3 Mar 2015

The empty middle – and why your job’s not as safe as you thought

We’re entering a world of extremes, and the internet isn’t helping.

One of the themes that keeps coming up in technology is the “empty middle”.

As tech takes over more of our lives, it seems to change the shape of human experience, creating a small, wealthy elite at one end of the spectrum, and a growing number of increasingly-less-well-offs at the other.

Take music, for example: if you’re a newly formed band, the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been. You can record and mix your songs on a laptop, publish them on your website and sell them using any of the online payment systems. Combined with pub gigs, you might earn a reasonable crust, though not enough to give up the day job.


At the other end of the spectrum, record companies are increasingly concentrating their firepower behind established, venue-filling acts who’ll rake in ticket sales and the all-important “merch”(andise) income.

How do you move from pub band to stadium-filler? Well, that used to be the job of record companies, who’d nurture bands through the album creation process, book them on tours etc. Eviscerated by slumping profits, those record companies can little afford to take risks, so they pick and choose their stars with care. The rest are left in self-publishing land.

Success breeds success

I’d love to tell you that this will result in higher quality output. It won’t. Success breeds success without reference to quality: that’s why a video of a child biting his brother’s finger became one of the biggest hits on YouTube.

By removing barriers to entry into a market, and destroying traditional gatekeepers like book publishers, record labels etc, the internet creates the conditions for this flight to the extremes. And web companies profit whatever happens: it’s no more difficult for them to host a site containing a thousand losers and 10 winners than it is to host an even spread of success.

You might not think this affects you. Your job is safe, surely? The internet won’t throw its inevitable winner-takes-all logic into your life?

That’s probably what taxi drivers thought before the advent of Uber. And hoteliers before the arrival of Airbnb.

Who’s next? I have a friend who’s a contract lawyer. He’s paid large amounts of cash to sift through legal documents and spot discrepancies the other side has tried to sneak into his clients’ agreements. I reckon he’s got five years before the internet makes him redundant.

His clients will be delighted at not having to pay his bills – until the web finds a way to undercut their business model too.

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