That’s of course the motto of the UK National Lottery, but it is increasingly the mantra of a lot of other ways capitalism is making use of the way we humans can’t get statistically small chances. I was reminded of this when I read a curious article on the Guardian about a chap trying to become a pro video gamer. To be fair to him, at least he got an article out of it and presumably the Guardian paid him, but in addition to the WTF factor, I am amazed that a reasonably intelligent fellow even entertained the idea.
The rules are different for people with good contacts or those with a net worth of more than about £10million, because you can then buy the government, or at least influence the rules. You can even convince yourself you’re not being evil when you pay corporation tax at 3% rather than 20%. For ordinary grunts ways to make a living come in several classes other than selling your time for money in traditional employment.
fifty ways to make a living
you can make a product or service, that is likely to provide an income of sorts if you can find buyers at the right price. That’s because you are changing the world in some way that others find of value, that for some reason they have neither the skill or inclination to do. Such honest toilers include builders, cleaners, doctors, gardeners, some ebay traders, people who work in the shop round the corner.
Not everything of value is of course tangible – artists create expressions of their view of the world which others of us can use as a framework to hang our hopes, dreams or fuzzy insights on, we pay them. Market makers of various sorts can sometimes add value – in the past wholesalers and distributors parcelled up small purchases into bigger ones. Music, childcare, dance classes are services. I passed Dial-a-Dog Wash a while back. I guess the product is a cleaner and less stinky hound.
Arbitrage works – skimming a bunch of other people because you have superior resources, knowledge or connectivity. The entire financial industry is a case in point. It doesn’t make anything, but it amplifies dreams. For instance it lets foolhardy house buyers overpay for houses. I managed to buy a house as a single man on a entry-level white collar salary nearly thirty years ago, that’s not really possible now. I’m not quite sure why that is considered success, but we all conspired to make it happen, with the benevolence of organisations able to create money out of thin air. But finance does do good stuff too. It lets us insure against low-likelihood but high impact risks. It puts money in the hands of people with talent but no capital. On the way it fleeces many of us shitless. This kind of way of earning a living on a freelance level depends on contacts and chutzpah, and it is lucrative.
There is, however, a Dark Star of enterprises, these are ones where we have a zero-sum game with a huge number of punters and an extremely low likelihood of getting fame and fortune.
Deep Throat was right. Follow the money
In the early 1970s, the Washington Post reporters trying to break the Watergate story were given a sage piece of advice by their informer, although the principle dates back to Roman times. Follow the money – cui bono in its classical form. It’s still a decent way of qualifying a financial opportunity someone sticks in front of your nose.The ermine has some simple rules about this:
- If the opportunity comes to me of its own volition, it’s not something I want to pursue. Exeunt doorstep sellers, all advertising flyers, cold callers on the phone. It’s why I run ad-block plus. If I didn’t ask to know, I don’t want to know. End of. I am perfectly capable of getting novelty from the world myself – be curious, and aim to know more when you get to bed than when you got up. Even if in includes that pro video gamer is a thing.
- If I can’t see what a financial opportunity produces or adds to the world, it’s likely a scam. Even if it isn’t a scam, I am not smart enough or too lazy to be able to tell it apart form a scam. I don’t want to know. You can get rich through things like this if and only if you get out at the right time… Madoff made people rich. Until he made them poor.
- All sellers are liars and charlatans who promote their interests at my expense. Be careful out there. It isn’t universally true but it’s a good starting guess.
- Very few things in a market economy are truly free. For example, you pay for coupons, Topcashback and Quidco with dedicating headspace to getting a little bit of the money you overpaid back. There’s an opportunity cost of time and attention. The more you think about shopping, the more you are likely to shop.
- If somebody wants you to sign on the dotted line now without thinking it over, it’s a very bad deal. If it were a good deal, it would survive the scrutiny of sleeping on it. Walk away.
In general, follow the money. If this transaction goes ahead, who wins? If you were unaware of this outstanding lime-limited opportunity this morning, then the winner isn’t likely to be you.
