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John Robb Asks: Why Work?

John Robb

From Global Guerillas:

QUOTES: Why Work?

Re:  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  “Everything from that second tier to the capstone, they (Internet Types) can get at a cost that rounds down to zero, if they so choose.”  David Wong at Cracked (the humor site).

Poor folk love their cellphones!”  Bruce Sterling.  Connectivity = Poverty.  

Bruce Sterling on Favela chic: “You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

For most kids today in developed economies, the question is: why should I work (any more than I have to) if most of what makes me happy is nearly free?  

Connectivity = poverty will grow until:  an economic system that truly leverages and aligns with social connectivity is built.  Once that social economy is built…  watch out.  

From Twitter:

What would an economy look like if all of the rewards for success, after physical needs were met, were delivered by the social graph?


I have gone back and forth on this issue. When you get down to it, there really isn’t any reason for an individual, a couple, even a family (in the nuclear sense) to do something like buy a home or a car or anything else that is lasting and long-term. With the service economy and the migratory nature of employment, why would anyone want to be tied to a particular geographic area. Additionally, the added, one-off / emergency, costs of owning a home or a car are the sort of thing that can break those struggling just to get by. Let the lessor bear that burden. It wasn’t like that for the Boomers. They had careers with single companies, or companies that clustered in limited geographic areas. They also weren’t saddled with student / credit card debt before they even really entered the workforce. Using this Minimal-Needs model you sacrifice the long-term to take advantage of mobility and opportunity. In a way, if you embrace the physical and economic diffusion of the service economy and the on-demand marketplace you can maximize the ability to find the most optimal and minimal living situation for your needs while maintaining your ties to your family and friends using the connectivity of the network.

In a sense I even agree with this. In spite of the nearsightedness I’ve argued for it before. For many people it even makes total sense. John Robb then takes it a step farther and is, as usual, at his provocative best.

According to Robb’s argument, until the “social economy” comes into being people will be working just hard enough to meet the needs of the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, getting poor in the process. Rent, don’t buy! Do just enough to be comfortable while you chat on your smart phone or bank virtual money in an MMORPG. Everything above the second level on the pyramid can be found, for free, via networked connectivity. Success doesn’t need to come from the paycheck in your bank account. You can get the same respect and approval from the equipment you outfit your World of Warcraft character with. You don’t need to have a palatial home or a rewarding career, you just need a group of vibrant friends on Facebook who often respond to and  “like” your status updates and links or retweet you on Twitter to affirm your personal self-worth. Connectivity can legitimately be your only venue to socially interact with people, not just those you have intimate connections to that you don’t want to lose touch with or that you are no longer geographically close to.

Actually, no. That sort of social engagement is incredibly shallow. At best it generates envy, not respect. It isn’t healthy. No offense at all intended to most of my Facebook friends and blog friends, but I don’t know you (John Robb included). I share ideas with you. I argue with you about various points of mutual interest, but you don’t have anything to do with my personal level of self-worth. I read your posts because your ideas interest me. I tell you when I agree with you and I tell you why I don’t. I hope that you do the same for me. If you don’t it isn’t going to affect my own self worth. That comes from within me, not from anyone else. I’m putting these ideas out to exercise my own mind and to expand and shape my own world-view. Essentially, there is no intimacy in those sorts of networked interactions. They may be rewarding in some way, but they occur on a completely superficial level. Those things on that pyramid that are above the second tier cannot be bought or given. They must be earned internally because they are generated by the individual’s own self-image and desire. That’s why it is so hard to get to the top of that pyramid. Even the belonging of friends and family and the respect of peers must be mirrored by an individual’s unselfish belonging to their friends and family and reciprocal and unselfish respect they have for their peers.

