Thursday, September 01, 2011

Worker=hipster redux

From an conversation with Jaron Lanier

And there is a disturbing sense in which I feel like that's the world we're entering. I'm astonished at how readily a great many people I know, young people, have accepted a reduced economic prospect and limited freedoms in any substantial sense, and basically traded them for being able to screw around online. There are just a lot of people who feel that being able to get their video or their tweet seen by somebody once in a while gets them enough ego gratification that it's okay with them to still be living with their parents in their 30s, and that's such a strange tradeoff. And if you project that forward, obviously it really does become a problem....

To me, a lot of the culture of youth seems to be using the Internet as a form of denialism about their reduced prospects. They're like, "Well, sure we can't get a job and we need to live with our parents, but we can tweet", or something. "Let us tweet!"

I wrote a few posts a while ago about this question -- young people being paid in personality and attention for their freelance immaterial labor on social networks. It was in the context of the debate over whether U.S. unemployment was cyclical or structural, that is, whether it because of the recession and lack of effective demand, or if it was because entire sectors of the economy could no longer productively support hiring. (It cost more to hire new workers than those workers could add in profit potential.) If unemployment is indeed structural then no job creation will be forthcoming until we devise new sectors of employment. I wondered if online immaterial labor -- basically self-fashioning in social networks to generate data about what is cool to whom -- might be the new job sector, in which the worker-hipsters would be perpetual freelancers at best. At worst, they would be paid in attention and virtual pats on the head.

That seems to be what Lanier is talking about here -- that the best use capitalism could come up with for social media is to placate the precariat.

Somewhat unfairly, I think, Lanier stresses the failure of young people to demand more. Young people are not responsible for the situation neoliberalism has put them in. They didn't "trade" better economic opportunities for social media. If anything, the deal was done to them.

In fact, the economic conditions wrought by neoliberalism basically compel people to use social media in the ways Lanier implicitly condemns, to self-brand and publicize oneself (I argued that case here; Alice Marwick makes a similar case in her dissertation (pdf) (my notes on it, for what they are worth). It's not "denialism" when people use social media to self-promote; it's a somewhat desperate act of survival. I find it hard to imagine that Lanier would prefer them to go the Tottenham route and have kids rioting in the streets and looting.

Instead he makes a curious comparison of young people engaged in the attention economy to Tea Partyism, suggesting that both are preoccupied with formal freedoms of expression and individuality rather than the real autonomy that comes with money:
This "rights" kind of stance, as opposed to a "wealth" kind of stance, it's exactly the mirror image of what you see in Tea Party older America, of "we don't want our healthcare paid for. What we want is the right to not have our healthcare paid for, and that's more important to me."

Or something. I find that a bit elliptical. Perhaps what he means is that both groups are missing the point about what is actually driving the economy and the sort of opportunities non-privileged people receive within it. But it seems to me that the Tea Party and heavy Internet users (file sharers/social networkers) are on opposite sides of things.

Some leftists argue that the internet is fostering an alternative to individual wealth in the form of the common, something akin to what the government used to marshall resources for when it used to provide a safety net. The Tea Partyers reject the common, reject government guarantee of basic levels of welfare for all -- they are completely on board with the neoliberal program that basically thrusts workers into a Hobbesean war for survival. Everyone has the "right" to fend for themselves, and it is more important that nobody get a "handout" than some sort of social standard be upheld.

But does Lanier think that the kids who use social media as a consolation are on board with that ideology? Seems as likely that they are more idealistic about what online "sharing" might portend for society. It is not merely that they worry about their "right" to have shared material distributed as widely as possible. It's that they see digitizable cultural wealth as easily distributable to whoever wants it, and thus it is no longer a realm of scarcity. We can focus on other, genuine kinds of scarcity.

So they may self-brand as neoliberalism forces them to -- they may participate in that indirectly productive institutionalized narcissism on Facebook and elsewhere -- but they also extract the cultural surplus and engage in forms of collaborative production that promise to elude capital while remaining socially useful.

Throughout the Edge conversation, Lanier makes apt complaints about the way the internet is facilitating what he calls the "seedier side of capitalism" while exacerbating wealth inequalities, but he doesn't seem willing to accept that capitalism itself, particularly in its Silicon Valley entrepreneurial aspect, has guided technological development in this way. The problem is with the incentives that entrepreneurial capitalism requires of innovators -- create a demand for something that can be sold for profit; reconfigure society around those desires; commodify, commodify, commodify.

Because he embraces capitalism's ethos, Lanier makes this kind of declarations:
There's a sense of, if you're adding to the network, do you expect anything back from it? And since we've been hypnotized in the last eleven or twelve years into thinking that we shouldn't expect anything for what we do with our hearts or our minds online, we think that our own contributions aren't worth money, very much like we think we shouldn't be paid for parenting, or we shouldn't be paid for raking our own yard. In those cases you are paid in a sense because there's still something that becomes part of you in your life, for all that you did.

He doesn't seem to get that this is a false dichotomy. Why should we expect money rather than recognition for our contributions? This isn't inherent to human behavior; it's a useful abstraction that suits the project of capital accumulation. Money isn't the necessary measure of a person's social contribution. By making such reification of socially necessary effort mandatory, capitalism ensures that technology will continue to betray its revolutionary promise of improving the lives of everyone rather than the fortunate few.


  1. this is @nefitty
    I think it's interesting that you pointed out the role of the internet in reducing the scarcity of cultural capital. Those developments are being pushed ahead all the time by new start-ups as well (netflix, spotify, youtube all changed or are changing the exclusivity and ease with which certain ideas can be reached.) It seems that as the availability of ideas increases, the obsession with authenticity becomes less prominent, except of course in certain tiny subcultures like crust-punk, as you pointed out once on HRO Exegesis.

    I think that the idea of "relevance" is the main obsession with people my age now. We definitely can't depend on social status through material possesions. I know because I myself feel that motivation to be seen as an early-adopter. I'm sure relevance will also go the way of authenticity and who knows what will come after that? Once we have instant access to every cultural creation ever made concepts of identity might just dissipate completely. Hipsterdom's pastiche of identitites was probably the step before that occurs. Maybe obsession with sincerity will gain momentum and we'll be stuck with another idealist-dualist concept like authenticity.

  2. At the cost of making one of those pointless approving comments... thanks for this. I find Lanier's arguments in equal parts compelling and maddening, and you've gone some way towards helping me clarify why.