The Seventies discourse on media was surprisingly prescient about our times – Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame anticipated the vastly improved communications we have, breaking down the layers that graded performers’ access to the audience. On a small scale it costs me virtually nothing to reach you, dear reader, and I hope it costs you virtually nothing to read. Before the turn of the millennium that simply wasn’t possible.
This massive increase in communication and the reduction in costs makes us all potential performers now, the hierarchy of gatekeepers that qualified which subjects were worthy to be represented has been eliminated. They were only there to guard access to the expensive medium of communication, their function of grading out the dross was a secondary, not a primary function. You probably have more than 100 channels on Sky TV at home. They probably aren’t worth 30 times more of your time than when we had three TV channels in the 1970s.
A whole new range of products and services is selling dreams on the back of the desire for fame and fortune
Part of the human condition is that we are a social species – in the same way as a house sparrow on it’s own is not at ease with the world until it has the rest of the colony near, so, it seems, with humans – Twitter riffs on the sparrow and reminds us of our common unease with disconnection.
The National Lottery is the first and foremost peddler of empty dreams – it’s true that it could be you, but you’re more likely to be struck by lightning. I don’t understand how you get excited about odds that are lower than an uncommon way of getting killed. How the hell do you avoid the lightning on the way to Camelot’s offices? Every office I’ve been in where there was a Lottery syndicate depressed me a little bit – nominally intelligent and numerate people were allocating mental clock cycles to multiplying their infinitesimal chances of winning by ten or twenty. Yes, they could afford it, but the time allocated to thinking about the lottery are minutes, seconds and hours they’ll never live again, plus externalising your hopes and fears steals headspace away from making changes to improve our lot in life. There’s a cost associated with externalising your locus of control, and I’ve heard too many people dreaming about what will happen when they win the lottery.
And yet there are subtler variants. Let’s take Alex’s idea of becoming a pro gamer. His opening paragraph recognised the problem in meatspace
It’s the lot of every sports fan to sit on the sofa watching their stars play and think “I could do that, if I tried” safe in the knowledge that no one is ever going to call them on that claim.
Team sports at school educated me very well that sports is character building, yes, but the sort of character it builds is that of the school bully and the narcissist that think they are great. You just have to look at the way top footballers carry on to see the sort of character this builds, and yet I do respect that these people do have a rare skill of kicking a bag full of air in arcane ways that is considered good. I have never understood why anybody watches other people play sport. However, I’ve observed a lot of people do, and Alex is quite right – there are a lot of armchair sportsmen. Presumably in the occasional moment of clarity they do realise they couldn’t do that, even if they were prepared to put the work in. 10,000 hours is necessary, rather than sufficient, to gain mastery of many subjects.
Pro video gaming is apparently about collecting an audience, and this is where the empty dream shows itself, because it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are tough. That audience has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is people like you. Let us assume there are X people out there interested in watching people play games. Let’s say they all pay 10 pounds a year to do it[ref]I have no idea if this is high or low. There’s a limit to what I am prepared to do in the name of research, and watching other people play video games is a derivative of consumerism too far for someone without the vicarious instincts needed to watch sport[/ref]. If there are 10 million such souls in the UK, the total amount of money floating about is £100 million. If you want to make £100k a year out of it, then at best you’re one in a thousand, and in practice frictional costs will probably eat up 90% of the income so other people get fat (the streaming networks, content aggregators, games platforms) so you have to be one in ten thousand. And you’ll get rickets from staying indoors all the time – the hours and toilet breaks sound worse than a call centre, because in the end this is a live performance running hours on end with a single actor on the stage.
