Same as the Old Boss

Curses of the New Economy workplace

Image from No-CollarNow here comes a story of Generation X—whose badge of honor was that it never got a chance to be innocent—losing its innocence. And, as the Plimsouls, that great early '80s band used to sing, that's the oldest story in the world. It's a story about those plummy days back in the '90s when a large group of smart, excitable, wet-behind-the-ears twentysomethings found themselves in possession of digital know-how—picked up in college, and in all that time, we thought they were slacking in the '80s—that would lead to quantum leaps in the areas of web design, computer-systems integration, innovative virtual technology, etc., at the exact time when it was dawning on corporate America how much digitizing their operations would lead to increased productivity and hand-over-fists profits. (I'm trying to avoid the desert-dry jargon of these people, I swear. It's an interesting story. Stick with me here.) It's a story of these kids dreaming a utopian future in which information technology would be "the key to a new benign order" and where the workplace would be transformed from Old Economy top-down corporate repression to one that embraced a new "culture" that stood for the "humane values" of openness, creativity and foosball tables in the office. It's a story of how Wall Street bought this by the shitload, threw tens of billions of dollars into the IPOs of idealistic startups, waited for the magic to happen and, when it didn't, panicked themselves into the NASDAQ crash of April 2000, whereupon the money dried up, the dotcoms and info-tech companies downsized, got bought out or died, and dreams of that "new benign order" started to look about as naive as Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon.

That's not exactly the story Andrew Ross tells in No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs. His book, inelegantly written and poorly structured, piles on the information and general social theorizing but loses the better story embedded in it.

But I wish it were his story because that story brings up all sorts of fascinating issues about a generation wowed by technology and sheltered by its socio-political naivete, a generation that both distrusted and craved authority, a generation whose claims to hip acculturation to postmodern conditions (i.e., change that was fast and ceaseless) was a thin veneer hiding a desire for stability and home that would be touching in its vulnerability if it weren't so ugly-American in its ignorance.

When the book can maintain its focus, it concentrates on the career trajectory of the Razorfish corporation, one of the new-media sector companies that started in New York's Silicon Alley as a tiny web-design shop in the early '90s, morphed at an astronomical rate into an international full-service digital consulting and service firm, expanded into publishing and film (they helped produce Being John Malkovich), and then nearly collapsed when the NASDAQ crash dammed up everybody's revenue streams virtually all at once.

Razorfish was a quintessential "no-collar" company composed of mostly young workers whose "resident mythology was anti-Establishment and pioneerist," Ross writes, and for whom "non-conformity was [an] earnest emblem." Before they joined Razorfish—and often while they were working there—they were artists, DJs, poets, punks, designers and, in one case I'll get back to, a stripper. They were used to bohemian lifestyle trappings and the values that went along with it.

The managerial innovation of Razorfish founders Jeff Dachis and Craig Kanarick was to try to harness the creative energies of their workers by nurturing a workplace environment—a "corporate culture"—that encouraged fun, weirdness and the conflict of ideas, as well as embraced the anarchic schedules that their "creatives" needed to come up with innovative solutions to problems cropping up daily in this newborn field. So "the daily work routine might be adjusted to absorb the fitful rhythms of creative labor: 20 minutes of doodling, followed by 90 minutes of application, a 50-minute break for kibitzing, focused reapplication before a mobile lunch and visit to a nearby art gallery, and then a full hour of surfing and daydreaming before the first half of the project was complete."

Many Razorfish employees, just out of college, couldn't believe their luck and were willing to trade 70- or 80-hour workweeks and slightly below-market wages for the creative friction, fun and warmth that Razorfish "culture" provided.

* * *

Nice work if you can get it? Maybe. What comes through, though, in Ross's interviews with Razorfish employees is that many of them—smart as they were, raised to distrust authority and be cynical of corporate culture—actually craved the opportunity to swear allegiance to Razorfish. "Authority in this place is like love. It's like light in another room," mooned one employee.

The interoffice communication system was actually nicknamed "MOM."

These no-collars got to go to galleries on company time to inspire them to come up with a better web page, but then it turned out that all time was company time, that "in the realm of no-collar work, the goal is to extract value from any waking moment of an employee's day." The goal was literally total commitment, and the employees mostly acceded to the "enforced fun" of Razorfish's offices, where management would hire secret "ringers" to run around the office being anarchical and playful (spray-painting corporate graffiti on the walls, etc.) to keep the feeling loose and "creative."

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