Sunday, January 23, 2011

new capitalism, social media

Miscellaneous thoughts inspired by Richard Sennett's Culture of New Capitalism:

1. Information technology deskills communication. It takes away the craft involved and makes it a brute force proposition -- matter of quantity and filtering rather than precision.

2. The ubiquity of advertising discourse and branding allows retailers to get rid of its own salesforce that once served as intermediary between consumer and goods, teaching them in a local context what to want and how to use it and what it is for. Now we rely on national advertising and personal networks for this information. It allows retailers to be big warehouses of stuff, like Wal-Mart.

3. Consumerism legitimates the subjectivity new relations of production require. It emphasizes future potential rather than achieved skill. The ability to desire new things instead of appreciate what one already has more thoroughly mirrors the denigration of skills in the new economy, which stresses flexibility, team building, starting over with skills development as the firm demands.
the flexible organization puts a premium on portable human skills, on being able to work on several problems with a shifting cast of characters, cutting loose action from context. The search for talent, in particular, focuses on people with a talent for problem solving no matter the context, a talent which skirts becoming too ingrown. Potential ability emphasizes the prospect of doing things one has yet to do; achievement and mastery are selfconsuming,the contexts and contents of knowledge used up in being used. Consumption of goods plays a key role in complementing and legitimating these experiences.

4. Sennett argues that "new capitalism" -- post-Fordism or whatever you want to call it -- changes workers relationship to time. That is, in its emphasis on flexibility and short-term goals and its dismissal of institutional culture and bureaucratic mediation, it shortens the scope of institutional time. Under old bureaucratic capitalism, a more stable work life supplied a coherent life narrative to workers and engendered committment, to the firm and to the delimited identity.
The secret of this militarized capitalism lay in time -- time structured so that people formed a life narrative and social relations within the institution. The price individuals paid for organized time could be freedom or individuality; the “iron cage” was both prison and home.
I wonder if social media now supplies a means for organizing people's experience of institutional time as real time -- the logical end point of new capitalism's development; which suggests Facebook is the ne plus ultra of the new capitalist firm). Does it supply users with an instantaneous sense of narrative agency that must then be constantly refreshing with further updates -- all this to compensate for the loss of less immediate and palpable but far more secure narrative agency derived from a stable life plan. "Insecurity is not just an unwanted consequence of upheavals in markets; rather, insecurity is programmed into the new institutional model. That is, insecurity does not happen to a new-style bureaucracy, it is made to happen." There needs to be counterveiling forces to this insecurity.

5. Sennett argues that new capitalism takes away the worker's sense of being useful -- institutional knowledge is neglected or destroyed, and firm organization and new communications technology allows for orders to be sent out wihtout workers mediating them or moderating them in accordance to their experience. They lose "voice" in Hirschman's sense. Again, social media compensates by permitting an ersatz usefulness through sharing -- social capital through voluntary participation, as though the nature of what is volunteered is as immaterial as the nature of what's consumed is immaterial to the pleasures of self it can facilitate. In capitalist society, capital perverts our sense of what is useful to what is profitable -- a worker has value to the extent of contributing marginally to the firm's profitability. "If only reformers could accept that usefulness is a public good, they could engage with the anxiety and fear of uselessness spawned by the most dynamic sectors of the modern economy."

Social media offers a concrete alternative to that ideology of value. But when social media in private hands means that control over the idea of "usefulness" remains private, subject to manipulation for other than the general, public good. Facebook can instigate sharing for marketing purposes, not out of social necessity; this undermines the social recognition that social media can otherwise organize. It becomes a field for personal branding within the capitalist ideology of value (profit) rather than a place to reorchestrate community hollowed out by capitalism.

6. Much childhood nostalgia is a nostalgia for the limits dependence imposed on us and for the deprivation that forced us to discover internal resources to compensate. How limits opened up the imagination, the exact opposite of how marketing encourages us to imagine the freedom of having no limit to what we can consume or be.

7. Sennett make the case that a return to craftsmanship can return the ideal of commitment to the lives of individuals -- an ideal systematically stripped by the flexible/precarious regime of new capitalism:
We’ve seen why commitment is in increasingly scarce supply in the new capitalism, in terms of institutional loyalty. The sentiment would be irrational — how can you commit to an institution which is not committed to you? Commitment is equally difficult in the new culture’s recipe for talent. Mental mobility eschews getting deeply involved; ability is focused on operational technique, as in the SAT, an exercise in problem solving rather than problem finding. Which means that a person becomes disengaged with the reality beyond his or her own control. Commitment poses a more profound question about the self-as-process. Commitment entails closure, forgoing possibilities for the sake of concentrating on one thing. You might miss out. The emerging culture puts enormous pressure on individuals not to miss out. Instead of closure, the culture counsels surrender — cutting ties in order to be free, particularly the ties bred in time.
This plays out across all sortos personal as well as professional relationships -- and most important, it plays out in our relationship to ourselves.

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