[iDC] Valuing time on the web: Productivity, entertainment, distraction, addiction

Frank Pasquale frank.pasquale at gmail.com
Sat Jul 18 18:59:24 UTC 2009

Tyler Cowen's "Good and Plenty" promotes the use of market mechanisms to
fund culture.  He's recently turned his attention to valuation problems
raised by time spent on the web:


"Much of the Web's value is experienced at the personal level and does not
show up in productivity numbers. Buying $2 worth of bananas boosts GDP;
having $20 worth of fun on the Web does not. And this effect is a big one.
Each day more enjoyment, more social connection, and, indeed, more
contemplation are produced on the Web than had been imagined even 10 years
ago. But how do we measure those things?"

"*Today, Facebook creates lots of voyeuristic pleasure, but much of the
"work" is done by software and servers*, and the firm hasn't transformed
Palo Alto. Web 2.0 is not filling government coffers or supporting many
families -- and may be hurting some. (Just ask a newspaper reporter.)"

"That all sounds scary, yet there is a bright side; I call it the "human
capital dividend." The reallocation of consumer time into the "free sector"
on the Web will liberate the efforts of many producers and intermediaries,
just as the automobile's advent shifted workers out of making buggies for
the horse. In fact, it's an economic miracle that Twitter can get by with no
more than 50 employees. *It's not quite a perpetual-motion machine*, but if
other parts of the economy were equally efficient, we'd all be swimming in
free or near-free stuff.  A second part of the human capital dividend comes
from our productivity as Web consumers. Billions of people are rapidly
becoming more knowledgeable and better connected to one another."

I find this approach both deeply right and deeply wrong.

1) It's right to the extent that our capabilities are undoubtedly enhanced
by connectivity and computer power.

2) It's wrong to the extent we embrace a more critical perspective on time
spent on the web.  What if some experience the need to facebook, tweet, IM,
etc as a burden?  What if our online presence in each area is in part a form
of conspicuous display, as Thorstein Veblen modeled luxury spending?  If
education can be modeled as a "positional arms race" where the real goal is
not to learn substantive skills, but to do better than others, then
certainly we can talk about certain experiences of the web in similar

In the "real economy," we used to have a pretty rich ethical vocabulary for
distinguishing between luxury and necessity.  (As Christopher J. Berry
notes, "luxury has changed from being essentially a negative term,
threatening social virtue, to a guileless ploy supporting consumption"; see

Perhaps we need a spectrum of value for web-based activity: from
supra-economic aspirations (to love, political engagement,
spirituality etc), to productivity, to entertainment, to distraction
and addiction. But that might be too "Abraham Maslow/hierarch of needs" for
modern times.


PS: Cowen's Good and Plenty is here:
Wark's positional theory of education is in Hacker Manifesto, Para. 50,

And in my last email, I apologize for two typos: I meant to highlight
the use of Latin, not law french, and Mackenzie's book's subtitle is "How
Financial Models Shape Markets".
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