The industrial model with lifetime single-employer careers is dying, and it is not coming back. The first sign was a change from lifetime-marriage employments into its serial-monogamy equivalent, where people change jobs every three years at the most. The next change, one which is already happening, is that most people have more than one employment — or employment-equivalent — at one time: this is an enormous change to society, where people are going to be juggling five to ten projects at a time, some for fun, some for breadwinning, some for both. I have called this the coming swarm economy.
The swarm economy is not about small details in what is happening right now. It is not about bitcoin. It is not about the fraud of the banking system, it is not about peer-to-peer file sharing, it is not about universal basic income. Not on their own, anyway. The swarm economy is all of these combined, and much much more.
We are already seeing how people have pet projects on the side of their (one) employment, and projects weave in and out of somebody’s life from time to time while they also change jobs and life situations. With increasing connectivity, this trend can be expected to accelerate toward a point where most people have some five to ten ongoing projects, some of which are paid and some are not, rather than having one “day job”.
This change – from one employment per person to some five to ten ongoing projects per person – fundamentally changes much society more than somebody “working extra” or “having two jobs”. It is a definite end to the industrial economy. Here are just a few of the changes that this means, all of which can already be observed here and there in the IT sector:
The end of fixed workplaces. People will work wherever they want, typically from cafés or other semisocial places. “Going to work” will not exist as a concept, with the exception of some service person-to-person jobs.
The end of fixed worktimes. People will not just work wherever, but also whenever they want – or however it fits together with the overall project team. Timezones will make sure that there will be no nine-to-five regime as people cooperate between Europe, North and South America, China, India, Australia, and so on, all at the same time.
There are many more, similar effects as “the one day job” disappears. It means a massive decentralization of the decisions taken to support the economy – hence my calling it the swarm economy. It is interesting to compare this to previous concepts.
Capitalism, when it works, is supposed to distribute resources optimally through decentralization of decisions. Various forms of corruption have hijacked legislations and markets that call themselves capitalist to instead concentrate resources where they are already gathered – “making the rich richer”, and making capitalism something of a dirty word – but in my mind, at least the decision decentralization idea rings very strong with pirate ideals.
However, the capitalism model has failed to predict what has already happened. Under the capitalist model, Linux and Wikipedia – 10,000s of volunteers who get together to create a product without pay, and where the product is so overwhelmingly good that it outcompetes the best commercial alternatives – simply do not happen. But they have already happened. This is consistent with swarm economy thinking.
At the same time, entrepreneurship is very strong with pirate ideals. We learn by doing and we don’t ask permission when we decide to fix something. We expect people to take initiatives on their own if they are displeased with something, and we want to promote risk-taking.
We know that the community which not just tolerates, but actively promotes risk-taking, is the community that comes out on top. In contrast, a society or community where people cannot afford to lose their current situation is a community without entrepreneurs and without innovation.
This leads to the most logical justification for Universal Basic Income yet: society as a whole benefits from a risk-positive environment, and if you can provide a mechanism where anybody can try any stupid commercial idea without risking becoming homeless and indebted, more people will innovate and take risks – and the society using this mechanism will get a competitive edge.
I imagine a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that replaces all current social safety nets, an unconditional income that is sufficient for a rental one-bedroom apartment in the medium-far suburbs of a relevant city plus enough to eat well and a to have modicum of tools to restart the next enterprise. Imagine a big red “economic reset” button where somebody resets their assets to zero after having failed with a startup, is assigned a one-bedroom apartment within commuter distance from a major city, and is allowed to keep some basic equipment to begin his or her the next project, hitting the ground running. Nothing would prevent two or more people pooling their UBI to live larger, et cetera.
As a pure bonus, this strife for long-term competitiveness also solves a lot of social problems such as homelessness. (Those who read Reddit know that people who can be homeless for a year or two and then get back on their feet, sometimes starting successful companies.)
Also, these mechanisms (personal bankruptcy and social security) already exist in essence. This would be a streamlining, quickening and simplification of the processes intended to speed up iteration times to the next startup.
It can be asked whether the Pirate Party and these observations and trends would be a left-wing or right-wing policy. But the point is moot: the left-to-right scale is based in the industrial economy, and these ideas are based in the observation that the industrial economy is disappearing. It makes no sense to ask how observations of a replacement system fits into a model that it replaces and obsoletes.
However, it can be observed that these ideas are at least compatible with free-market capitalism and with socialism, having a preference for strong and unregulated free market in combination with a very strong social safety net. However, the basis for our convictions are not the industrial-era “free market” nor the socialism-era “safety net”: it is the free-software ideal “decentralization of decisions” combined with the open-source ideal “promote risk-taking and optimize for competitiveness”. They just happen to land in similar policies, but from entirely different convictions that are based in the swarm economy rather than in the old industrial economy.
Obviously, a lot of vested interests will resist this change. In particular, labor unions will absolutely hate it, despite the fact that it finally “frees the worker from the shackles of capital”, as they would have put it in their ideology. The reason labor unions will fight it tooth and nail is because the change simultaneously makes them obsolete, and their own power has become more important over the decades than winning their end goal.
Let’s see if today’s Canutes can order the tide held back.
This article is also available in other languages: French.