The immiseration of the digital creative class
by Freddie deBoer
The popular adoption of the internet has brought with it great changes. One of the peculiar aspects of this particular revolution is that it has been historicized in real time—reported accurately, greatly exaggerated, or outright invented, often by those who have embraced the technology most fully. As impressive as the various changes wrought by the exponential growth of internet users were, they never seemed quite impressive enough for those who trumpeted them.
In a strange type of autoethnography, those most taken with the internet of the late 1990s and early 2000s spent a considerable amount of their time online talking about what it meant that they were online. In straightforwardly self-aggrandizing narratives, the most dedicated and involved internet users began crafting a pocket mythology of the new reality. Rather than regarding themselves as tech consumers, the most dedicated internet users spoke instead of revolution. Vast, life-altering consequences were predicted for these rising technologies. In much the same way as those speaking about the importance of New York City are often actually speaking about the importance of themselves, so those who crafted the oral history of the internet were often really talking about their own revolutionary potential. Not that this was without benefits; self-obsession became a vehicle for an intricate literature on emergent online technology.
Yet for all the endless consideration of the rise of the digitally connected human species, one of the most important aspects of internet culture has gone largely unnoticed. The internet has provided tremendous functionality, for facilitating commerce, communication, research, entertainment, and more. Yet for a comparatively small but influential group of its most dedicated users, its most important feature, the killer app, is its power as an all-purpose sorting mechanism, one that separates the worthy from the unworthy—and in doing so, gives some meager semblance of purpose to generations whose lives are largely defined by purposelessness. For the postcollegiate, culturally savvy tastemakers who exert such disproportionate influence over online experience, the internet is above and beyond all else a resentment machine.
The modern American “meritocracy,” the education/employment vehicle, prepares thousands of upwardly mobile young strivers for everything but the life they will actually encounter. The endlessly grinding wheel of American “success” indoctrinates young people with a competitive vision that most of them never escape. The numbing and frenetic socioacademic sorting mechanism compels most of the best and the brightest adolescents in our middle and upper class to compete for various laurels from puberty to adulthood. School elections, high school and college athletics, honors societies, finals clubs, dining clubs, the subtler (but no less real) social competitions—all make competition the natural habitus of American youth. Every aspect of young adult life is transformed into a status game, as academics, athletics, music and the arts, travel, hobbies, and philanthropy are all reduced to fodder for college applications.
This instrumentalizing of all of the best things in life teaches teenagers the unmistakable lesson that nothing is to be enjoyed, nothing experienced purely, but rather that each and every part of human life is ultimately subservient to what is less human. Competition exists as a vehicle to provide the goods, material or immaterial, that make life enjoyable. The context of endless competition makes that means into an end itself. The eventual eats the immediate. No achievement, no effort, no relationship can exist as an end in itself. Each must be ground into chum to attract those who confer status and success—elite colleges and their representatives, employers.
As has been documented endlessly, this process starts earlier and earlier in life, with elite preschools now requiring that students pass tests and get references, before they can read or write. Many have lamented the rise of competition and gatekeeping in young children. Little attention has been paid to what comes after the competitions end.
It is, of course, possible to keep running on the wheel indefinitely. There are those professions (think: finance) that extend the status contests of childhood and adolescence into the gray years, and to one degree or another, most people play some version of this game for most of their lives. But for a large chunk of the striving class, this kind of naked careerism and straightforward neediness won’t do. Though they have been raised to compete and endlessly conditioned to measure themselves against their peers, they have done so in an environment that denies this reality while it creates it. Many were raised by self-consciously creative parents who wished for children who were similarly creative, in ethos if not in practice. These parents operated in a context that told them to nurture unique and beautiful butterflies while simultaneously reminding them, in that incessant subconscious way that is the secret strength of capitalism, that their job as parents is to raise their children to win. The conversion of the hippies into the yuppies has been documented endlessly by pop sociologists like David Brooks. What made this transformation palatable to many of those being transformed was the way in which materialist striving was wedded to the hippie’s interest in culture, art, and a vague “nonconformist” attitude.
