(2017-11-10) Rao Free Agent Diverarchy

Venkatesh Rao: The Free-Agent Diverarchy

Free agency has gotten a bad rap lately by being conflated with the contract precariat. The concept needs reclaiming.

I would guess that for the youngest middle-class millennials (born 1980-2000) and the oldest Generation Z kids (born after 2000) of all classes, free agency is going to be the default, not paycheck careers

The reason people miss this phenomenon (besides the peak hype phase being behind us) is that we are used to thinking of work in the context of hierarchical organizational forms and convergent temporal trends. Economic activity that creates big new institutions or dramatic grand finales.

Work in the free-agent mode is a divergent economic activity, an evolutionary phenomenon that explores outward from a constantly expanding frontier, and acquires more depth, richness, and variety with every passing year. I call this a diverarchy -- the historical trace of a naturally divergent (divergence), expansionary, evolutionary pattern based on variation and natural selection of relatively stable forms.

Convergent economic phenomena are hard to miss because they snowball to dramatic finales or the appearance of large new institutions.

I've sketched the current state in the cartoon above. The red rocket's trajectory is the one I'm trying to create for myself

-2: The under-the-API precariat who share some peripheral traits with free agents, but are really like extra-disempowered old-fashioned, pre-Internet contract labor, with less agency than paycheck types

0: The traditional DayJob employee class, increasingly becoming a bastion of very high-value specialists who can't really create value as free agents

At this point, the free-agent diverarchy begins. There is no "trunk" line with a 1.0, 2.0...3.0 linear progression. It is forks all the way out to the frontier

Level 1: This is the level at which you are really just making different tradeoffs than paycheck employees rather than gaining freedom

you're starting to "weather proof" your life from the vagaries of paycheck-world weather

1.1: Tethered free agency

including consulting work of the sort I do, and Patreon-type support from a mass audience

1.2: "Passive income"

Level 2: At this level, you are starting to generate enough of a surplus in some form -- financial capital, network capital, or brand equity -- that you start accumulating some overall freedom and deserving the "free" label in free agent.

2.1: Personal brand (BrandYou) capitalism

can reliably attract opportunities and begin to pick and choose

2.2: Extreme early retirement

2.3: Angelism: You are generating enough surplus that you can start to invest in others to some extent. Money is the most powerful kind of surplus, but sharing a platform that offers exposure, or a distribution channel, are activities in the same sort of bucket

Level 3: At this level, you are no longer a cookie-cutter type free agent. You start to acquire genuine differentiation as a human being

3.1: Community capitalism

3.2 Fuck-you libertarian survivalism

3.3 Lifestyle business

Level 4: Isolation versus interdependence

4.1: Indie creative autonomy: This is the zone I'm personally targeting right now.

The point of this zone is optimizing for creative rather than economic freedom

4.2 Micro-LPism: LP is "lending partner" -- somebody who passively lends capital to others to deploy.

Beyond there is the frontier

One frontier area that interests me is what I call deep free agency

You don't get to design the next jetliner as a free agent, but you can design your own drone. You don't get to do complex heart and brain surgeries, but you can play with CRISPR

The free agent diverarchy is just getting started. In the paycheck world, there used to be a saying: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The analogous idea in the free agent world is: learn to exercise the freedoms you might acquire, not just the freedoms you have.

In my cartoon, I've showed the rocketship at a particular point, but really, as a free agent, you're both wave and particle. As wave, you're flexing your freedom muscles all along your chosen trajectory, as far out towards the frontier as you can see. As a particle, very real constraints locate you at a specific point


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