Note: the post appears, in a somewhat updated form, at The New Inquiry.
The popular adoption of the Internet brought with it great changes. Communication, commerce, media, and government had already each been impacted by the earlier Internet and proto-Internet technologies that were developed as early as the 1960s. But these were truly transformed, often quite radically and in relatively short order, following the broadening of access and sudden media attention of the mid-1990s.
Many of these changes-- reported accurately, greatly exaggerated, or outright invented-- have been recounted by those who have embraced the Internet most fully. One of the peculiar aspects of this particular technological revolution is that it has been historicized in real time. In a strange type of autoethnography, those most taken with the popular Internet of the late 90's and early 2000's spent a considerable amount of their time online talking about what it meant that they were online. As impressive as the various changes wrought by the exponential growth of Internet users were, they never seemed quite impressive enough for those who trumpeted them. In straightforwardly self-aggrandizing narratives, the most dedicated and involved Internet users began crafting a pocket mythology of the new reality. Rather than regarding themselves as consumers of a unique set of interesting and productive technologies, the most dedicated Internet users spoke instead of revolution. Vast, life altering consequences were predicted for these rising technologies. In much the same way that those speaking about the importance of New York are often actually speaking about the importance of themselves, so those who crafted the oral history of the Internet were often really talking about their own revolutionary potential. Not that this was without benefits; self-obsession became a vehicle for an intricate literature on emergent online technology.
Yet for all of the endless consideration of the rise of the digitally connected human species, the sociology in real time that has documented and dissected every minute evolution of the Web, one of the most important aspects of Internet culture has gone almost entirely unnoticed.
The Internet has provided tremendous functionality in a variety of contexts. But for a comparatively small but vastly influential group of its most dedicated users, its most important feature, the killer app, is its power as an all purpose sorting mechanism, one that separates the worthy from the unworthy-- and, in doing so, gives some meager semblance of purpose to generations whose lives are largely defined by purposelessness. For the post-collegiate, culturally savvy taste makers who exert such disproportionate influence on the Internet as it is experienced, the online world is above and beyond all else a resentment machine.
The vehicle of modern American achievement prepares thousands of upwardly mobile young strivers for everything but the life they will actually encounter. The endlessly grinding wheel of American "success" indoctrinates a competitive vision in our young people that most of them never seem to escape. The numbing and frenetic socioacademic sorting mechanism compels most of the best and the brightest adolescents in our middle and upper class to compete for various laurels from puberty to adulthood. Every aspect of young adult life is transformed into a status game, as academics, athletics, music and the arts, travel, hobbies, and philanthropy are all reduced to fodder for college applications. This instrumentalizing of all of the best things in life teach teenagers the unmistakable lesson that nothing is to be enjoyed, nothing experienced purely, but rather that each and every part of human life is ultimately fodder for what is less human. The eventual eats the immediate. No achievement, no effort, no relationship is to exist as an end itself. Each must be ground into chum to attract those who confer status and success. As has been documented endlessly, this process starts earlier and earlier. Far less attention has been paid to what comes next.
It is of course possible to keep running on the wheel indefinitely. There are those professions (think: finance) that extend the status contests of childhood and adolescence into the gray years, and to one degree or the other, most people play some version for most of their lives. But for a large chunk of the striving class, this kind of naked careerism and straightforward neediness won't do. They have been raised to compete, and endlessly conditioned to measure themselves against their peers, but they have done so in an environment that denies this reality while it creates it. Many of them were raised by self-consciously creative parents who wished for children who were similarly creative in ethos if not in production. These parents operated in a context that told them to nurture beautiful unique butterflies while simultaneously reminding them, in that incessant subconscious way that is the secret strength of capitalism, that their job as parents is to raise their children to win.
