Some people have a knack for being in the right place at the right time: my career suggests I’ve got the opposite of that. You name an industry that’s been ‘disrupted’ and there’s a good chance I’ll have some entry about it on my CV.
While I studied journalism and law at university in Sydney, on the side, I threw myself into editing (painfully niche) creative publications – so much so that I never quite got around to graduating. Whoops. From the early 2000s, just when I started my full-time media career as a magazine editor, media started to feel the effects of the digital age. More people were consuming content online. While the demand for interesting content to click on seemed to be growing, revenue from advertising or subscriptions kept shrinking, which left publishers less and less to spend on generating that content. The business model of indie mags always seemed to rely on creatives providing their content for free to get their foot in the door – it was always to ‘build up their portfolios’. Those publishers knew there were always more people out there, willing to provide their work for free in order to break into the industry – an industry which was moving steadily away from permanent, paid jobs and towards the gig economy, years before Uber or Airtasker appeared.
The creative industries were the canaries in the coal mine of the digital age: we were the first to see our content set ‘free’ by the platforms of the internet giants. This resulted in more content, yes – don’t get me wrong; I know a lot of incredible opportunities have been generated too – and I’m glad that more people than ever are able to make music, find audiences, or share their images or stories. But the advertising dollars generated by this content have been funnelled to an ever-diminishing pool of winners, the big-name tech platform owners, while creators and the industries around them have lost out.
The creative industries were the canaries in the coal mine of the digital age: we were the first to see our content set ‘free’ by the platforms of the internet giants.
Today, between them Facebook and Google swallow up 50 per cent of all advertising revenue worldwide and don’t produce a single article or video, story or photo essay. In allowing content to be ‘free’, we’ve let the channels consume all the value, with terrible outcomes for creative content and more crucially for our democracy, for journalism as a profession and safeguarder of democracy. Rather than paying, say, the New York Times or The Guardian, most of the ad revenue goes to aggregators that gather that content and platforms that simply point at it.
Back to my career and my experiencing first-hand the digital disruption of the media and creative industries. Launching a music publication in 2004 was the business equivalent of buying shares in the Titanic. The radical makeover of the creative industry started in music with peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms like Napster in the early 2000s and expanded to a generation listening to music on YouTube. Consequently, the price we paid for recorded music fell to zero (a situation which has improved only marginally with the more recent advent of streaming services). It wasn’t a good time for a bunch of young would-be publishers to be sourcing advertising from the music industry for a print magazine. While the old business model was failing, great music kept on coming: the music was there, the audiences hadn’t gone away, but the profits now went to the platforms (like YouTube or, later, Spotify) that hosted the content, rather than the makers or the labels and managers that fostered them, or the critics, photographers and publications that once helped them find an audience.
After this experience, and many more just like it, I realised that every creative industry was facing the same sorts of challenges.
Similarly, we’ll likely be seeing many more examples of the kind of disruption I’ve seen in my working life with creative content. This isn’t just about designers, filmmakers, journalists and musicians. We were the first to feel the effects of this new digital age, but the same experience is being replicated across industries that, until now, have seemed solid and secure. Taxi drivers didn’t see Uber coming; hotel workers couldn’t have predicted the rise of Airbnb. Will lawyers, accountants, builders and teachers be luckier and be able to pre-empt the changes ahead for them?
Taxi drivers didn’t see Uber coming; hotel workers couldn’t have predicted the rise of Airbnb.
All this rapid, radical change to the world of work has been packaged up and sold to us as ‘digital disruption’, but there’s another phrase for it: ‘creative destruction’.
The economist who made that phrase his own, Joseph Schumpeter, was under no illusions that creative destruction was a blip or a phase. It’s built into the architecture of the economic system we live in: utterly predictable and to be expected. He wrote:
The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.
The … process of industrial mutation … incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.
In real-life terms, what that means is that as more and more industries have their revenue models ‘creatively destroyed’, there are fewer jobs or sustainable careers in these sectors. This is what has happened in the media and creative sector and is now occurring in other fields that have also seen the digital players invade their turf, from retail to taxis.
Of course, change this profound has happened before – such as during the shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, and then from manufacturing to services – and new jobs were created in new industries to compensate. Schumpeter said capitalism generates a ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’. In the past, it might have been true to say that gale blew away some of the dangers and disadvantages of old industries: often, the new jobs that were created were safer, better paid and offered better benefits. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing on the business-as-usual path right now. Work is becoming more precarious and unsafe for many: just think about all those gig-economy workers, Uber and food- delivery drivers, left to find their own protective equipment and without any kind of compensation or income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last few years a job that is a solid foundation for life has become less and less common, while Schumpter’s gale blows a tidal wave of change sweeping across the planet, pushing people from industry to industry in its wake. If you feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water, this is why: we’re all caught in a rip, pulled this way and that by invisible forces eroding the certainty and protections that previous generations had around work. As whole industries are erased or redefined, career options and pathways disappear. It doesn’t feel great when you’re churning inside the wave, and it’s not clear right now what comes next or where this wave will deposit us. In the past, change happened across decades and generations, and it happened at different paces in different parts of the world. Now, it seems like that wave is moving much more quickly, and it’s swirling us around in the global north and south alike. It’s also feeling, increasingly, like jobs themselves are being washed away.
Work is becoming more precarious and unsafe for many: just think about all those gig-economy workers.
But this is not happening just because of technology. Those apps we’ve come to depend on, artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation: sure, they’re accelerating the shift to the gig economy, but in the story of my career, you can see that was already in the works. There’s a different set of innovations, much less discussed than those robots supposedly coming for our jobs, that are removing security and purpose from the work lives of millions around the world: the monopoly power of platform capitalism, the fissuring of work from jobs and the financialisation of industry. These are exacerbating the impact of this ‘perennial gale’: combining into a perfect storm to reduce the number and quality of jobs and reframing the nature and power dynamics of work like never before.
The COVID-19 pandemic and global shutdown have only accelerated these trends. Within the first few weeks, 26 million Americans had lost their jobs, with at least an extra million added to the dole queue in Australia, and many more besides saw their incomes and job prospects eroded. But the Great Reset could be our chance to stop and reassess: what kind of work do we need and conditions do we want to see on the other side of this?
This is a edited extract from Glimpses of Utopia by Jess Scully, published by Pantera Press.
GIVEAWAY: Thanks to Pantera Press we have 3 reading copies of Glimpses of Utopia by Jess Scully to give away to lucky KYD Members. Simply email [email protected] with the subject line ‘Utopia’ to enter. Entries close on 20 August 2020.