What Does ‘Average is Over’ Mean for Writers? (In Other Words, Me)

average-overI enjoyed economist Tyler Cowen’s book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. The book makes predictions about the economy of the near future, which Cowen thinks will be a hyper-meritocracy. About 10 to 15 percent of the population, he believes, is going to do well based on talent and skill. The other 85 to 90 percent will make much less money but will still find it possible to lead generally comfortable lives.

What will determine the difference between the sort-of-haves and super-haves?

The key question will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you? If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor prospects will be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address this mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall one one side of the divide or other.

As a journalist, humor writer and social media community manager, the book led me to wonder, what does “Average is Over” mean for writers? And by “writers” I mean me. Cowen touched on this in regards to journalism.

Software is also encroaching upon journalism. One experiment found that the intelligent mechanized analysis of Narrative Science, a start-up from Illinois, can do a passable job of taking statistics and writing up descriptions of sporting events, company financial reports and macroeconomic data. These programs won’t soon be at the frontier of creative journalism, but they may soon be generating a lot of run-of-the-mill news for purposes of search and storage. They also may take away some jobs: Should the local newspaper really send a reporter down to that minor league baseball game?

So, j-school grads, don’t plan to stay long with any job that a computer can do. Unless you can help the computer do it better.

Where does value lie in the future? Cowen answers this question directly.

To put the question in the bluntest possible way, let’s say that machine intelligence helps us make a lot more things more cheaply, as indeed it is doing. Where will most of the benefits go? In accord with economic reasoning, they will go to that which is scarce.

In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

1. Quality land and natural resources

2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced

3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy

2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

Most writers lack control of vast amounts of quality land and natural resources, so we can cross off No. 1.

No. 2 should be familiar to writers–intellectual property. Or to put it another way: creations of the mind. For a writer, this means books. Books, as well as screenplays and speeches, have always been a potentially lucrative source of income for journalists and creatives. That won’t change in the future. What will change, it seems, is the opportunity to make great money without producing intellectual property.

No. 3 also applies to writers – quality labor with unique skills. Nate Silver, the journalist/stat expert formerly of the New York Times now of ESPN comes to mind. He produces quality labor (accurate predictions) with unique skills (math and journalism.) But you don’t have to be a Nate Silver. A journalist who has mastered his subject matter produces quality labor with unique skills.

If you work in social media or marketing, you’re already working with “the computer.” Cowen points out the need for “humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks.” Cowen calls marketing “the seminal factor for our future economy.” This is because marketing integrates two features of the modern world: income inequality and attention span. The more money the 15 percent make, the greater the pressure/opportunity to sell to them within their finite attention spans. The competition will be fierce, which Cowen would remind us, is why average is over.

I take it all to mean that creating intellectual property is incredibly important, as is having a unique set of in-demand skills that cannot be replicated by a machine and knowing how to market wares to the right people. In the age of computers, the human touch will be more important than ever.

Joe Donatelli is a freelance journalist. Follow him @joedonatelli. You can check out his intellectual property at The Humor Columnist.

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