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July 27, 2009

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Fun Work Could Mean Free Work

Matt Penniman penned one of my favorite new liberal arts: negotiation. Now, here’s a guest post from Matt that I think can serve as the seed for an interesting conversation this week. Call it the Snarkmarket Forum on Free; Matt’s provocative vision kicks it off. —Robin


Snarkmarket (along with others) has been talking recently about the economic model implicit in the free release of New Liberal Arts and the deliberately limited revenue realized from its sale. As one of the authors of that book, I was conscious going into the project that I wouldn’t be paid for my contribution, no matter how successful or influential the book might become—and with the release of Chris Anderson’s book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” this seems like a good time to discuss working for free.

Virginia Postrel’s review of “Free” in the New York Times ends with the following paragraphs:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said, and that attitude has had a good two-century run. But the Web is full of blockheads, whether they’re rate-busting amateurs or professionals trawling for speaking gigs. All this free stuff raises the real standard of living, by making it ever easier for people to find entertainment, information and communication that pleases them.

Business strategy, however, seeks not only to create but to capture value. Free is about a phenomenon in which almost all the new value goes to consumers, not producers. It is false to assume that no price means no value. But it is equally false to argue that value implies profitability.

This is true as far as it goes, but I think it’s more interesting as a starting point than an ending point. In particular, I feel like it misses the non-monetary value that work produces for those who do it.

Most of us, if we’re fortunate, derive some form of value from the work we do, above and beyond the pay we receive. We enjoy working, or we enjoy the status that results from doing a certain kind of work—being widely recognized as a scholarly authority or having our ideas praised by people we respect and admire. To the extent that this intrinsic value is higher than the monetary value we could receive for doing something else, we will happily work for less or work for free, because the non-economic rewards are so significant.

Now, in the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free. But the internet drastically reduces that barrier. Imagine trying to find people to write a computer operating system and all the associated applications without expecting payment before the internet—now look at Linux.

I wonder if we’re heading toward an economy where, to put it bluntly, people don’t get paid for doing fun things. If something is fun—for someone in the world who finds it fun enough to become good at it, and to do it without expecting pay—it will no longer pay.

In this world, people still work for money, maybe 20 hours a week, but they don’t really derive happiness from their jobs (if their job was something that people enjoyed doing, like playing in a symphony or writing poetry, it wouldn’t pay—someone would be doing it for free*). They spend the rest of their time doing things for free, things that produce tremendous creative value for themselves and for others, but form a gift economy outside the normal capitalist economy.

I think most creative, intellectual, and information-oriented pursuits would end up on the free side of that divide—which is not to devalue them at all. Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about “how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?” Maybe you won’t—and that’s okay.

*When I say “free,” I don’t necessarily mean $0.00. You might still earn some token payments for your creative effort, but not enough to contribute in a meaningful way to your income—a few hundred dollars a year, perhaps.

Posted July 27, 2009 at 9:54 | Comments (27) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture, Technosnark


To the extent that this intrinsic value is higher than the monetary value we could receive for doing something else, we will happily work for less or work for free, because the non-economic rewards are so significant.

There's a big difference between "willing to do this for less" and "willing to do this for free." You can stretch a dollar out to two, but its difficult to stretch zero dollars out at all. For a lot of people--people don't, perhaps, have the luxury of being good at something they don't enjoy---that distinction might mark the difference between poverty and prosperity. The 20th century has already eroded at the ways a person can make a prosperous living doing something that does not require excessive skill and training and aptitude. If the 21st century erodes the ways that a person can make a prosperous living with enjoyment, we are left with a very narrow peninsula of difficult, demanding drudgery.

Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about “how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?” Maybe you won’t—and that’s okay.

