Oh my gosh. The end of your three days, but hey. It’s the beginning of mine. I was trying to think of the easiest way to say this. And the easiest way is to tell you about the morning I saw on the cover of The New York Times, I saw… Well, it was actually The Wall Street Journal. I saw the face of a friend of mine, Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, on the morning of his IPO. And he had the number $4.3 billion under his face. Which was the amount of money he had earned that day, that morning. And I thought to myself, this guy’s fucked.
And it was a strangely mixed feeling. All my feelings these days are very mixed. I was happy for him on the one hand. Here’s the kid who who started Blogger and you know, borrowed two hundred dollars from him, and three hundred dollars from her, to get this thing going, and disrupted journalism, and started Twitter. And he’s a good guy, and he wants to give money the Iowa corn farmers, where he’s from.
But at the same time, I realized now that he had taken in all of this money, he was going to have to do something impossible with this company. He was going to have to somehow find 100×, 1,000× returns from a 140‐character messaging app. And Twitter, unlike some other things like Facebook, I think Twitter’s cool. I think Twitter’s actually a good, light, app. And Twitter now makes $500 million a quarter. Which is $2 billion a year. I mean, imagine going to your mom and saying, “I made an app. It delivers 140‐character messages, and I make $2 billion a year on it.
Mom would think that’s really cool. Yay! A win, right? A win. $2 billion, a win! But $2 billion a year is considered an abject failure by Wall Street. Because it turns out $2 billion is about all you can make off a 140‐character messaging app. That’s about…it. Two billion.
Now you would think $2 billion dollars, 140 char—this is good. This is a good, sustainable business. This would work, right? But the problem as far as Wall Street’s concerned is you can’t stop… There’s no such thing as enough. The only way to make money in the debt structure, in the business plan that they adopted that morning, is to grow. Is to grow—not just grow, but to somehow try to grow exponentially. To go from two billion to five billion to twelve billion to thirty billion. So even if the exponential growth curve starts to level off into a geometric one, that’s failure.
So, the impossibility of being able to do this is not an aberration. This is business as usual. And this is what’s destroying not just the digital economy, but it’s destroying the whole thing. It’s destroying our world. Not just our joy and our time and our livelihood, but that planet itself. The beauty of digital technology, equal to its tragedy, the tragedy is it accelerates and amplifies all of the problems of corporate capitalism, to the point where we’re just sucking everything out.
The beauty of it is it makes all of this visible. It actually makes it transparent. We can see what’s going on for the first time. We know, now I think, not just from that but thanks to Mike Judge and Silicon Valley, we know that when you are on the floor of the stock exchange, getting to ring the bell on the morning of your IPO and getting applauded by all the stock brokers and investment bankers around you, it’s not because you’ve done something disruptive. They’re applauding you and letting you ring the bell because you’ve confirmed the primacy of corporate capital to the whole equation.
So yeah, you can go disrupt journalism with Blogger, and disrupt communications technology with Twitter, but finally, when it comes to the underlying operating system, oh no, don’t disrupt that. What do the disruptors do the minute someone notices them? Is you run to daddy at Goldman Sachs and you surrender all that disruption to the biggest, baddest industry. The one most in need of disruption, of all.
And the part that’s confusing to me, that’s ironic to me, is that programmers, developers, people who have engaged with operating systems, are ignorant of the fact that they’re running their businesses on top of another operating system that was programmed by people in a particular moment of history to optimize certain things. And it’s not optimizing what we just heard about, the connection of people, and creation and exchange of value for humans, and making—I mean, all that stuff. That’s not what it’s optimized for. It’s optimized for the extraction of value from people and places, and its conversion into share price.
That’s the whole game. You don’t create a company in order for the company to have revenue. You create the company in order to sell it. They’re playing Flip This Company. And the last rung, in this case the the people who bought Twitter shares on its IPO day, they’re the bottom level of the pyramid. And oh, they they can’t flip it. There’s no one else going to buy it now, because it’s leveled out.
