April 20, 2014

Gina Neff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Washington. She studies the relationship between society and communication technologies, as well as between culture and communication. Her research focuses on (1) how work, communication technologies, and organizational structures relate to one another and (2) the commercial production of mediated culture in communication industries. Her current research projects include a book manuscript entitled Venture Labor on work and discourses of risk in high-tech firms, a project on internships and the entry-level labor market in communication industries, and on-going documentation of organizational challenges that high-tech and innovative industries face. She holds both a Ph.D. in sociology and a B.A. in economics and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.

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Who Owns the Future? Not the Middle Class

Jaron Lanier, in the latest contribution to the public conversation about how we live with technology, blames the Internet for the fall of the middle class.  Only the problem is he’s wrong.

In his new book Who Owns the Future? Lanier–often described with the word visionary–argues that the information economy in general and network technologies in particular are to blame for the plight of the middle class. I haven’t read the entire book yet (that will have to wait until after my team puts in our proposal to NSF’s Smart and Connected Health ). I suspect I will agree the political spirit of much of what Lanier writes, but on this point I have to push back now, even at the risk of missing the subtlety of his full argument.  We probably agree on many points, but this one is crucial to tease out because of it’s political implications.

In Venture Labor I traced why seemingly rational, well-educated young people rushed to be a part of the first wave of dot-coms in the 1990s and early 2000s. My point was the entrepreneurial spirit of the dot-com era was a response to growing job insecurity, not the cause of it. Young graduates of the 1990s found that risky Internet startups offered the best options in an economy that increasingly felt (and was) closed off to them.  They acted as “venture labor,” risking layoffs in the hopes of a future stock payout because they had, relatively speaking, few other choices.
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