Ones and zeros

[21 December 2006]

By Rob Horning

Continuing on the theme from the last two posts of class boundaries that prevent people from joining the conversation about what is culturally significant. One of the obvious changes in the shape of public sphere in the past decade is the Internet’s permitting user-generated content to be widely and (virtually) freely distributed. Has that change—opening media up to anyone’s participation—done anything to mitigate the feeling of systemic exclusion that Sennett and Cobb analyze in The Hidden Injuries of Class or has it simply broadened the playing field to make what Sennett and Cobb see as the zero-sum game of social recognition even more inescapable? Their main contention is that the ideology of meritocracy creates a burden of responsibility in individuals for whatever class disadvantages they have inherited from birth. Individuals want to believe that they can merit success and climb the social hierarchy, but this belief also forces them to see their own current inferior position as deserved. The solution seems to lie in the freedom to live one’s life independent of society, to uses one’s talents to transcend social limitations and become autonomous, self-sufficient—this, which is often a matter of Spartan self-sacrifice, becomes a source of personal dignity. However, this solution cuts one off from social recognition and undermines that dignity. No one respects you for your sacrifices; you can see they see your hand was forced. (This reflects Graeber’s point in Harper’s about working-class kids joining the Army for the same reasons upper-middle class kids go to Antioch College.)

The terrible thing about class in our society is that it sets up as a contest for dignity. If you are a working-class person, if you have to spend year after year being treated by people of a higher class as though there probably is little unusual or special about you to catch their attention, if you resent this treatment and yet feel also that it reflects something accurate about your own self-development, then to try to impugn the dignity of persons in a higher class becomes a real, it twisted, affirmation of your own claims for respect…. [Working-class people] too are individualists concerned with their right to be exempted personally from shaming and indignity. In turning people against each other, the class system of authority and judgment-making goes itself into hiding; the system is left unchallenged as people enthralled by the enigmas of its power battle one another for respect.

So is the limitless public space opening up on the Internet just broadening the war zone in this battle for respect? It seems that as the blogosphere has progressed, quasi-democratic social-network-driven forms of filtering have been battling with the more traditional forms, in which the congnoscenti nominate worthy material and consign the rest to anonymity. The class struggle plays out, according to Sennett and Cobb, in the feeling that you need put someone else in your class down to garner the respect you seek—to stand out from the mass (gain respect) you have to highlight how dull those around you are as well as do something extraordinary. But rather than competition, blog culture seems on its face to be about linking, of highlighting connections and promoting the interesting work of others in hopes that it won’t be lost in the proliferating fog of cultural output. However, that egalitarian aspect is tempered by how the Internet makes audiences for your recommendations measurable; personal influence becomes more quantifiable than it has ever been, and the vague notion that your opinion matters can actually be assigned a pretty precise number. (You were one of x Diggs for a story; you drew x hits for your commentary on that NYT editorial; etc.) In the digital world of ones and zeros, you are even more likely to be aggregated into a mass rather than be afforded your individual dignity; in cyberspace, you are literally just another number. The permeability of the Internet as a social medium is just another mask for the class system, another “enigma” to “enthrall” us. It seems wide open, it seems like anew and better meritocracy, but really it’s just a better system of disguises for the networks of power and pre-existing relationships of privilege that are slowly but surely replicating themselves there. A few success stories—the Lonleygirl15s of the world—will continue to be touted as proof of a great new era of people-powered media in which the cream can rise to the top, but in fact advantages in real life will continue to be more efficiently leveraged in the online world to reproduce the power relations and class structures we all know and love and count on for our lives to be comprehensible.

Alas, this cynical rant would be what capitalist ethnographer (i.e. marketer) Grant McCracken would classify as leftist moral panic, as a kind of elitism that refuses to recognize the glorious contributions made by everyday people all the time.

The Left was persuaded that capitalism, like the TV that was its crudest cultural expression, was a waste land.  Nothing could come of this, they assured us.  And along came Silicon Valley, an improved independent film industry, and risk taking television, to name a few.  Another favorite notion of the Left is that innovation and cultural commotion must come from the avant-garde, the margin of society.  It cannot come from the mainstream.  But now of course it comes routinely from the mainstream, which proves ever more inventive. (Scrap booking is a case in point.  Women in the mainstream reinvented the photo album.) This is not the way the world is supposed to look!  And the Left has embraced a moral panic of their own, which now expresses itself in an intellectual rigidity, accusation and name calling, and extra laps on the high horse of indignation.

Yes, thank God for scrapbooking; where would we be without that “reinvention” of the photo album. And thank god for blogging, which has reinvented journalism. But virtuallly no one wants to see your scrapbook anymore than they want to read my blog. The more media attention they attract, the more blogs are made out to be technologically glorified hobbies, but perhaps this is a good thing, reducing them back to the scale on which one can feel recognized by a community. But the limitless ability to scale up is there, teasingly available to the small-time blog and making it seem piddling compared to those which have successfully secured massive readerships with the same WordPress technology. McCracken seems to think “elites” can’t handle the idea that the masses make interesting things. In fact, they handle it just fine; in fact, they exploit it. This is the genius behind reality TV, where you get poorly paid amateurs, desperate for social recognition that will forever remain fleeting—even more so as their 15 minutes testifies to how watered-down and evaporative what is available has become—to provide professional caliber ratings and sell more advertisied goods. Whatever innovations are generated by the mainstream in this arena are there to be harvested by those who can use them to build brands (entertainment brands or otherwise)—that capability remains beyond the power of the individual and that fact is what meritocracy hides. Of course ordinary people drive innovation; it’s just that they don’t get the recognition for it that they perhaps seek, which is more than being another face in the blurry gimmick mirror on the cover of Time. As many have pointed out, If everybody is the “Person of the Year,” than nobody is.

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