The World Needs 1.8 Billion Jobs—But What If They Already Exist?

What if we were able to monetize the information we put on the Internet? A revolution in which people are paid by the networks they use could herald a new economy for the world’s jobless.

Even as technology contributes to the everyday quality of our lives, robots and software are eliminating human jobs at an unprecedented rate, leading to a "great decoupling" of output/wages and jobs/income that’s becoming increasingly problematic. Technology-driven unemployment is getting worse at an accelerating rate. Meanwhile, Gallup’s latest World Poll demonstrates a growing demand for "good jobs" that transcends borders, cultures and languages. In a nutshell, the acceleration of automation-driven unemployment is both likely as well as broadly undesirable.

Gallup Chairman/C.E.O. Jim Clifton blames much widespread social unrest, instability and war on the lack of formal, 30 hour a week jobs, arguing: "If you were to ask me, from all the world polling Gallup has done for more than 75 years, what would fix the world—what would suddenly create worldwide peace, global well-being, and the next extraordinary advancements in human development, I would say the immediate appearance of 1.8 billion jobs—formal jobs. Nothing would change the current state of humankind more."

So, where on Earth can we find the 1.8 billion (and growing) good jobs that would fix the world?

It turns out some likely solutions have been emerging all around us.

With the release of the globally popular The Third Wave in 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler presciently predicted a massive shift from industrial to information-driven economy and the blurring of traditional economic roles resulting in a new class of participant he labeled the "prosumer" (producer plus consumer).

We’ve clearly been transitioning to an info-driven economy in which knowledge workers are in high demand. Much of this has been catalyzed by new classes of systems like social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, G+), social-driven search (Google, Bing, Siri), citizen science (SETI-Live, Cell Slider) and big data that increasingly harness consumer-generated data while returning value to users in the form of organized information, entertainment, and occasionally cash (Google is paying select users up to $25 in Amazon gift cards to monitor Internet activity, Viggle is paying people for their TV viewing data). The result? An emerging prosumer class.

While today’s prosumer jobs pay little and fall into the informal category, there is reason to believe that they could grow in volume and value—rapidly. As accelerating change enables companies to get better at capturing, storing, transferring, processing and valuing user data, the prosumer role is poised to proliferate and scale.

New interfaces (iWatch, Google Glass, BCIs, Facetime, Kinect, Surface, search engines), sensors (FitBit, smartphones, data recorders in cars, reactive billboard cameras, camera-equipped drones), compression technologies, and faster computer processors are accelerating human-driven input. Social media, search, info-warehousing, banking, research companies and universities are collecting and mining vast amounts of this input. These developments are expanding the market for data that can be more easily applied across industries and converted into money, which in turn is increasing the demand for prosumers that can input, sort and output this data.

Over the next decade, companies appear ready to pay more users more money for real-time and longitudinal life-streaming, driving, brain, health and genetic data; for product reactions, media reactions, geographic scans, species scans, general behavioral data, and so forth. More informational value will be captured on-the-fly as people socialize, consume media, learn, play games, navigate the world, or even sleep. Considering these near-term likelihoods, we can confidently predict that data-driven, prosumer-centric capitalism will steadily augment or even grab market share from the traditional 9-to-5, single-role, industrial economy.

A more extreme version of this scenario is that this transformation of capital flow and economics, something that Toffler explores in detail in Revolutionary Wealth, could become an outright boom. Billions of formally unemployed or underemployed humans could prove necessary for the rapid development of new technologies spanning medicine, entertainment, transportation, farming, warfare, search and artificial intelligence.

My confidence in this trend is bolstered by a macro trend: the observation that the billions of people on Earth have and will continue to find it in their interests to centralize information into an "Everything Map" (which Google is already consciously building), a much needed social tool and critical central component of accelerating change.

But what about the 1.8 billion jobs that people need now? In one sense, they’re already here. Facebook’s 1.1 billion users, YouTube’s 1 billion monthly users, Google’s 1 billion monthly users, all exchange their data for access to structured content. Baidu, Bing, Twitter and Yahoo together boast a formidable prosumer base of 2 to 3 billion. Though these systems currently offer prosumers little in value, Google’s Screenwise initiative, which pays some users up to $25 in Amazon Gift Cards, is an important early signal of a looming shift.

A Google user is estimated to bring the company about $43 in annual revenue per user (ARPU), a small but steadily growing figure. As Google and other prosumer-based companies increase both total revenue and ARPU, it will make business sense to attract and retain users by paying them a cut, thus keeping participants happy and establishing a sort of Prosumer Equilibrium.

Prosumers and their content will go "where [they] are wanted and stay where [they] are well treated", as banking master Walter Wriston observed about various forms of capital. The result could be an all-out war for prosumers in which more and more value is returned to users.

At first the money shared with prosumers will be a trickle. I can imagine $100 per prosumer per network by 2018. But as extraordinary, revolutionary wealth is generated, as convergent accelerating change suggests, those numbers could grow quickly, perhaps exponentially. In 10 years, the relentless expansion of info-driven networks could provide billions of prosumers access to a variety of income flows that, when cobbled together, could equate to the formal jobs Jim Clifton says the world needs now. It’s a scenario worth contemplating.

In the meantime, tech-driven unemployment, inflation, and population growth are likely to exacerbate our present-day problems before the same technology comes to the rescue. The world will have to negotiate ongoing instability, conflict and economic shocks as it waits for prosumer pay flows to manifest and grow. We may well be on the cusp of one of the most stressful, and most transformative, decades in human history. One thing we can be absolutely sure of: there will be growing pains.

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