In case you don’t regularly read this blog, I have been occasionally speculating that structural unemployment parallels the narcissistic cult of self-production online through various Web 2.0 platforms. The gist is that work and leisure have begun to trade places; people are losing traditional jobs at the same time as people are voluntarily producing all sorts of services through their behavior and contributions online. That is, the sorts of services we produce increasingly in the U.S. are attitudes about culture, identity-anchoring memes, and opinions, and so forth as well as the digitized fragments of art and culture themselves—intellectual property as a service, as a real-time-updating flow of information about how we should feel about the zeitgeist—and ideally, I suppose, about ourselves. We build our personal brand, and the by-products of that process feed a variety of information-hungry marketing and data-processing machines.
So I wonder whether this fits in: Via Chris Lehmann comes this noxious but telling article in Money—a pretty accurate barometer of the alternating anxiety and greed afflicting the American middle classes—about personal branding as a way of dealing with being unemployed. The article details how to package yourself for online consumption with an eye toward impressing employers, who will confirm their impression of you the traces you have left online. You must of course create a personal website and blog about topics that gibe with the kind of middle manager you hope to become. That you would lack an online presence is taken for granted as virtually unbelievable, a breach of normalcy that makes one inherently unemployable.
Today whatever reputation you have is spreading quickly across the Internet, thanks to Google, industry blogs, and social-networking sites. (Even failing to turn up on search engines says something about you.)
In other words, personal reputation must be realized in a digitized, exploitable form online or else it practically doesn’t exist. You must produce a self online or else you won’t exist in the working world as it now exists, which requires continual communing with the network, a continual affirmation of presence. Outside that world is the world beyond reputation, a lumpen proletariat world of work that, on the rare occasion it can be found, is not a matter of self-branding but self-annihilation.
Lehmann sums up this double movement well: “The goal of the Taylorite phase of industrial production was famously to place the manager’s brains beneath the workman’s cap, but it seems that the New Information Economy is upping the ante by supplanting the besieged private self with the market’s very soul.” We construct a self as brand to hold on to middle-class status and the possibility of cultural relevance, but at the same time surrender the possibility of a different sort of identity, grounded in a less tautologous sort of work. As as we surrender to the the allure of branding, those other forms of socially necessary labor are sent elsewhere, thoroughly proletarianized and immiserated, or abolished altogether.