[A] lot of your book is about the survival of the middle class in the digital age, the importance of a broad middle class as we move forward. You argue that the middle class, unlike the rich and the poor, is not a natural class but was built and sustained through some kind of intervention. Has that changed in the last decade or two as the digital world has grown?
Well, there’s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.
In a raw kind of capitalism there tend to be unstable events that wipe away the middle and tend to separate people into rich and poor. So these mechanisms are undone by a particular kind of style that is called the digital open network.
Music is a great example where value is copied. And so once you have it, again it’s this winner-take-all thing where the people who really win are the people who run the biggest computers. And a few tokens, an incredibly tiny number of token people who will get very successful YouTube videos, and everybody else lives on hope or lives with their parents or something.
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One of the things that really annoys me is the acceptance of lies that’s so common in the current orthodoxy. I guess all orthodoxies are built on lies. But there’s this idea that there must be tens of thousands of people who are making a great living as freelance musicians because you can market yourself on social media. And whenever I look for these people – I mean when I wrote “Gadget” I looked around and found a handful – and at this point three years later, I went around to everybody I could to get actual lists of people who are doing this and to verify them, and there are more now. But like in the hip-hop world I counted them all and I could find about 50. And I really talked to everybody I could. The reason I mention hip-hop is because that’s where it happens the most right now.
So when we’re talking about the whole of the business – and these are not 50 people who are doing great. Or here’s another example. Do you know who Jenna Marbles is? She’s a super-successful YouTube star. She’s the queen of self-help videos for young women. She’s kind of a cross between Snooki and Martha Stewart or something. And she’s cool. I mean, she kind of helps girls with how to do makeup, and she’s irreverent. She’s had a billion views.
The interesting thing about it is that people advertise, “Oh, what an incredible life. She’s this incredibly lucky person who’s worked really hard.” And that’s all true. She’s in her 20s, and it’s great that she’s found this success, but what this success is that she makes maybe $250,000 a year, and she rents a house that’s worth $1.1 million in L.A.. And this is all breathlessly reported as this great success. And that’s good for a 20-year-old, but she’s at the very top of, I mean, the people at the very top of the game now and doing as well as what used to be considered good for a middle-class life. And I don’t want to dismiss that. That’s great for a 20-year-old, although in truth, in my world of engineers that wouldn’t be much. But for someone who’s out there, a star with a billion views, that’s a crazy low expectation. She’s not even in the 1 percent. For the tiny token number of people who make it to the top of YouTube, they’re not even making it into the 1 percent.
The issue is if we’re going to have a middle class anymore, and if that’s our expectation, we won’t. And then we won’t have democracy.
You mentioned a minute ago that there’s about 50 in hip-hop. What kind of estimate did you come up with for music in general?
I think in the total of music in America, there are a low number of hundreds. It’s really small. I wish all of those people my deepest blessings, and I celebrate the success they find, but it’s just not a way you can build a society.
The other problem is they would have to self-fund. This is getting back to the informal economy where you’re living in the slum or something, so you’re desperate to get out so you impress the boss man with your music skills or your basketball skills. And the idea of doing that for the whole of society is not progress. It should be the reverse. What we should be doing is bringing all the people who are in that into the formal economy. That’s what’s called development. But this is the opposite of that. It’s taking all the people from the developed world and putting them into a cycle of the developing world of the informal economy.
You say early in the book, “As much as it pains me to say so, we can survive only if we destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, photographers.” I guess what you seem to be saying here is the creative class is sort of the canary in the digital coal mine.
Yes. That’s precisely my point. So when people say, “Why are musicians so special? Everybody has to struggle.” And the thing is, I do think we are looking at a [sustainable] model.
We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It’s like everybody’s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.
The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.
In the interview he's short on solutions, but it's important for more people to recognize that the current thing— largely tech peoples' own “dream of the 90's”— is not working. I will be reading the book.