If the answer was so simple, I think there would be a lot fewer young deaths in the chronicles of great writers. This "new" model presupposes meaningful, enjoyable work that can be done--to the satisfaction of the the doer--in bite-size increments. Serious, sutained scientific research--enjoyable thought it maybe--cannot be done in bite-size increments. (This, essentially, is why the state now subsidizes it.) Large scale works of art--symphonies, epic poems and novels, feature films--are very difficult, even draining, to pull off in amateur time. It's not like this model hasn't been tried; this is the model that most artists operated under in the days when we first had a glut in education (inspiring more wannabe artists and intellectuals) when compared to the number of buyers (a still small middle class meant that the market had not yet enlarged much past the usual patronage of nobility.) Usually these people ended up tutoring/teaching (Anne & Emily Bronte, Mozart, Gerard Manley Hopkins immediately come to mind as people who did not really prosper under this model, even if they did succeed. How many more who attempted it but were unsucessful, who knows.) There's a reason why Virginia Woolf declared that a woman needs privacy and a steady income to consistently execute really great art; the alternative is frequently failed health.

I mean, I just don't see how a model like this could be anything but a class filter--those whose parents can help them out will be so much better positioned to do the work they enjoy and get a meaningful audience than those whose parents can.

One of the things I like best about this post, Matt, is that you're brave enough to describe that final, extreme scenario. I think it's one that a lot of writers, journalists, and thinkers can imagine, but are unwilling to suggest (at least in public) because, er, they're writers, journalists, and thinkers!

"[H]ow will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?" Maybe you won't -- and that’s okay.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but I think that's a deeply provocative point. It takes on an entire culture (cult?) of creativity and commerce -- one that's been centuries in the making.

I like the new dimension you suggest there, Saheli. To fun/not-fun, we add bite-sized/monolithic, or maybe divisible/indivisible. And so the winning strategy for those who want to do fun work and get paid for it is to go for the corner: fun and indivisible.

The downside is that (I think) that kind of work is riskier. The quick feedback loop of bite-sized work has nurtured lots of creative people in their early days -- novelists who began as newspaper writers, for instance. And maybe it's that experience that will be increasingly difficult to get paid for; you'll have to forge it for yourself.

woops, Matt, I didn't see Robin's little intro, and assumed you were Matt T--so, rudely, I launched into my invective without first saying--welcome! well-done!

If more and more creative works are available for free (their marginal cost) and you are only paid $100/year for producing your own free creative works, then the relative price of creative works for your generation will be lower than for any people in history. $100 buys you a whole lot of free.

People often decry that we're getting worse off, but I've lived the life of someone in an earlier generation, without cellphone, tv, computer, internet, dishwasher, laundry etc.. few monetary concerns beyond rent: it stinks. Making pennies in a world where you can experience so much more has far greater value that being wealthy in a world where Shakespeare's performances never come to your town.

As for not making a living as a composer or a writer, maybe large works of art have always been overproduced by the subsidized and supported by politics(Woolf relied on plenty of servants) and we are finally reaching a period where this imbalance can be addressed in a more democratic fashion

Interesting post, and very optimistic. But aren't you describing a society that no longer values the arts?

Currently, we have a huge number of people contributing their talents on the Internet. But I think a lot of those people see these contributions as a short cut, or at the very least a means to an end. Such as: create your own youtube channel instead of being a go-fer on a movie set. Create your own publication instead of suffering through a "The Devil Wears Prada" magazine career path. In any of these scenarios, there's a lot of work you do for free or for very little money before you make it. But -- and this is important -- there's still a light at the end of the tunnel. There's someone, somewhere, who can make a living at what you do.

Without even the slimmest possibility of success, I think we'd see a huge dropoff in quality (if not quantity) of creative work. Each person might think something like "Well, I'm really great at playing the piano, but that's not very interesting. Since no one cares about that anymore, I'll do something else."

We can see this scenario played out around the world by looking at varying attitudes and legislation on intellectual property rights. Countries that really protect and reward their inventors/creators have the most, and the most prolific, creative minds. The dropoff is precipitous. In countries that don't value and protect original creative pieces, vastly fewer are made. For example, rampant bootlegs across Mexico have had a long term effect of dampening the music industry.

Abraham Lincoln put it well when he said "... [the patent system] added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."

So, that's super-interesting, LBM. If I've got it right, you're saying that the reward isn't so intrinsic, after all; for many people, it's still extrinsic -- it's just also distant and delayed.

