Jaron Lanier says,

If you had talked to anyone involved in it twenty years ago, everyone would have said that the ability for people to inexpensively have access to a tremendous global computation and networking facility ought to create wealth. This ought to create wellbeing; this ought to create this incredible expansion in just people living decently, and in personal liberty. And indeed, some of that’s happened. Yet if you look at the big picture, it obviously isn’t happening enough, if it’s happening at all.

…There are just a lot of people who feel that being able to get their video or their tweet seen by somebody once in a while gets them enough ego gratification that it’s okay with them to still be living with their parents in their 30s, and that’s such a strange tradeoff. And if you project that forward, obviously it does become a problem.

…What’s happened now is that we’ve created this new regimen where the bigger your computer servers are, the more smart mathematicians you have working for you, and the more connected you are, the more powerful and rich you are. (Unless you own an oil field, which is the old way.) I benefit from it because I’m close to the big servers, but basically wealth is measured by how close you are to one of the big servers, and the servers have started to act like private spying agencies, essentially.

…Basically, people can expect free stuff from the Internet but they don’t expect wealth from the Internet, which to me makes it a failed technology at this point, although I hope it’s revivable.

… whenever you improve efficiency, when you save money, it’s only the same thing as making money if you’re already rich. If there are people who aren’t rich enough to benefit from that, it just makes them poorer because they have less to do, and less ways to earn money.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen. Robin Hanson has warned that as artificial intelligence improves, there will be a dramatic movement toward unequal income distribution, with the owners of capital having much and those who only offer labor having little. One way to interpret what Lanier is saying is that we are moving in this direction.

I recommend reading Lanier’s entire spiel, even though I do not think all of it makes sense. Let me try to re-tell his story in my own words, without saying that I agree with it.

One way to think of it is as follows. People will be paid for doing what on the margin cannot be replicated. In an industrial economy, it costs something to replicate what I do with my hands and brain in a factory. In an artificial-intelligence economy, it is costless to replicate stuff.

In an industrial economy, if I do not work on building a car, then at the margin someone loses out on a car. In an Internet economy, if I do not write a blog post, no one loses out on anything. Not because I am such a lousy blogger, but because if I fail to write the blog post, then someone else will, and that blog post can be copied an infinite number of times. The blog post does not really need me to produce it in the way that the car does in an industrial economy. However, in an artificial-intelligence economy, the car becomes as easy as a blog post to produce and re-produce.

So, lots of people can become ZMP workers (zero marginal product). Meanwhile, a relatively small set of people will be able to figure out the artificial-intelligence economy and be able to position themselves to reap its rewards.

Happy Labor Day.

[update. Timothy Taylor finds this quote from Keynes:

We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

A reader points out that this is line with PSST. In fact, I could have used this quote in an article I wrote on PSST that is forthcoming in a professional journal.]