“More people are going to find an income from from creating other sorts of values in other sorts of less reliable ways” Digital guru Seth Godin on a future for which schools have yet to train anyone
Digital guru Seth Godin ponders the ever-changing nature of the way we work
AMERICAN Seth Godin works alone in an apartment in a small village on the Hudson River. It’s a quick train ride to New York but Godin doesn’t have to venture into the city to feel connected to the rest of the world. For more than three decades since he left Stanford armed with an MBA, he’s been working in the digital space as a marketer and strategist. In 1995 he launched online marketing company Yoyodyne and three years later sold it to Yahoo! for $US30 million. His 1999 book, Permission Marketing, overturned conventional theory and practice in the sector. Ahead of his visit to Australia next month, he talks about the endless opportunities of the internet.
What are the biggest changes in the time you have been working?
There are two. The first is the ability of an individual or a small organisation to reach large numbers of people. That used to be impossible. When I was coming up, there were six magazines and that was it. The chances of an individual being noticed without significant amplification was zero. We all remember that (back then) if you were an author, the only thing that mattered was getting on the Oprah
Winfrey Show and now the show is hardly important compared with everything else. The second is the extraordinary rise and power of tribes and connection online. As soon as individuals could be heard, they were heard, not by everyone but by circles of people, and this idea of networks and circles and followers and permission is totally transformative to every area of our lives from business to politics to spirituality.
When you wrote Permission Marketing, did you think then this is where we would be?
The future is already here but it is unevenly distributed. Who said that? William Gibson I think. I had a vision of a whole bunch of things that would happen and some of them happened too soon and some didn’t happen soon enough. I was really wrong about the World Wide Web – it happened much faster than I expected – but on the other hand, the idea of a real, immersive online experience hasn’t happened nearly as quickly as many expected. I knew something big was up but I have been bad at figuring out when.
What do you mean when you say the deep immersive experience has not happened?
When I walk into a Starbucks, or a conference room or convention centre, I notice within 30 seconds who is there, what is happening, what the vibe is, whether people are coming in or out, what the tone is, is it warm, what does it smell like? I get an enormous amount of information in a heartbeat. When I sit in front of my laptop I get one email at a time, if I look at a website I judge it by its colour, but that’s it. So you can call it virtual reality but it is not reality by a long shot and once it is, it is not virtual any more. When we get better at filtering and bringing other bits of data in front of people we will look back at what we have now and think it is like a silent movie.
What impact has all this had on the notion of work?
Work is a fairly new concept, only 500 years old. Four or 500 hundred years ago, you were a farmer, or you worked for royalty, or you worked in the family business. The idea that you would go to a building and do what you were told by a stranger… Let’s call that the industrial parenthesis because it is going away again, and more and more people are going to find an income from creating other sorts of value in other sorts of less reliable ways that hopefully come with more satisfaction. But our school system hasn’t trained anyone for this way of life and the other things, the way we pay for things and the way we interact, aren’t organised around this way of being. Being in a project life is very different from being in a job life. I have embraced the project life … and more and more people will go there, but it will never be as stable and consistent as the industrial age was. So if we measure it by that ruler we will be disappointed.
Are you saying that we inevitably have to change our attitudes to work?
In many situations, we already have. If you hang out with people who are Broadway actors, the conversation is completely different than if you were hanging out with people working for insurance companies. If you work on the stage, unemployment is the norm and being in a show is the exception and people organise their lives around that mindset. They don’t get depressed if they go six weeks in a row without being cast because if they did they would be depressed all the time. So we have to figure out how to train our kids to think that it is OK (to work on projects) but also that you have to figure out how to organise a life so there are the up moments, otherwise you are going to become a bum.
What do you say to those who say they have no option but to go into structured work? Not everyone is so creative that they can work in that way you talk about.
Whether some people are not creative, I would say: when you were four did you do a finger painting that no one had done before; when you were five, did you tell a joke no one had told before; when you were seven were you in a school play in a way that seemed authentic and real? So if those things were true when you were four, when did they stop being true? I am betting that it was not because your genes changed, but that you stopped because you got scared. It is very natural to be scared. No, I am not buying the idea that some people are lucky enough to be creative (and others aren’t). I will quote my high school teacher, who wrote in my report, “you are the bane of my existence and you will never amount to anything!”
But if you don’t have the financial base to pursue project work, is it possible for you to go to work for 40 years and not become ground down by the system?
Everyone will be ground down but ground down doesn’t mean done in and over. I think everyone will lose their job sooner or later and the question is, till that happens what will you do with your spare time? Will you sit and watch TV or will you spend one hour a day to feed the community first, one hour a day to share your best insights on books, or load your pictures. Thomas Hawk is well on his way to posting a million photos online for people to share, and the question is, has his act of doing this made it more or less likely that Thomas Hawk will be hired as a freelance photographer. I think the answer is obvious.