The Future of Work and the Consolidation of Data

Presenter:
Amjad Karim
Guests:
John Quiggin
Tim Dunlop
Series:

AI In the Real World

Episode: 002
Welcome to AI in the Real World. In this captivating podcast, we delve into the exciting and transformative world of Artificial Intelligence and explore its practical implementations in our daily lives. Join us as we bring you thought-provoking conversations with experts, innovators, and industry pioneers who are leveraging AI to make a tangible impact, solve real-world challenges, and shape the future.
RECORDED December 5, 2022

The Future of Work and the Consolidation of Data

Excerpt:
In this episode, Amjad discusses the challenges societies face from companies who control the data upon which a lot of the applications and models we develop depend upon. We also discuss how AI and the rise of remote working mean for the future of work.
Listen Now:
Guest Bios:
Picture of John Quiggin

John Quiggin

Professor John Quiggin is a VC Senior Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland. He is prominent both as a research economist and as a commentator on Australian economic policy.

Picture of Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop is an independent, Melbourne-based writer specialising in media, politics, technology, and the future of work.

Amjad Karim (00:03):
Hi, I am Amjad Karim. In this episode I’m speaking to Dr. Tim Dunlop and Professor John Quiggin. Both
are academics from the University of Queensland. Both are quite well-known authors and bloggers, and
they’ve thought quite a lot about how technology is changing the way we work and also changing the
way opportunities are available to people in society. And given the developments that we’re seeing in AI
recently and the accelerating pace of progress, I think it’s a very timely and important conversation and I
hope you enjoy as much as I do.

(00:37):
Hi John. Hi Tim. So Tim, what I want to talk about today with you was really about and with John was a
lot of the work that you’ve done, Tim is about writing about, recently at least, how work will change in
the future because of AI, because of the technology that’s being adopted, we’re making things a lot
more productive, a lot more efficient. So how do we use that to make an environment where people can
share their benefits more equally?

(01:03):
John, you’ve written a lot about how a lot of the economic benefit generated today from today’s
technologies like AI and machine learning is concentrated amongst people who, or businesses or
organisations who have access to the data to be able to deploy those algorithms and to deploy those
algorithms at scale so they can make very little income on a single transaction, but when you’ve got
billions of transactions or billions of events, you can generate some return. So that kind of leads to a
natural tension between the two. So today I thought we could just discuss that, Tim, I thought maybe if
we start with you in terms of your hypothesis on the future of work and how that might change in the
future.

Tim Dunlop (01:42):
Hi guys, glad to be here. I guess my concern about the future of work has been the rising use of
technology, which is often presented in the form of a robot’s going to take my job. And I’ve always been
somewhat suspect about that construction of the argument. I think it’s certainly true that technology
does lead to the displacement of labour, but there’s also the concomitant creation of new jobs because
of the technology. What concerns me is the nature of the technology that we have at the moment is
such that the new jobs that are created are terrible jobs, they’re precarious, they’re unprotected. They
come with none of the usual structures that used to exist that we sort of think of as the golden age of
post World War II work environment. It was never a golden age of course, but there was a certain level
of security. There were certain structures in place because of the relative strength of unions in those
days, there was, workers were somewhat protected. A lot of that has disappeared because of the nature
of the technology. So I guess my concern, and I’m positive this is John’s concern as well, is that the way
the technology works, which involves concentrating ownership and therefore concentrating wealth
means it also concentrates power, takes power away from workers and leads to this degradation of the
jobs market in general. So whether or not a robot will take your job is less of a concern than the nature
of the work that is left. It is more precarious. Everything from content management, et cetera can be
quite piecemeal sort of work and quite difficult psychologically, working in those environments as well.
So I think those are the sorts of issues that worry me about the future of work.

Amjad Karim (04:00):
John, do you have anything to add to that?

John Quiggin (04:03):
Sure. I think there’s partly what the technology is, but I suppose part of my view of this is simply
disruption favours whoever has power. So if we’re going along in a certain way, things don’t change very
much. If you change them, if you change them in a situation where unions have a lot of power, they can
use that change to extract benefits. If you change the situation where management has the power they
can use to get rid of things they’ve wanted to get rid of for a long time, and that’s been the characteristic
of the neoliberal or whatever area you want to call it. I think we’re starting to see pushback against that
around the world that the promises of that neoliberal programme have been pretty much discredited in
one form or another. One form or another the politics have been changed, but of course the power
balance is still very much what’s been built up over the last 20 or 30 years, very much in favour of
employers.

