My brother always gives the best Christmas gifts. This year, he gave me Cory Doctorow‘s new book, “Makers”, and I’m only pages in but it triggered thoughts I’ve been having with regards to Malthusian shortages vs. utopian surplus, Schumpeterian creative destruction and entrepreneurship, and the almost limitless possibilities to become rich these days.
Shortages & Surpluses
In earlier posts I’ve been thinking about how one of the keys to finding a successful business in the internet and information age is looking for where there’s a huge surplus of data and then figuring out a product or service within that. For ebay, it was providing a marketplace for all peoples’ crap. For Google it was monetizing all the links and attention put out on the internet by hundreds of millions of users. Netflix and Amazon monetized the long tail for movies and books, among other things.
The big businesses of old benefit from creating scarcity, whether it be the RIAA and limiting access and remixing of art through copyright and IP strangulation, or De Beers or oil cartels or water bottlers throttling the supplies of natural resources, or insurance providers excluding access to the least profitable/most needworthy users of the services insurance pays for.
The new businesses of the dotcom era are taking advantage of the surplus of data online and in effect are allowing consumers and hobbyists to have greater access to products.
But it is in the nature of companies to grab a foothold through appealing to the public, then fighting tooth and nail to stave off competition — just look at the Model T, providing cars to the masses but perhaps leading to an industry which produces cars that look remarkably similar to the originals.
So Many Choices
Thus capitalism requires a pretty delicate balance (and it’s heavily contested how to maintain this) but capitalism is also immensely powerful. One aspect that is wonderful about capitalism is that it boggles your mind how people find ways to sell products. For instance, I was at REI yesterday and you can find fingerholds for your rock-climbing wall, quite a few different kinds and styles of carabiners, different styles of jogging windbreakers, fingerless gloves or ski gloves, tents collapsible into floppy thin stacks, etc. And as I’ve looked for different services for my work and for other peoples’ businesses, there’s services for everything: strategic consulting, HR and accounting outsourcing, entire food service sectors that cater towards the late hours of the Wall Street banking community, mobile pet grooming services being run out of trailer-vans, flexible armies of anonymous workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk ready to do mundane tasks for money, security guards and convenience store people willing to work overnights and holidays, even Street Sense homeless people standing out on the corner selling newspapers.
I’m not saying everything’s happy and perfect. Being an international development person, I’m aware of the great injustices being done against brothers and sisters, exploitation in the name of “free” markets and globalization and worldwide races to the bottom in labor prices. But come on, there’s some awesome stuff going on out there.
My point is that you could take any interest in the US and there’s probably a magazine dedicated to it. There’s probably specialized, highly competitive equipment being sold for it. There’s most likely a uniform that people of that hobby or specialization wear. Whole lexicons. Each interest gives off multiple waves that affect other economic sectors. This is Michael Porter’s supply chain but for everyone.
That’s one thing that’s so amazing about capitalism when it’s working successfully. In the US, you can make a living doing just about anything.
So Many More Opportunities Now
Another point I wanted to bring up: what’s so cool about making a living doing anything these days is that it wasn’t always that way. There used to be a very small number of ways you could make money. Off the top of my head: being of nobility, sucking up to nobility, thievery and being a ganglord, being lucky in birth and life.
Even not too long ago, you would have probably needed to be white, a member of white-collar professions like medicine or law. And even more recent than that, you probably had to be a cog in a corporate wheel.
But turn on your TV now and there are people making names for themselves doing all sorts of insane shit. Hell, some people we don’t even know how they became rich and famous (the Kardashians). It’s become that diffuse and abstract. For all their faults, the branders whom Naomi Klein refreshingly faults in No Logo like Nike and McDonalds and the Mad Men of Madison Avenue probably do deserve a lot of credit for inspiring new business niches.
But it’s all really fucking cool. And as the Internet becomes so much more pervasive not only for Americans, but for the billions of people in the world, just imagine how much more wild things people will come up with in order to make money.
Finally: what this all means is that you and I are not cursed at birth and upbringing to be a failure. If you have an interest and are passionate about it, you can get rich and be famous while at the same time doing what you love.
As Doctorow suggests, you can even make money being an assembler or a curator, someone who puts together many different parts that he didn’t create into something new, something extremely valuable.
You don’t have to listen to your parents and study law when you know you hate law, or practice basketball because it’s the only way to get out of your shitty neighborhood, or join the military to get out of some no-name town that no one ever leaves from. Your life isn’t over just because you hate calculus and can’t write for shit and have bad skin.
Instead of a handful of professions, there are now unlimited professions, and we all have a chance. “I got a million ways to get it.” I leave it to Jay-Z to provide the rest:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WM1RChZk1EU
Happy fucking new year and new decade!