So the real business plan (Well, this is considered the crappy, shitty, real business plan.) of selling this business again and again and again, Flip This Business, stopped working. It’s the same thing that led to the housing crisis. People were financing their houses by refinancing the houses. And they refinanced them at higher valuations. As long as you had higher valuations, you could refinance in a way where you owned more of the house. But when it stops going up, you can’t refinance it anymore. It’s the same thing that happened to Twitter, same thing that happens to almost any business. So we end up optimizing our businesses not to create sustainable marketplaces, not to do business. We’re optimizing our businesses for extraction in sales.
And this is why—I mean, we’re talking about the Google bus… This is why the people of San Francisco are so mad. And I’m sure it’s happened here to some extent. When Silicon Valley firms moved in and everybody— Nobody wants to live down in Menlo Park or Mountain View. They won’t want to live off the highway. They want to live in San Francisco. It’s like a Hollywood set. You’ve got all the radicals, the Grateful Dead people. You’re going to move there and then drive down and work at a company as a developer.
And meaning well, I suppose, Google created these buses so people don’t have to drive, and there’s less pollution, and you get to (“get to”) work on your way to work, and work on your way home. Because you have WiFi and air conditioning and all that. And, as all these people moved to say Francisco, as we know, San Francisco rent doubled, then tripled. And then they found out if you live near one of the Google bus stops, your rent was 30% higher than it was if you didn’t even live there.
So people look at these buses coming back and forth like an alien invasion, like V or that that episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man” where they’re just carting the people back and forth. That these are the people coming, changing their neighborhood, raising their rents, making local businesses have to leave. And then people have to actually leave. They’re evicted from San Francisco. They can’t afford to live there.
So instead of just providing the backdrop, these people now, their city…which isn’t…go: it’s not San Francisco anymore. It’s…I used to go to San Francisco from New York to get almost that spiritual recharge? Now I go and I bring a spiritual recharge there, and I’m from New York, of all places. Wall Street looks like Burning Man or something compared to the rapacious venture capitalism of San Francisco.
So, the people there, I get it. They get mad and they lay down in front of the buses, and…trying to make both the company and government aware of what’s going on. But when the frustration bubbles over as it did in Oakland, people started throwing rocks at the Google bus. And I started to get these tweets that morning from people saying, “Oh, retweet, this is great. It’s happening. It’s happening!” Like somehow this is Occupy. Like this is a good thing and we should all get behind— You know, Ed Snowden, the NSA, and Google, and Schmidt, and yeah!
And I thought about Howard Rheingold’s daughter. You know Howard Rheingold, a great early Internet pioneer. His daughter worked at Google at the time and was on these buses. I don’t want them to throw rocks at her. Or the developer. The people that are working at Google, do they deserve rocks thrown at them? I mean, they’re just trying to— What’s the average lifespan of a Google worker? Three or four years before they burn out? They’re just trying to make a hundred grand a year so they get to what? three or four hundred. If they’re paying rent, then they’re only going to end up with $30 thousand at the end, anyway, which they can’t retire on, or even afford the psychotherapy that they’re going to need after that. They’re not on COBRA anymore. Do they still have—? They must still have COBRA. We’re all on COBRA! ObamaCOBRA.
I can’t blame them. So okay, we can blame the CEO, who’s pushing them to do this, right. Because the CEO just wants them to work harder, and extract value and all. But who’s he answering to? The CEO is answering to the shareholders. And who are the shareholders? Shareholders, there’s a lot of us in this room, with our S&P 500 Index Fund in our retirement plan. Or there’s some of the very same people who were lying down in front of the bus, who are depending on that stock to go up as a capital gain. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to get booted from the fund.
So, Google just has to grow. It has to keep growing. But Google grows at its own peril. Google grew so much that what happened? It outgrew Google. Google had to become what? Alphabet. Now what is Alphabet? Alphabet is not Google. Alphabet is a holding company. So Google’s new business as Alphabet is to do what? It’s to buy and sell technology companies. So, once a company becomes just too big to flip anymore, it becomes a flipper of other companies. Oh, I’ll buy this robotics company, and I’ll sell this one and buy this one and sell that one. So its own innovation is gone. It’s like any of the big pharma companies. They don’t innovate drugs at big pharma companies. They scout small drug companies who have imminent innovations, imminent releases, and they quickly buy them. And that’s where their innovation actually comes from.
