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Soul of the New Economy

A new genre, call it "The Businessman as Revolutionary," has corporate culture co-opting counterculture in the Internet economy. Yet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Age of Access, it's capitalism itself that may be transformed -- and not necessarily for the better

by Scott Stossel

June 8, 2000

Discussed in this article:

Fast Company

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
(Perseus Books)

by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger.

The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-For Experience

by Jeremy Rifkin.

Late in 1995, I was offered a job as founding editor of the Web site for Fast Company magazine. Fast Company? "Rolling Stone meets Fortune" was how its editors described it, sounding like the desperate screenwriters pitching scripts in Robert Altman's film The Player. What a ridiculous idea, I thought. There's no audience for that. I respectfully declined.

Stupid move -- like passing up stock options on the zeitgeist. Since then Fast Company has garnered two National Magazine Awards (one for design and one for general excellence) and a half-million subscribers, and I've been toiling away in the relative obscurity and penury of old-school print journalism. The editors of the Fast Company Web site, meanwhile, are dripping with cultural cachet and are no doubt handsomely paid.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "The Billionaire's Curse," by Jack Beatty (September 22, 1999)
Why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress"?
In truth, while I tip my hat to its sterling production values, its occasional interesting article, and of course its torrential advertising revenue, I still don't think Fast Company is a magazine that many people -- beyond those who a) fancy themselves the next Jeff Bezos or Jim Clark or b) spend their days on airplanes flying back and forth between suburban industrial parks to advise companies on whom to lay off and how to upgrade their billing software -- would care to read.

Fast Company's debut issue,
November 1995   

But what the founding editors of Fast Company so presciently understood was the potential of the New Economy. Not the potential of the New Economy itself, but the potential of the "New Economy" as a selling tool. Lots of people, it turns out, do fancy themselves the next Jeff Bezos, and lots of people do spend too much time on airplanes to industrial parks or in cubicles crunching numbers. Lots of people have ethereal-sounding job titles that didn't exist a few years ago, like Andersen Consulting's "Director of New-Age Systems" or Ernst & Young's "Chief Knowledge Officer." Fast Company capitalized on the latent fears and dreams of these people: it told them they were cool.

As a business proposition, this was a very smart idea: accustomed to the habits and traditions of the industrial age, people in brave New Economy jobs naturally felt uneasy. Fast Company reassured them. In a sense, the magazine really is the Rolling Stone for post-industrial society, the magazine of choice for the consultants, programmers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, managers, producers, and so on who make up the New Economy's elite -- or, more accurately, the magazine of choice for those legions of faceless cubicle denizens who aspire to be the New Economy elite. What Rolling Stone did for the drug-toking, Hendrix-listening generation of 1970s counterculture, Fast Company is doing for the Dilbert generation, offering a self-image of hipness. Don't worry, it tells its readers, you're not merely, as you feared, a number-cruncher in a cubicle; you're a networked, tech-savvy, rock-climbing-and-microbrew-drinking-on-weekends, symbol-manipulating Master of the New Economy.

From Atlantic Unbound:

In Media Res: "You Say You Want a Revolution?" by Wen Stephenson (April 2, 1997)
On Wired, the digital nation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Fast Company and its waves of imitators and quasi-imitators (like the reinvented Wired magazine, whose role as the Bible of e-business cool FC successfully usurped early on) exemplify a peculiar quality of the New Economy and its culture: its tendency to comment obsessively on itself. Cultural theorists have long observed that one of the defining features of postmodernity is its self-referentiality, and the hundreds of magazines and books written by the New Economy elite about the New Economy elite reflect this.

Networked systems -- whether the mass media or the global Internet economy -- appear to have the capacity to become self-conscious. In fact it could be said that in much the same way that the human brain develops from a non-sentient mass of organic tissue -- via the networking of neurons -- into an entity that is somehow aware of its own existence, so the New Economy has evolved into a feedback loop that is obsessively self-aware, giving birth to a new, collective consciousness.