And maybe there's even something about the internet that makes those distant, delayed objectives seem more achievable? Esp if one has the gumption, as you say, to take the initiative and do creative work w/out waiting for a professional umbrella?

I'm not 100% convinced -- I think intrinsic rewards do matter a lot. And plenty of great stuff on the internet is coming not from hopeful, opportunistic 20-somethings, but from people with rich lives & rich careers already well underway.

Thanks for your comments, Saheli - and for the welcome! I guess I should note, first, that I don't think this direction that I'm suggesting is entirely positive; in many ways, it represents the death of a lot of artistic dreams, and perhaps even a systemic devaluation of the arts, as Laura suggests.

Saheli, you note that this points to a 21st century where the route to prosperity becomes even narrower, more difficult, demanding, and dull. I think, to be frank, that we're seeing this already in the surprisingly steep rise of unemployment over the last year, the sluggish rate of job creation throughout the last decade, and the stagnation of middle-class wages. There are several possible interpretations for this; the most prominent is that all the money is being sucked up by the fat cats at the top, to be frittered away by the Bernie Madoffs of the world. I think, however, that we're also seeing a gradual, subtle shift from a professional capitalist economy to an amateur gift economy. You're absolutely right that this serves as a class filter, because it's much easier to participate in a gift economy -- and to do work you enjoy doing, instead of work that just pays the bills -- if you're already relatively stable. I wish it weren't that way. But as long as people are willing to produce creative works for free, or for token amounts, that can replace professional works, then this shift will continue.

However, there's a key caveat in there, that perhaps I should have emphasized more -- not every kind of professional creative work is ripe to be replaced. Cable political commentary? Yes. Funny sketches a la Saturday Night Live? Probably yes. Infinite Jest? Probably not. I think the differentiator is in whether or not people would be willing to create something for the sheer joy of it, regardless of whether they could hope to get paid. Is it fun enough that someone would do it for free? If not, then if there's a demand, someone will still pay you for it.

Posted by: Matt Penniman on July 27, 2009 at 05:06 PM

Incidentally, I also see this as an equilibrium situation; if Laura is right and quality of artistic production goes way down as extrinsic rewards are diminished, then the demand for quality goods will go up and people will get paid (or paid more) for producing them again. Right now, there's more of a supply glut; as one example, between Hulu and Youtube, I don't have any interest in paying for cable TV; and it's been a long time since I felt the need to buy a CD.

Posted by: Matt Penniman on July 27, 2009 at 05:23 PM

I want to try to change the equation here, first by focusing on the past:

"[I]n the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free."

But all the examples given suggest that it wasn't just inconvenient for employers, it was really hard for people to do this work, whether for free or for pay. There were high startup barriers, whether due to technology, location, or connection. Thirty years ago, if you were a computer hobbyist in DeWitt, MI, you couldn't just dick around with this stuff, tinkering with the edges of an operating system. Where would you even start? Likewise if you were an amateur filmmaker; you wouldn't be likely to have the tools to enter into the conversation.

So yes, amateur contribution requires a lot of free time, and that is a scarce and discriminatory resource; but it used to require a lot of free time AND a lot of money, and that is scarcer and more discriminatory still.

The difference is that it used to be that if you could clear those hurdles, and either get access to these tools or get hired by a company that had them, life was pretty good. Now, it's less certain. There's a bigger pie for fun work, but there are more hands trying to get a slice.

Ultimately, I think this creates a kind of pressure that is good for everybody. First, I think there's still a market, and maybe even a bigger market than before, for people who are really, really good at what they do. I've written before about how sportswriters have to be better - more knowledgeable, more entertaining, provide more access to the game - than many other kinds of journalists, because their readers actually know what they're talking about. I think you could say the same thing about political opinion writing - people have much lower tolerance for hacks because there are more people out there, visible people, who look like they could do a better job.

Ultimately, though, the market is best for people who are 1) really good at what they do, good enough to capture some of those dollars floating around in the larger market for fun and entertaining things and 2) willing to forego an absolute improvement in monetary gain for the other kinds of intrinsic rewards that Matt is talking about. You can be John Gruber or Jason Kottke or some of the other folks who are running high-value one-man-band operations and making a living at it.