The funny thing is people think I’m railing out against business, here. I’m not railing out against business. I’m actually making a business argument. This is bad business. This is some meta‐business that they’re involved in. The buying and selling companies, this is the financialization of business. The way they should do business is you make a product, and then you sell that product for a little bit more than it cost you. And then that profit, you get to keep that, or buy other stuff. Or do a service and get paid for it. That’s the way business can work. There’s a ton of great, great sustainable digital businesses.
But the minute we take money, the minute we take money from angels, much less Silicon Valley or venture capitalists… The minute you take money, what do they ask you to do? They ask you to pivot. Now what does pivoting mean? We are told that pivoting means to move towards more profitable outcomes, better business plans. No. Pivoting means abandon whatever it was you were originally going to do with your business or technology, and instead flip your business with[in] twelve to eighteen months for a hundred times what they paid for it. That’s the object of the game.
So I wanted to figure out what is the operating system that demands this? Why doesn’t anybody recognize what’s going on? And then how do we get out of that. And I think I’ve actually figured it out. I mean, it goes way back. The way to understand any medium well, if there’s actual medium there, is to figure out who made this medium, why did they make it, and what are the values that are embedded in it?
So I needed to go back in there— Okay, where did this corporate idea come from? Where did central currency come from? Central currency, I see it as kind of the operating system of corporate capitalism, and corporations are the software that was designed to run on it. So, Twitter is a digital company, but it’s really the same thing. Or Amazon or Uber. They’re running the same underlying code. It’s just so embedded it’s accepted as if it’s a condition of nature, rather than an operating system. It’s as if you woke up in the world where there were only Macintosh computers. You would not know there’s such a thing as an operating system. You would think that’s just “computer.” So if you wake up in a world where the way you do things is you come up with an idea in your dorm room, and if it’s a good enough one you go to these guys and get money, and then you blah blah blah blah, and get to IPO, and yay one billion… Then you think that’s it. You don’t understand that there may be other ways of doing business. And there were.
So I had to go all the way back. And I went all the way back to the late Middle Ages. This is the one good things about having gone academic, is you can get just a little bit of extra time to unearth things that people don’t really know about. And what I found out was, back in late Medieval times, right when the soldiers were coming back from the Crusades, there was this weird peer‐to‐peer moment that happened, and was quite was quickly snuffed. But what happened was these guys they went out to the Crusades—it wasn’t a good trip at all—but when they came back, they had opened up all these trade routes with other countries. And they had brought back all different technologies and ways of doing things from largely Arab nations, or Arab territories.
And one of the things they brought back was what was called the bazaar. And the bazaar was—in Western Europe, they called it the marketplace. And it was really just a way for people to bring all their goods together for a day, and people would trade. They’d buy and sell things from one another. And it had a lot of innovations in it. The kind of money they used. They had very different money from traditional, long distance gold coin. You couldn’t use gold coin in a bazaar or or marketplace. It was too valuable. If you had gold coin, you’re just going to save it.
So they needed a way to promote the velocity of exchanges, a way to prime the pump in the marketplace and get the trade going. So they came up with market monies that were only good for a day. They had grain‐based currency, where you’d bring grain to a grain store and get grain receipts that you would then…little perforated aluminum foil grain receipts that you’d hand out to people. All these kinds of money that were optimized not for savings. These are monies that might only be good for one day. Or like a grain currency, would lose value over time because the grain store had to be paid, and rats might eat some of the grain. So your ten pounds of grain, in a month might only be worth nine pounds of grain, or eight pounds of grain. So all of these monies were were optimized— If you think of them programmatically, they were optimized for exchange. Get rid of it. Keep it moving.
