No Floor, No Ceiling

No Floor, No Ceiling

The internet gives more people an opportunity to win. But it forces everyone to play the game.

There has never been a better time to be alive. Apart, perhaps, from the 1950s in America. Back then, you didn’t have to be a genius to get a stable, decent-paying job. That job enabled you to buy a house, put your kids through college, and retire with dignity.

But you had to be American, you had to be a man, and you had to be white. Anyone who did not fit into this mold could not access the same opportunities. Today, everyone has access to more opportunities than ever.

As Packy wrote earlier this week:

“We now live in a world in which, by typing things into your phone or your keyboard, or saying things into a microphone, or snapping pictures or videos, you can marshal resources, support, and opportunities.”

The internet enables us to participate in what Packy calls the Great Online Game. Access is still unequal, and past burdens are still preventing some people from fulfilling their potential. But anyone is welcome to play, and you don’t even have to use your real name.

“The Great Online Game is played concurrently by billions of people, online... with real-world consequences. Your financial and psychological wellbeing is at stake, but the downside is limited. The upside, on the other hand, is infinite.”

Packy is referring to the fact that anyone can put his ideas out in the world. We can tweet, we can write a newsletter, we can create TikTok and YouTube videos. And, by doing so, we reach people who might be willing to pay for our services, buy our products, or even let us manage their money.

As I mentioned in Winner Takes Most, “the internet enables each of us to earn more than ever before by matching us with the exact people — fans, customers, employers — who value our unique combination of skills and characteristics. It enables each of us to become a superstar.”

The internet matching machine is fuelled by content. The more of it you produce, the more likely you are to reach the people who'd value what you have to offer. Writing a tweet or uploading a video costs nothing. It might be embarrassing or a waste of time, but that’s about it. In that sense, the downside of playing the game is indeed limited.

But focusing on the risks within the game obscures a much bigger problem: The game is no longer optional. Everyone must play. We have little to lose because we already lost everything: Stable jobs, affordable homes, education that lasts a lifetime, and worry-free retirement are no longer an option. Even money itself ain’t what it used to be. It loses value by simply sitting in the bank.

This is partly a result of various policy failures. But ultimately, it is due to our current stage of technological development. Information moves around and knowledge becomes obsolete faster than ever. Geographical constraints no longer protect the average from the best.

We are all in one giant global arena. We can win world-scale prizes. But we have to play. And even when we win, the rewards tend to be fleeting: they can sustain us for a while, but at any moment, the algorithms might change, or another clever fellow can whisk our followers-customers away. We are as anxious in victory as we are in defeat, and our winnings can only be used to continue to play.

This is not the “rat race” our parents and grandparents participated in. That race was run within organizations. Participants sat on a chair and reached for the ceiling. Back then, most people worked for giant collectives and tried to convince themselves that they are individuals. As Willliam H. Whyte points out in The Organization Man (1956):

“They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions...

They are all, as they so often put it, in the same boat. Listen to them talk to each other over the front lawns of their suburbia and you cannot help but be struck by how well they grasp the common denominators which bind them…

they are keenly aware of how much more deeply beholden they are to organization than were their elders. They are wry about it, to be sure; they talk of the “treadmill,” the “rat race,” of the inability to control one’s direction. But they have no great sense of plight; between themselves and organization they believe they see an ultimate harmony..."

Today, we face the opposite problem. We are individuals, at the whims of forces we do not understand, trying to convince ourselves that our old institutions have the power to save us. There is no longer a ceiling above us to restrict our earning potential. But there is also no floor underneath.

Are you falling or flying? Let's play.

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