(05:05):
So that’s one aspect of it I guess I want to mention there is in terms of the actual technology, this sort of
cyclical process that when the internet came along, first it was incredibly democratising, oversold, but
there’s no doubt that it gave a lot of room to people that didn’t have it before and that traditional
gatekeepers hated the idea. We saw a bunch of attempts in the 1990s to create war gardens, America
online, Yahoo portals and so forth, which all kind of swept away. Then Facebook and Twitter in
particular. But all that crew came in and suddenly, quite suddenly in the case of Twitter, but more slow
in the case of Facebook, we’re seeing that shift back again. So that’s inside the technology, but it also
shows that things can change that potentially if you piss off enough people at once, as Elon Musk is
done, you create the conditions for alternative goods up at scale. And so having been through this cycle
two or three times, I don’t want to proclaim victory, but I think I’m much more optimistic about all this
stuff than I was six months or a year ago.

Amjad Karim (06:19):
Okay. One of the things I wanted to ask, I guess both of you was I guess it’s easier to automate simple
tasks or tasks that do not change so that they’re predictable. It’s much, much harder to automate or use
AI to do things that are not so predictable, and that’d be kind of surprising. So for example, I was coming
down the stairs yesterday with the basket of laundry thinking, oh, it’d be great if we could have a
machine that could do this, but I dropped one of the socks and now I have to stop. I have to pick up this
sock and put it in the laundry basket and then head off to the washing machine. But teaching a machine
to take into that into account is actually quite difficult. What we’d imagine is that’s actually cleaning is a
low skill job. So when you say the jobs that are going to be left behind that aren’t automated that
people are ending up doing, do you think that’s because there’s an economic reason so people just
aren’t interested in automating them? Or is it because it’s just too difficult at the moment with the
technology the way it is?

Tim Dunlop (07:18):
Well, my impression is, it’s a combination of both, as you say, it’s what’s the old thing that they used to
say? It’s easy to teach a computer to do difficult things like playing chess, but you can’t get them to do
something a three-year-old can do. And I think that’s true and that is part of the problem. A lot of that is
attitudinal around what is a skilled job, what is an essential service, et cetera. I wonder if our concepts of
that changed at all because of the experience of Covid. That the people that kept us alive were the socalled
unskilled workers working in shops and factories and packing things like shelves and
supermarkets, et cetera, that technology couldn’t do to the same extent. So I’m just wondering, maybe
our conceptions of all this have changed because of Covid. I think Covid is certainly something worth talking about in terms of the future of work. I think it’s had an effect on how we think about work in general. But what do you think about that, John?

John Quiggin (08:18):
Well, certainly there’s a huge arbitrary element to this stuff. For example, I was struck by the fact that in
the old Soviet Union, most medical work was low status because it was done by women. And similarly
when sex were men, it was a relatively high status job back in the 19th century. It’s not purely arbitrary
and this is true of all these things. So that’s part of it. One point I want to make is when you look at the
official productivity statistics, which really measure what’s going on in the market economy, they’re not
doing very much at all. So in terms of AI, we’re displacing people on a large scale. We’d expect to see
that showing up as big improvements in productivity and that isn’t happening. But I suppose one point
that is important is once a robot can do something sort of, it gets very rapidly from there to the robots
will do it all. One day you had a watch that sort of did a bunch of stuff and within four decades you have
an Apple watch I guess. But long before that, the Swiss watch industry was reduced to a sub branch of
jewellery that anybody could pay 10 Bucks and get a watch that get perfect time. Coming back to Covid,
I think it really has shaken up a whole bunch of ideas about this is the way we’ve always done things and
nothing else will work. As I say, I guess, I don’t know how things happened in the UK, but in Australia on
Friday, the prime minister was looking forward to a football match on Sunday. By Sunday the football
match had been cancelled and he said to everybody, don’t bother coming into work tomorrow and by
the way, you’ll be teaching your kids at school. And I think everybody would’ve predicted total chaos
and collapse. Whereas in fact, all of those jobs, the kind of jobs that can be done over Zoom like this,
just went on as if nothing had happened at all. The kids, I wasn’t there with the kids, I mean obviously
wasn’t great for them, but even despite that people managed. And herding them back to the office has
been almost impossible. And so I mean that’s of course reinforced, I mean made people much more
aware of that difference I think. And obviously the fact that, oh, it’s great doing your office work from
home, but unless somebody comes by with the food and stuff, you can’t really manage it.

Tim Dunlop (10:41):
John, you probably saw today that HILDA released some figures around working from home. Did you
have a look at those?

John Quiggin (10:47):
Yes. I did.

Tim Dunlop (10:48):
From my quick look, they seem to support what you were saying, including the gender imbalance in how
it impacted on how work from home impacted on different people.

John Quiggin (10:59):
And I think although I mean the conversation coverage, you had said, oh, you won’t get promoted if you
don’t go into the office. But they were really looking at pre Covid studies where the group of people who
were working from home was this minority. I mean, I think in that sense, the balance of power shifted
that in the past you’d say, we’re holding a meeting and if you want to dial in, well maybe we’ll do
something for you. Whereas now they say we’re holding a meeting, people say, well, you’ll have it by
Zoom. We’re not at all because I’m not coming.

