The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Art is for everybody

ala-artsIn the beginning there was music and dancing and theater and painting, and there were listeners and watchers. Those who performed for the king were compensated by the king in forms of currency varied in both treasure and usefulness. Food, clothing, shelter, fame and recognition, and most importantly, projects to accomplish were given to artists in addition to the occasional coin. In such a way, the arts were both reviled and revered, because the king’s wishes became theirs. In the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, artists in the catacombs of Rome noted this in one scene that included this marvelous quote: “We’re artists! We’ll always be slaves to another man’s nickel.”

Patronage for the arts is still practiced today, although little of it goes to the artists themselves. Mostly, the arts have been taken over by corporations whose interests rarely match those of their “employed” artists, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of music. Music today has betrayed itself by chasing wealth as its sole reward, and this is not only tragic but sad.

And we just assume that this is the way it’s supposed to be.

The Shirky Principle – that institutions will always try to maintain the problem for which they are the solution – when applied to the music industry is what led to its disruption by the digital age. Scarcity is the problem, and when consumers got tired of paying $20 or more for a CD with one hit, technology did something about it. Enter our dear friends at the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) who went to extreme lengths to halt the will of the people 15 years ago by actually suing its customers. This foolishness led to change, but the desire to protect “the industry” hasn’t given up. There’s still way too much money at stake, and music, unfortunately, is the ultimate loser.

Like the rest of the corporate owned and managed arts, profit is the bottom line in music, not expression of the arts. Originality is sacrificed in the name of repetition, copying, and the production of a sure thing. After all, the shareholders demand manageable growth, so their servants have no choice but to give it to them. Is this the meaning of the arts? I don’t think so. With the arts, as in life itself, one cannot serve two masters.

At the other end of the spectrum is YouTube. I won’t argue that YouTube isn’t part of an enormous corporation, but that’s not the point. I want to talk for a bit about what YouTube has done for the art of music, not the industry. The RIAA, after all, is now threatening lawsuits against YouTube in yet another grasping at straws in the name getting compensation for artists. Bullshit. The RIAA is many things, but it is NOT an advocate for artists, except where in so doing lines the pockets of its masters.

Meanwhile, there’s an awakening among artists everywhere that the web can be exploited to provide a distribution vehicle that can be used to create ancillary revenue streams. As I’ve written previously, YouTubeRed is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s YouTube’s way of creating a micropayment system for those artists whose music is actually played, whether sponsored by corporations or otherwise. This is a certain harbinger for the healthy future of all of the arts, because the output of artists cannot be treated like manufactured products anymore. The arts belong to everybody, and if we enjoy them, it’s our responsibility to pay for them in one way or another.

We’re at the dawn of a great awakening of right brain output, and this pleases me. Industrial age mass marketing was not kind to those wishing to distribute their creative wares, and we’re experiencing the fruit of that today.

The squeeze by consumers has uncovered certain ugly realities:

  • Wall art is mass produced, because it’s cheaper than originals (and no mall carries original work anyway).
  • Music is entirely hit-based and celebrity-based.
  • Repetition is the lifeblood of arts-related industries but the destroyer of the arts themselves.
  • Hollywood only repeats successful formulas.
  • Publishers will only publish that which they know will sell.
  • All of the arts are based on the bottom line, because the arts are “owned” and operated by corporations.
  • As a result, the commercial expectations of artists are entirely wealth-based and unrealistic.

The web, however, has disrupted everything by making everybody’s art available to anybody. Remember, the network views middlemen as a mistake and routes around them. Therefore, you cannot superimpose laws created for the one-to-many world of mass media over the infrastructure of the network. It simply doesn’t work, because scarcity doesn’t (can’t) scale when everybody’s connected. It certainly carries a different value than it does in a disconnected marketplace, and all industries will be forced to deal with this at some point in the not-too-distant future. I understand the desperate nature of disrupted industries, but that does not justify throwing existing laws at the problem, and this includes copyright. We’re going to need visionaries in both the public and private sectors that don’t have institutional corporations in mind as benefactors, but instead, the artists themselves.

