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“In the future everyone will be in show business.”

May 13, 2019

I remember Penn Jillette making that comment to Glen Beck. Sadly, a Google search for it does not reveal the video in which he said it. Much like Kara Swisher’s “nobody knows” mantra about AOL, it encapsulates a lot.

The general context for the quotation was a prognostication about what jobs people will have in the future, perhaps when technology has eliminated many current jobs.

Many people are able to make a living our of entertaining others in ways that would have been impossible a short time ago, e.g. Youtubers, streamers, podcasters, so perhaps this is not so far fetched.

But thinking about this more abstractly leads to some important insights:

  • People will continue to work, even if current jobs change.
  • The skills and characteristics that are socially valuable now, may not always be so.
  • Although scarcity of tangible goods, is unlikely to go away anytime soon, if it did would people simply trade in the currency of popularity? Status would cease to be correlated with wealth and instead become correlated with popularity. (Even more than now.)
  • Are we already on this road? Despite the great wealth of billionaires, the differences in material well being between the rich and poor in the US is probably less than ever. This is because to the extent that the wealth is consumed (and much stays invested until given away) goes to purchase status goods or rarer good with a small incremental increase in quality.
  • If material wealth ceased to be as important, there would still be inequality, but it might well be in the number of fans that your endeavors had. Is that better, given the difficult in redistributing that sort of immaterial wealth?
  • What if patents (and other intellectual property) ceased to be necessary because inventors were compensated in status rather than monopoly rents? Would this lead to a flowering of creative endeavors or just lead to different problems such as how to make sure foundational creators were adequately compensated with status?
  • Is the redistributive impulse really about wealth or status? Probably the latter, notwithstanding that no one talks about it in those terms. Thus, if the redistribution of material wealth were entirely successful– or ceased to be important, there would still be differences in status between people. Would we really be better off in the eyes of the redistributionists?

For those of us who have been successful at accumulating material wealth, how would we feel in a society that valued popularity but not our skills? We might find out when, in the future, everyone is in show business.

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