Did the Internet Kill the Middle Class?

In an interview in Salon, Jaron Lanier talks about how technology changes have disrupted the middle class in this country.

So Kodak has 140,000 really good middle-class employees, and Instagram has 13 employees, period. You have this intense concentration of the formal benefits, and that winner-take-all feeling is not just for the people who are on the computers but also from the people who are using them. So there’s this tiny token number of people who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else lives on hope. There’s not a middle-class hump. It’s an all-or-nothing society.

Ever talk to a professional photographer in his mid-50’s? How about a mid-career librarian or an editor, who have seen their professional worlds shrink? I love the Internet. You know I do. But this bounty of free information and resources have destroyed the old ways of making a proper buck, and I’m not seeing new professions stepping in to take the place of the old.

30 Thoughts on “Did the Internet Kill the Middle Class?

  1. Wendy on May 15, 2013 at 10:15 am said:

    Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget” is on my summer TBR pile, but I find myself not predisposed to love his argument.

    I suspect that what is going to happen is we will need to start re-imagining which jobs are middle class. Previous working class jobs will have to be reclassified as middle class. Or everyone is going to have to get a whole lot better at data entry. In fact, data entry is the new factory work, no? Mindless and repetitive.

  2. I have some bad news about data entry, if you think there’s jobs there.

  3. scantee on May 15, 2013 at 10:58 am said:

    I think that Wendy is correct that we need to re-imagine what we consider a middle-class job. Rethinking service work will probably be a huge part of this. Restaurant workers, retail workers, and domestic employees should have the same benefits that professional office drones like myself have. The SEIU seems to have a bit of power in advocating for these kinds of changes but I don’t know if they have broad policy goals of if they focus more on ameliorating grievances against specific corporations.

  4. Coming from the industry that is killing jobs (computer science, machine learning), there is a lot that computers will never be able to do. In addition to re-imagining the middle class, I think we need to consider what we would like tech to do, which tasks humans are better at, and create task-based work like a high-end, skill-based Amazon Mechanical Turk. Some examples: labeling photos, evaluating the recommendations produced by an algorithm, and supplementing ebooks with evolving recaps depending on where you are and how long since you last read. It’s a little better than data entry, especially if you can pick and vary your tasks.

  5. ” Some examples: labeling photos, evaluating the recommendations produced by an algorithm, and supplementing ebooks with evolving recaps depending on where you are and how long since you last read.”

    The problem with these functions, though, is whether they will add enough value in a way that can be recaptured and sold. Will labelled photos be enough better than the results of the google image search? Will paid reviews be enough better than the crowd-sourced free reviews? I see a parallel in fonts/typefaces. Yes professionally designed fonts are better than the free ones that started flooding the market. But most people won’t pay the premium.

    I think we’re going through a significant revolution in information work, which includes any information/intellectual product that used to be tied to a physical object and space but now can be transmitted via the internet (photos, writing, and, some forms of presentation/teaching/lectures, tests, tutoring, teaching, shopping). I do not see where we will end up yet.

    I do think a dramatically economically imbalanced society is incompatible with a free society, so we’ll have to get somewhere, but I don’t know where it is.

  6. Cranberry on May 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm said:

    I kinda thought lotsa people were employed by this internet thing. Oh, yeah, and this computing machine thing. Hmmm, and there are the associated industries, including shipping, internet access (cable, Fios, etc.), device manufacturers, etc.

    More to the point, on US News’ list of “The 100 Best Jobs,” four of the top 10 are directly related to the internet and computing systems:

    computer systems analyst
    database administrator
    software developer
    web developer

    http://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/the-100-best-jobs

    Computer programmer and IT manager round out the top 20.

    All those new jobs aren’t driving to the same corporate headquarters. The growth has been massive, though.

    Just for computer systems analysts, there were 544,400 in 2010. (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-systems-analysts.htm) Estimated growth, 2010-20? 120,000 — so almost the equivalent of a Kodak in one category.

    Kodak (and Polaroid) died when they didn’t adapt to digital cameras. People stopped printing out whole rolls of film, to see if they had any good shots. The demand for memory to hold all the digital photos probably drove demand for computers with more memory and faster processing.