Amjad Karim (11:30):
So that’s the impact of technology. Right. So I think you were asking about the UK. I think UK was pretty
similar, I think it seemed became a little bit not so concerned. And then things changed rapidly. And very
rapidly actually, we even had, I remember the Champions League game with Liverpool, they had
thousands of Real Madrid fans come to Liverpool. But going back to, I guess, the future of work and the
AI and the use of technology, how do you think it will change? So for example, one of the things that
you’ve said is Covid has accelerated the move to remote working for roles that can be taken remotely,
things that have to be done physically can’t move. So for example, essential services were defined from
nurses, doctors, but also to the refuse collectors, the binmen people in shops. What do you think work
will look like in say 20 years or even 10 years? What are the types of roles that will be dramatically
changed?

John Quiggin (12:26):
I mean, I’m working a lot on the idea of a four day week, and I think the big obstacle to that has been
the five day week, which was a great achievement 70 years ago, had been around so long that people
couldn’t conceive anything else. Both the actual workers who have been managed and to some extent
the capitalists, the shareholders, they don’t care about making life easy for the managers particularly
that’s run against that. And so we are seeing, I think especially with tight labour markets coming out of
the pandemic, the push for a four day week is really happening. So I’d expect to see that happen. I
wanted to come back and say, I mean there are jobs that absolutely have to be done physically, but you
mentioned doctors. Well, you have this situation where you turn up at the doctor’s office and sit there
for hours while the doctor, doctor chronically overbooked runs through your services. And why does
that exist? Only because of a whole bunch of social institutions that doctor’s time is incredibly valuable
on the other end that medical people won’t reimburse remote services. But that’s been shaken and I
think we’ll continue to be shaken shops. Of course, I hardly go into a shop these days, so there’s lots of
stuff. I think we’ll see competition from remote kinds of things, just continuing to grow the pandemic
over the start. But I think we’ll see that going further.

Amjad Karim (13:51):
The analogy, the doctors and also retail. I suppose remote medicine probably is growing. There is some
value in seeing a patient. I imagine if you’re a doctor, you probably pick up signals that you perhaps
wouldn’t, but there’s a lot you can do remotely. Maybe it’s also a function of how the trade-off between
if you make a mistake when you buy a parcel from Amazon or something, you can just return it, get a
refund, or maybe not get refunded. But I suppose if there’s a mistake in diagnosis, even though that
might be lower than it would be 20 years ago, it just depends on the level of risk prepared to accept as a
society in terms for different things like the additional value, even though it’s small generates a larger
payoff for having it face-to-face for other things, the additional value is negligible. So why wouldn’t you
do it?

John Quiggin (14:37):
I mean there’s a lot of rational, I mean part of the problem is there’s a huge amount of rationalisations
of ending existing ways of doing things. I mean, you see it takes something arbitrary with voting
systems, we know perfectly well that all the English speaking countries have atrocious voting systems,
but people will still come up with bizarre ideas as to why, for example, first pass the post is a good idea.
And so I suppose whenever I see stuff about water cooler conversations, I sort of think, well actually I’ve
been in the workforce for 40 years and I have had conversations around the water cooler. I can’t remember ever having any conversation at water cooler that in any way advanced my work career in those 40 years. I mean, random stuff happens, but the vast majority of useful conversations I’ve had
have been because I say, why don’t you Tim and me go and have a cup of coffee and talk about and
chat? And we might spend 90% of the chat talking about other bloggers and how terrible they are, but
something gets done. But whereas randomly passing people in the corridor has never done anything for
me at all. And yet this was solemnly put up as this really big deal. I’m unconvinced that this is true with
respect to medicine for example. I mean maybe doctors have subtle interpersonal skills. It’s not that
medical school creates them.

Tim Dunlop (15:56):
They’re not famous for their pets manner rather.

John Quiggin (16:00):
And so yeah, so maybe that’s right, but maybe just being able to have more appointments done more
efficiently, quite over faster would offset that.

Tim Dunlop (16:10):
Just to speculate a little more on your original question about what happens over the next 10 years, I
certainly agree with John that the four day work week is something that we’re moving towards, and I
think that’s a good thing in a country like Australia. I mean it’s been happening for a long time despite I
think a certain level of denial amongst politicians, but we’re a service economy. We still have politicians
talking about, I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t do manufacturing, but I really think those
days are gone. We are a service economy. So it goes to those points that you were making about the
role of technology in that for a lot of those sorts of things, especially in the healthcare area, aged care
area, it’s not that there’s not a role for technology, it’s just that a lot of the work still involves hands on,
literally hands on human contact and involvement.

