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GitHub for X

The 2020s will do to knowledge work what the 2010s did to unskilled labor.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
3 min read
GitHub for X

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The next decade will do to cognitive tasks what the previous decade did to physical tasks. This has implications for your career, income inequality, and social stability.

Way back in the early 2010s, every second startup was pitching itself as "Uber for X." The idea was simple: take a group of disparate humans, aggregate them into an app with a friendly UI, and deliver a delightful experience for customers looking to complete physical tasks.

Billions of dollars flowed into companies that aggregated anything from drivers and house-cleaners to dog-sitters and dope dealers.

Most of these companies didn't make it to the 2020s. Still, the model itself changed the world: Physical tasks became on-demand services, and even within companies, the work of tens of millions of employees is now coordinated and managed by algorithms.

The upshot? Many individuals enjoyed more freedom, the threshold to start earning was lower, and overall employment increased. But "freedom" was not really a choice; there were simply fewer stable jobs, & "Uber for X" decimated many of the small biz that still offered them.

While "Unskilled labor" was getting sliced and diced by technology, those who built the technology had the best decade ever. The "Creative Class" congregated in perk-heavy offices in expensive cities (and consumed subsidized Uber and salads).

Now, the 2010s are a distant memory. And the "slicing and dicing" is moving upwards towards the highest-paying, high-skilled jobs.

Many cognitive tasks are already quite modular. Software development projects run on systems that track every person's contribution to the codebase and the ongoing usage of their code in current and future projects.

"Version control" platforms such as Github and Gitlab help store everyone's work, keep track of changes and monitor the productivity and popularity of different contributors.

Despite all this, most programmers still work for a fixed salary. It's too complicated to monitor everyone's precise contribution and to pay them each time they do something. But two important technologies are about to make it much easier.

On one end, machine learning can track the actual value of a person's contribution to the code base — its quality, its adoption by other colleagues, and how critical it is to the functioning of the overall project.

On the other hand, blockchains make it easy to assign property rights at a granular level (ownership of single lines of code) and automatically compensate the owners of said rights whenever their "assets" are being used.

For example, every time a user pays for a piece of software, it is now possible to pro-rate the proceeds to anyone who contributes to the software's development. This is similar to how royalties work for music, but now it can be done cheaply and automatically.

As a result, more and more knowledge work will become as modular as physical work. Programmers will enjoy the freedom to step in and out of projects as they wish. But their work will also be coordinated, evaluated, and compensated by algorithms and protocols.

But programmers are just the beginning. The Github model can be used for any work that produces intellectual property. Hobbyists have been using Github to coordinate book-writing projects, legal docs, musical compositions, and even cooking recipes for years.  

But with new ways to evaluate and compensate contributions, the Github model is ready to go mainstream. Over the next decade, many cognitive and creative projects will become more modular — and their contributors will become more interchangeable.

In short, the "Github" model will do to knowledge work what "Uber" did to unskilled labor. It will make work more flexible, compensation more fluid, and the overall environment more dynamic and volatile. This dynamic is consistent with the overarching law of the internet: It gives more people an opportunity to win. But it forces everyone to play the game.

Who's building Github for _____? What can you create to make the most of it?

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