@Matt -- great points, and one step ahead of me! I was just thinking about how equilibrium and opposing forces (economic and otherwise) would probably keep us from getting to the scenario you described and/or the one I did.

I think most creative, intellectual, and information-oriented pursuits would end up on the free side of that divide—which is not to devalue them at all. Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about “how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?” Maybe you won’t—and that’s okay.

This isn't new. This has never been new. There's always been this attitude towards artists that they should never seek compensation for their work - "oh, you should be doing it for the love of it".

I perform, and as much as I love doing it, I have to pay the rent and feed myself somehow. But because of this attitude - which isn't groundbreaking in the slightest - there's hardly any sort of financial support that will enable me to both be as creative as I want *and* be personally sustainable.

As Saheli said in the beginning, it's a class barrier - and I come from a class where if I wanted I could just have my parents fund me. But that comes with its own sets of barriers. So many artists, young ones especially, face a block in pursuing their creative dreams because society already doesn't see it as valid enough to even give them some sort of support. Unless you're Mozart-level - and be honest, how often will that happen - or you fit some upper middle white male class idea of "high culture" you're hardly going to get anywhere.

And don't get me started on how this attitude excludes people from less economically stable countries where the arts isn't valued -at all-.

Though I don't know it to be true for sure, I'm going to continue to assert that FREE didn't create linux: Sun, Bell Labs, Novell, IBM, etc. all paid for linux, indirectly. Ambitious engineers contributed to open-source projects for the fun of it, but also because open-source contributions conferred social capital--social capital that paid real money at real jobs.

So what happens if the business world has fewer Suns or IBMs?, fewer Viacoms or Simon&Schusters? You probably end up with lots of people doing short-term jobs, sub-contracting their labor, hopping between organizations. I would think this sort of insecurity might actually encourage more creative work and even support it with about the same amount of funding. People who want to jump to a new job would have plenty of incentive to build connections and prove their worth to other workers. The biggest difference would be an increase in risk, right? But as Matt is hinting here: everybody is facing a world of riskier (or, at least, less stable) employment now.

Posted by: Dan on July 27, 2009 at 08:18 PM

@Tiara - Thanks for your comment. I apologize if that section came off as prescriptive; I'm not trying to say that artists shouldn't seek compensation for their work -- indeed, artists everywhere might be better off if they did consistently seek compensation. I guess I'm trying to say that, in this cruel world, it's hard to get paid for doing something you love, no matter how worthy of support it may be, because the capitalist economy undervalues things that we are willing to do for free (even if they're so good that we should be demanding payment for them).

There are two ways to resolve this: change the culture, or change our own expectations as artists and creators. In this post, I was trying to explore a way that our expectations could change, but there are certainly other possibilities.

I don't remember at the moment where I saw it, but there was a great proposal for a "culture allowance" that would change arts subsidies to give every person in the US the ability to allocate $2 or $3 to a cultural institution of their choice, be it museum, symphony, library, jazz club, whatever.

Alternately, the gift economy works both ways; when you offer a work for free, many people will reciprocate with a gift of their own. I may have been overly dismissive to consider these as "token payments" -- I know that many webcomic artists make their living by selling merchandise related to their comics, or by granting special "supporter" status to their donors, while making the comic itself free. (See for an interesting discussion on this from the creator of Questionable Content.)

Finally, you're absolutely right that this is a class barrier, and I wish it wasn't. The creative world has often functioned in a remarkably classist way, and sadly I don't see that changing any time soon.

Posted by: Matt Penniman on July 27, 2009 at 09:47 PM

@Dan - yes, exactly. Social capital is another one of those indirect rewards, like the hope of payment in the future that Laura was talking about. I think part of the difficulty I'm trying to point to is that the internet's efficiencies can lead to social capital and fulfillment replacing monetary compensation rather than supplementing them.

@Tim - if the market is best for people who 1) are really good, and 2) can forego some level of monetary compensation, does it follow that it's worst for people who are still learning their craft, but need to make a living at it in order to continue? What's your take on the class question?

