July 29, 2013
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If Thomas Friedman didn't exist, America's high-tech entrepreneurs would have had to invent him. Come to think of it, maybe they did. The dark science-fiction vision he celebrates serves them well, at pretty much everyone else's expense.
Friedman's vision is worth studying, if only because it reflects the distorted perspective of some very wealthy and influential people. In their world the problems of the many are as easily fixed as a line of code, with no sacrifice required of them or their fellow billionaires.
Case in point: 15 or 20 million Americans seeking full-time employment? To Thomas Friedman, that's a branding problem.
Ayn Rand with a human face ...
Friedman occupies a unique place in the pundit ecosystem. From his perch at the New York Times, he idealizes the unregulated, winner-take-all economy of the Internet and while overlooking human, real-world concerns. His misplaced faith in a digitized "free" market reflects the solipsistic libertarianism of a technological über-class which stares into the rich diversity of human experience and sees only its own reflection staring back.
Friedman is a closet Ayn Rand in many ways, but he gives Rand's ugly and exploitative philosophy a pseudo-intellectual, liberal-friendly feel-good gloss. He turns her harsh industrial metal music into melodious easy listening: John Galt meets John Denver. That make him very useful to those who would dismantle the engines of real economic growth, the ones which create jobs while protecting life and limb.
Friedman's column in this weekend's New York Times is, characteristically, a Panglossian panegyric to online technology as the salve for all economic problems. In it he paints the picture of a global dystopia where decent jobs are scarce, educational advancement is unattainable, and people must sacrifice their homes, their possessions, and their personal lives to serve and amuse complete strangers.
He can hardly wait.
Mi casa es su casa ...
The framing device for Friedman's vision is the tale of two twenty-somethings who, like so many Friedman protagonists, built an Internet company. Friedman's column is called " The Sharing Economy," and it celebrates the creators of an online platform called "Airbnb" which lets people rent out their homes to strangers. Online marketplaces like Airbnb are very interesting economic phenomena. They can be useful and even transformative. But they can also be dangerous, unsafe, and overhyped.
Enter Thomas Friedman.
Digital libertarians like Jeff Bezos of Amazon see these digital marketplaces as the electronic realization of a free market fantasy. They promote platforms like Bezos' "Mechanical Turk" system of online job sharing, unconcerned about their ability to accelerate the destruction of decent wages and secure jobs. (They're also blissfully unaware of the embarrassing contradiction between their own libertarianism and the fortunes they've earned from government-created technologies like the Internet.)
Friedman seems to share a Bezos-like vision of unregulated marketplaces for every aspect of human activity. He waxes ecstatic about Airbnb, which he sees as both a practical solution and a broader model for a future economy. Friedman thinks that renting out your private space, your personal time, and your possessions will soon become the only way to make ends meet - that is, unless you possess extraordinary skills, which could land you a mediocre job at best.
And he thinks that's just fine.
Consider this passage from Friedman's column:
"In a world where, as I've argued, average is over -- the skills required for any good job keep rising -- a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids' rooms, their cars or their power tools."
This paragraph reads like a Zen koan pieced together from cast-away fragments of motivational sales speeches. We're left to infer the meaning of its more obscure phrases from their context, the same way World War II codebreakers cracked particularly difficult passages in enemy telexes. So let's try to tease out its meaning, phrase by phrase: