Friday, November 11, 2011

Can bad long distance relationships save us from China?

United Statesagriculture: 1.1%
industry: 22.1%
services: 76.8% (2010 est.)

If there is one trend in economic history, it is that technology makes society more productive.  What we mean by that is it gets cheaper and easier to make "stuff".  The stuff we made was traditionally pretty generic and broadly usable, and fell primarily into the agriculture and industry segments of the economy, but, as you can see from the lede, our economy is very much service focused nowadays.  The thing about the service industry is that it's all about activities that heavily feature interpersonal communication, and as anyone who has been in a long distance relationship (or collaboration) knows, interpersonal communication does not work too great over distance.
As it gets easier to make food and stuff cheaply, it will require less and less of our human and capital resources to satisfy demand for food and stuff, which opens up huge potential for the only thing that's left, services.  We're talking about customization on a wide scale, about personally commissioned music, furniture, software, whatever you can imagine.  The jobs of the future look, to me, to be all about talking to individuals to tailor goods to their specific needs, and those jobs can't be outsourced, and are hard to replace with computers.  That is the awesome future that technological improvements can bring to us... an economy where human needs are cheaply and easily met, and productive employment is primarily tied to the ability of people to relate and communicate with one another.

I think this is a cool vision not only because it fits the data and makes intuitive sense, but because it is so democratic.  Social skill seems largely independent of intelligence, and it naturally demands a broad spectrum of race, creed, gender, and class to ensure relatability. Also, the society we're imagining here is full of leisure and pleasant ways of filling up your days.  Go technology!


  1. I somewhat disagree, at least if google, facebook and amazon are any indication of the future. Rather than personal services (customizing one on one with a person) these companies are aiming to have computers do the job. They are making customization happen, for our individual needs, probably better than any person could do. The things for example that pandora recommends to me are often much better than a stranger or even my best friends can recommend to me. The computer will be able to handle far more data, much faster, than a person.
    So really I see the future as outsourcing to computers. And social skills will increasingly decay as we talk more and more to computers. I think we obviously see that with facebook.

    -Sean H

  2. Further disagreement.. I don't see people wanting personally commissioned music, TV, whatever. We like sharing these things, as a broad culture, talking about for example the latest album or what we saw on TV last night. If we lose these broadly commissioned things, what will we talk about?

  3. On google & facebook:

    They're really only trying to customize search results and ads. That's great, but it's very different from shoes. I'm talking about customization in a feedback loop. Designer tries something, you say "tweak this", rinse & repeat as necessary. Computers aint not gonna be much good at this for the foreseeable future. Also, pandora is way worse at recommending me music than my friends and strangers are (though amazon is pretty good at it).

    As for personalized media: I think it cuts both ways. There's a huge fan-fiction community, and making those actual paid-services with professional looking broadly purchasable products is likely to be desirable to a lot of people. Likewise, I've often thought "Man, it'd be great if x musicians got together and made something". If I and a bunch of my friends could actually make that happen simply by bidding for it with moneys, that would be awesome. Some musicians already do music-for-fee stuff and I can certainly imagine wanting a song tailored for a loved one or a particular event. I agree that shared experience of media is important, but it's not the only thing that is important and there's plenty of room for customization.

    Also, I think it's basically totally untrue that our social skills decrease as we use computers. We are a much more social generation than our parents, better able to maintain long distance relationships and keep in touch with old friends, and better able to find and keep relationships based on shared interest rather than convenience. Technology just improves that. People who use facebook don't use it as a replacement for their social lives, but rather to ease long distance communication and coordinate real life interactions. I'm not just making this up either. There have been several studies showing that social media time doesn't crowd out face to face socialization. Rather, it eats up time that used to be spent idle. Whether that's a good thing is an open question, but it certainly isn't a thing that indicates that we are worse at socializing than we used to be.

  4. agreed somewhat.. i do think computers are better at customizing for me. from google searches to news websites to advertising to recommendations on amazon. a computer does it in milliseconds; a human can never match that, in terms of speed. a person might beat the computer, but it would take them a lot of time communicating back and forth with me to get it right. in terms of time it would take hundreds of thousands of times more time. and i think most businesses and people will go with free and fast with a slight let-down in accuracy any day. its why we stick with pandora (and google search) even though it might not be perfect.

    i am intrigued by the possibility of personalized music. i see that as probable. but i see it as more of a computerized poll, with hundreds of thousands of people recommending changes, and a computer sorting through it all. a person could never sort through ten thousand fan requests.

    i agree that social media keeps us together, i mean, take this post for example. totally agreed. the utility of idle time is interesting. i know i have some of my best ideas when running, showering, laying in bed before sleeping, over over morning coffee while staring at the wall. my other best ideas come from collaboration, of course. it is a balance, but i am sure the reflective time is needed, and if we are always plugged in we lose that.

    its like in population genetics- if you are aware of wright's idea that a certain amount of subdivision is best for evolution. enough subdivision so that new mutation (ideas) happen in subpopulations and reach a high frequency, and then spread through the world. but total panmixia (no divisions), and the new ideas never have a chance. i'm not explaining this connection well, but its been on my mind a lot lately. i think it might apply to world trade, finance, etc, as well, that is what i was thinking the a.m. actually, that more borders might be better, but i haven't worked through that thought yet.

    thanks for sharin'.

  5. I think I see Google and Amazon recommendations as fundamentally different from customization. Computers are good at recommendation simply because of collaborative filtering -- wherein the things liked by people who like similar things to you are recommended. That's not about tailoring an object to an individual's taste's, it's about recognizing how their tastes are like other people's tastes and making predictions about what they want. Maybe something similar could be done for clothing and shoes and music and art and literature, but I don't really think it'd be as useful as asking someone what they want and giving it to them.