[17 March 2010]
I mentioned earlier that I was reading Suburban Youth in Cultural Crisis a book from 1979 by Ralph Larkin that is derived from a participant-observation study he conducted in an affluent New Jersey high school. He basically “raps” with teens and then lays a heavy Marcusean trip all over them. Frankly I didn’t get much out of that section of the book, but I found his theory-driven conclusion very interesting.
I went into the book with a vague sense that the “cultural crisis” that has been more or less ongoing since the 1970s is the fact that the post-scarcity economy can’t easily absorb younger generations and provide them with jobs. (Larkin points to “the necessity for education to act as a surplus absorption device.”) Thus society has had to find ways of keeping young people occupied, delaying their entry into the workforce or diverting them entirely. Larkin writes:
The governments of the Western nations, at the writing of this book, are busy wringing their hands over what to do with the children of the baby boom in stagnating economies that are increasingly unable to absorb the younger part of the labor force. Yet these children of post-scarcity society do not necessarily want routinized labor. In addition, since they have been brought up in a televised world, they have been repeatedly told that pleasure is something that commodities provide.
Much of that seems to apply today; just replace “in a televised world” with “with the internet.”
The early 20th century solution to this problem was world war and mass killing. (We can only hope that the Tea Partyers and their nihilistic ilk won’t take us down that road.) After World War II, consumerism evolved as a way to invent new desires, and authorize wasteful consumption under the guise of self-actualization. Identity becomes a never-ending process, rather than a lived-in fact. More recently, we’ve seen the extension of adolescence, and the evolution of slacker norms to rationalize people in their 20s living with their parents (cf. Buster Bluth). But it seems the post-postmodern solution to this crisis evolving now involves “hipsters on food stamps” and immaterial labor online in social networks and the like. Consumption becomes a form of free labor, and while young people get acclimated to making the art of being themselves into a full-time job, they come to de-stigmatize the receipt of a social wage in the form of food stamps and pirated entertainment.
In Larkin’s pre-internet world, there were far fewer opportunities for immaterial labor for youth, only boredom, which is how my generation tended to experience the “cultural crisis.” The production of boredom—depriving people of the resources by which they can get themselves into flow states—is a key prerequisite to the consumerist solution to the larger issue of what do to with jobless youth. Pervasive boredom sets up the acceptance of novelty as an ideal. Novelty helps take care of the overproduction problem, creating a situation in which redundant consumption becomes normal. But it merely exacerbates boredom by accelerating its onset. Knowledge of immediate alternatives allows boredom to set in faster. (Hence the ADD epidemic.)
How is boredom produced? Larkin has some ideas. Advertising deploys the carrot and stick: it makes goods seem desirable and pleasurable (ads function like drugs in that they mobilize a mode of temporary escape into fantasy), and it instills insecurity about falling behind, or lacking the necessary goods for admittance into acceptable society. And institutions do their part to make social relations seem instrumental. It’s normal to be bribed to behave well, and rewards should be materialized as belongings, not as the ongoing experience of well-being. But what I found most interesting in Larkin’s account of the production of boredom was his analysis of “packaged experience” and “ersatz success.” He develops a long argument based on the example of model airplanes.
Since the process [of building a model airplane from a kit] is reduced to essentially assembling fitted plastic parts and then gluing them, the young person learns nothing of the structure of an airplane while constructing it, only its outer form.
That sounds a lot like a critique of Rock Band, which also denatures a hobby that might have turned into a skill but instead is reduced to escapist distraction. Larkin continues:
By degrading the process by which one can attempt to reconstruct the world, external reality assumes a facile and, at the same time, a mystical quality. Prepackaging allows young people to believe that problem solving is essentially a process of selection the correct combination of alternatives…. The emphasis is altered to focus on quantity rather than on quality. Since the construction of model airplanes has been degraded, advertisers emphasize collections to enhance sales…. Once a hobby or any other endeavor becomes easily quantifiable, it becomes the basis for the accumulation of status and psychological dominance. The degradation of the process of labor teaches the child at an early age to participate in a competitive struggle surrounding commodity consumption.
Digital mediation has only accelerated these processes, making the measurement of the self nearly inescapable, and making the archive the model for the self rather than engaged presence. The present is always shattered by multitasking into fragments, and connectedness promotes a lack of commitment to what is happening in the moment and perpetual fantasizing about the alternatives that are always instantaneously available. (“Boring. Think I’ll click off this page to something else. Keep scrolling…”)
Larkin sees youth as defeated by the way they are encouraged to be buyers rather than doers. And he ties that into passive consumption of entertainment.
Once a person accepts the superiority of the mystified process of the production over his own abilities, he is reduced to a mechanical entity who chooses among preset alternatives. The same process is revealed in human relations. National talent is continually present on television, i the movies, on recordings and so forth. The disparity between the young person’s own rudimentary skills and those of a star may stimulate the emulation of a few, but discourages the many; especially since most young people are aught to desire instant gratification. Contemporary American culture discourages the learning of a discipline, as the average person is reduced to a spectator viewing professionals who are paid for participating in activities which might be intrinsically satisfying to the amateur.
The key question is whether the modes of sharing online alters Larkin’s analysis. Does Web 2.0-style participation do anything to change our expectations of instant gratification? Does it offer social rewards for the careful mastery of a particular discipline? Or does it encourage frivolity and narcissism? Does it present an array of choices that we merely click through? Has it diminished the fascination of celebrities as unattainable models?
It’s not really an either-or situation, of course, but the tendency does run more one way than the other, I think. The experience of being online has become an amalgam of consumption and production, but it seems more the former than the latter. I’m not sure it has made breaking the habits of boredom and distraction any easier; it seems like it probably reinforces them even as it provides us with all sorts of information and opportunities for engagement and connection.