There are other things like this. Betting, for instance, for most punters is a guaranteed loss in the long run. You can do better than that using matched betting. The reason matched betting works is because you are trying to play fiendishly complicated rules against each other. Theoretically that can work, but you’re only one screw-up away from getting kicked from the winning side to the losing side, big time. Arbitrage is a tough mistress 😉
Some of our ideas about fame and fortune are defined by the roster of successful acts that made it big and were blessed to reach their peak at a time when competition was limited by the bandwidth and effort of shifting physical products about. These limits as so much less significant now. The recorded music industry would never have retained their old model of selling the mechanical rights to fixed recordings whatever they had done, though their demise was faster because of their flat-footed response. Music is effectively free now. People haven’t stopped making it, but they sure aren’t paying much for it. Sometimes I come across a CD in my collection from the 1980s, there are some for £12 or so. That’s the equivalent of £32 now. I still do buy some CDs, but far, far fewer now, almost invariably secondhand, and I’m loath to spend more than £4 😉
The search for fame and fortune has always burned young people out, but at least it used to weed out the weaklings fast rather than give them false hope. Now the cost of carrying the hopes is virtually free. I was tickled by the story of Essena O’Neill, a fashion blogger
Cynical bastard that I am I suspect the renouncement of her earlier ways is presumably because revenue was starting to tick down – I always have admiration for people who can get out on a high rather than dragging a moribund career into the endgame[ref]yes, I know, BTDT[/ref] and it is no doubt purely coincidental that Essena is writing a book. She also has a good ghostwriter on her website who she has hired to make her look intellectual, though they have a penchant for hokey self-help platitudes. It reminds me of that Gladwell fellow
“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”
And yet for every Essena who was a success in her own way, there are thousands of shattered dreams ground into the roadsides. Many of these people will have been her readers living the brand consumerism dream.
We are all born naked and alone into the world, and that gives an existential angst at the heart of the human condition. It is tragic that one has to reach adulthood to have a chance of the simple realisation that the vast majority of the time, other people don’t give a shit about you and your [insert characteristic that is worrying you]. They are far more bothered about what other people think about them and their [insert characteristic that is worrying them]. Essena had one thing totally right. WTF is the point of curating a Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest feed if you aren’t being paid for it? I wasn’t an active FB user for a lot of time, but the level of discourse on Facebook is dire. It’s basically a look at me machine, with a messaging and real-time chat function bolted on. As such it doesn’t do any harm, but Essena is right, there’s no real connection there.
Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is so hopelessly untrue, though in the early 2000s it seemed that it might have been the case. But it wasn’t. It’s a rat race. It’s not that the long tail doesn’t exist. It’s just that there’s no money in it at the producer end, though Amazon does okay as intermediary 😉 As editor of Wired Anderson should have known – information wants to be free was an epithet of technology activists for years, coined by Stewart Brand in the hippy era of the 1960s. He probably meant free as in speech, but we all took it as in beer.
The tech industry took that and made it work. Its brilliant masterstroke was realising that there was no need to charge for the information payload where transmission was almost free. They could use the information as a carrier wave for their advertising on the one hand, and for their surveillance in the back-channel, to be able to know more and more about you to increase the efficiency of their business models. Free information was the Trojan Horse, because the Internet was the first non-broadcast mass medium. Thus they could watch us watching them, and there’s no way back from the original sin of the Internet. It changed how we value information. In general I don’t pay for what I can’t touch – not for ebooks, or MP3s. I only buy CDs secondhand, never new, and I’d never pay £30 in real terms like I used to. There’s far more information about, but it’s become far less valuable, roughly about the time that it became content. Attention, rather than information, has become the currency of the postmillennial Web.
Facebook knows something about a fifth of the global population, and their average revenue per North American user is over $50. Which is impressive – if that is the ad spend and guessing ad spend is about 1% of a typical product that means Facebook is costing these users about $5000 by introducing them to consumer spending they don’t need 😉 Of course information wants to be free, at that sort of margin.
As for those promises of fame and fortune, or riches beyond your wildest dreams? It’s easier to make music, produce a movie, stream your video gaming or create and deliver all sorts of information. Dream on – at this sort of scale in a global and frictionless information space it’s a winner-takes-all game. Maybe the odds aren’t as bad as the National Lottery, but doing something useful and adding value to the world is probably an easier way to make a living than becoming a pro gaming celebrity. Or a leading market trader on eToro, or any of those other zero-sum-game options. I’ll leave the last word on empty dreams to Amy MacDonald’s with Footballer’s Wife
song is about those girls who go out of their way to get hooked up with a footballer just so they can become famous. It’s about obsession with celebrity and people who are famous for being famous, with no talent and getting press simply for who they are with.
She gamely took the ribbing when she er, got set on becoming a footballer’s wife herself 😉