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."

Why the cave-in? Why did these pierced and tattooed bohos buy the corporate mottoes ("Everything that can be digital, will be"), the crazy demands and the near-religious tone of their manager's pabulum? More seriously, why did these people, many of them progressive, blithely disregard the fact that the "the ecological footprint of microchip production" in Silicon Valley, which grounded their entire industry, "involves more toxic gases and chemicals than any other industry, bequeathed more groundwater contamination and EPA Superfund sites than anywhere else in the United States, and posed widespread safety hazards to workers in fabrication plants."

"The trouble is," explains Camille Habacker, the company's former director of content for North America and the moonlighting stripper I mentioned earlier, "is that Razorfish duped everyone into thinking they're not part of corporate America. These people honestly don't believe they are part of the mainstream. What are they thinking? . . . They're [getting contracted work from] Schwab, Ford, IBM. They're working for the man."

Habacker's husband told Ross, "That's right. That's what your book should be about. How the counterculture was duped into thinking they're not working for corporate America."

* * *

Ross's book is much more diffuse and less thesis-driven than this, but I'd like to fervently agree with the stripper and her husband. That's what Ross's book should have been about, and it's surprising that Ross, trained in critical theory himself, doesn't go for it. But the question, again, is why did the no-collars believe so much? And why, when the crash came, did they feel so betrayed? Getting pink-slipped for many of them was like being excommunicated or getting booted out of their own family.

The evidence from the book suggests they were victims of a blend of genuine innocence, willful ignorance, and that curious blindness to the way capitalism works that characterizes so many of the educations of "smart" Americans and makes them so vulnerable to our economic system's periodic betrayals. After Sept. 11, which happened just a few blocks south of Razorfish's offices, one employee who'd ridden out the downsizing and was now participating in the company's full-throttle patriotism in the disaster's aftermath, said this: "Perhaps there is something in our generation that has wanted to be able to embrace something like the flag, to genuinely commit to something as simple as patriotism, or religion, or spirituality in a way that is not conflicted or marked with postmodern irony. Irony and cynicism give you the opportunity to feel superior; but they don't give you anything lasting to hold on to. I see a lot of folks being outwardly cynical but inwardly wishing they had something." Having once flattered himself that he was a member of "the subversive counterculture that rejects the dominant culture," he now wanted to embrace America in all its Bush-istic black-and-whiteness. He was tired of "view[ing] everything in six shades of gray because it begets cynicism" and was "charmed by the prospect of individuals reconnecting with more simple values like family, community and respect for people."

So, he gets tossed out of MOM's arms and, finding it lonely out there, jumps into Bush's.

Gen-X built its sense of generational solidarity out of its rejection of the Hippie/Yuppie trajectory of the generation preceding them. But Ross's book suggests that some of Gen-X's best and brightest are marking that same tired parabola, pulled down by the same soulless, powerful gravity American realities force on its dreamers.

No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs by Andrew Ross; Basic Books. Hardcover, 296 pages, $27.

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