It is no surprise that the urge to rear winners trumps the urge to raise artists. But the nagging drive to preach the value of culture does not go unnoticed. The urge to create, and to live with an aesthetic sense, is admirable, and if inculcated genuinely-- which is to say, in defiant opposition to the competitive urge, rather than as an uneasy partner to it-- this romantic artistic vision of life remains the best hope for humanity against the deadening drift of late capitalism. In the context in which this cheery and false vision of the artistic life is actually experienced, self-conscious creativity becomes sublimated into the competitive project and becomes twisted. Those raised with such contradictory impulses are left unable to contemplate the stocks and suspenders lifestyle that is the purest manifestation of the competitive instinct, but they are equally unable to cast off the social climbing aspirations that this lifestyle represents. They are trapped between their rejection of the means and an unchosen but deep hunger for the ends.
Momentum can be a cruel thing. High school culminates in college acceptance. This temporary victory can often be hollow, but the fast pace of life quickly leads that emptiness in the dust. Students at college enjoy a variety of tools to manage the competitive urge. Some find, in the exclusive activities, clubs, and societies of elite colleges, an acceptable proxy for high school competition. Some attack collegiate academics with the zeal that they once applied to high school. Some pursue medical school, law school, an MBA, or (for the truly damned) a Phd. Most dull the urge by persisting in a four or five year fugue of alcohol, friendship, and rarefied living. But all that survive eventually emerge from college and find a disordered world.
As dehumanizing and vulgar as the high school glass bead game is, it certainly provides to adolescents a kind of order. That the system is inherently biased and riotously unfair is ultimately besides the point. In the many explicit ways in which high school students are ranked emerges a broad consensus: there is an order to life, that order indicates value, and there are winners and losers. The end of college brings an end to that order, and for many, this is bewildering. Educated but broadly ignorant of suffering, scattershot in their passions, possessed of verbal dexterity but bereft of the experience that might give their words meaning, 20-something culture bunnies wander into a world that is supposed to be made for them and find it inhospitable. Without the rigid ordering that grades, class rank, leadership and office provide, the incessant and unnamed urge to compete cannot be easily addressed. The vague cultural liberalism that surrounds their lives like a haze makes the careers that promise similar sorting unpalatable. The economic resentment and petty greed that they have had bred into them by the sputtering machine of American capitalism makes lower class life unthinkable.
Driven by the primacy of the competitive urge, and convinced that they need far more material goods than they do to live a comfortable life, they get jobs. Most of them will find some gainful employment without great difficulty. Perhaps this is changing, as the tires on the Trans Am that is America go bald, and the entitlement that attends their horror at a poor job market tells you more than anything, but the numbers indicate that most still find their way into jobs that become careers. Many or most will have periods of arty unemployed urbanism, but after awhile the gremlin begins whispering "you are a loser," and suddenly, they're placing that call to Joel from Sociology 205 who's got that connection at that office. Often, these office jobs will enjoy the cover of orbiting in some vaguely creative endeavor like advertising. One way or the other, these jobs become careers in the loaded sense. In these careers, the find themselves in precisely the position that they long insisted they would never contemplate.
The competitive urge still pulses. It has to; the culture in which they have been raised has denied them any other framework with which to draw meaning. The world has assimilated the rejection of religion, tradition, and other determinants of virtue that attended the 1960s and wedded it to a vicious contempt for the political commitments that replaced them in that context. Culture convinces our young adults, or rather preempts the kind of conscious understanding that attends to conviction, that all traditional designations of meaning are uncool. If straightforward discussion of virtue and righteousness is socially unpalatable, straightforward political engagement is worse still. Pushed by an advertising industry that embraces tropes of meaning just long enough to render them meaningless (Budweiser clydesdales saluting fallen towers), and buffeted by arbiters of hipness that declare any unapologetic embrace of political ideology horribly cliche, a fussy specificity envelops every definition of the self. Conventional accounts of the kids these days revert to tired tropes about disaffection and irony. The reality is sadder: they are not passionless but rather have invested their passion in a shared cultural knowledge that denies the value of any other endeavor worthy of personal investment.
Without the traditional tools with which the self is defined, they turn towards the technology that they have been assured holds the key to all futures.
Where else would people who believe in the artistry of their young lives but lack the ability to create turn but the Internet? There have been many brilliant and despicable turns by the anonymous architects of late capitalism, but none is more effective or pernicious than the rise of the self-as-consumer. Contemporary strivers lack the tools through which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: they live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age; they lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth; they have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt; they even are denied the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.
Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context: the self as consumer and critic.
Part of the cruel genius of capitalism lies in its ability to make all activity within it seem natural and inevitable. What we describe as "consumption" can be seen from orbit as an incredibly complicated interchange, created by elite institutions, enforced quite literally with the threat of violence, propped up by states and coercive governments, and generally as far from a state of nature as is possible. Yet the steady accumulation of monetary exchanges over the course of life conditions each of us to see consumption as an inextricable part of our being.
Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value. These cultural products have no quantifiable values, yet their relative value is fiercely debated as if some such quantifiable understanding could be reached. They are easily mined for ancillary content, the TV recaps and record reviews and endless fulminating in comments and forums that spread like weeds. (Does anyone who watches Mad Men-- I'm a fan-- not blog about it?) They are bound up with celebrity, both real and petty. They can inspire and so trick us into believing that our reactions are similarly worthy of inspiration. And they are complex and varied enough that there is always more to know and more rarefied territory to reach, the better to climb the ladder one rung higher than the person the next desk over.
There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, the Wire says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything. Likewise the Internet exists to perpetuate the idea that there is some meaningful difference between fans of this band or that, or Android and Apple, or that there is a Slate lifestyle and a This Recording lifestyle and one for Gawker or the Hairpin or wherever. Not a word of it is true. There are no Apple people. Buying an iPad does nothing to delineate you from anyone else. Nothing separates a Budweiser man from a microbrew guy. That our society insists that there are differences here is only our longest con.
This endless posturing, pregnant with anxiety and roiling with class resentment, ultimately pleases no one. There are a vast number of websites and blogs devoted to media, culture, and fashion. When was the last time that you read one and emerged refreshed by the joy and authenticity of expression that you encountered? How many pieces do you have to read before you accumulate the satisfaction necessary for a single genuine smile? Yet this emptiness doesn't compel people to turn away from the sorting mechanism. Instead, it seduces them into drawing further and further in.
This is why the resentment machine is concerned with resentment. The bitterness that surrounds these distinctions is a product of their inability to actually make us distinct. Nothing is so endlessly provoking to us as those who are most like us, and the reality is that there is little to separate the cultural signifiers of postcollegiate middle class upwardly-oriented-if-not-upwardly-mobile Americans. But, again, people feel there is nowhere else to turn, so they invest more and more of themselves in what they consume. Faced with the failure of their cultural affinities to define an authentic and fulfilling self, they double down on the importance of those affinities, and confront the continued failure with a formless resentment.
The savviest of the media and culture websites tap into this resentment as directly as they dare. They write endlessly about what is overrated. They assign specific and damning personality traits to the fan bases of unworthy cultural objects. They invite comments that tediously parse microscopic distinctions in cultural consumption. They engage in criticism as a kind of preemptive strike against those who actually create. They glamorize pettiness in aesthetic taste. The few artistic works they lionize are praised to the point of absurdity, as various acolytes try to outdo each other in hyperbole. They relentlessly push the central narrative that their readers crave, that consumption is achievement and that creators are to be distrusted and "put in their place." They deny the frequently sad but inescapable reality that consumption is not creation and that only the genuinely creative act can reveal the self.
This, then, is the role of the resentment machine: to amplify meaningless differences and assign to them vast importance for the quality of individuals. For those who are writing the most prominent parts of the Internet-- the bloggers, the trendsetters, the uber-Tweeters, the tastemakers, the linkers, the creators of memes and online norms-- online life is taking the place of the creation of the self, and doing so poorly.
This all sounds quite critical, I'm sure, and there is criticism to go around. But ultimately, this is a critique I include myself in, or nearly enough. More to the point, for this to approach real criticism I would have to offer an alternative to those trapped in the idea of the consumer as self. I haven't got one. Our system has relentlessly denied the role of any human practice that cannot be monetized. The capitalist apparatus has worked tirelessly to commercialize everything, to reduce every aspect of human life to currency exchange. In such a context, there is no hope for the survival of the fully realized self.