  7. Cranberry on May 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm said:

    We have probably reached a point at which tech progress cannot be stopped.

    http://www.shellypalmer.com/2013/05/3d-printing-is-way-scarier-than-plastic-guns/

    On the positive side? These technologies end the industrial age. They may usher in the made-to-order age.

  8. AmyP on May 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm said:

    “I see a parallel in fonts/typefaces. Yes professionally designed fonts are better than the free ones that started flooding the market. But most people won’t pay the premium.”

    Here’s a funny thing–my husband has a small sideline in hobby programming. Over the years, he has actually made a very tidy sum off of a program that prettifies fonts and makes them nicer to read on electronic devices. There was a year where he was making an extra $1,000 a month from his programs. During that year, we were able to pay off our entire credit card debt nearly entirely. The payments for that eventually dried up (he was initially working on the Palm) but then 1.5 years ago, I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and he realized that Amazon had omitted a rather obvious feature from the Kindle Fire. And so he started programming again and the royalties started flowing again. It wasn’t quite as much as or as consistent as during the Palm glory days, but the good months have been in high three figures and the bad months have been low three figures. We keep expecting it to dry up entirely, but it keeps trickling in, and my husband occasionally gets a new idea to add to his software stable.

    I’ll add that my husband is almost totally self-taught as a programmer (he took a computer science course in high school many years ago) and he has very little overhead. The money is small, but one $1,000 a month gig can be the difference between being lower middle class and middle middle class, or between being middle middle class and upper middle middle class. It’s all money and it all counts.

  9. “The problem with these functions, though, is whether they will add enough value in a way that can be recaptured and sold.” The results of these functions may not be useful in themselves, but they could certainly be harnessed to create or improve products. Labeled photos would make Google’s image search better, for instance. Or, you could think of it as a digital service: paying someone to label all of your personal photos so that you can search through them. Would that be worth $100 to you?

    As a tangent, I think there should be a technology track as part of the standard high school curriculum. Programming, digital arts and design, web development…

  10. Cranberry on May 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm said:

    I agree there needs to be a technology element to the high school curriculum. It should be a department on a level with the other academic departments, not a track.

  11. “Or, you could think of it as a digital service: paying someone to label all of your personal photos so that you can search through them. Would that be worth $100 to you?”

    Yes, I’d pay that in a shot. But no one should take on the job for $100. Well, maybe someone whose alternative is to work in a firetrap factory in Bangladesh. Well, and that does raise possibilities.

    I think the main point of Google is to find ways to search without people having to analyze content. So, they have jobs for someone figuring out image search algorithms that categorize/label/search images without a person looking at the content. I see that as the new focus of searching/collating of information and don’t see a lot of room for high skill labor in information management (i.e. the old days, not yet completely gone, when people would read articles or books and write summaries).

  12. I do like Amy’s story, and think that is part of the positive way we can go, for someone to be able to create content (programs, write, photographs) with a low enough overhead that the money is worth their while. Wendy has said her husband makes enough money of stock photography to make it worth his while, too. And, both of those are examples where people are able to create content for pay as a result of the digital revolution.

    (but, for neither is the creation of the content a day job).

  13. “As a tangent, I think there should be a technology track as part of the standard high school curriculum. Programming, digital arts and design, web development…”

    Yes! And I am dying for an tech/info literacy course on the college level, too. I even have a syllabus mapped out involving online ethics, knowledge of digital and social media, and also citation of sources.

    It kills me how there is no computer programming at most schools. I think E could really get into it, but he’s not likely to self-start. He needs the push from doing it as a school requirement, then he’ll like it and want to do more of it on his own. I have signed him up for an intro to Scratch/Java camp this summer (one week). We’ll see how that goes.

  14. AmyP on May 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm said:

    Wendy said:

    “It kills me how there is no computer programming at most schools.”

    I believe there used to be more.

    “I have signed him up for an intro to Scratch/Java camp this summer (one week).”

    Very good!

    bj said:

    “(but, for neither is the creation of the content a day job).”