Posted by: Matt Penniman on July 27, 2009 at 10:03 PM

My short answer to the class question is what I wrote above:

amateur contribution requires a lot of free time, and that is a scarce and discriminatory resource; but it used to require a lot of free time AND a lot of money, and that is scarcer and more discriminatory still

So there's a tradeoff - it's harder to get paid for making your movie, but it used to only be a comparative handful of well-off, well-connected, geographically clustered, and pretty lucky people who got to make movies at all - so I think it's a net wash at best.

Actually, that's unfair. It's a restructuring of the way that elitism and meritocracy function and get construed, which means there are winners and losers. A good place to look at how this plays out might be Kenneth Anderson's critical take on Ezra Klein.

Another might be "The Enterprise As Start-Up".

Seriously! I mean, what we assume, what we've assumed for a while now (or thought we've assumed) is that you go to school, work hard, act with appropriate deference, and then you enter into a vocation at an appropriately low level, take time to "learn your craft," then enter the middle arc of your career, where you are dominant and productive, and then gracefully age your way through to retirement -- always working in the same industry, with progressive responsibilities and money along the way.

But that's all short-circuited. It has been for a while. The model now for the young, talented knowledge-worker seems to be: take a young person and give them a LOT of money and responsibility - or what they think is a lot of money and responsibility - right away, but work them to death, as many hours as you can, to extract as much value from them as possible. And why not? They're like double-A batteries. Compared to that, working for free doesn't sound so bad.

I'm a little off the rails here - it's late on the east coast, so forgive me. It also might be because my parents scraped their way into the middle class doing physically dangerous jobs that they hated - so I'm not so nostalgic about the career possibilities that "we" used to have. But basically I am neither utopian or dystopian about this. It's a new set of pitfalls. That's all.

Ooh. You've struck a rich vein, Tim. I've long complained about the lack of mentorship and apprenticeship in new media. By definition, there are no mentors, b/c nobody's done this before.

A bright career in new media (to be clear: non-technical new media) is working at Gawker. And wow, yeah, it comes pretty close to what you describe -- except without the money, even.

But I'm really taken with this idea that the old arc is broken. Maybe for good. The idea of mentorship and the slow, steady rise into the profession becomes a more and more distant memory.

One of the threads going through this discussion, evoked by Saheli and Tiara, has been a concern about who will be able to produce creative work if there is no subsidy, no clear payment structure, no hope of making money from one's work. In response, there's general agreement that FREE might reinforce class barriers to artistic activity, and that such an outcome is lamentable, to put it mildly. Still, Tim stands valiantly with Matt making the argument that different need not be worse, and that there is evidence that opportunity has become more widely spread, not less so.

What could bind all this together is Laura's bit on IP law. But I'd like to tweak it a bit. Laura makes what looks like a defense of copyright in general. That sort of defense makes sense: copyright protects the property rights of authors. Except when it doesn't: when, for instance, it hands over intellectual property to non-creators who hoard it and prevent its play in Matt P's creative gift economy.

Amidst our general concern that FREE might prevent authors from getting paid for their work, we might be missing the point. FREE would hurt authors more under the present regime of copyright law, but laws can (sometimes) change. What sort of change would be good?

Off the top of my head: shorten the length of copyright protections, but make it so that authors always retain copyright. That way, in a world where creative works are a person's ticket to their next gig, they get to keep control and credit of their work---it doesn't remain with a publishing house or a corporate employer.

I'm not an IP expert. I haven't thought about this stuff much at all in fact. But what say the Snarketeers? Are there legal changes that could make FREE pay for creators?

Posted by: Dan on July 28, 2009 at 06:58 AM

I think the important thing to keep an eye on here is that economics of marginal cost. If you are intending to make money off of the digital distribution of your art, then you are screwed. Marginal costs mean that no one cares how much money and effort you sank into creating you art (that's just defunct marxism), they only care about the cost of making the next unit. People regularly suggest that drugs should be cheaper in a more competitive market (no patents) because an additional unit is so cheap to produce; why not the same with art?