The other a beauty, really, of the bazaar was that it was a peer‐to‐peer marketplace. And these are people who had been dependent on feudal lords for centuries. And now they were actually trading with one another. And there was this tremendous expansion in growth. It was the biggest, well‐distributed era of growth we’ve ever seen historically. They got so wealthy. And they didn’t really have savings vehicles, so they built cathedrals. If you ever look at any these books on the age of cathedrals, the cathedrals weren’t built in the Renaissance. They were built in the Late Medieval period, when there was so much wealth that they wanted a way to invest in the future. So in their town like, how can we preserve this wealth? They would build a cathedral, so that future generations would have a tourist attraction, a pilgrimage site for people to come and create value.
So it wasn’t a great time to be alive, even though women were taller in Late Medieval England than at any time until the 1970s, because they only worked three or four days a week and they had lots of food, but it wasn’t necessarily great. I mean, there were no iPhones, right? There was no TV there. There was no House of Cards and no Netflix. There was no antibiotics. I’m not saying joy, joy. You could get whacked in the head really easily and die. Game of Thrones kind of stuff. But, there was a growing peer‐to‐peer economy. That’s the point here.
And the problem with a growing peer‐to‐peer economy, with the rise of the peasant class to be a middle class, is what does that do to the aristocrats, to the upper class? Freaked them out. Because now the aristocracy was getting relatively poorer, as the poor people got wealthier. And that’s when they came up with the operating system that plagues us to this day. They came up with two innovations.
One was the chartered monopoly, what we now call the corporation. The chartered monopoly was a way of saying that you’re not allowed to all do business in these—you can’t have your small business. The king is going his one friend. So, I’m going to pick Brad, because he’s my friend. He’s powerful. So, for let’s say, shoemaking, Brad is his majesty’s royal shoemaker. And if you were a shoemaker, now instead of making shoes, bringing them to market and trading them, now you’ve got to be an employee of Brad. Or we’ll kill you. And Brad, you’ll give me 5% of the company for this privilege. You’re never going to have to compete again. It’s all good. So as a monarch, I would give shoemaking to Brad. I’d give the East Indies to his wife. I’ll give the West Indies to this one. So, all the industries get divvied out to my friends, I get a percentage of it.
So now, instead of making shoes, instead of creating value and exchanging the value I’ve created, now I work three hours for Brad. This is when wage labor was born. This is when employment was born. Whenever I hear Obama or someone say, “We’ve got to create more jobs, create more jobs…” Jobs are oppression. Jobs are inactive oppression. We didn’t have jobs before. We made stuff. Having a job means that he’s the only one who’s allowed to extract value from what’s happening, and I’m working for him. That’s when we put the clock up on the church tower in the Medieval towns, because now everything was about time. I’m selling my time, rather than selling the value I create.
And the second great innovation they came up with was central currency. They made all these local peer‐to‐peer currencies illegal; all these little let systems, and time dollars, and things that people had, and created central currency, which is money that helps the wealthy. Central currency means you’re not allowed to exchange value, you’re not allowed to even buy shoes from Brad, unless you borrow money from the central treasury, at interest. So, people with money could make money simply by having money. Which is the object of the game. How do the rich get rich by being rich? Not by creating value, but by monopolizing value exchange.
Now, the other thing that they didn’t really realize, I don’t think consciously, is when you build a money system that’s based in interest, it requires growth. If you’re going to pay back more money than you borrowed, where does that other money come from? Either you take it from someone else who goes bankrupt, or things grow.
Now this was great for the colonial powers of Western Europe, because they get to grow now. They have to grow. They have a growth mandate. So they go to South America, and Africa, and America, and you enslave dark people and take all their stuff, and ruin their countries. You extract.
So the object of the game here now is to extract value from places, extract value from your people, from your employees. And anytime anybody else seems to be creating or exchanging value, like in the West Indies when the Dutch East India Company realized that the natives there were making rope and selling it to the corporation? They made a law and they said it’s illegal for people on this island to make rope. Instead, you have to be an employee of the Dutch East India Trading Company’s rope‐making subsidiary. No one’s allowed to create and exchange value.