    Right. As I recall, my husband did some calculations and decided that realistically, Kindle Fire programming would pay no more than about $36k a year as a full-time thing. (I’m not totally sure about the number, but it was in that range. Obviously, lots of people live on $36k a year, but the sort of person who can make $36k a year just as a freelance Kindle Fire programmer would probably be able to make a much better living elsewhere.) However, I believe iPhone programming is potentially a more lucrative field and perhaps could become a day job for the right person.

    A few more thoughts:

    1) One does need to provide customer support, even to the really dumb customers, and there’s a lot of ongoing bug fixing.

    2) Do not be lured into thinking that having Amazon give away your program for free will somehow attract paying customers (the Groupon fallacy). In our experience, it does not. People take the freebie, buy nothing else, and then you need to provide them support for the free item. Oh, and you are probably losing some potential paying customers to the freebie.

    3) I’ve been doing summer camp signups this week and noticing how many websites for kids’ summer activities are not updated yet, even though school is going to be out in two weeks. I wonder whether there isn’t a niche for somebody to freshen up websites for smaller, less web-savvy organizations that haven’t gotten around to it?

  15. I think tech needs to be integrated into other classes (but, we need Geeky Laura here to comment), rather than taught as a stand alone. Our kids’ school is doing a decent job of doing this for the standard apps. But, on programming, they’re not really doing what I’d like to see.

    Potentially, programming is as valid an elective as music/art/foreign language, and should be offered as an option along with those, but then, something else will be lost.

    I am not a fan of increasing curricular requirements and classes because something has to give when you do that. I think when we keep adding we end up dumbing down, and that the dumbing down often hits the classes that are more difficult to teach (writing, for example). And, I think depth gets lost.

  16. Also, people who have been taught to be logical thinkers can learn to code.
    (As Laura is proving by moving this blog, even though it’s causing brain hurties)

  17. AmyP on May 16, 2013 at 8:49 am said:

    When a software royalty check comes in the mail, I make a point of telling the children how much it is and what it was for. That might eventually make a nice kid job.

  18. There’s room for computer science in high school and middle school curriculums. I took two useless “tech” classes and an actual programming class over my 6 years. All we need to do is turn the useless classes into productive ones.

    Computer science also has deep connections to math. Kids should learn binary, hexadecimal, and basic formal logic in elementary school. You could have a section on circuits and transistors in science. Some things would have to be cut or given less depth, sure, but as the prevalence of computers increases, it’s worth it to have our children understand how that technology works.

    And yes, people who can think logically can code, but like learning a language, it’s a lot easier to absorb the basic concepts when you’re younger.

  19. Laura on May 16, 2013 at 8:56 am said:

    I’ve been talking with various website developers this past week. There are a lot of them, and their prices are so reasonable that I can’t believe that they are making much money.

  20. I’m LOL right now because I just had a perfect example of what kinds of jobs we need people to be able to do. We are moving on Monday to a new house that we closed on 3 weeks ago, so we’ve been in and out for the past 3 weeks, so I had internet installed so I could work while waiting for various service people to do things like fix the chimney, do some electrical work, etc. Best $35 I ever spent. Anyway, the problem is that Comcast cannot simply add my old service to the modem that’s already in the new house. The software cannot understand that there is 1 Wendy and 2 houses. It can only see that there is Wendy 1 and Wendy 2, and Wendy 2 having internet in the new house *blocks* the transfer of Wendy 1’s total internet package (including tv and phone) to the new house.

    Also, too, I actually was on the phone for half an hour with someone on this exact same issue, but she was the most incompetent person who could not even understand the simple 4-letter word that is my current address and wanted to turn it into a 6-letter word. At some point, we ended up on “a brief” hold, and the 15 minute transaction I expected ended up moving into the 30-minute range, and I had to go give a final exam so I hung up on her.

    So, what I learned is we need people who can:
    *create more flexible software programs for cable companies
    *do a customer service job effectively

    Service and IT: the jobs of the future.

  21. “but like learning a language, it’s a lot easier to absorb the basic concepts when you’re younger.”

    In practice, the main advantage to early language learning is pronunciation or immersion, not really “concepts.”

    The advantages in teaching language to young children is when true immersion is used, not in exposure.

