Innovation in an Information Economy: An Open Letter to Navdeep Bains

To the Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development,

Thank you for your commitment to serve Canadians by helping our economy to grow and develop.

In accordance with your ministerial mandate, I’d like to offer you some feedback about a much needed area of innovation and development: the pay sources of cultural and informational labour.

Canadians have been hearing for years that we are transitioning away from a manufacturing and resource economy and toward an information economy. Mr Trudeau famously appealed to the world to look at the value between our ears and not just under our feet. This is an excellent desire, and there are tens of thousands of highly trained Canadian university graduates who share it. Unfortunately, many of those graduates are trained in fields that will pay them poorly, or may not provide them with more than precarious work.

Cultural labour has always been undervalued by most societies. The “starving artist” cliche is rooted in the reality that subjective cultural artifacts and experiences do not command a strong market value. Canadian governments have a history of supporting the arts through cultural grants, and Canada has maintained a strong arts scene because of it, but it is no longer just artists that need support. Numerous other fields in the humanities and social sciences have little to no job prospects, and SSHRCC grants can only go so far to supporting the continued development of society.

There are many factors involved, but I would suggest that the incredible openness of the internet has reshaped society’s expectations of the cost of information and culture, and therefore of the value of information and culture. Information is a right, but it is not free: people need to make a living in order to continue producing and communicating information. But the reality is that I make more money working as a casual labourer at a cheese packing plant, literally just putting cheese into boxes, than I would as an on-air radio broadcaster in some of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in Canada. The field of journalism in general is an excellent case study for the information economy, not only because it is explicitly and directly about communicating information, but also because it is very visibly struggling. Newspapers across the country have shut down, radio stations pay little better than minimum wage, and larger media companies gobble up smaller ones as journalists compete with bloggers who offer their views on current events for free.

The information economy has adapted to the openness and freedom of the internet by shifting revenue streams to rely almost exclusively on advertising, and this also has become a problem. We are inundated with ads, which are worth just pennies per click and are easily blocked by software, which means that they do not actually deliver sufficient economic benefit to allow for decent wages in information and cultural fields. It seems that the only people who are making decent money in this information economy we’re shifting to are Facebook and Google, who control a shocking amount of advertising revenue by mining our metadata to deliver targeted advertising. The true cost of information these days is privacy, not money, and consumers of information have no real metric for the value of the privacy they are exchanging. Advertising revenue, in various ways, is highly exploitative.

Journalism is just one example of a field that needs a new revenue stream. The arts, cultural studies, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, social sciences – all of these fields help us to understand ourselves as human beings, as Canadians, as global citizens. Study in these fields also prepares us for a wide variety of jobs, delivering in spades the “soft skills” employers value so highly, but with little recognition. Jobs that utilize information and project management skills often have hundreds of Arts graduates competing for them, and still I’m currently making more money packing cheese than I used to as the Registrar of a small university. The students I work with now, at the cheese plant, are lukewarm about their areas of study; I expect that several of them will give up their studies if they can turn their summer job into a permanent placement, because a decent wage in a unionized environment with no educational requirements actually makes more sense than paying to attend school for several years in order to be qualified for very few jobs that are likely dependent on grant funding and will therefore be temporary and pay little. We’re approaching a situation in which some of the most highly educated people in the country are among the most precarious workers, which does not bode well for our participation in an information economy.

So I ask you, as Minister of Innovation, that significant effort and attention be given to the problem of addressing the value of information. Otherwise, any attempts to further transition to an information economy will either fall flat or will promote only the STEM fields, impoverishing the social, cultural, and education sectors. One way that I believe we can address this issue is through the implementation of a Guaranteed Livable Income, or “Mincome.” Allow me to explain.

Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in history, funded and developed by volunteers and operating on donations. It serves as an example of the reality that people want to be productive even when there is no revenue stream attached to it. Some of the greatest inventions have come from people tinkering in garages, and in the information age this often means posting content online. Many people who are highly productive in the information and cultural fields are hampered in this productivity by the fact that they can’t afford to do their work full-time, because it simply doesn’t pay well or paying jobs in their field aren’t available. They compete for low-wage low-skill jobs in order to pay bills, while their education and skills languish. Often their passion produces more income for advertising companies than it does for them, but they’re not in it for the money. They are creating value, and that value is generating wealth (for someone), but they do it for its intrinsic rewards.

A Mincome would help thousands of highly trained, creative, innovative, and passionate Canadians pursue their passions and create more value in the information economy by reducing the necessity of day jobs. With this freedom, more Canadians could develop their hobby work into potential revenue streams of their own, or not; either way, they would continue to generate valuable content that enriches the lives of Canadians and people around the world, and increase innovation and advancement in the information and cultural sectors.

As traditional jobs that produce concrete goods are becoming increasingly automated, human labour is coming to be defined by what we can do that machines cannot. This is why the information economy is so important, and it is also how we can afford to provide the leisure – the self-determined productivity – that we need to flourish. Research into our ability to pay for a Mincome is already well-documented, and there are numerous studies and pilot projects underway from a variety of jurisdictions. Please devote significant resources and attention to this solution so that we can free up thousands of under-employed but highly trained Canadians to increase their contribution to society and the information economy.

Sincerely yours,

Jeff Wheeldon
Brighton, Ontario


Update: Just hours after posting this, CBC’s radio show Spark interviewed a tech writer about a Mincome-style pilot project being run in Oakland by Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator. They’re interested in it for the same reasons I’ve outlined above: with so much labour being outsourced to machines and so much potential for people to improve their education and start innovative new companies if only they had the income to sustain them, a guaranteed income seems almost necessary moving forward. Let’s not let private tech firms beat us to the punch.

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