So, you take that and fast forward to today, we’re in the same ridiculous mindset about how to generate wealth. About how to do business. So you take a company like Amazon, say. Does Amazon look at the book industry and say, “Oh, we want to help readers and writers connect with one another. We want to help authors create value and really retain more value. We want to help publishers discover new talent, and really just raise the level of discourse, and help—” No. They looked at the book industry because the book industry was the lowest‐hanging fruit.
I was a writer before Amazon. Believe me, the book industry was hobbling along as best it—we got by somehow? Fudged a little here, and fudged a little there. But it was certainly not a growth industry. It was a sustainable, slightly shrinking industry. People were playing video games already and reading less books. No, they picked the book industry because they wanted to establish a monopoly in books.
And once they were able to (and it was pretty easy to establish a monopoly in books by disrupting all of our inefficiencies, our blessed little inefficiencies) by disrupting all those and creating a more efficient marketplace. They take over books for what reason? To move over into another vertical. The only reason you establish a monopoly in one vertical is so you can pop over into another vertical. Another retail industry, and another regional industry. Then you go into it cloud services. And then something else. But each one has to be total. And you adopt a scorched earth policy toward your market.
It’s two very different things. If you want to take over a market, then you don’t have to worry about is that market sustainable? Is that market going to stay around? Are these people going to do okay? It doesn’t matter. And I’m not talking about being generous, I’m talking about do you need to be able to make revenue in that market long term? No, if that market is only a stepping stone to something else.
So when Amazon looks at books, it doesn’t matter if that’s not profitable. They sell books, very often, for below cost. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with making money on books. Or you look Uber. And I know a lot of you like Uber, and it’s helped you get to places or from airports, and taxis are bad, and whatever. Fine. But Uber’s view of the ride‐sharing marketplace— Uber’s not thinking, “How are we going to create a sustainable taxi culture? How are we going to keep these drivers alive for the long term?” Because they don’t need to. They just need to establish a monopoly in ride‐sharing (or whatever, “ride‐sharing,” let’s just pretend that it is) so they can leverage that monopoly into the next thing, whether it’s drones or robotic cars. And the drivers won’t participate in that. The places don’t participate in that.
No, the object of the game, really from the beginning of the industrial age, was to remove humans from the equation. That’s where the first digital technology that most of us interacted with was—remember when they replaced the receptionist at every company with one of those little automatic answering computers? You know, press one for this and press two for that. And the first time you encountered one of those, you probably realized right away, “This is taking me more time than having a human.” It saved the company money, in the short term at least, because they could fire their round‐the‐clock receptionists. But for everybody who’s calling the company, it’s taking you more time and energy to get through this whole menu system.
So, it’s ultimately costing the entire…the entire marketplace is spending more time. It’s less efficient for the marketplace. But that inefficiency’s been externalized from the one company to everybody else. So what does everybody else do? Everybody else has got to put in one of those things, too. So now everybody is calling automatic answering machines, but everybody’s actually spending more time and energy in doing it. And this is because the idea is simply for each company to externalize as much of its human costs as possible.
And as designers, I think what I’m posing to you is whether we can design in a way that’s looking not just at the user/customer of our product, but at the unacknowledged externalized labor, and ultimately environmental impact of the things that we’re doing. In other words, when you’re making Uber, you’re thinking of making it easy for the Uber user, not about helping the Uber driver form solidarity with other dri— There’s no chat function. “Hey, how’re you doing? Do you want to go on strike?” There’s none of that. You’re thinking how’re we going to make it you easy for this one side of it.
And what it comes down to is the basic economic principle that there are three factors of production in business. This is older than Adam Smith. There’s land, there’s labor, and there’s capital. Land is like the land you grow the food on. The town that whose roads you’re using for your Uber cars. It’s all that place stuff, land. Labor is the people that are actually working. And capital is the money you bring in, the investment to start the business. Land, labor, and capital.
Right now, the digital economy is driven solely by capital. The people who bring in the money get to make the decisions. That’s insane. And we accept it. Well, sure, yeah, they brought the money. They brought 1/3rd of the equation. Yeah, they have a seat at the table. If we need to be capitalized, which most of us really don’t need to be capitalized to that extent. But even if they bring the money, fine. But what about the land and labor? If you forget about the land and the labor, you end up with a disenfranchised workforce: check. And you end up with a destroyed environment: check. You can’t externalize the cost to the world and its people, all for this number. All for this metric which doesn’t actually do anything for anybody. Fifty‐seven people own half the world’s wealth. That’s nuts. That’s nuts.
And this is the good part: it’s bad for business. And they know it. They know it. Deloitte is this big accounting firm. They came out with something called The Shift Index in 2011. And what they did was research on corporate profit over size, over the last seventy‐five years. And they found out that corporate profit over size, over corporate size, has been going down for seventy‐five years. That is, corporations are really good at taking all the money off the table, but they’re really bad at deploying those assets once they have it. It’s a form of financial obesity, where they absorb all the money and they stored in fat, but not in muscle. And that’s actually almost an insult to to genuinely obese people. I shouldn’t even use the metaphor, because corporations are not human.
But the idea is they’ve gotten so big that they they’re sitting on cash. So their function now is more like a vacuum cleaner on economic regions. This is why Walmart will move into a region, they’ll operate there for twenty or thirty years, and eventually the region goes bankrupt. That’s because they use their massive war chest to undercut the prices of all the local businesses, so they go out out of business, no one can find work anywhere except the Walmart. Which gives Walmart leverage to hire everybody part‐time and give nobody benefits, although Walmart will teach people how to apply for public services—because it’s their employees. How to get welfare, how to get Medicare, how to get all this public— So that the net effect of a Walmart operating on the community is negative. It’s not just extracting money in terms of consumption, but it’s externalizing costs that people used to get from their jobs, now to the government, to social services.
And they can do it for twenty or thirty years until the place goes bust. And now Walmart, this is their problem, they’re having to close Walmarts, and they’ll move it to another region that still has a little bit of economic activity. Now, that’s not a good long‐term business strategy. If you bankrupt the people you’re working with or that you want to be your consumers, they have no money to spend with you. So you’re sitting there, “I’ve got all this money… But I don’t have a business.”
And then we get to now, and we think, well… And this was actually around Eisenhower’s time. Have you guys read like, Vannevar Bush and these folks? Eisenhower realized that we had reached the end of corporate expansion. Because World War II happened, all the little colonial peoples pushed back, “You can’t enslave our people anymore and just take all our stuff,” and except for a few banana republic public relations coups, these places pushed back. So, Eisenhower realized, “Well, shit. What’re we going to do? I’ve got to grow this economy.”
Vannevar Bush and the computer folks from World War II, the people who did the cryptography and all, who wanted there to be a reason to keep developing computing and digital technology, said, “Don’t worry Ike. Computing will create a kind of a new virtual surface area on which we can expand. Technology will create regions, new territories, that don’t exist in the physical world.” I mean, it just so happens those territories are human attention. Instead of colonizing space, they colonized our time. Which is where we’re living now. And that was my whole sort of Present Shock thing, was about that we live in this state of perpetual emergency interruption, where things are going vibrate at you every time somebody sneezes. And you live in this awful state that only 911 operators used to have to endure. You know, of a constant emergency, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
It used to be that the only time someone would break in on a phone call (this is when phones had wires) was like, grandma’s dying or something. And the operator would break in and say, “Oh, this is an emergency call.” Now your body’s like, vibrating. Grandma’s dying, grandma’s dying, grandma’s dying. She’s not dying, someone popped a zit on Twitter, you know, or somebody said something.
But the digital fix now, the idea here—and banks actually believe this will work—is well, digital technology will take traditional extractive corporate capitalism, and just put it on steroids. It’ll just make it happen more. And on on some level, that’s true. So instead of having human traders on Wall Street, we have algorithms. Or we have algorithms trading derivatives. Or derivatives of derivatives. And all derivatives are taking, you know, time compression. Now you can buy the stock, instead of buying it today, you’re today buying it ninety days from now, so that you can get the ninety days of…if the stock went up or down, you can get that ninety day delta squished into one day. Or now you get a derivative of that and squish all that in a derivative of that and squish all that in.
And the derivatives exchange, the steroidal, ultrafast, algorithmic derivatives exchange got so big and so powerful— Do you know, the New York Stock Exchange was purchased by its derivatives exchange? That is, the New York Stock Exchange was eaten by its own abstraction. And the New York Stock Exchange was already an abstraction, of the actual marketplace of where people are doing things. So it’s no wonder that capital gains—is really what we’re talking about—is the only way anybody in business thinks of making money. Because it’s got all of this compressed activity. That’s the only way to get to these 100×, 1,000×, 1,000,000,000× returns.
And too many of us still keep the eye on the prize of Zuckerberg, and would rather surrender a high probability of becoming a millionaire on your company to the tiny probability of becoming a billionaire on some unicorn. Which is sad, you know. It reminds me—and I go to San Francisco and even though these people wearing really good clothes, what I see is the same scene as in New York, when people are taking their welfare check and going to the corner bodega and buying lottery tickets. And you just want to slap them, and say, “What the hell, you know?” And they have extra money and they buy cigarettes. It’s like what the hell are you doing? Because there’s no chance. There’s no chance that all of these great companies, always—they go away.
The other problem with the steroidal digital fix of this economy is we end up with power law dynamics, which we all know about. You know, even though we have all this more access to music production or distribution, there’s like one or two Taylor Swifts on the top and a zillion people on the wrong end of the Long Tail. Increased access did not lead to increased value creation and exchange. It’s because of all the ways that the platforms that we’re building reinforce power law dynamics. Because if you reinforce power law dynamics again, you’re more consonant— I mean, it’s a longer argument. You can read about it. But you’re more consonant with the extractive nature of corporate capitalism than you are if you create a marketplace of exchange, where the value is going to be distributed amongst a whole lot of people.
I mean, we all know. We’re living in a digital economy where the way to make money is on successive rounds of stock sales, rather than creating revenue. And when you do that, and when you extract so much money from people and places that they have none left, and you still have to extract from them, you get to where we are now. So now we know, we can’t get money from people anymore. They’re broke. They don’t have any. So what do we get? We’re going to get data from them.
And that’s the Facebook idea. Or even the Twitter one. People don’t have money, we’ll get data. We’re all going to extract data. Read the business plan of any company you’re working for. Its final exit strategy, its end game, is, “Oh, even though we’re not going to really make money from this or that or the other, we’re going to make money because of all this data.” These are really rich data— If everybody’s exit strategy is data… Data doesn’t just become a commodity. Data becomes…cheap. Everyone’s got data.
And data…no matter what we think of data, data just makes up one little part of the total ad spend, marketing spend, branding spend, market research spend, of corporate America. And the ad spend, the totality of marketing, branding, market research, has really never ever gotten above three or four percent of GDP. It just can’t. It’s stayed almost constant for…centuries. And the reason it does is because there’s kind of a limit to how much advertising you can have that doesn’t have… You need someone to actually advertise.
If they want me to write a book for free, because it’s going to get me a talk, that they want me to do for free, because it’s going to get me a consult, that they want me to do for free, because it’s going to get me an article they want me to write for free, because it’s going to get me a book… What the fuck, right?
I mean, you’re all in that one, right? Oh, it’s going to be good for your resume. Oh, put it on LinkedIn. Oh, it’s all good. We’re working for free to advertise ourselves creating things that are based on advertising. In the end, someone has to make the shoes, or the bananas, or the things that are going to be advertised in all these places, and there’s not actually enough. We are in a data bubble right now.
So, the unacknowledged operating system of extractive growth‐based corporate capitalism is embedded not just in the underlying operating system, but it’s embedded in the design. In the UI, UX, the whole…whatever words you want to use for it. In the artistry of what you’re doing.
You know, the idea of creating social connections between people? We don’t create social connections between people. We create affinity groups for people. The idea of somehow helping there be solidarity between people? The only way you get solidarity, ultimatly, is in the flesh. That’s where solidarity happens. In the real world. But our designs are biased towards keeping people on the screen, not in the flesh. The minute they’re in the flesh, actually relating to each other, the company that you’re designing for is losing money. The more time people spend actually with each other, not buying or selling, the worst that is for business. You’re never going to make an app that’s going to be designed to get people free of the app.
So optimize, yes. But instead of optimizing for the extraction of value and its conversion into share price, we have to optimize our platforms for the velocity of exchange. That’s the whole thing. It’s for the velocity of exchange. The easiest mantra I would say is “make them rich.” If you make your users rich, they will like your service and come back. But again, this is only if you want to make like, a family business. In other words, this is to create a business or a company that will actually function in the traditional way. That will make money. Which I still think is possible. You can make money by actually having a company that makes money in an ongoing, sustainable way. And you can argue for that.
It’s hard, policy‐wise. We have a tax code that favors capital gains and punishes dividends, punishes revenue, punishes payroll. If you want to talk about policy, yeah, let’s work on rent control so that they can’t evict us from apartments. Let’s work on flipping the tax code. There are ways to do that. When you’re working at a big company, though, it’s very hard to tell them, “Oh, I think you should optimize for the velocity of exchange rather than the extraction of capital.” No, but what you can do is pitch to them little experiments, prototypes, of things that teach the company that there’s other ways of doing business. Frame it as public relations.
So, I went to a bank and I told them, “What you should do is, instead of giving a hundred thousand dollars to a pizzeria that wants to expand, give them fifty thousand dollars and an app that helps them raise fifty thousand dollars from the community for the other half.” And that way the bank can be seen as something other than just the extractor of value, and more as the facilitator of local economic redevelopment. And of course, as a model, it works, because now the pizzeria can pay people say, they take a hundred dollars and give them a hundred and twenty dollars of pizza over the next year. So people get a 20% return, the pizzeria gets to pay in pizza, people are investing in their town, they’re seeing their investment make their main street better, make their property values go up. Rather than just investing in a long‐distance crazy pollution‐making factory.
And that’s just one. You know, Chobani’s giving 10% of its pre‐IPO shares to its employees. If Uber did the same thing, then its drivers would no longer be doing R&D for a robotic cars that replace them. They’d be doing R&D for the robotic cars that they own. It’s so simple. YouTube: give half the money, give 3⁄4 of the money, to the people— Create a model where your videographers can actually stay alive if they have successful videos, rather than just be like a rock musicians that give all their money to the guitar center rather than having anything to live on.
It’s making them rich. It’s realizing that your user is not a consumer. Your user is a producer. Your user is a value creator. This is what the digital age means. These are the digits. [holds hands up, fingers spread] We think of the digital age as this thing that made things more abstract. No, the digital age brought it right back to the fingers. It makes it discrete. These are the digits. The digital age is about making stuff. That’s why we see the retrieval of the craft mentality, the retrieval of all these Medieval ideas and ideals. It’s not coincidence. I mean, read your McLuhan. When there’s a media renaissance, there’s a retrieval of the ideas that were repressed the last time out. So we do have Bitcoin. We have peer‐to‐peer. We have Burning Man. We have craft beers. We have artisanal yams and all these things they’re teasing us for.
But they’re actually answers. This is not silliness. However they want to frame it, it’s not. It’s people actually making stuff, creating value, and exchanging it. And that’s consonant with digital technology. It’s not antithetical to digital. It’s antithetical to an industrial digital economy. But it is not antithetical to digital. Digital is distributed networked activity where value can be created from the periphery and exchanged throughout the network. And as long as you’re thinking of your job as that of retrieving those values and enabling value exchange, of making users rich, letting them create and exchange value, rather than trying to externalize everything onto those humans and on to that planet where they live, you’ll stand a chance, I think, of arresting the development of this extractive, suicidal industrial machine.
And I do have hope that we can do that. So thanks. Carry on. Do good things. And I’ll see you in pizza, right? Thanks.
Session listing at the WebVisions web site.