    In my mind, that’s relevant to the programming/tech discussion, for young children at least, in that exposure to simplified tech isn’t necessarily going to teach them the logical thinking (while reading history might, as another activity). I do think immersion (using computers when they are the appropriate tool) does teach competency.

    HS is different — and faster integration of new forms of learning might be a need in HS.

    (On best practices in foreign language instruction)
    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED491588&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED491588

  22. “*create more flexible software programs for cable companies”

    There are people who could create more flexible software programs. It’s a business decision not a technical one. In a more annoying example. we have friends who used to use Vonage and switched their phone to a new service. Vonage hasn’t released their phone number completely, so if you call them from a Vonage phone, you get an “out of service error.” (you can’t call that number from Vonage). It’s a software error, that they lack business incentives to solve, and it’s permanent, unlike a temporary transfer issue.

    *do a customer service job effectively”

    Again, it’s a economic issue. The amount they pay produces the level of competence. True, it’s probably not an inherently rewarding job, either (like writing about ideas), but you can hire great people to do jobs that are not “fun” if you pay them enough. Customer service folks don’t get paid enough and they’re not going to get paid enough, because consumers aren’t willing to pay a significant premium for better service.

  23. AmyP on May 16, 2013 at 11:41 am said:

    “The amount they pay produces the level of competence.”

    Right.

    “Customer service folks don’t get paid enough and they’re not going to get paid enough, because consumers aren’t willing to pay a significant premium for better service.”

    But consumers are paying already…with their own time.

  24. So maybe we need to be able to tip customer service reps at internet service providers. Would that result in better service? Interesting experiment for someone to try.

  25. IMO what’s really being discussed here is the demise of middle class status in the US that can be predictably attained.

    A quick look at India, or the Ukraine, or Vietnam even, shows us that the internet has done fabulous things for the middle class there. But people in the US are now directly competing against professionals in those places – and we’ve seen the destabilizing impacts.

    Second point – yes, things are changing rapidly. But we all know the internet has created a large bounty of new jobs. At the risk of offending, the readership of this blog is simply demographically more likely to encounter people who are older, have more invested in the old jobs, and are less agile when it comes to adjusting – and thus are actively losing more.

  26. Laura, my apologies for misreading your new commenting format. If you could please delete my e-mail address as time allows I would appreciate.

  27. Who’s going to teach these high schoolers how to program? It’s a serious question: if programmers are so hard to come by in industry and if salaries and working conditions are so good in industry, why would competent and effective programmers leave to teach in secondary schools?

    If we mandate programming courses, the teachers will come from existing teachers’ ranks — and given the shortage of math and science teachers, it’s likely that those programming teachers will be the same assortment of part-time coaches, librarians, and guidance counsellors who tried hard to teach programming to themselves and their classes when I was in school back in the eighties. And the results will be the same — nobody will emerge with a good understanding of programming who didn’t have one going in.

    I’m a firm believer that poor instruction in X is worse than good instruction in Y even if X is more important or marketable than Y. I had personal experience with this back in high school, when a well-meaning anatomy teacher acquiesced to the request from science-minded students for a physics class, with the backing of the school. She was entirely over her head, and the course was a waste of time for everyone involved — though that wasn’t her fault at all, of course. We’d have all been better off taking anatomy from her instead of physics, even though we weren’t interested in physics.

    (For another programmer’s take on the “everyone must code” fad, see Greg Jorgenson’s latest blog post.)

  28. AmyP on May 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm said:

    “I had personal experience with this back in high school, when a well-meaning anatomy teacher acquiesced to the request from science-minded students for a physics class, with the backing of the school. She was entirely over her head, and the course was a waste of time for everyone involved — though that wasn’t her fault at all, of course. We’d have all been better off taking anatomy from her instead of physics, even though we weren’t interested in physics.”

    That sounds so painfully familiar.

  29. Typo fix: “We’d have all been better off taking anatomy from her instead of physics, even though we weren’t interested in anatomy.”

  30. If this means that I no longer have to listen to my ‘colleagues’ banging on about how great Waitrose is, whilst looking down their nose at me because I have to wear jeans and a t-shirt, then good riddance to the middle class.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation