Posted by: Dan Beucke on November 7, 2011 at 7:00 PM
For $25, Daniel H will help debug your software. Valerie asks just $20 to pick your folks up from the airport. Miss Minty, for $50, will teach you to drive a stick-shift. Those are some of the services being offered on Coffee and Power, a web site that looks to match up tasks with willing workers. Like it or not, it may be the future of work — and pay.
The New York Times today wrote about the San Francisco-based site and its creator, Philip Rosedale, who is best known for Second Life, the much-hyped virtual world. Second Life got a ton of attention five years ago because it offered users a chance to play and work in a parallel, web-based universe. (And fly about in the form of totally unrealistic avatars.) Coffee and Power is not the first web service to bill itself as a marketplace for work. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, in its own words, asks “workers to complete HITs - Human Intelligence Tasks.” Other errand-matching services include TaskRabbit and Fancy Hands.
It’s jarring how cheaply some jobs are bid. The Times says many of the people offering their services on Coffee and Power are professionals looking for money on the side. If the idea takes off, though, it raises the prospect that someone who makes a living building iPhone applications or teaching music will have to compete with the lowest possible bidder. That image of a race to the bottom of the wage hole sent me to one of the most thoughtful critics of Web 2.0, Jaron Lanier.
In his 2010 book “You Are Not a Gadget,” Lanier warned that the individual is being devalued in the service of ever more powerful networks. It’s a fascinating and expansive argument. Here’s Lanier in a question-and-answer posted on his web site:
It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data. There are so many things wrong with this that it takes a whole book to summarize them. Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.
When I got Jaron on the phone he pointed out that he had worked with Rosedale (on a science advisory board for Second Life) and stressed he is “fond of Philip and wish him well.” The principle of matching work to workers is good, he says. “But I don’t think this way of doing things is, in the long run, sustainable.”
The goal of anyone who’s creating a web network is to collect big user data that can be more efficiently monetized (think Google and advertising) and can make the network more sticky — that is, hard for users to leave. (Think Facebook.) If they succeed, the network owner gets rich. Users — in this case, workers — don’t. They feed the machine and wind up bidding against each other. “The problem with these schemes is that they don’t allow options for the in-between solutions,” Lanier says.
Could such a system support a “middle class”? The key, Lanier says, would be to somehow create “risk pools” so users wouldn’t have to compete as individuals. “It’s been done through guilds, through unions, through funds, through portfolios.”
There’s no denying that age plays into this. Many of those offering services on Coffee and Power appear, by their user profiles, to be fairly young. There reaches a point in life, though, where you don’t want to bid on every next job. Lanier calls it “biological realism”: “When I was in my 20s, I won and lost a fortune three times. It was wonderful,” he says. Now he’s a parent. “If you’re always singing for your supper…”
In August, he expanded on that idea in an hour-long video interview with the online salon Edge:
I’m astonished at how readily a great many people I know, young people, have accepted a reduced economic prospect and limited freedoms in any substantial sense, and basically traded them for being able to screw around online. There are just a lot of people who feel that being able to get their video or their tweet seen by somebody once in a while gets them enough ego gratification that it’s okay with them to still be living with their parents in their 30s, and that’s such a strange tradeoff. And if you project that forward, obviously it does become a problem.
Rosedale tells the Times that Coffee and Power’s task sellers (refered to on the site as “wills”) currently outnumber buyers (“wants”) 3-to-1. One of the “want” posts says it all — a self-described full-time student and freelance musician is willing to pay $15 to someone who can “teach me how to make a steady income online.”
Update: On a related front, a report just out from McKinsey (hat tip to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic) claims the Internet has contributed more than a fifith of GDP growth in mature economies over the past five years. And, more to the point of this post, while “the Internet has made some jobs obsolete … (it) can be a net job creator.” A McKinsey study of France found that “while the Internet is reported to have destroyed 500,000 jobs over the past 15 years, it created 1.2 million new ones.” A McKinsey survey of small and medium-sized businesses found that 2.6 jobs were created for every one destroyed.
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