on in an early slot has undercut the entire evening's broadcast. That is, even affiliated newscasts have seen ratings plummet by up to half viewership on NBC since Jay went on in prime. Regardless of how good a show Conan puts on, NBC can't get its foot in the door if nobody is watching the prime time promo spots.

abbeyjdm

January 16, 2010 5:48 PM

Many ppl are in the same boat. Wondering if they can make rent next month. Just cause your hours get cut or you lose your job, rent or bills are not going to stop.jdm

Andy

January 18, 2010 1:27 AM

Janet Beach, who runs U.S. Marketing Services in San Francisco and coordinates a volunteer Job Forum under the auspices of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said people with jobs should do what they can to solidify their positions by, for instance, finding ways to help their companies save money or increase revenue.

"You want to differentiate yourself and make yourself valuable," Beach said.

Regards.

----
Andy

OXYGEN

March 28, 2010 9:23 AM

I still miss Johnny Carson - that guy was funny. Jay was pretty good but I don't believe he ever approached Carsons' level.
As for Conan replacing Jay I just never saw that, I'm a pasty white guy have never found Conan particularly funny.

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