The arts are for everyone. As James Allen wrote in his wonderful little book As A Man Thinketh, “The dreamers are the saviors of the world,” and I take this seriously. The prophets of old were among the most sensitive of all humans, for their connection to the world beyond was far outside the norm. So, too, the artists of today prophesy with their work, and we need to pay attention. The problem is that prophecy doesn’t necessarily sell, and that’s our horrific loss. Bob Dylan is a rare example of both, but even at the height of his popularity, his music was an acquired taste. Of course, this was when the message of much of the music world was more important than a song’s ability to recruit wallets. Again, our culture has suffered, because we cannot hear today’s silenced messengers.

Of course, change always takes time, especially with lawyers reproducing like rabbits and for whom “the law” is natural essence of their sustenance. I’m also one of the old guys, so I probably won’t see it in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, let me encourage anyone who works for or benefits from the arts to set your minds on change and help move the rock collectively forward. Not only is it in your best interests, but it’s best for all of our progeny.

This bubble stuff feels eerily familiar

Celebrating after the AOL Time Warner mergerI was sitting in a conference room at the hi-tech incubator BizTech in Huntsville, Alabama with hopeful eyes fixed on the TV. It was January 10, 2000, and on the screen was the press conference during which the AOL and Time Warner merger was announced. I remember it like it was yesterday. Here I was trying to raise a million dollars for my own start-up, ANSIR (A New Style In Relating), and these guys were talking about a merger valued at $350 billion. AOL itself was valued for the deal at $165 billion. It was then and remains the biggest merger in business history.

I remember the excitement and the wonder of it all. Little did we know it was all just part of a big market bubble, and I remember especially this provocative line from Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, a very sane, important and knowledgeable businessman at the time.

“I accept that something profound is happening in the Internet space; I believe that. The new media stock-market valuations are real – not in every case, of course. But what AOL has done is get first position in this new world. Its valuation is real, and I am attesting to that.”

Levin’s attestation would later be proven wrong, and he would be forced out as the merged company shriveled under the blended brand. It is now a case study in why what Levin said is a bad reason to take such an enormous gamble. Walt Disney built his empire with what he called “the plausible impossible,” and I suspect that was at work here. Logic is great, the old saying goes, unless you begin at the wrong spot. Believing the valuations was what grew the bubble. Turns out that if it seems unbelievable, it probably is.

I’m recalling this today, because I’m feeling the same vibe as Facebook is about to approach Wall Street with an IPO valued at $100 billion, a valuation that’s roughly 100 times its earnings from last year. It sounds and feels oh so familiar.

So are we in a bubble? The always astute Mathew Ingram has a nice overview of the subject today that’s worth a read, although his conclusion tends to support those who feel we’re not.

So while some venture funds may be doing their best to inflate expectations and cash in on high valuations, that appears to be causing problems only at the small end of the startup pool — for now. Without any obvious signs of a public-stock mania that puts individual shareholders at risk, it’s hard to argue that we are in a 1990s-style bubble yet (although some critics fear that the new crowdfunding bill could accelerate the problem). Whether Facebook’s IPO triggers a broader inflationary atmosphere remains to be seen.

Dave Winer says we’re “definitely” in a bubble, and I believe him. I mean, look at the evidence. AOL’s model was based on a pre-Internet business model, one we know of as mass marketing. They could make tons of money, if they could just keep people inside their walls, a “walled garden” as many would later call it. When the fickle public disagreed, a new garden called MySpace sprang up. This social network could make money the same way, and for awhile, things looked good, until a young guy named Mark Zuckerberg took over with his Facebook. So here we are again, and the whole thing still hinges on the same value proposition, that Facebook can somehow keep those people within its walls. Old school media value, after all, is about controlling the infrastructure for content, whether its made by the New York Times, Zuckerberg or Joe Blow.

