Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

A post-industrial point of view

We can roughly sketch human history as follows:

  1. Initially, everything was expensive for human beings.
  2. Farming made food cheap.
  3. The industrial revolution made goods and services cheap.
  4. In the post-industrial age, we are making the design of new products and services cheap.

Once you adopt this (admittedly simplistic) point of view, a few things about our current economy become clear:

  • The very concept of a job is squarely rooted in the industrial age. A job is a standardized and regimented occupation. It is expensive to create a new job, but we can amortize the cost over many years. I predict that fewer and fewer people will be interested in creating jobs. It takes too long and it is too expensive.
  • Schools and colleges are organized for the industrial age. They train a large volume of people in a consistent manner. The concept of a degree, that is, an expensive badge that you acquire once and amortize over many years, is probably quickly becoming obsolete. It will probably fall along with the concept of a job.
  • It does not matter much how many products a company is selling, what matters is whether it can out-innovate its competitors. Corporations may produce more than they ever did in volume alone, but they have never been so short-lived. I don’t worry about how many people Google is serving, I worry about whether they’ll keep innovating fast enough to stay in business. In fact, I worry about whether corporations can even survive in the post-industrial age, as they tend to be geared toward the accumulation of capital, not fast innovation.

This view of the world defines how I view others and my own job:

  • We used to spend a great deal of time teaching using a standardized format. What I wish I could ask to young people today is: Can you learn something like Calculus very cheaply and very quickly if you need to? What would you do if you needed to learn calculus, do you know?
  • So, you are are unemployed or underemployed? You aren’t very rich? I don’t care about any of this. However, have you ever created something new and interesting? There is a counterpart to this: if you are rich and hold a prestigious position, but you are just sitting on top of an industrial machine, then I don’t care about you. You are not interesting.