(17:06):
So I think that increases or at least maintains at the rates that we’re going. We probably do need a bit of
a mind shift at the political class level to really accept that. And then I think that has got to have kick on
effects for the way we educate people for employment, the emphasis we put on things. And it also
rainses the issue of gender disparities because that kind of service economy care work tends to be, at
this stage, done by females, done by women. And that probably has to change as a default setting as
well. So it’s not just the technological change and I guess this is the point that I’m making all along. It’s
how we adapt to those social changes, those kind of sometimes arbitrary things that John’s been talking
about. We really have to get out of the mindset. And actually this has been an obsession mine for last 20
years, is one of the areas you see this most clearly is in an area like journalism, which was really
completely upended by the technology. Digitization changed the nature of the way news was not just
collected, but the way news was distributed and understood in the public, the way publics were created.
But there was a long established set of norms and practises around the practise of journalism within
that profession. And that profession hasn’t come to terms at all with those changes that have arisen
because of that technological change, the digitization of news. So it can be hellishly difficult to get
established institutions or established professions to get their head around these sorts of changes. This
is arguments I constantly find myself having with people about just adjusting to that. And I think it’s true
of politics more generally, but just the whole notion of the rise of platforms as a workspace, people
working online as creators of some sort or another. I don’t think it’s still taken terribly seriously by
governments as a sector of the community, but it’s obviously a growing sector of the community. But again, it’s that mental adjustment that established institutions and professions have to make to be able
to adapt to this. And I guess the nature of the change is going to be affected by the ability of those
groups to make those mental adjustments.

John Quiggin (19:51):
In terms of the structure of the economy, when I was at school, it was essentially a goods economy.
People grew stuff or dug it up, it’s processed and turned into goods in the manufacturing sector, and
then the service sector basically distributed the goods, organised the money, and then there were a few
bits and pieces like healthcare that didn’t fit in and were shoved off. And really that whole goods
economy is now counting in, even things like retail and so forth is a minority economy and the remaining
parts using services, a catchall is no longer right. We really need to talk about human services which are
delivered directly and information services. And two things about information: one is of course they can
be done remotely, the other is that there are these huge externalities that information once it’s created,
goes out in the world very to capture. And in a sense, this is the fight of the last 30 years is people trying
to capture some information and charge, just to poll on everybody who accesses it versus the natural
tendency of information to want to be free and information creators, who want to get away from having
to pay these people. And as I say, we’ve, I think, just ending a period when the platforms had immense
control, when Zuckerberg and Dorsey, I guess precursory owners of Twitter and Google, were managing
to get huge rents out of their stuff to one where people are kind of sick of Facebook and Twitter has
imploded, but already before that there was things like CK and meat and Medium and things emerging
as a new platform by which is much more competitive and gave a much bigger share to creators and
much smaller share to proprie of the platform. But all of this, no one are the creators and all the
platform holders captures more than the tiny portion of the value that’s created. Most of it just goes out
there into society and isn’t really measured in the economy at all.

Amjad Karim (22:02):
So John, I’ve got a couple of questions I want to ask on that, right. But before I get there, just talk the
ambition for a four day week. I think the ambition is also, and correct me if I’m wrong, Tim, is to maybe
share some more of the gains that are made through concentrated technology through society. Things
like universal basic income. But listening to you and having worked in near it, I don’t think the challenge
is technological. This will be a societal challenge. It’s about how the economy is structured, what society
decides is important for it. If we wanted to go to this place where you have four day weeks and where
overall the economy is just as productive and everyone’s living a better quality of life, how do we move
to that? I find that’s the real issue, right? The issue isn’t technically, and the other question I do want to
ask is people like myself and the people that work with we’re technology creators, so what can
technology creators do? What should they consider when they’re doing these types of things to say,
okay, how can we enable the types of things that you’ve been talking about?

Tim Dunlop (23:02):
Definitely a societal problem, a social problem, a political problem. At the end of the day, I sort of
despair a little bit that we’re going to get much leadership from conventional political parties on this
stuff because partly they’re kind of still within those, their own sorts of silos, the status quo that serves
them, and that includes with the media as well. They’ve got no interest really in reforming the media.
It’s happening anyway. Other outlets as John’s talking about are coming into existence. I was actually
thinking the other day, there’s this actual incredible body of alternate media in Australia that’s grown up
over the last 10 years and a lot of people are working and interacting within that, but most political discussion is still dominated by the parameters set by the mainstream media. So as you say, it’s not a technological problem. The technology’s there and allowing these alternative workspaces and platforms
and outlets and websites to be created to do this sort of work, but to get it taken seriously within the
political class is a battle. So I think I’ve always argued this, I’ve often done talks with just members of the
public and the question from concerned parents is often what should my children be studying at
university? And I often say that the best thing they can do is to actually get political, is to maybe join a
union, maybe join a political party, affect the change at that level. And that goes to technologists as well.
I think the history of the technologists is that they haven’t been particularly open to that sort of thing. It
has been about building walls around and concentrating wealth and the technology has kind of helped
that to some extent. But I think if we really want to move towards that more egalitarian sort of society
where you have a four day work and maybe a better distribution of income, there’s are political matters
at the end of the day. I actually doubt very much whether especially big technology companies are going
to do this voluntarily. I think it’s going to have to be regulated in some way or I don’t know if unions can
come back to anything like the strength that they had. I doubt it very much. I think the nature, again, the
nature of work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that sort of consolidation of worker power that used to
happen in a more manufacturing factory type of setting. Even though there’s evidence that with Amazon
and Uber and other platform, companies are increasingly coming under pressure to unionise. It’s a
hellishly difficult thing to do, but it is happening to some extent. But I think if the problems are social,
then the solutions are social as well, and that includes how you deal with things politically.

