s4e13: A future of working 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

12:40pm on Friday during a lunch break, in the middle of doing some sort of writing. This particular set of writing – typing for coins, as some of my friends have once described it – has at its goal changing the way a group of people do things from one way (unsurprisingly, given my current work, that way is: traditional, waterfall, planning-driven software development) to another way (iterative, multi-disciplinary digital service teams).I am under no illusion that there is a magic spell that can be typed out and, when it’s read by someone else, change the way that they do things. That comes with practice. But, it’s an interesting exercise because it also (more or less) follows on from what I was last writing about. That traditional method of software development is plan-and-process heavy. The assumption is that by casting a sort of documentation spell, writing down *how things should be done*, is in the best case, the most reliable way to assure a certain outcome, and in the worst case, the minimally viable way to ensure that certain outcome in most cases.

I suppose one way of looking at agile/iterative versus waterfall is the failure of the industrialization of software development. The invention of the organization and the development of process made *some things* repeatable, but the realization that “figuring out the right software to build and then building it” couldn’t be industrialized to the extent that the people implementing the process could do so blindly.

In other words, and to paraphrase Teen Talk Barbie, software is hard and you can’t produce good product by rote. Plans being followed produce the illusion of decisions having been made through consideration and comprehension, but the output needs to be validated. And these types of plans don’t really tell you *how* to make the decisions, they merely say: a decision should be made here.

Or, the plans remove any ability for consideration of context. Software is too hard, too difficult, too… multi-variate, for a recipe to be followed.

This is less a station ident and more an entire newsletter on its own, when I had designs on writing something else. So, I’ll hold this, and go write The Other Thing.

1.0 A future of working

I have a New Yorker subscription because they had an offer on for some ridiculous amount that I think was actually losing them money (seriously, it was something on the order of less than $10 for three months worth of issues). I decided to take it because this year I’m spending more money on, as they say, Supporting Quality Journalism, and after getting my Washington Post and New York Times subscription, I figured the very least I could do was to throw some money toward the organization behind the best LinkedIn Cartoon Ever[0].Anyway. I have this subscription and now bits of New Yorker arrive in my house, a bit like how the New Yorker currently arrives at my house (that is to say one method is: through the air, chopped up into bits and reconstituted onto an LCD matrix, the second method is: through a small slot, tightly bound together, and printed at a very high resolution). In both cases, the New Yorker arrives, eventually, in the bathroom, where many things are read or, in the New Yorker’s case, just piled up near the toilet to make it look like our household is populated by respectable, smart, well-informed middle-class adults with a high-fiber diet.

It was in the bathroom that I ended up starting to read one of the stories in the magazine’s Innovator’s Issue (a title that already causes some sort of eye-roll) and in particular, Nathan Heller’s piece, “Is The Gig Economy Working?”

Heller’s piece was, for me at least, something that I felt I could skip over because it followed a familiar format. Here’s someone who’s not really involved in the Gig Economy. But, they are involved in the Gig Economy because they can buy services through it! By using services provided by the Gig Economy (in this case, by someone who comes and hangs some pictures and does other odd DIY jobs in Heller’s apartment), Heller muses about the nature of The Gig Economy. It felt like about 75% (a scientific number, I’ll have you know) was Tropes About The Gig Economy:

– The work isn’t particularly fulfilling, but can be profitable for some people
– Some companies don’t treat their employees (who aren’t employees, they’re contract workers) very well
– TaskRabbit
– Uber
– Young People, Specifically, Millennials
– Airbnb
– Airbnb management companies

Once we’d gotten through all of that, then, I thought, the interesting part. If the social safety net is broken, then what do we need to replace it? Is it time to get rid of the distinction (in America, at least) between 1099 contractors and W-2 employees and the benefits and rights that go to one category (healthcare, vacation, certain job protections and the prospect of a pension) and not to the other? Heller gets to talk to Tom Perez, who’s the current chairman of the DNC, and the two go off to visit Hello Alfred which – excuse me – is literally an affordable, democratized home help butler service, whose innovation is that workers are treated like employees, and are W-2 employees.

This has been a long recap to get to, I feel, the interesting part.

Much of what has been written, it seems, about the way work is changing has been about the gigging part. The schedule-free work that can be squeezed either into gaps around existing employment (the Lyft drivers I meet who’re working two jobs) or that fills gaps encountered by boomers who’ve cashed out, have their final salary pensions and mortgages paid off and are literally working to stave off boredom, a sort of mental health wellness prescription that also happens to earn them money.

How interesting for the gig economy to cater both at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, as a way for those struggling to exchange time for the cash needed to afford rent and food, but also at middle, to meet psychological need for contact with other people, any people, instead of living out days alone with the television.

That’s the gig economy. There’s a whole other part of how work is changing that doesn’t get covered as much, and a friend reminded me of it over breakfast and that piece of conversation has stuck with a bunch of other tiny little data points and now they’re feeling like they’re blaring at me a little bit.

Patreon pulls together a bunch of threads, theories and assumptions that internet old timers had been thinking about, puts them into practice and now, four years old, appears to be unrepentantly and aggressively validating them with cold hard recurring cash.

The shape that Patreon takes in my head is something of a mish-mash of 1,000 True Fans[2], universal basic income[3], moat-building, genuine platform creation and the introduction of a (for now) benevolent dictator.

