Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sociology/Psychology of the Superstar Effect

The following thought hit me on the way in to work. What are the full sociological and psychological implications of having a superstar effect across many industries? This is right in line with the full theme of technological unemployment. You get technology enabling a few people to serve the needs of vast segments of the population. The result is that you can have an entire market completely saturated by a few individuals and that doesn't lead to all that many jobs being created. The most visible example of this today is Amazon servicing a huge fraction of the purchases that happen in the US and with the possibility of extending it.

None of that is new thinking. It is stuff I have written about earlier, and which I post about a lot on Google+. The new thought was something that hit me as I was driving past the local high school. How does all of this potentially impact the thinking of youth and from there spread out into society? Perhaps right now the answer is that it doesn't. After all, kids are all often blissfully unaware due to their youth. However, I don't fully believe that, and even more, I really don't expect that to be true in a few years. Teenagers don't see social change, they are social change. They don't realize that ideas they are internalizing might be things that were revolutionary to those before them. They just believe them because they are logical at the time in which their view of the world is being largely formed.

So what psychological impact does it have if you internalize the idea that whatever you decide to do with your life, there will wind up being a few superstars and everyone else is pretty much doomed to failure? Here I mean failure in the sense that you probably can't make much of a living off of it. I know that thought does not sit well with me. I know well enough that while I am good at some things, even great perhaps, I am not world-class. Of course, I am well removed from my teenage years. Anyone who knew me then knows I had a pretty high opinion of my self, and I truly expected to be world-class in some things, like math and physics.

There is also another area where the superstar effect has been in place for decades, yet it doesn't seem to phase too many kids. That is the field of sports. High dollar professional athletes make a lot of money. However, as an example, the NBA only has 360 active players at one time. That's all the big money. D-league players can make a living, but even then we are talking about ~1000 people pulled from around the world with an emphasis on the US. What fraction of kids who play High School sports will go pro? I don't know the exact figure, but needless to say, it is very small. This doesn't prevent kids from playing sports. However, I have a feeling that most are playing for the fun of it, not because they honestly expect that they will become professional athletes. Only the top 1-2 players in a school can convince themselves they will be pros. Who knows, maybe the possibility of being a superstar pushes others to keep working harder.

That's fine for sports, which kids normally do for fun. What about in everything else though? How will a kid approach a math class if he/she feels the odds of "making it" in math were the same as making a professional sports team? You can ask the same question for science or English. Does having that thought in your head drive you to work harder to make sure you are the superstar, or does it eventually defeat you when you realize it simply isn't going to happen?

I am afraid the answer is the latter option. I am also afraid that this idea will eventually sink into the heads of young people as automation of both routine, and not so routine tasks increases. If our social structure is the same then as it is today, I think that will be a significant problem. As soon as they realize that they aren't going to be superstars, they give up because only the superstars survive and everyone else gets stomped down.