John Quiggin (26:05):
So you’re looking at the five day week, we got that mainly a combination of unions getting it individually
and then governments legislating. But we also got it from full employment while Australia and New
Zealand the first place to get eight hour a day precisely because they were shorter workers. So in some
sense, this period of full employment and combined with the change in attitudes, the statistics might be
dubious about the great resignation. It’s pretty clear that, if we clear the employers justice, in sense
unions pushed too hard in the sixties and seventies. Employers have pushed their employees too far,
they’re ready to walk out the door if they can get another job. And right now they can. We’re seeing
with the four a week, this has being done by voluntary trials by companies and one of their big benefits
are things like less, not that people are producing in four days what they use to produce in five in a
literal sense, but they’re having less turnover. And of course, every time you lose one worker and put in
a new one, you spend several months bringing that person up to speed. Their sick days, I mean that’s
not going to drive much in the US because they don’t have sick days. But Australia, it’s just been routine.
If you need to need a day to deal with the family, you take a sickie and with four days you can organise
yourself better. So these kinds of things I think we’re seeing as the move, but ultimately we’ll need
governments to move in that direction even though we haven’t seen the big moves, we’ve seen I think a
loss of faith in neoliberalism and productivity and working hard and all that stuff. Which will make this
proposal, in due course, a political winner that will be hard to oppose. But first we need to establish it in
a bunch of places, make it more normal and make it a condition that progressive employers have, so
that what we’re doing is dragging up the tail rather than imposing it across the board and we first have
to win it locally. But so far that’s going exceptionally well.

Amjad Karim (28:06):
So one of the things that we’re saying is that certain technologies are going to reduce the need for
humans to do work. Remote working is making it easier for people to do service work without actually
being physically present. So that means in theory you could say that there’s going to be less work and
also corporations could start opening up employment to people who aren’t based in Australia or in the
UK or in the developed world, where there’s regulations about how you treat people. So your point
about, well at the moment we’ve got full employment, technically we haven’t, but in practise we
probably do. So therefore there’s pressure for employers to take the needs of their employees into
consideration so there’s more pressure for four day week. Is there a risk this could be a temporary
phenomenon, because actually when you’re introducing technology, you’re reducing the amount of
work that people need to do. You might find in a position soon that there may not be enough.

John Quiggin (28:53):
Well, one point is we’re not really talking about the future here. We’ve had a hundred years safe from
1870 to 1970 or so in which a large part of the gains of the technology were taken as more leisure. That
completely stopped around the 1980’s. So we’ve got 40 years of pretty substantial productivity growth,
none of which has been given back as reductions in standard working hours in those countries. It’s
important that it’s really a shift. It really is social that is that for those 40 years employers have had the
whip hand managing the fact that whip hand, and as we saw during Covid, the people that love turning
up at the office and working long hours as a manager. Of course they have cushy offices, probably
company cars or a bunch of stuff that can only be lived in the office. If you have a corner office with a
view of the restaurant and a membership of a nice club, you can’t take that home. Even if you have a
nice house with a view of a harbour, you can’t show it off to thousands of people, which is the attraction
of being in a physical workplace with a hierarchy. So in that sense, what we’ve seen I think has been an
undermining of that enabled in important respects by technology, but also just the cumulative effects of
stuff we could have done 20 years ago. I mean, I was 20 years ago getting living in North Queensland,
getting invitations to go and talk to people in various parts of Australia and I’d say, look, I’ll do it for you
remotely. And it was technically feasible, but the message would come back, look, we’ve looked at it and
it’s just too hard, we’ll fly you down and put you up in a hotel a thousand bucks rather than go through
the trouble. I just say that’s part of the technical progress, but it’s mainly we’ve all acquired the social
norms we needed to do this stuff. We’ve remembered to turn ourselves off muse and we can events like
this happen more or less smoothly. And meanwhile, of course the air travel has got more and more
horrible.

Amjad Karim (30:55):
I agree with the idea of what you talked about, the watercolour conversations when I was younger, just
being able to say hello or how are you? Or just building a rapport with someone that I didn’t know in the
office. So at that particular point in time, I didn’t have a very great conversation about the problem that
I was working on, but I built a connection with that individual that made it easier for me to approach
them later on to have a more productive conversation over a coffee or in a meeting room or however it
might be. How do you build those relationships or those types of connections in an environment which
is you’ve reduced the likelihood of random connections like that. And I think if I was starting at a new
company today and I was relatively junior, I would really value that. Certainly there’s a great deal of
benefit from face-to-face connection in that sense, right? There’s serendipity in things that you can’t, it’s
hard to replicate.

