Impossibly Useless

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

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This week's newsletter is a stream of consciousness. It is a part-rant, part-theory-of-everything that mashes up multiple ideas that are germinating inside my head. Mixing them on paper helps me think them through. And your thoughts will help me refine them. So, let me know what you think.

The greatest trick the office ever pulled was convincing people it doesn't exist. Even before Covid, offices were trying hard to pretend they were homes or social spaces — and corporations were trying to pretend they were families or communities.

These trends will intensify. Remote work makes the office even less visible. And flexible work makes the boundaries of the corporation less distinct.

But change does not stop there. It is not just where or when we work that is changing; it is the nature of work itself. For a growing number of people, work is becoming indistinguishable from leisure. In some cases, the workers don't even know they are working. In others, workers think they are working while they are, in fact, resting.

In the emerging world of work, video gamers are getting paid to play games, and fans are paid to listen to music. This is not charity. People are paid to consume, like, and share because their actions contribute to the economy. In some cases, their "efforts" provide essential feedback that helps products and algorithms improve. In other cases, their initial support helps increase the odds a specific product will succeed. And in other cases, their presence makes the game (or event, or group chat) more exciting for customers who actually pay.

In some cases, this arrangement is explicit. People are literally paid to play games. In most cases, this arrangement is still implicit — people consume content and, by doing so, generate revenue for corporations that use some of that revenue to give their viewers free content and other perks.

In contrast to those whose leisure is productive are those whose actual work is unproductive. 21st Century offices and corporations are full of people that do nothing in particular. I am not talking about office-dwellers who are pretending to work or doing something else while at work. I am talking about people who are doing their actual job — a job that is, itself, useless.

Corporations and offices contribute to social stability by slowing down the best and brightest — pulling them into unnecessary meetings, forcing them into wasteful commutes, distracting them with chatty colleagues, or flooding them with notifications on Slack or Gmail. At the same time, these chats and notifications and meetings are keeping everyone else occupied — occupied but not working in the traditional sense of the word.

A minority of office dwellers invent and develop the products that most other office dwellers use and consume in their spare time. Corporations exist in order to ensure that consumers are paid enough to be able to afford the products developed by these same corporations. In that sense, many corporations are social welfare programs where the few are subsidizing the many.

At their best, corporations enable the best and brightest to be productive just enough to generate the surplus to support all their colleagues, but not enough to completely pull ahead and become independent entrepreneurs. The majority of employees contribute their part by generating and filling the meetings, notifications, and chatter that prevents the best from doing their absolute best.

And when I say "the best," I am not talking about a specific class of people. I am talking about whoever happens to be working on something truly useful. One of the biggest challenges of modern business is the role of chance events in determining a product's success. Companies can no longer simply "hire good people" and "develop products that sell." We are no longer in a linear, industrial economy in which the right inputs are very likely to produce the right outputs. Instead, we are in an economy in which the right inputs are just table stakes; they are a lottery ticket. But the right outputs — the things that become successful — are those that happen to draw the attention of the crowd at the right moment and, in turn, are boosted by algorithms that turn initial success into ultimate, absolute success.

In some industries, companies deal with this uncertainty by avoiding any attempt at innovation. This is the reason why the most successful movies of the 21st Century are remakes or extensions of earlier, already-successful movies. Trying something new is too risky. As long as it is viable, recycling remains the most logical strategy. But it is not always viable. And in other industries, companies must make multiple bets in order to have a fighting chance.

In such industries, the employees themselves are bets. Corporations hire tens of thousands of equally qualified people with the hope that one or a handful of them will come up with an idea that makes it all worthwhile. These companies are not recycling ideas, but they are recycling capital. They are using billions made from past successes to bet on employees who will maybe develop a future success that will help finance even more bets. This dynamic is painfully visible in companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, who are hoarding a huge chunk of the world's talent — throwing people and ideas at the wall to see what sticks.

But most companies and entrepreneurs are not sitting on billions from past successes to wager on future bets. And so, new ways of betting on people and ideas are emerging. Social tokens enable investors to bet on multiple people without hiring all of them. DAOs allow groups of people to pool their time and money towards a common goal — or into multiple common goals. And various other types of tokens incentivize early customers to support ideas and projects in a way that increases the odds of success.

On the other side, new types of safety nets are emerging to keep people afloat in a world in which work itself is a bet — an opportunity to make millions but also a necessity to participate in a game in which they compete with millions of talented people from across the globe for the attention of billions of distracted customers. These safety nets include government-provided Universal Basic Income and new ways for groups and individuals to share risks and rewards — for people to invest in other people or to share the risk of their own career by letting other people invest in them.

To sum it up, we're heading to a world in which work is increasingly indistinguishable from leisure, corporations indistinguishable from communities (or group chats), production indistinguishable from consumption, and every person is both an investor and an investment.

In such a world, it is no longer possible to do nothing. Every activity — playing a game, watching a video, building a product, or even just staying alive — contributes directly to one endeavor or another. Every human act is an act of allocating capital. In such a world, "fun" will become a more productive activity in the narrow economic sense. But leisure itself will become obsolete. Simply being useless will no longer be possible.

Have a great weekend. I write a weekly newsletter about the future of work, money, and cities. If you enjoyed this piece, please subscribe and check out my course.