Most of us assume when we talk about technology that, while jobs will be automated out of existence and technological unemployment will be an issue, it’ll most likely be someone else’s problem. At least in technology, we associate ourselves with the unemployers rather than the unemployed. We’re talented, we note. We’ll be OK.
Is that so?
Let me ask a question: what is the universal sign of an untalented person?
Think about it. Write something down.
It’s not being bad at something, because even talented people are bad at many things. No one would pay to watch me play basketball.
Here’s the answer: an untalented person lives on his reputation. That’s it. That’s how it works. Talented people can succeed on their merits; untalented people succeed if they create and exploit feedback loops (wealth and prestige begetting same) in human societies. I suppose that if someone can do this intentionally (and a few people, I believe, can) that would be a talent of its own sort, but most often this is unintentional. With celebrities, it’s called “famous for being famous”. It’s the same thing with business executives, though. I will never be tapped for those jobs; I’m not part of that social network, I wasn’t born into that class, et cetera. But anything those guys could do, I could do better. They’re not talented people. They just have a track record (with support, often invisible, from their social class) that presents an image of professional competence that compels other people to do work on their behalf and keep that impression going. It’s nothing magical.
I don’t think it’s hard to make that case. Looking at the world economy, we can examine the intersection of class and talent. At the bottom, class-wise, the distinctions don’t matter so much because people survive by offering raw labor. There is a reputation component to getting these jobs– a felony conviction is nearly fatal– but it’s relatively easy to stay above that blade. In the middle and upper classes, it gets harder. Talent is hard enough to measure as it is, but talented people are usually doing things other than evaluating talent. This means that our society must trust talentless people to evaluate talent when filling coveted jobs. The results are just as laughable as one would expect, but industrialization is such a win that society can chug along (with 1-2 percent economic growth instead of 5+, but it’s not negative) with mediocre people at the helm. Reputation, and the manipulation thereof, become important in such a world.
Talent doesn’t matter in the workaday world because it’s been successfully managed out of the equation. An adept manager doesn’t bet his company on the intermittent availability of top talent. He tries to find a way to make sure the trains will still run with mediocre people driving them. This is a disturbing realization for me, but my existence on a job site means that, from a cost-cutting MBA’s perspective, someone fucked up. A more capable executive would find a way to replace the expensive, ornery high-talent person with a plug-and-play mediocrity.
Does this mean that society doesn’t need talent? Exactly that, at least in the short term. It should want talent– mediocrities are never going to cure cancer, nor are they going to fix global warming (although, with only mediocrities, we wouldn’t have global warming in the first place)– but that’s a separate discussion. The world benefits from top talent. Do individual hiring managers trying to protect their positions, within workaday corporations that would rather standardize mediocre processes than take a risk on excellence, get what they want from people like me? No. It’s a disturbing realization, but high-talent people need to be aware of it. Google and Facebook are advertising companies, not AI or social-engineering companies. They need a few high-talent people, no doubt, but the fewer of them these companies truly need, the better their executives are doing.
Our society might have want for high talent but it doesn’t really have much economic demand for it. In light of the collapsing demand for top talent, reputation and social manipulation become more important than ever. Which means that the 85th, 95th, and possibly 99th percentiles are forced to live on their reputations, like talentless hacks. People who could once work with their talents are now forced to fall back on their reputations. Why? Because corporate management, on its own terms, works. The system runs well enough on mediocre inputs. To be talented enough to be above the reputation trap got harder. There might soon be no level of talent that escapes it. That’s a scary notion.
Over the past 30 years, while we weren’t looking, reputation became something more malevolent and far more powerful. There are no fresh starts. The only way to reinvent oneself and try again is to break the last rule in a workplace world that has no real honor left, and to lie, and not just to lie but to support the lie with false social proof that can be bought, like any other commodity, on the Internet. I won’t take a position either way on whether it’s right for people to lie on their CVs or in job interviews. I’ll only note that most people have few other defenses against a more powerful adversary that can manipulate reputation against individual interests. It’s ideal not to have to lie to get jobs, but some people have no better way to fix their reputations and I don’t especially fault them for it. We live in a superficial, stupid world where “Mr. Kim” gets jobs that “Kim” can’t.
As the Internet came online, optimists viewed it as the most important publishing tool to come about since Gutenberg– and they turned out to be right. Yet, we ignored the risks: that our corporate masters would use this tool to surveil us. We now live in a world where not having a LinkedIn profile is, like some people’s natural hair, “political”; and where most people unknowingly sign away their legal rights when they interview for a job (to sue over bad references) as well as when they take one (if their company has a binding arbitration clause). Opting out isn’t really possible. The corporate masters have won. In a split second, they can (and do) manipulate this miasma of information that comprises “reputation” and destroy anyone they want. Anyone who doesn’t think the top corporate executives, hedge-fund supercapitalists, and Sand Hill Road king-makers use the same “troll farms” that splattered barf all over the 2016 election… isn’t paying attention.
When the world needed labor, most of us (often self-anointed) “talented” people were able to outrun “the other guy”, if the not the bear. This time, the forest floor’s littered with half-eaten corpses of “other guys” and the bear’s still coming. This surveillance/reputation capitalism beast we unwittingly created, we barely understand it, and not one of us is really free of it.
So, let’s discuss Trump. First of all, there’s a perception that Trumpism is about white male “emasculation” as we move from an industrial to a service economy. I prefer not to think of it in terms of emasculation, because any humiliating thing that men should not have to put up with, women should also not have to put up with. However, surveillance/reputation capitalism is objectively humiliating. No one of any gender should have to live under it. What some people see in Trump is a man who beat a bad reputation (which, in his case, he earned) and won in spite of being despised by the upper-middle classes (whom the working classes conflate with “the rich”). By winning in spite of a negative reputation, he slew the dragon; it doesn’t matter (for some) that he’s a ghoul who leaned heavily on reputation’s perversities (e.g., the sexist assault on a woman’s character because of her husband’s failings) to win.
One can dissect Trump and his reputation in a variety of ways. His reputation is negative in the sense of this low character has been obvious for decades, but his “brand” is the only think he actually built with any competence. How negative could his reputation be, if he could turn it into such a successful brand? He exploited an obvious, degenerate trait in our society: that after the 1980s, being an asshole became a status symbol. There’s probably more to analyze here than there is time to analyze it, and Trump’s defeat of the reputation monster is an illusion. With his wealth and contacts, he never had any trouble getting inside said monster and making it do what he wanted.
Demand for talent, and therefore its market value, seems to decrease. This scares me. Taking a long-term perspective, the world still needs talent. Only one-fifth of the world has been lifted out of miserable poverty, and the planet gets hotter every year. However, the world’s running just fine on the terms of the people in charge. From their perspective, they’d probably prefer a world with less talent, so they can’t be challenged. And although there’ve been no improvements in the accuracy of this tool called reputation, it now comes with shocking (if false) precision.
Perhaps not 85 or 95, but 100, percent of us will be forced to live on our reputations, like talentless hacks. It’s hard to come up with an alternative.