It is no surprise that the urge to rear winners trumps the urge to raise artists. But the nagging drive to preach the value of culture does not go unnoticed. The urge to create, to live with an aesthetic sense, is admirable, and if inculcated genuinely—which is to say, in defiant opposition to the competitive urge rather than as an uneasy partner to it—this romantic artistic vision of life remains the best hope for humanity against the deadening drift of late capitalism. Only to create for the sake of creation, to build something truly your own for no purpose and in reference to the work of no other person—perhaps there’s a chance for grace there.
But in context of the alternative, a cheery and false vision of the artistic life, self-conscious creativity becomes sublimated into the competitive project and becomes twisted. Those raised with such contradictory impulses are left unable to contemplate the stocks-and-suspenders lifestyle that is the purest manifestation of the competitive instinct, but they are equally unable to cast off the social-climbing aspirations that this lifestyle represents. Their parentage and their culture teach them to at once hunger for the material goods that are the spoils of a small set of professions, but at the same time they distrust the culture of those self-same professions. They are trapped between their rejection of the means and an unchosen but deep hunger for the ends.
Momentum can be a cruel thing. High school culminates in college acceptance. This temporary victory can often be hollow, but the fast pace of life quickly leaves no time to reckon with that emptiness. As dehumanizing and vulgar as the high-school glass-bead game is, it certainly provides adolescents with a kind of order. That the system is inherently biased and riotously unfair is ultimately besides the point. In the many explicit ways in which high-school students are ranked emerges a broad consensus: There is an order to life, that order indicates value, and there are winners and losers.
Competition is propulsive and thus results in inertia. College students enjoy a variety of tools to continue to manage the competitive urge. Some find in the exclusive activities, clubs, and societies of elite colleges an acceptable continuation of high-school competition. Others never abandon their zeal for academic excellence and the laurels of high grades and instructor approval. Some pursue medical school, law school, an MBA, or (for the truly damned) a PhD. But most dull the urge by persisting in a four-or-five-year fugue of alcohol, friendship, and rarefied living.
The end of college brings an end to that order, and for many, this is bewildering. Educated but broadly ignorant of suffering, scattershot in their passions, possessed of verbal dexterity but bereft of the experience that might give their words meaning, culturally sensitive 20-somethings wander into a world that is supposed to be made for them, and find it inhospitable. Without the rigid ordering that grades, class rank, leadership, and office provide, the incessant and unnamed urge to compete cannot be easily addressed. Their vague cultural liberalism—a dedication to tolerance and egalitarianism in generally vague and deracinated terms—makes the careers that promise similar sorting unpalatable. The economic resentment and petty greed that they have had bred into them by the sputtering machine of American capitalism makes lower-class life unthinkable.
Driven by the primacy of the competitive urge and convinced that they need far more material goods than they do to live a comfortable life, they seek well-paying jobs. Most of them will find some gainful employment without great difficulty. Perhaps this is changing: As the tires on the Trans Am that is America go bald, their horror at a poor job market reveals their entitlement more than anything. But the numbers indicate that most still find their way into jobs that become careers. Many will have periods of arty unemployed urbanism, but after awhile the gremlin begins whispering, “You are a loser,” and suddenly, they’re placing that call to Joel from Sociology 205 who’s got that connection at that office. Often, these office jobs will enjoy the cover of orbiting in some vaguely creative endeavor like advertising. One way or the other, these jobs become careers in the loaded sense. In these careers, they find themselves in precisely the position that they long insisted they would never contemplate.
The competitive urge still pulses. It has to; the culture in which students have been raised has denied them any other framework with which to draw meaning. The world has assimilated the rejection of religion, tradition, and other determinants of virtue that attended the 1960s and wedded it to a vicious contempt for the political commitments that replaced them in that context. Culture preempts the kind of conscious understanding that attends to conviction, that all traditional designations of meaning are uncool.