One reason Kevin Kelly gave the New Liberal Arts publishing model a nod was that it avoided relying on digital distribution to cover costs. It seems the best way to be considered innovative today, is to show that your web business model doesn't depend on the distribution of a non-rivalrous and non-excludable good

@Dan: Ooh. I like that. The strategies you'd choose to make creativity pay for individuals might be different from the strategies you'd choose to make it pay for corporations.

@John: You're combining a couple ideas there, and I find myself more on board with the latter -- digital creativity as a public good -- than with the marginal cost thing. (Marginal cost pricing exists only in conditions of theoretically perfect competition, i.e. never.)

But you're right, we consciously framed NLA almost exactly as a public good. The model was more "chip in to build a park for the community" than it was "buy this PDF." I think there's a lot of potential in that general direction.

Another possibility could be a kind of cooperative corporatism; Amanda French's blog tipped me off to this idea to save academic publishing by reverting to an earlier model, where university presses basically publish the research of the university's own professors.

Everybody (in principle) wins. It's easier for the university press to claim that it's serving a vital university function (furthering the research and reputation of the university, publicizing its works) and academics at research universities still get to publish their stuff.

There are problems with this model, but one of the things I think it does is that it foregoes capturing a certain amount of extrinsic revenue in favor of capturing more intrinsic value. It's more valuable (arguably) for the University of Pennsylvania to publish a book by a Penn prof than it is for Cambridge University to publish the same book through their press. At any rate, they don't have to make the same kinds of calculations. Ditto, it's more valuable (say) for a think tank or nonprofit institution to publish a newspaper than it is for a big conglomerate - the shareholders of the big conglomerate HAVE to make a different calculation than the stakeholders in the nonprofit.

Shareholders vs. stakeholders - now *I'm* sounding like Umair Haque! :-)

How can we realize those qualitative goods, generating that value, while maintaining enough quantitative revenue capture to make the process viable?

great discussion.

if you've been following my work, perhaps the argument that capitalism 1.0 undercounts costs and overcounts benefits might change the terms of the marginal cost debate fundamentally.



Most introductory text on economics discuss marginal costs and marginal social benefit; how to figure out how to internalize costs and benefits is a whole other story. I would say that I generally agree with Umair here, but it is hard to see how there will be a difference between capitalism 1.0 and capitalism 2.0; they will probably be the same thing but with better information. Everything is getting marginally better all the time.

As for casting marginal cost analysis aside because it relies on assumptions: why!? Even if you don't think you are competing in a perfect market, identifying the market failure, difference in inputs, etc.. can explain most arbitrage. Marginal costs and benefits still seem like the best explanation of pricing phenomena online and any complaints that we are not "valuing" creative works correctly should have to demonstrate why marginal costs (here since 1863) are not the best explanatory model (v.s. labor-theory of value?)

There is a big emphasis on demonstrating the everything has fundamentally changed when it comes to value, but it seems like things are the same: people still deal with trade-offs. Now we have to focus more on time, attention and implications for reciprocation, but that doesn't really cast utilitarian ideas for deciding market value to the side.

I think we should embrace this democratization of online industry and stop pining for the days when their were easy rents to capture. I think this is essentially Matt and Chris Anderson's point.

One of the reasons I don't like marginal cost in this domain is that I think it leads you in the wrong direction. The Kickstarter model, for instance, is hugely promising when it comes to supporting creative work -- and I think the calculus that people make when they consider whether or not to back a Kickstarter project has almost nothing to do with the calculus they make when they're considering whether to buy a loaf of bread, or a book, or even a digital PDF. So, I mean, sure, maybe you could shoe-horn Kickstarter into a neoclassical microeconomic framework... but why bother?

We need a new economics of patronage!

I'd never seen kickstarter before. It reminds me very much of an old publishing model that I'm familiar with from the nineteenth century (but could be much older), where authors sought subscribers to a new book before it ever went to press. For scientific works bound to attract a limited audience drawn from a community of people who knew one another, it made sense.