The main problem with an economy based upon this Minimal-Needs mentality and completely virtual social organization is that it doesn’t actually create anything. There is no value added. Nothing lasting is built. Nothing except the minimum is required, and if it can be made for free it will be. This is a possible pit-trap for the Maker Revolution. At best you have novelty that quickly fades because it becomes immediately ubiquitous. In an economy like this things that are essentially free aren’t worth anything. If things aren’t valued or don’t have any value to build on, just consumed, there isn’t an incentive to build anything of value.

13 responses

  1. “migratory nature of employment, why would anyone want to be tied to a particular geographic area.”

    Given the transitory nature of employment today, why would anybody uproot themselves and their family by changing geographic locations unless they were going to be upper upper in the company SVP, C*O, etc)? There is not lifetime employment. Heck, 7 years was the longest I had on a job. That was my first employer. Even that was really three different jobs in successive order.

    Pick a location you like, for social/cultural/environmental reasons, live beneath your means; save/invest/create and you will do fine.

    Unless there is a zombie uprising.

    10/22/2010 at 8:04 PM

  2. I keep re-reading this post.

    Maslow has been discredited in the motivation science world for at least 20 years. ERG Theory is a better reflection of the real world.

    10/22/2010 at 8:08 PM

  3. You are correct pointing out the fatal flaw in his idea. The computer social network is not the social network. A facebook friend or twitter follower is not necessarily a real friend.

    His argument needs 1) Virtual=Real ; 2) Maslow to be correct.

    Now there is nothing wrong with having usefull|entertaining stuff going down in cost to us or even to zero. That makes us ealtier (My wealth = value of all my tangible and intangible stuff – the ongoing costs(real and opportunity) of that stuff. As the cost of stuff goes down, people can have more stuff. Having stuff is good thing.

    10/22/2010 at 8:16 PM

  4. Thanks for the tip on ERG theory. I still think the argument holds even those terms, maybe even better.

    As for the zombies. Well, you should always have a zombie plan, whatever your means and location. 😉

    10/22/2010 at 8:23 PM

  5. “My wealth = value of all my tangible and intangible stuff – the ongoing costs(real and opportunity) of that stuff.”

    Robb’s idea economy, social economy, Maker Revolution (whatever you call it) means that your tangible stuff has no value because it can be copied for a cost that rounds down to zero, and your intangible stuff (ideas included) are also worth nothing because once they are on the network they may be instantly distributed to everyone at virtually no cost (meaning no real value).

    10/22/2010 at 8:32 PM

  6. So Robb’s model is that wealth is not a measure of your stuff, but a measure of how much more unique stuff you have in relation to others?

    10/23/2010 at 1:48 PM

  7. Maybe.

    Or possibly a utopian, maybe vaugely communist, society where scarcity has become irrelevant. (Yeah, right!)

    I like the tech. I really do. I don’t think it will lead to an end of scarcity, but it may mean the economy is even more service oriented instead of manufacturing oriented. Or rather, manufacturing may be very highly distributed and entreprenurship to fill needs of customers seeking novelty will be the growth industry.

    10/25/2010 at 1:26 PM

  8. I agree that the service economy will matter more. The % of economic activity by humans doing manufacturing will go down do to automation/robotics/software.

    That’s not a bad thing. That frees people up to do other things….just like dropping down from 99% of people farming to what is is now…1%….was a good thing.

    10/25/2010 at 3:39 PM

  9. A ref to this post was spotted here:


    10/25/2010 at 3:40 PM

  10. “Aherring’s Existence-Relatedness-Growth Non-Dark Inverse Non-Pyramid of Non-Doom.”

    Hrm, not really sure how exactly my post relates to his post but I’m always for non-doom. 🙂

    10/25/2010 at 6:12 PM

  11. I admit I don’t understand all of what CPS writes, but I sure enjoy reading it.

    10/26/2010 at 8:15 PM

  12. Pingback: Wherein I Explain How Aherring’s Post Relates… « The Committee of Public Safety

  13. I don’t understand what that dude’s saying either. I’m waiting for the Cliff Notes version.

    11/02/2010 at 2:01 AM

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