And for the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to justification and rationalization that Facebook is somehow different than its predecessors. The company paid a billion dollars for Instagram in what most (myself included) feel was an overpriced grab at real estate Facebook needed to be inside its wall instead of outside. But is Facebook substantially different that previous walled-garden approaches? Get real. It may have a few more bells and whistles and connections, but the core competency is the same. Web research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey is hosting a webinar on the topic this week to probe this specific issue:

…questions continue to swirl about its (Facebook’s) actual worth and whether any company can justify becoming public at such a high value. The prevailing question: How will Facebook support this valuation…?

I don’t believe it can be justified, although lots of smart people who’ve doubtless done their homework will try to explain that it is entirely justified.

I’m sure Mr. Levin had done his homework when he made that infamous statement back in January of 2000, but at some point in a gamble, you must consider that you could be wrong, partly or as the AOL Time Warner deal proved, utterly and completely. So in addition to homework, what say we also consider common sense. We could also ask a few teenagers.

“Everybody’s switching to Twitter,” a 17-year old family member told me. She used to be a pretty regular user of social media, but her activity has been shrinking for the last year or so. She doesn’t need Facebook anymore, and besides, “it’s pretty lame.” Think about that for a minute. It’s AOL all over again.

“To everything is a season,” we’re taught. I wouldn’t bet on Facebook’s future if you gave me the money with which to do it.

Driving traffic (that doesn’t want the ride)

Nobody wants to be drivenThe new Pew study revealing that media companies use Twitter almost exclusively for spreading links to their own content comes as no surprise.

…mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.

Back when Twitter first came along, I predicted that media companies would immediately become big users, because they could easily see it’s one-to-many functionality. It’s what we know and what we practice. The strategy became:

  1. Get a lot of followers
  2. Feed them breaking news and weather
  3. Feed them promotional content
  4. Feed them stories, many stories
  5. Put a link in everything

Twitter is a terrific notification system, so it’s hard to blame media companies for this practice, but it points to a serious weakness that media has today: its mission can’t help but come across as hypocritical. What appears to be one of disseminating information and being society’s watchdog is actually a commercial mission to make money. There’s nothing inherently evil about that, but think about it. If influencing public life is the goal, then readership is what matters, and there are many ways to efficiently deliver unbundled content via the Web. When forcing people to read our content within our infrastructure, then it’s clear that monetizing that content is more important than anything else.

Using Twitter this way is easy, but it’s also lazy and sells short a tool for newsgathering and news dissemination. When I talk to clients about Twitter, the stumbling block question is always “How many people do YOU follow?” The answer is simple — none or very few. This means that Twitter is to them, in fact, nothing more than a notification system.

However, some individual employees of news organizations use Twitter in a myriad of ways, including to participate in its unique discussions. These employees seem aware of the new reality that their personal brands are everything in the world that’s ahead, so they participate in social media. These smart people may include links to their work as well, but that isn’t necessarily the sole purpose of their accounts. It gets very tricky for some media companies when they try to control the personal accounts of employees, because they cling to the notification system paradigm and the ethical (and profitable) mechanism of an opinion-less stage.

Twitter is also very useful on mobile device, so the practice of only spreading links — that then lead to a fully-packed website and not an HTML5 landing page — is ultimately self-defeating. This is a different playing field with different rules, and we risk our own relevancy by insisting that it’s best used to drive traffic to our advertiser-fed websites.

And nobody ever asked to be driven to such a place in the first place.

Think “Landing Pages,” Not Websites

Here is the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Think “Landing Pages,” Not Websites

The mobile web era has ushered in a new way of viewing media of all sorts – the landing page. The growth track is unmistakable. More and more people are accessing our content by mobile links, and our attention needs to be where that interaction takes place. Mobile landing pages include all of the touch and swipe attributes of the devices on which they’re consumed, and we need to be considering this from a strategic perspective instead of just another way to display content from a centralized location.

Media 2.0 101: The technology beat isn’t optional

the technology beatI’m going to leave the world of technology for a bit today to talk “about” the world of technology, because I think media companies are missing a big, ongoing story, simply because we’re a part of it. An entirely new media industry has birthed, blossomed and produced fruit within the last 15 years, and its coverage area has expanded to the point where mass media companies have no choice but to get onboard. I’m referring to tech media and its grip on information about the most amazing phenomenon of the new age.

We view technology only as a way to make our jobs easier, but that’s a little like putting electric lights on a ship designed to hunt whales for the lantern oil industry. Technology is far more than “our” tools; it’s the biggest story to come along since the printing press, yet we somehow manage to either completely or mostly ignore it.

This is vastly oversimplified, but tech media began as a way for certain geeks to inform other geeks about innovations in technology that might interest them. This spawned an immense field of geek celebrities, such as Robert Scoble, Michael Arrington, Nick Denton and a host of others, and produced some real winners in terms of new media companies, like TechCrunch, Gawker, and thousands of specialized blogs. Tech media is also producing hybrid news and information models, like Duncan Riley’s The Inquistr, an eclectic blend of news that shouts “relevance” to its audience. The Inquistr includes sports stories, celebrity gossip and other mainstream items, which is to say that it crosses over into more of a mass media model with a proclivity towards technology.

News about technology now impacts people far beyond its original intent. And as we watch device after device and technology after technology cross the magical 50% threshold in terms of consumer adoption, it’s crystal clear that the demand for this kind of news and information is headed up, up, up. Do I buy from Apple or Microsoft? Is the iPad worth Apple’s restrictions? And what about my smartphone? What to believe, is the issue, and, even more importantly, who to believe.

Technology is a beat that moves with the speed of light, leaving magazines that used to own the niche struggling in the collective dust of online organizations that are nimble, fleet-of-foot, flexible and adaptive. Even its TV commercials emphasize the point that today’s state-of-the-art is tomorrow’s relic. And then there’s the money involved. Telecoms spend a fortune trying to hook customers into this contract or that one, because so much is at stake. Cable and satellite TV companies are on edge, as TV is now delivered “over the top” (OTT) directly to consumers. News is available at the fingertips of anybody, and traditional media companies are on the wrong end of innovation.

This has all led to what I view as an industrywide ignorance about what’s taking place, and this is fatal in terms of delivering news and information that’s relevant to people. What’s relevant? Technology! And yet, we don’t consider it to be our task. This has to stop, because there really is a lot at stake for readers and viewers and potential readers and viewers in this arena.

What kinds of HDTVs, for example, do TV station engineers use and why? Don’t you think that knowledge might be something that those shopping for HDTVs might want to know? What about cameras, etc? My colleague, Ken Elmore, produces a weekly segment for our newsletter called “Tools of the Trade,” and every week I say to myself, you know, everyday people would be interested in this, too.

Why are we so silent about a beat that impacts so many people in so many ways? I think it’s because we’re smack dab in the middle of it. We’re being disrupted by it, and our need to play defense blinds us from the common sense we need to aggressively go after this kind of news and information. We need to spend time studying the comments of stories posted in tech media, or spend a day just looking at comments of Robert Scoble’s massive following on Google+.

The lions of the tech industry — people like Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, or Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google — make enormous impact whenever they open their mouths, and yet I’d wager you’d find that most people in a typical newsroom don’t know who they are. New product launchings are BIG news, and covered by tech media with the same enthusiasm and resources of a Presidential news conference. And rightly so!

Where are we during these events? We’re getting video of the traffic accident up the street or interviewing some poor victim of a horrible tragedy somewhere else. Why? We ignore what’s important to people in the name of doing things as we’ve always done them. This makes no sense.

If you want your local media company to find relevance with the people you hope to serve, you’re going to have to start viewing their lives from their perspective and not your own. Technology is THE story today, so much so that many very smart people are calling this “the second Gutenberg wave” or something similar. Imagine that? It’s an actual turning point in the history of the West, and we’re nowhere to be found in covering it while it’s actually happening.

Gutenberg got a similar treatment back in the 15th Century from the Roman Catholic Church, because only THEY could publish the Bible. Wouldn’t you know that an upstart group of people would actually USE Gutenberg’s invention to swat such nonsense into reality. The same thing is happening today, only we have the chance to be smart about it rather than end up in the waste heap of what’s left behind.

Technology IS the news in the 21st Century. Please. Jump in with both feet.