To some extent many academic books still work like this, I guess. They're printed by university presses with the assumption that 400 university libraries will buy them and pay the printing costs.

Posted by: Dan on July 30, 2009 at 12:21 PM

Finally got to catch up on the thread. (Man! You guys move fast!) Awesome post, OtherMatt. And great timing - I was giving a blogging workshop (no snark! I blog sometimes) to some students and showed them Snarkmarket and this post was on top and they were all "Ooh, +3 Insightful."

Reading through the thread, I'm getting caught in this thought-bubble about the nature of fun. Let's make explicit a notion that I think has been coursing through this conversation: a good portion of what we call fun is actually productive drudgery. Matt's post focuses on the economic ramifications of work turning into play and recreation. I think it's interesting if you flip the question as well - what are the economic consequences of the fact that much of what we consider play actually involves copious work?

It's not exactly a novel observation that people pay good money for video games that require them to spend hours executing tedious, repetitive tasks to level up their characters. Or that the game designer's most essential skill is her ability to craft a pleasant, rewarding experience around the phenomenon of continual frustration. Most video games (and exercise classes and many internships and lots of gambling activities) are examples of work that people will actually pay to do.

And yet, that game designer's existence itself indicates to me that there's a gradient here. There's a threshold beyond which work goes from being so enjoyable many people would pay to do it to being so tedious and hard that folks get paid for it. Many folks would call being a game designer a "fun job." But the last time I went to hear game designers speak about their work, one of them said she spent a month testing the recreational possibilities of tilting the iPhone around. Simmer over that for a moment. They devoted a month of full-time work to studying the effects of tilt. Yes, parts of that exercise would be considered fun by many; perhaps even fun enough to do for little or no money. But there's a point where that fun requires enough productive drudgery that it actually becomes remunerative.

I think Matt's post captures the idea that the threshold between work-I'd-pay-to-do and work-you'd-have-to-pay-me-to-do is shifting towards the former end of the scale, and I think many of the responses capture the idea that this could actually be good for art. All of our professional pursuits likely started from the realization that we found some domain so enjoyable that we'd pay people for the chance to practice at it, and slowly progressed to the point where we put in enough productive drudgery that someone would pay us for it.

We may be putting in an ever-increasing amount of productive drudgery to get to that point, but the amateurization of everything means it might actually be productive drudgery. Formerly, once you identified your trade, the way to advance in that trade was through upward mobility - the classic slog through the hierarchy that we've been a little wistful for in this thread. Today, there are alternate routes. Soon, the best way to become a professional journalist might not be sailing through j-school, covering cops and courts for free for a few months, and then getting a pittance to write obits. Instead, it might be working on a local news source for your neighborhood for fun until you're good enough at it that people find you indispensible, irreplaceable, and worth their patronage. Budding game designers might not hone their talents in a $120k taste-of-everything degree program, but by quietly advancing a gorgeous, distinctive vision.

Smart summary/extension, Matt the First. Can I now reduce the thread to some conceptual bullet points?

  • Work = in its purest form, rewards are experienced purely extrinsically, highly developed monopoly on means of production, you sell your time/skill to benefit someone else

  • Play = in its purest form, rewards are experienced, purely intrinsically, radically dispersed means of production, you give your time and skills for the benefit of no one else

  • Vocation = in its purest form, your work actually leads to great intrinsic benefits, helps to define you and your benefit/relationships to others

  • Avocation = in its purest form, your play actually creates lasting and external objects of value, helps to define you and your benefit/relationships to others

Let's say that the twentieth century ideal was heavily tilted towards vocation + play. You're Don Draper: artist for capitalism who works all day, climbs the ladder, and then relaxes, drinks, screws, barbecues, and watches television. It's great fun, but not especially productive. The younger ad execs, they've got the avocational dreams - watch how they rest of them droop when one of them gets a story published in the Atlantic Montly.

The twenty-first century is tilting away from vocation towards work, but also play, all of that social surplus, is tilting more towards avocation. As Matt puts it, the drudgery is becoming productive. I don't know what Don Draper would do today, but he probably wouldn't have to lie about his name and service record to do it.

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