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Worker = Hipster Redux

Is the internet a consolation prize for having to live with a stagnant economy and fewer opportunities for steady employment? Are we consigned to pandering in the online attention economy to escape from our nostalgia for the time when the young could actually become self-sufficient? This comes from an Edge.org conversation with Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget:

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!”

On my PopMatters blog about a year ago, I wrote a few posts about this possibility — young people being paid in personality and attention for their freelance immaterial labor on social networks. Basically, being a hipster, working at being cool, would become a literal job rather than a figurative one. Those were written in the context of the debate over whether US unemployment was cyclical or structural, that is, whether high unemployment’s persistence is 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 would cost more to hire new workers than those workers could add in profit potential). If unemployment were indeed structural, I wondered if online immaterial labor — basically self-fashioning in social networks to generate data about what is cool to whom — might be a emergent job category for creative class types, one in which worker-hipsters would be perpetual freelancers at best. (Indeed, Matt Yglesias notes “the continuing blogger boom” here.) At worst, they would vanish from traditional formal labor markets and instead 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.

But it seems somewhat unfair to stress the failure of young people to demand more, as Lanier seems to. They are not responsible for the situation neoliberalism has put them in. They didn’t “trade” better economic opportunities for Twitter. If anything, the deal was done to them, with their anticipated online serfdom as a bargaining piece among VCs and tech entrepreneurs and politicians and deregulators.

Arguably, the economic conditions wrought by neoliberalism 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). When people use social media to self-promote, it’s a somewhat desperate act of survival. Lanier clearly would not prefer them to go the Tottenham route and start rioting in the streets and looting, but he argues that internet consumption is basically looting itself: “When people get nothing from a society, they eventually just riot. And to my mind, that’s kind of what’s going on on the Internet. Basically, people can expect free stuff from the Internet but they don’t expect wealth from the Internet, which to me makes it a failed technology at this point.” But “free stuff” is not entirely different from “wealth”; Lanier doesn’t bother to articulate the difference between, say, a digital hoard you download and a pile of lucre you inherit. This seems to prevent him from drawing clear political conclusions. He doesn’t see how what he calls “denialism” about opportunity is on the same continuum with trying to monetize one’s internet presence in a more systematic way. Both are self-commoditizing, self-exploiting, attempts to turn leisure into alienated labor. The various forms of self-expression and sharing he derides are already attempts to create economic opportunities for oneself. He seems to argue that the problem is that people aren’t being self-interested enough, (“I feel certain that if people had an opportunity to make a living from it, . . . it would reinforce a social contract which people would buy into”), as though looting is not the self-interest of last resort.

Instead, Lanier 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 self-sufficiency 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 private individual wealth in the form of the common, something akin to what the government once marshaled resources for when it used to provide a safety net. The Tea Partyers reject the common, reject government guarantees 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 of living be upheld. Their solution to the lack of opportunity is not that different from Lanier’s: more extreme neoliberalism, more privatizing, redoubled efforts to find profit opportunities in everyday practices.

But does Lanier think that the kids who use social media as a consolation are consciously on board with that ideology? Seems as likely that they are more idealistic about what online “sharing” might portend for society, if they ascribe a politics to their practice. It is not merely that they worry about their “right” to have shared material distributed as widely as possible. It’s that they likely 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 worked to guide technological development in this direction. 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 as a kind of unchanging truth, Lanier makes this kind of declaration:

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 accept 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 genuinely revolutionary promise of improving the lives of everyone rather than the fortunate few.