Tim O’Reilly and the WTF Economy: A Conversation About Tech and the Future of Business

Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, talked with 3p correspondent Julie Noblitt at SOCAP 2015.

A central theme of SOCAP15 in San Francisco this year (Oct. 6-9) was the idea that, in this time of economic, social and technological transformation, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to create a new social and technological infrastructure for creating value in the new economy.

For me, no session was more riveting on this topic than A New Social Contract in the Age of Uber. It was not about Uber. It was about setting new labor standards, such as the NDWA’s new Good Work Code, and putting technology to work for the workers and not just for the businesses that employ them.

“By 2020 freelancers will be half of the workforce,” said panel moderator Courtney Martin. Under these conditions, what kind of new social contract for work do we now require? And how will technology play a role in the new workforce commons?

Panelist Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, who coined the term Web 2.0 and who started the Maker Movement, among many other things, will convene a new summit that addresses these topics on Nov. 12-13 in San Francisco, called Next:Economy.

O’Reilly calls it the WTF Economy summit. “WTF” stands for “What’s The Future,” but it also means what you think it means.

“It’s a core notion I’ve been playing around with,” O’Reilly said, “because when you say ‘WTF,’ sometimes it’s an expression of wonder and sometimes of disgust. The WTF we are looking at today has elements of both. There is amazing stuff happening with technology and there is terrible stuff happening with technology.”

I had the opportunity to correspond with O’Reilly shortly after the SOCAP session to dig a little deeper.

Julie Noblitt for TriplePundit (3p): I heard you say today that you hope Next:Economy will gain the same kind of traction that Web 2.0 did as a cultural meme for change. Will your new conference be in service of that goal?

Tim O’Reilly: Absolutely. There is a lot of power in telling an aspirational story that helps how people and companies think about what they are doing. Edwin Schlossberg once said, “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” I try to apply that insight all the time. It’s been key to a lot of the most successful things my company has accomplished.

With the open-source software movement, we reframed the dialogue around software from a political statement that made “free software” look like a fringe movement hostile to business, to an affirmative vision of how that same free software — now renamed as open-source — was at the heart of some of the biggest innovations driving the tech industry forward (notably the Internet).

With Web 2.0, we were able to revive interest in tech after the dot-com bust by showing what distinguished the companies that survived from the ones that failed, and articulating a vision of the new rules that would come to dominate the software industry in the succeeding decade.  (Those rules included “Data is the new ‘Intel Inside,’ harnessing collective intelligence, software as process rather than product, continuous deployment, and ad-based business models supported by network effects in usage.)

With the Maker Movement, we articulated a vision of people who make rather than just people who consume as a key to our future economy.

And that brings us to the Next:Economy Summit (also referred to as the WTF Economy Summit.)  Yes. I really do hope that this transforms the dialogue about technology and work.  There are many different elements that I want people to come to grips with, including:

  • The parallels between the new on-demand jobs, and the way that traditional jobs are also becoming on-demand, requiring a deep look at the mechanisms of the social safety net, which is increasingly out of step with the way people work now
  • An understanding that when you use technology to augment workers and give them superpowers, you can grow the market and become more successful than you can by treating workers as a cost to be eliminated
  • An understanding that financial market value does not equal true economic value.
     (That was the point of my recent piece about Unicorns.)
  • An understanding that networks trump old forms of corporate organization
  • Commitments by on-demand companies to do more for their workers, treating them more deeply as partners in value creation, partners who should be well rewarded for their role

And lots more!

3p: What market failures will the next economy introduce, and what do you think the intersectoral solutions will need to look like?

TO: That’s a hard question. I prefer to look at the future through the lens of the present.  As William Gibson said: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” It’s very hard to see the future, but you can see the way that the seeds of the future are already all around us.

So, the market failures I see now include:

  • The notion that you can cut workers costs and still somehow expect them to be consumers.  As Nick Hanauer said to me once, “Companies seem to have this ‘econo-erotic fantasy’ in which they can cut their own labor costs to the bone but everyone else will keep paying their workers enough to continue to buy everyone’s products.”
  • The notion that it’s okay for a company like Walmart to pay their workers so little that they have to go on government assistance — and then spend that government assistance at Walmart.  Walmart is the ultimate welfare queen. They get their labor costs subsidized, and then their workers spend that government assistance at the company store.
  • A tax system that favors capital when it’s already clear that excessive returns are going to capital, and not to labor.
  • A failure to invest in infrastructure.
  • The notion that we need “jobs,” when what we really need is work — the difference being that work is solving real problems for real people. There is so much that needs doing!

3p: You mentioned infrastructure. James Fallows recently said that infrastructure is the one thing that determines whether people can use their talents or not. In the U.S. we are starving our physical infrastructure, but our information technology infrastructure now has global reach. When you say “infrastructure” do you mean physical or virtual, or are you referring to our economic infrastructure?

TO: I was referring primarily to physical (and virtual) infrastructure in my talk, but there are lots of other kinds of infrastructure. The GPS system is infrastructure.  The education system is infrastructure. But a fair tax system and the other rules by which we govern our society, quite frankly, are also infrastructure.

3p: Government is a great source/funder of disruptive innovation. How do we best protect these tools that have created the public commons on which these new business models rely?

TO: Stop believing that government is bad. Yes, we can improve it — and I spend a lot of time working on just that — but it is the one institution that has as its mission making a better society for all of us.  We need to give it tough love rather than the hate that we give it today.

And we really need to use lessons from tech to improve the user experience of government, to make it human-centered rather than an impersonal machine.  That’s a lot of what we do at Code for America.

3p: Do you foresee a new kind of labor movement in the U.S.? Will the cloud be the platform for it?

TO: Yes, and yes. We’re already seeing this through organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, The Workers Lab, Coworker.org and OUR Walmart. And yes, this will be turbocharged by the tools of online networking.

Many thanks to Tim for allowing me to share this fascinating correspondence with Triple Pundit readers. To hear more from Tim O’Reilly and all the panelists on this topic, tune in to the SOCAP 15 session on YouTube.

Image credits: Images used with permission of O’Reilly Media.

Follow Julie Noblitt on Twitter at @noblittje