 

Tim Dunlop (31:54):
I guess I look at this differently because my experience has been quite different in that really for the last
20 years I have worked at home, I have worked at universities and that’s involved going in and teaching
and going to stupid meetings and things like that, but not on a daily full-time basis. If anything, the
technology and the social media platforms have taught us how to do precisely what you are talking
about. I’ve developed enormous networks of people, John for instance…

John Quiggin (32:28):
We’ve met twice in person, we are close friends in important respect, certainly, certainly close
collaborators in…

Tim Dunlop (32:35):
Have worked together on things.

John Quiggin (32:38):
And yeah, we’ve never met. Eventually we had one social call.

Tim Dunlop (32:44):
But the whole relationship developed online and what tends to happen is, it’s sort of the reverse in a
way. It’s sort of like I’m going to be in Sydney or Queensland where you are, do you want to have a
coffee sort of thing and then you do make that personal contact sort of thing. It might be different in a
company work environment, which I’m clearly not in, but just in terms of being able to develop those
relationships has not been a problem.

John Quiggin (33:10):
Pretty much a matter of social convention for example, I mean just in terms of personal relationships, as
I say, calling somebody on the phone now is like turning up unannounced at their house at nine o’clock
at night. But had it been 30 years ago in Victorian England, you turn up with a calling card and leave it at
the door and come back another day and now you send an email to establish contact, and then
somebody you know, you send text messages and at some point you say, oh look, I really need to talk to
you about this, let’s have a phone conversation. And similarly organisations, that kind of stuff, if you
want that to happen, we need to develop social conventions, but there’s nothing magic about face-toface
in that in a sense, phone call is much more human contact than an exchange of text messages. But
everybody, except your very closest family relationships, everybody’s now much more comfortable with
text messages than they are with phone calls.

Amjad Karim (34:08):
I think you talk John, Tim about how technology is to create, they end up being enclosed environments
in terms of the advice that we can give technology creates. I think the open source movement, for
example, is phenomenal. The amount of value that’s released into the world because of that. I think it’s
probably one of the most important things over the last 20 or 30 years in terms of the value to
economies and the value to what people can do as society is what people can do. A lot of the technology
or the software that we create, especially when it comes to machine learning and AI and search engines,
relies not on the code, which is really important, but on the data and you need the two together for
there to be a valuable service or a product, right. And I’m going to touch now on some of the things that
you’ve talked about and the concerns you have about how data and technology is concentrated.

 

John Quiggin (35:00):
Since we talked, the whole Twitter thing has really shown that, I mean on the one hand of course, I
mean the classic being the sudden data dub of all the stuff about Hunter Biden’s laptop, which
apparently contains nude pictures of Hunter Biden, which I can’t imagine being very exciting. We had
some kind of assumption that what we did on Twitter followed certain rules and now we discover, at a
minimum, that all our email contact with Twitter can be dumped on the public internet to score a point.
I was reading, one of the reasons Twitter was worth advertising was because GM was worried if they
gave anything to Twitter, it would end up in the hands of Tesla. And a month ago you would’ve thought,
surely not, but now you think, gee, I said I certainly wouldn’t trust these guys with my data, not
necessarily going outside these commercial organisations is going to make us safe, but all sorts of stuff
that can go wrong and made it very clear to people that the data is the product that you are producing
for these guys and they’re not your friends. I think we are seeing as has happened repeatedly, that this
attempt to control and wall in data, works for a while and fails. Maybe it will work again in the future,
but it’s certainly as a project looking pretty sorry, now I mean get the impression Instagram is also, just
the takeover by influencers has sort of undermined its usefulness for other purposes. So the…

Amjad Karim (36:28):
Is this the tragedy of the commons though?

John Quiggin (36:29):
Well its the opposite in a sense because data is the opposite of the commons. As I say, we have a story
in Australia of magic pudding, and the thing about the magic pudding is you can cut as much off the
magic pudding and eat it and it just comes back again. And also it’s whatever kind of pudding you want it
to be. If you want Yorkshire pudding, its Yorkshire pudding, if you want chocolate pudding, it’s chocolate
pudding and of course the pudding is immensely valuable. The whole punch of the story is, if the bad
guys want to capture the pudding so that they can control the flow of pudding and meanwhile the
pudding is trying to escape.

Amjad Karim (37:06):
I guess that’s what I meant by tragedy of the commons, in the sense that we all have an incentive to
keep data as open as possible so people can use it and share it, but the marginal benefit to anyone
individually is quite small. On a day-to-day it doesn’t really affect you. Whereas if you are trying to
capture that data and profit from that data, for example, medical records, and there’s controversy right
now. But NHS medical records, so personal motivation to get something done and the resources that
they had at their disposal was so much greater than the individual who just thinks about it something on
a side. So what I mean by tragedy of the comments is the fact that it’s something that affects everyone,
but it’s not a great deal, but the people who can make a massive benefit from it are the ones who are
going to drive it in that direction. Isn’t that always going to happen?