If straightforward discussion of virtue and righteousness is socially unpalatable, straightforward political engagement appears worse still. Pushed by an advertising industry that embraces tropes of meaning just long enough to render them meaningless (Budweiser Clydesdales saluting fallen towers) and buffeted by arbiters of hipness that declare any unapologetic embrace of political ideology horribly cliché, a fussy specificity envelops every definition of the self. Conventional accounts of the kids these days tend to revert to tired tropes about disaffection and irony. The reality is sadder: They are not passionless, but many have invested their passion in a shared cultural knowledge that denies the value of any other endeavor worthy of personal investment.
Contemporary strivers lack the tools with which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: They live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age. They lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth. They have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt. They are denied even the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.
Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value.
These cultural products have no quantifiable value, yet their relative value is fiercely debated as if some such quantifiable understanding could be reached. They are easily mined for ancillary content, the TV recaps and record reviews and endless fulminating in comments and forums that spread like weeds. (Does anyone who watches Mad Men not blog about it?) They are bound up with celebrity, both real and petty. They can inspire and so trick us into believing that our reactions are similarly worthy of inspiration. And they are complex and varied enough that there is always more to know and more rarefied territory to reach, the better to climb the ladder one rung higher than the person the next desk over.
There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, The Wire, says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything.
Likewise, the internet exists to perpetuate the idea that there is some meaningful difference between fans of this band or that, of Android or Apple, or that there is a Slate lifestyle and a This Recording lifestyle and one for Gawker or The Hairpin or wherever. Not a word of it is true. There are no Apple people. Buying an iPad does nothing to delineate you from anyone else. Nothing separates a Budweiser man from a microbrew guy. That our society insists that there are differences here is only our longest con.
This endless posturing, pregnant with anxiety and roiling with class resentment, ultimately pleases no one. Yet this emptiness doesn’t compel people to turn away from the sorting mechanism. Instead, it draws them further and further in. Faced with the failure of their cultural affinities to define an authentic and fulfilling self, postcollegiate middle-class upwardly-oriented-if-not-upwardly-mobile Americans double down on the importance of these affinities and confront the continued failure with a formless resentment. The bitterness that surrounds these distinctions is a product of their inability to actually make us distinct.
The savviest of the media and culture websites tap into this resentment as directly as they dare. They write endlessly about what is overrated. They assign specific and damning personality traits to the fan bases of unworthy cultural objects. They invite comments that tediously parse microscopic distinctions in cultural consumption. They engage in criticism as a kind of preemptive strike against those who actually create. They glamorize pettiness in aesthetic taste. The few artistic works they lionize are praised to the point of absurdity, as various acolytes try to outdo each other in hyperbole. They relentlessly push the central narrative that their readers crave, that consumption is achievement and that creators are to be distrusted and “put in their place.” They deny the frequently sad but inescapable reality that consumption is not creation and that only the genuinely creative act can reveal the self.
This, then, is the role of the resentment machine: to amplify meaningless differences and assign to them vast importance for the quality of individuals. For those who are writing the most prominent parts of the internet—the bloggers, the trendsetters, the über-Tweeters, the tastemakers, the linkers, the creators of memes and online norms—online life is taking the place of the creation of the self, and doing so poorly.
This all sounds quite critical, I’m sure, but ultimately, this is a critique I include myself in. For this to approach real criticism I would have to offer an alternative to those trapped in the idea of the consumer as self. I haven’t got one. Our system has relentlessly denied the role of any human practice that cannot be monetized. The capitalist apparatus has worked tirelessly to commercialize everything, to reduce every aspect of human life to currency exchange. In such a context, there is little hope for the survival of the fully realized self.
Freddie deBoer is a graduate student in rhetoric and composition. He blogs at L’Hôte.