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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?
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