John Quiggin (37:54):
An important point is outside your totalitarian state, the only real way you can exploit this information is
to adverte. Broadly defined. If you’re asked the question, supposing I had all the medical records of
everybody in England, well, I could certainly use a lot of it to sell them medicine, but that’s about it.

Amjad Karim (38:17):
I mean I challenge that. Wouldn’t there be benefits in terms of looking at correlations and relationships
between care and response. Between, you’ve got a set of data that tells you a lot, right? I’m not a
medical researcher, but I would imagine you’d…

John Quiggin (38:28):
Well, I’d say. There are plenty of socially beneficial uses, but if I wanted to say, how can I make money at
people’s expense from that data. The answer is almost entirely through marketing and that’s whats
driven Facebook and Twitter and all has been the idea that we can identify markets, find them down,
sell people stuff, and then that in turn generates the idea of keeping you engaged, keeping you on the
site and so forth.

Amjad Karim (38:58):
Just do you think that’s entirely true though? Imagine if you’ve got this data set, so example I come from
an Asian background. If you have the medical data sets, you’re able to see the relationships or how
people from my background might respond differently to specific treatments compared to say the wider
population. So you could generate benefit from saying, okay, we can have slightly more personalised
treatment plans, so therefore the amount of the types of treatments that we’ll recommend to you are
more likely to be effective or do less harm. And then I suppose you could monetize that by saying, okay,
we can prove that they have better benefit, so therefore we will charge for that service. In theory, that
could work. It’s not just an advertising thing, right?

John Quiggin (39:33):
In theory that’s probably right, in practise, Google and Facebook and Twitter all are like much
advertising. But certainly that possession of data, when you look at what’s it’s been used for, I mean you
can use it to price discriminate. So there’s bits and pieces, but very much to do with commercial control
platform.

Amjad Karim (39:51):
So I guess what are your thoughts then? If the position is that the only way to benefit from this
concentration of data is through advertising potentially, does that mean as a position we take is that we
don’t have these data sets or do we open them up? What is the way forward?

John Quiggin (40:06):
Well, certainly across the range of stuff that the Facebooks and Metas and Twitters do, the answer is, as
with software, open source. They managed to come in and capture things up. Tim and I were around at
the beginning of blogging and I mean Twitter was basically a micro blog which managed to do a better
job of attracting lots of people and people doing it themselves to service like WordPress would now
have alternatives and Twitter has managed to push people on those alternatives, platforms that charge
the creator for the service and let the creator grab a bit back, things like Substack and Patreon and all
these things, are much more friendly to the creators. Than Twitter and Facebook and things of that kind.
So I don’t have an answer, other than people who care about this stuff should always be looking for
these alternatives and right now, we’re I think making good ground.

Amjad Karim (40:55):
Tim, do you have anything to say on that?

Tim Dunlop (40:58):
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think the options have opened up and that alternative model, which I guess in
a sense it’s still an advertising model, even though you’re selling subscriptions like we do with our
Substack or whatever. You know, you are marketing yourself, it kind of throws it back onto you to do the
marketing, which means that your use of the other platforms like Twitter and stuff is obviously a form of
advertising, hoping to generate income through the other platforms. Like in my case Substack. And I
think this is actually one of the things that’s been probably a bit neglected in the general public
discussion of what’s happening with Twitter, is that Twitter had become something of a cornerstone of
that economy as the portal into other users created audiences paying audiences and gathered
subscribers and stuff like that. So if Twitter falls apart, it probably kicks a big hole in that part of the
market. The trend is more away from, as John said, more away from that walled garden approach, which
is unsatisfactory I think to most users. Especially users who want to work professionally on those
platforms. It’s much more attractive to be on something like Substack than to trying to generate a
customer base through Facebook and Twitter and monetize it somehow through maybe selling
advertising on a website or something like that. These newer platforms are a much easier way of
monetizing that sort of work.

Amjad Karim (42:41):
John, I just thought to myself, I’ve been talking about your thoughts on data and information and the
concentration of information. I haven’t given you the chance to explain what that actually is and what
your thoughts are on that and what your concerns were and what you’re writing has recently been
about that.

John Quiggin (43:00):
Well, I mean, so I’m an economist and so I’m interested in what’s been happening to the economy. One
of the things that seems to be happening is that investment is declining, and that’s because although
Facebook and these people are capturing a lot, they’re not really capturing more than the tiny fraction
of what’s being generated. And so the information economy I think is presenting this huge challenge,
huge challenge to capitalism really, that the more people are working and generating something, which
essentially once it’s created is free, the less the idea of when you buy it, you make something and you
sell it. And that is the model of the market. You make something, you take the market, you sell it to
somebody, they have it. If you don’t have it when you say, well look, we generate this podcast and for
whatever motive we have, and once it’s created, everybody in the world can have it and it goes out
there. We can try and persuade some of them to give us a little bit of money or we can stick an AD on it
and try and persuade somebody to give that. But this structure I think has really, helps to explain
paradoxical features of the economy that we feel as if all this stuff is happening that there’s this massive
progress going on. But when you look at the market economy statistics, they say, we’re in this epic of
stagnation.

