The New Nobility

Reading Venkatesh Rao on how mechanization will affect labor, I was particularly struck by his tossed-off comments on “conspicuous production”.  To excerpt a short portion:

The future of work looks bleaker than it needs to for one simple reason: we bring consumption sensibilities to production behavior choices. Even our language reflects this: we “shop around” for careers. We  look for prestigious brands to work for. We look for “fulfillment” at work. Sometimes we even accept pay cuts to be associated with famous names.  This is work as fashion accessory and conversation fodder.

We can think of this as conspicuous production, by analogy to conspicuous consumption. First-world artisan tendencies take this to a logical extreme.

Venkatesh universalizes here, but it’s worth specifying further.  Because conspicuous production isn’t a universal tendency of American workers – it’s a tendency of high-socio-economic-status Americans.  It’s common amongst most of my professional friends; to voice career ambitions in terms of “finding/realizing a passion” rather than “exploiting my comparative advantage”.  For example, of my college graduating class the very wealthy were by far the most likely to head into vanity careers such as publishing or journalism rather than pursuing something where they might make a decent income.  In contrast, vocational career tracks were often pursued most enthusiastically by those of more modest means.

Conspicuous production is, culturally, a funny inversion of pre-technological elite norms.  In feudal and Renaissance Europe, the ultimate elite goal was to be a man or woman of leisure – having a craft was looked down upon, and the ultimate mark of nobility was fair (untanned) skin and soft (unworked) hands.  Today, one of the truest marks of wealth is being able to engage in a uncompensated but high-status occupation.  The ability to not engage in schleppy production is still a mark of wealth, but rather than idleness the dream is vanity production.  In the high-tech world, nobody wants to hit it big and sit on the beach – they want to hit it big to start a venture capital firm.

While Rao thinks this will change with the era of increasing mechanization, I think he has it wrong (at least for the upper classes).  The mark of the upper classes is access to that which is expensive.  In a world of extreme scarcity (like Westeros), material goods are expensive – you need access to huge amounts of capital to generate even a bit of economic surplus.  In a world of post-scarcity, in contrast, material goods are cheap.  A world where software is rapidly displacing human labor is a post-scarcity world and a very rich world.  Time, on the other hand, becomes increasingly expensive.  Why?  Because leisure time and goods are cheap, so spending excessive time working beyond what you need is a waste of a valuable resource.  So I think that conspicuous production will remain – at least for the upper classes.

For the middle classes, though…he might well be right about it passing as an ideal.

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