Forget transaction-based “I need a task done and a human body to do it” that is furthest toward the “first against the automation wall when the robots come gradually and then quickly”, Patreon covers what (naively?) feels like intrinsically human creative work: it’s a way for people who create culture that’s valuable to other people to be consistently, regularly supported by their audience.

Patreon is the way that people can monetize their 1,000 true fans not on a one-off transaction basis (who could possibly live that way?) but on a recurring monthly subscription way. Or, in other words, ask their 1,000 true fans for a monthly salary.

The numbers, I’ve heard, go only up and to the right. They may not be going quickly, but they do so steadily.

From Patreon’s point of view, they’ve got a pretty interesting product/platform: if you’ve got an audience, you can use them to get paid by it. Patreon can sit in the middle – they’re doing valuable work, it’s difficult and hard to collect recurring revenue on your own, so the infrastructure is helpful – but they’ve got a significant moat. The billing relationship is between subscriber and Patreon and (full disclosure, I haven’t actually looked into this), but the switching costs in financial billing relationships are high! If, say, I’m a successful creator on Patreon who’s pulling down a few thousand dollars a month and a competitor comes along who’ll offer a better rate, or services that might suit me better, how easy will it be for me to persuade all my patrons to switch to the new provider? It’s hard enough getting people from one mailing list to another these days.

Making it easy for creators to move from one Patreon-like service to another would be the ethical thing to do, but it wouldn’t be good business sense. You can hear drip of VC saliva at the gate: what better platform lock-in incentive than *your monthly paycheck*?

There’s a lot of good that Patreon could do too, though. At some point, they start to feel more like a quasi-employer or staffing agency, albeit one who provides a staff to hundreds or thousands of customers at once. For those high-performing creators, Patreon could offer benefits like health insurance. My naive understanding of the market is that they could even do so and make money: present Patreon creators as a pool, offer them to Hiscox as people needing commercial insurance, say, and the customer acquisition fee that Hiscox or whomever would pay out could go any which way: to Patreon completely, back to the creator, split, or used to reduce premiums.

I’m not completely certain that the divide between what’s traditionally thought of as the gig economy (TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, all of the failed home cleaning services) and Patreon is necessarily just one of “stuff that can’t be automated easily”, but it feels like a useful, correct-more-often-than-not heuristic.

Perhaps a better distinguishing feature is that the gig economy is tasks that are commodities and can be competed on in a marketplace. Patreon – and non-Patreon type work that we’re seeing, like the analysts and consultants who go independent and start charging direct subscriptions for their daily or weekly analysis. What’s being brought here isn’t strictly substitutable, in my dim remembering of competition law. For creative or intellectual output work, the value for certain consumers is in *Ben Thompson’s* analysis, not getting analysis in general. In comics, it’s getting *Lucy Bellwood’s* creative output, not “a series of pictures with text commentary that tell a story”.

In other words, services like Patreon allow for the possibility for people to get value for what makes them *them*, and that no-one else can copy or reproduce*.

* I say, “no-one else can”, because the obvious counter-example is a) made-to-order art reproductions from a photograph in the style of your favourite painter from China and b) a recurrent neural network doing exactly the same thing.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why I tried to train an RNN on my entire newsletter corpus to see if it could do what I did and to my relief, the answer is that it (hopefully) makes less sense and is less useful than I am.

I made a reference to this a while ago on Twitter: for the people who value Mary Meeker’s internet trend reports, there’s nothing *in principle* (other than violating copyright) stopping you from putting together a corpus of Meeker’s trend output presentations and, well, having it try to make more output presentations that are Sufficiently Advanced As To Be Indistinguishable From Meeker.

What someone might say at this point is that, sure, but that doesn’t take into account how you’d give that deep learning system access to all of the data that Meeker uses to generate her trend reports, and the answer to that is: why, is that harder than all the shit we throw at a self-driving car? Can Meeker even really explain how she comes to her conclusions to a sufficient degree of acceptance?

Maybe Meeker’s too hard, maybe we could just start off with neural-net-generated xkcd comics.

At that point, I’d like to formally propose that we set up a deep learning system that is a) trained on the corpus of Randall Monroe’s output, b) have it generate output, c) have that output be scored by community feedback as reinforcement learning and, crucially, d) set up a Patreon account for that neural network so it needs to get Patrons who will reward it with money so it can buy more GPU capacity on Amazon to learn how to make better comics.

Anyway, I digress.

Forgot a gigging future of work. That’s boring. Patreon is interesting because it’s a future of work that appears to allow enough space and flexibility for a *human* future of work.

[0] A New Universal ‘New Yorker’ Cartoon Caption: ‘I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.’ – The Atlantic
[1] Is the Gig Economy Working? – The New Yorker
[2] The Technium: 1,000 True Fans

OK. Back to writing documentation. It was nice to be back, however briefly. And as always, send notes, even if it’s just to say hi. If it’s to say “Hello, I’m interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter” even *that* is okay. If it’s to say “Your ideas suck, and this thought in particular sucks because [citation needed]” then I suppose that’s fair enough, but maybe think of a more compassionate way to say it? I’m not one of those deep-learning systems that doesn’t have a system for generating plausible emotional reactions.