The Great Asymmetry of Modern Business
Recently, I was sitting in the Castro Theatre listening intently to several women present what they do and the businesses at which they work at a tech conference in San Francisco. Ramona Pierson was presenting on the future of education and how it would be a distributed future. She brought up Declara and spent some time talking about work in a distributed future. As she spoke, my mind swirled with thoughts. How would it really be possible to have a distributed workforce where people were algorithmically matched with others who needed their skills? Would there be bias in the algorithms? Could it increase diversity in all our human endeavors or would it steal the diversity and contribute to the alienation and disenfranchisement from which certain groups already suffer? Her presentation was over, but my mind kept mulling these things over.
The next speaker, Edith Perez, presented her work on genomics and immune-based cancer research. When she started, she brought up some recent history about how she came to work for the company. She mentioned moving from Florida to the Bay Area, and this set off another cascade of thoughts. Many recruiters contact me about jobs in NYC or SF and I despise how they won’t let me work remotely. This thought and the juxtaposition of Ramona’s presentation struck a chord. I kept listening to the presentation, but I was halfway distracted with what had just happened in my head.
There was this tangible thought. It was a strangely fully formed idea. During the break I went to a coffee shop down the street to write down a few notes so I could remember the idea later. Instead, I sat outside in the sun, sipping my coffee, and wrote six pages of handwritten notes. The words kept flowing and I kept writing until I got to a stopping point. My thesis was basically this with a lot of additional history:
Modern companies consolidate wealth into the areas in which they are based. This robs from the many and gives to the few. If companies were not so short sighted and had put in the work to improve process and communication strategies to support a geographically distributed workforce, the following would be true: 1. More money would circulate in more geographic regions making less of a “Swiss Cheese Economy”. 2. There would be fewer places with an inflated housing market. 3. Places which now have inflated housing markets would not be losing the diversity which made them great places to begin with. 4. People being compensated handsomely for their skills would have more disposable income instead of allocating it mostly for rent or lowering their standard of living. 5. Companies would not have created inflated shareholder value in private valuations and initial public offering prices by stealing that value in the form of resiliency and actual money from other geographic regions. 6. The “Swiss Cheese Economy” would not have become so prevalent.
Companies found themselves in this position due to many factors; the main propelling forces were improvements in automation (industrialization, mechanical and computer based automation), improvements in communication (telegraph, telephone, fax, internet), and improvements of distribution channels (postal service, freeways, railroads, air freight, internet). Eventually we made a transition from only being able to ship goods to being able to ship fully packaged, fully automated services over the internet. However, companies never made the transition to allowing core employees to render their services over the internet. The business required core employees to come work for them in a particular location. This introduced a fundamental asymmetry in how modern business was conducted.
The next day I continued to ponder and write about this while sitting at another coffee shop. While there, I met a barista who worked there while she was on break. I found out it was her last week in San Francisco. The cost of living there had outstripped her income and she was struggling to stay afloat. She was the kind of barista I love interacting with in coffee shops: outgoing, thoughtful, creative, fashionable, and hard working. I was sad to hear that I wouldn’t see her in that coffee shop again the next time I came to town and that she was suffering from the economic machinery and behaviors I had just been writing about.
While I was sitting there I met a senior transportation planner who worked with the City of San Francisco. We talked a bit and I told him about my thoughts. He replied that I have a lot of research to do and I acknowledged him. He then brought up the fact that San Francisco was the only American city where the African American population was dwindling at as high a rate. That’s a fact that can be backed up by multiple sources. It seemed like all the pieces that I needed to support this project were falling into place.
Just a few days later, douglas rushkoff launched his new book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus”, with a fantastic presentation at SXSW. It goes over a lot of what I was thinking about and answers a few of the questions I was asking. I think his ideas and my ideas will dovetail nicely.
Another aspect he touches on in the talk, is how companies are using advertising to try to increase revenue. As Rushkoff says, there’s not much of a return on that. On the other hand, I think the same forces at work taking money away from people with the scale of a power law distribution are also at work amongst companies through the exchange of money based on the metadata and viewership of a publisher’s page along with business to business relationships. This is an idea I need to research more, and it’s entirely possible Rushkoff has already written about it in his book, which I’ve just ordered his book from my local bookstore (you can do the same by clicking here). I am looking forward to reading it when it arrives.