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How Technology Turned Ideas Into a Part-Time Occupation

The other day I called Uber hoping for a good ride, not trying to endorse a new economic trend. But now I’ve learned that the Uberization of work is fast becoming a force in the economy — one that is impacting not just taxis but the entire job spectrum, especially my own sector, journalism and writing.

So here’s what I’ve learned about today’s workplace, whether for writers, drivers or handymen: What were once counted on as jobs have now become discrete tasks, with performance tracked by technology, and compensation determined by app-driven supply and demand. Further, what were once working staffs (or even newsrooms) are now fodder for online job sites like Peers, semi-representing an on-demand work force some 250,000 strong.

“We are defining a new category of work — one that isn’t full-time employment, but is not running your own business either,” observed Arun Sundararajan, an NYU economist, in the New York Times.

I decided to explore further. Since writers interest me more than drivers, I was struck by a new book titled “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” by Scott Timberg, a one-time reporter for the now-decimated Los Angeles Times. Timberg argues that journalists, like musicians, videostore clerks or novelists, represent an entire “arts economy” that’s in a state of meltdown. It’s a fatal setback, he feels, “for those of us who make a living by inventing or curating ideas.”

The same can be said for employees of the film studios — companies that have been consistently cutting their full-time workforce, and outsourcing everything from promotion to technology. “The bean-counters think we can build tentpoles around temps,” one filmmaker complained to me recently.

If the creative class is disappearing, so are readers (and filmgoers) who have abandoned newspapers and magazines in their preference to consume content online. Hungry for change, they’re also deserting traditional email for faster-messaging apps that permit the dispatch of text, links and the like more cheaply than texting services alone. Why bother with ordinary communication when you can access an app like KakaoTalk that will carry you into a brave new world where information and communication intersect in one vast multiscreen blur?

“Every technology is used before it is completely understood, and we are living in that lag,” writes Leon Wieseltier, a cultural historian, in the New York Times Book Review. To Wieseltier, “Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one in which the miracles of electronic dissemination do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or spiritual kind.” The fact that “the streets are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores” represents an intriguing metaphor, in his view.

Left to the cultural historians, the debate about the tyranny of technology can veer into rhetoric about “transhumanism” and “post-singularity.” I can imagine Wieseltier wincing at the concept of Verizon-baked supercookies — bits of code that stick with your Web browser after you visit a site. Privacy disappears even as poverty spreads, we are reminded.

Rather than let the debate become too cerebral, I prefer to return to Timberg’s simple theory that traces journalism’s decline to “the perfect storm of anti-elitist rage, market populism and corporate consolidation.” Hence the world of uberization, in which no one really works for anyone nor owes responsibility to readers or to riders.

I will remember that reality next time I snub a taxi to order up an Uber.

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