Review – Albert Wenger’s World After Capital – The Knowledge Age, and economic, informational, and psychological freedom

Over the weekend, I listened to Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s enlightening conversation with Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures and the author of the recent book World After Capital. Over the course of the conversation, Wenger explains the core of his book’s idea: comparing the past transition from the agrarian age to the industrial age, to the current transition he argues we are undergoing: the transition from the industrial age to what he dubs “the knowledge age.”

In the transition from the agrarian age to the industrial age, the role of “capital” changed: whereas land, and the ability to dole it out, use it, sell it, etc. was the primary mode of capital in the agrarian age, the advent of the industrial age resulted in a transition from land to “financial capital.” Financial capital became essential to “manage the timing of cash flows,” i.e., how to finance the payment of inputs in order to allow for sufficient lead time to turn those inputs into an output via an industrial process. Whereas the previous holders of power in the agrarian age were the royalty and the landed aristocracy who were given land in exchange for their obedience, the holders of capital became the power center in the industrial age. Even today, the world’s richest currently set a great deal of the global political agenda and either rise to political prominence themselves, or leave their benefactors beholden to their capital-drive aims (see: Bloomberg, Soros, Mercer, etc.)

Wenger argues that a defining element of the industrial age was the costs associated with industrial activity and the manufacture of products — one cannot just start their own factory without upfront financial costs, and each variable / incremental unit of production has an attributable cost associated with it – i.e., a book still has the cost of paper and printing for every copy. We’ve now reached an age, however, where our primary mode of activity shifting towards becoming mostly digital in nature, and the attributable costs to a single unit of production, say, the cost of solving a difficult mathematics problem by a computer, has become negligible to the point of being nearly zero. As a result, the role of capital as a means to finance the production of digital goods and services has diminished, leaving a vacuum in the future “power” equation, and creating a society where there is significantly less human “labor” required for a comparable amount of wealth.

Wenger dubs this transition, and the new age, which he argues we’re already in the midst of experiencing, “the end of capital,” and in turn, the beginning of the “knowledge age.” Wenger sees the need for a global universal basic income as a key outcome of this “end of capital,” providing economic freedom to citizens, potentially using blockchain technology as a means of facilitating this wealth transfer. As a result of the removal of the accumulation of capital and enrichment of corporations as a primary motivation behind employment, he predicts that people will be driven towards seeking out “purpose” in a broader, humanistic sense: the combatting of climate change, promoting global peace and ending hunger, etc.

In Wenger’s knowledge age, human attention, i.e., what we, as individuals, choose to spend our time on, has become the new scarcity, replacing land in the agrarian age and capital in the industrial age. This conception of the informational freedom, and constraints on human attention, has come to light significantly recently in the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scan, which seems to have provoked a realization on the part of the internet-going public that much of the internet’s business model revolves around capitalizing on your attention span and the collection of “data,” both of which are paid for by advertisers (Antonio Garcia Martinez Chaos Monkeys is a great overview of Facebook’s entrance into the advertiser marketplace, and others have long attempted to warn us). The onus to control our attention, and manage our consumption habits, is on us, as citizens, to push back on this intrusion into our attention spans, to make these digital universes (e.g., Apple, Google, Facebook) “work for us,” in Wenger’s words. In this world, there seems to be a stark divide between the obedient, who continue to use these modes of communication and information consumption blindly, and people who seek power over the internet, their smartphones, and this deluge of information at our fingertips – which Wenger dubs “information freedom.” The book and conversation seem well-timed to the current Facebook situation, but in fact this encroaching into our personal, political, and intellectual lives has long been a concern.

The last aspect of Wenger’s solution to the “World After Capital” is psychological freedom, i.e., how to train our brains to deal with the economic and information freedom that the knowledge age provides. Wenger explains informational and psychological freedoms as follows in the podcast:

“Informational freedom is about how to get this supercomputer in my pocket to for me, primarily, and for the Facebook, Googles, Apples, etc. secondarily, and psychological freedom is […] about getting yourself away from systems that are designed by people who are trying to get as much of your attention as possible, they employ trained psychologists for ‘what is the right amount of nudges’.

If you are not investing heavily in your own ability to put your phone away, put it on do not disturb, do not look at it at all, if you don’t invest in your ability of reading something online and you’d don’t immediately write back in all caps, or hit the retweet button without thinking, like, does that even make any sense? Should I try and click through this link to try and form an opinion? As long as we’re operating on these “mindless” brains, without engaging our rational capabilities, then I think you can have as much economic freedom as you want, as much informational freedom, and you will not be free.”

In some ways, I think this is the most important facet of Wenger’s thinking, and something worth putting into practice well before any sort of universal basic income arrives. Beyond the disclosures made in the wake of the current Cambridge Analytica scandal, the internet- and social media-based work of researchers at University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute, and others have long been financed by British and American intelligence agencies and defense contractors. As with much innovation, the military is ahead of the curve, and has sought to understand the advent of social media and online consumption on individual’s mood, sense of broader well being or happiness, and of course, your participation and/or obedience in society. In this new world, the information you consume, and the ability to analyze it critically, skeptically, and logically, will only continue to increase in importance as our sources of information continue to shrink and the broad proliferation of differing and unique opinions continue to decline.

Of course, not every single consumption habit you choose should be assen as a political statement, but I do think that Wenger’s point has resonance: that we’ve let the internet evolve to a stage where we’ve, for the most part, become passive participants subject ot the designs and manipulations of a select few. In our day-to-day lives, I believe an appropriate response to this is to try and implement controls and restrictions that control for some of  of this blind consumption, that places your critical reactions and emotional well-being first and foremost, and prioritizing this consumption and healthy habits associated with continued development and learning. This podcast certainly motivated me to rethink this, and believe that there will only be more benefits to implementing these habits as more revelations come to pass on the Facebook saga (see: Andrew Ross Sorkin’s take on Facebook’s published apology: “there is more to come,”) and in turn the internet’s attempts to monopolize your attention become even more subvert and indiscernible.

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