A Thought On Virtual Labor and the Marketplace

The point of civilization has always been concentration. The onset of what we call civilization is the emergence of the first cities, places like Katal Huyuk. This was possible – and became necessary – because agriculture technology had advanced so far that there was more food than farmers’ mouths. The organization of this abundance produced the technologies we most associate with our civilization: writing and money. This organization was concentrated in cities, and they were dependent on what the surrounding land produced. This necessitated a reliable store (and story) of value: money. Money was created in the cities as a way to organize the stream of resources that was required to sustain these cities.

Because cities always made sure their was an abundant supply of food (using military force in ancient and not so ancient times, or protectionist policies and subsidies in our times), the value of agricultural labor was generally lower than the value of work in the city itself. The money was always in the city, rather than the countryside.

Could this ever be otherwise?

What if we consider the global marketplace with its infinite supply of knowledge workers? The ubiquity of internet connections, especially in developing countries, can drive the price of knowledge work down, below the price of agricultural work. In other words: when “city jobs” turn into “knowledge jobs” that are outsourced on a global marketplace, it would make economic sense to go back to the land. The limited supply of regional labor as opposed to the near infinite supply of knowledge workers, keeps the price of agricultural labor within reasonable limits.

Is this civilization in reverse? There are a few caveats. First, we assume that plenty of labor will be needed on the countryside. This would be the case if permaculture design and agroecology would take the place of large industrial monocrop fields. Second, we assume that all “city jobs” will eventually become location independent. This would be the case if market pressure forces companies to close down their expensive physical office space and videoconferencing becomes a cornerstone of our communication culture.

I have no idea if this is a good thing, though.