Amjad Karim (44:21):
And this is something that you think we need to solve or we need to think about?

John Quiggin (44:24):
We need to recognise, I think is the first point, that we’ve still got a bunch of politicians who are
nostalgic for, well, in our case in Australia, that made things, which was true about the time Tim and I
were born, at which time of course politicians then were nostalgia from Australia that grew things. 60 years ago, we actually were making things, when Tim and I and our current prime minister were born. And we’re still thinking in terms of those categories, when the most new stuff that’s happening in the
economy is outside that. And part of that is a breakdown, which work from home accelerates in various
ways, a breakdown of the whole capitalist distinction or industrial society distinction between home and
work that before industry came along, your garden was outside your house, you grew the food there. If
you were a spinner, a weaver, you did your work in your house. There was no real distinction. We made
this sharp distinction, which has broken down, and we also say went from then a subsistence economy
to one where what you did was make stuff, sell it, and then use that money to buy things. We are seeing
a change, I think, ultimately of that degree of significance as we move into a situation where most of
what we do is to do with information.

Amjad Karim (45:39):
Yeah, it was really interesting. One of the things I hadn’t thought about it before when you mentioned it
was the idea of services being split between human services and information services. And I suppose
human services has a direct benefit and it’s a one-to-one thing. So if I go and take care of someone, I
can’t scale that. That’s just that somebody else can’t take the care I’ve just given them and give it to
someone else, right? It’s done. Whereas information services, so like you said, we’re writing this blog,
we’re creating this blog, we can make any many number of copies as we want it to and share it and
people can do the same. Right. And you’re saying as a result of that, you believe that measuring the
increase in the productivity economy is difficult. There isn’t any technically, is that what you’re saying?
Or am I…

John Quiggin (46:20):
Yeah, I mean, I did some stuff, lecture on this a few years ago and somebody was calculating that there
was more data created every day than had been generated in the entirety of human history before that.
And of course a large portion of that was cat videos, but measured in bits, you had this huge amount,
and of course that has just increased over and over again since then. And so if you try and value this
thing in the way, one way to do this is say, well, what would it have cost us to produce this podcast 50
years ago? And the answer is essentially would’ve had to deploy the entire resources. So what would
you have is, a situation where some things have been magnified immeasurably, which is information,
some things a lot like manufactured goods that they’re massively cheap and they used to be. And then
you have this human services sector, which is still very, very difficult.

Amjad Karim (47:14):
It sounds like to me, the tooling that we have in economics to measure where we are today or where
we’re heading, isn’t there. So if we measure things like GDP or number of widgets produced or pay
people like that, based on what you’ve just said, well actually those are no longer the correct measure.
So we’ve achieved a baseline level of prosperity. The challenge, whether or not we distribute it
appropriately is another question, but what needs to happen in economics?

John Quiggin (47:43):
An important thing about GDP is, it’s great achievement was in the industrial economy, to avoid double
counting. So when you had the old side of stuff, somebody dug something up or grew it turned into a
manufactured product and sold it. What you had to do both to run a taxation system and to measure
the economy, was to net all that out at every stage. And that’s why we had value added taxes in fact at
all. It’s precisely that, that you say you don’t tax a baker on the amount of bread they produce, you net out the wheat and stuff that went into it and tax the farmer on that. And so GDP was designed precisely to overcome that problem, which is a problem that doesn’t arise in any of the service economy, doesn’t
rise in the human services stuff because essentially all the work has been done, the physical inputs are
essentially unimportant in most of it and it doesn’t arise in less in the information economy. So we had
this number, which is really just becoming less and less relevant and we don’t really know what to do
about it.

Amjad Karim (48:45):
Before we wrap up, is there any websites you think listeners might want to visit or books they should
read that they might want to learn some more about?

John Quiggin (48:50):
Yeah, well our friend Google, which I’ve been banging up. or DuckDuckGo , if you refer, finds me. Tim
has some recent books, that are probably more interesting than the mine, so…

Tim Dunlop (49:00):
Well, I do have a couple of books that cover those topics and they’re Googleable and available through
Amazon. Other information is out there.

Amjad Karim (49:11):
Thank you guys. Thank you. Really appreciate it. I found it really interesting. I mean, there’s lots of other
questions I could ask actually. I probably just message you guys directly. I find it it really interesting,
some of the positions that we were taking, but hopefully it’s been good for you and enjoyed it too.

Tim Dunlop (49:24):
It has. Thank you very much.

Amjad Karim (49:26):
Thank you.

Presenter:
Amjad Karim
Guests:
John Quiggin
Tim Dunlop