From The Atlantic:

"The Market as God" by Harvey Cox (March 1999)
The Supreme Being of religious worship has sometimes been defined as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Hmmm. The business pages embrace an uncannily similar theology.
The clearest manifestation of the new networked consciousness might be the Market. Markets, in the New Economy, have been reified as conscious beings. There is something to this: as the agglomeration of millions of individual transactions, the movements of financial markets are an expression of the collective will. The NASDAQ, for example, unlike the New York Stock Exchange, has no physical existence; it is an abstraction, the sum total of buying and selling of shares (themselves abstractions, not physical entities) across wires. It exists only in our minds, in the relationship between buyer and seller, and becomes concretized only on the scrolling ticker across the bottom of the screen on the Financial News Network or on our Bloomberg terminals.

The idea that markets are not only virtual but self-conscious volitional entities is given full expression in a goofy new business book that exemplifies a Fast Company-inspired genre we might call The Businessman as Revolutionary. Co-authored by a quartet of technology writers, The Cluetrain Manifesto grew out of an eponymous Web site that declared, in the form of "95 Theses," "the end of business as usual." "Markets are getting smarter," says Thesis 10, "more informed, more organized." Thesis 20: "Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them." Thesis 60: "Markets want to talk to companies." Thesis 62: "Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall." Thesis 63: "We are those markets."

Markets, in short, can be pretty obnoxious. You'd hate to be seated next to one at a dinner party. (Especially right now, when what the market is saying -- particularly to owners of Microsoft stock -- is, "Whoops! There went your kids' college tuition.") But to the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are the voice of the Revolution.
So what is to be done? Easy: Burn down business-as-usual. Bulldoze it. Cordon off the area. Topple the statues of heroes too long dead into the street.

Sound familiar? You bet it does. And the message has been the same all along, from Paris in '68 to the Berlin Wall, from Warsaw to Tianenmen Square: Let the kids rock and roll!
Rock-and-roll! This is the Fast Company mantra, as it was (and I guess still is) Rolling Stone's before it. It's supposed to sound revolutionary. And, in a sense, it is. The Cluetrain authors make the point that Internet communication, and hyperlinked networking, are inherently subversive of traditional management hierarchies. That's true. But it's subversive only to a point, because the manifesto is explicitly not anti-business. In fact, it's pro-business, and pro-market, in the hip Fast Company sense: corporations (or, "Fast Companies," we might say) have "gotta be more like rock-and-roll than straitlaced business -- and that puts Suits right over the edge."
Business has co-opted the counterculture, appropriated it for its own purposes. (The cranky cultural critic Tom Frank, in his book The Conquest of Cool and in the journal he edits, The Baffler, has made this argument as convincingly as anyone.) "Suits" are still bad guys -- but not because they represent business, only because they represent a stodgy way of doing business. Capitalism and counterculture have come together; their bastard child is the Fast Company ethos, a value-system that extols hipness and individuality and rock-and-roll -- but all in the service of product innovation, marketing, and profit maximization.

This change in corporate style, however, is only an epiphenomenon. The real transformation is in the nature of capitalism itself. That's the argument Jeremy Rifkin, the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, makes in his new book, The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience. Rifkin is not given to small-bore analysis. His books, with titles like The End of Work, The Biotech Century, and The Emerging Order, have an epic sweep. Rifkin's purview takes in not trends across decades but tectonic shifts across epochs.

In the epoch now dawning, Rikfin perceives a fundamental shift from industrial production to what he calls "cultural production." This is no superficial change; we are at the beginning of a new era of "hypercapitalism" in which our basic understanding of not just economic relations but of private property and human nature itself will be radically altered. "The foundation of modern life is beginning to disintegrate," he writes. Markets are giving way to networks; buyer-seller relationships are giving way to the client-server relationship; ownership is giving way to access; and physical private property is giving way to borrowed intellectual capital as the bedrock of political and economic life. Rifkin brings an almost Marxian determinism to his analysis. "Cultural production represents the final stage of the capitalist way of life," he writes, sounding like a Frankfurt School critic. We need, he argues, "a wholesale rethinking of the social contract."

From The Atlantic:

"The Age of Social Transformation" by Peter F. Drucker (November 1994)
A survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations: an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or raw material or capital, is the key resource; a social order in which inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge; and a polity in which government cannot be looked to for solving social and economic problems.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Digital Culture: "Alternate Realities" by Harvey Blume (January 13, 2000)
Choose your technorealism. William Mitchell's e-topia and Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion take starkly differing views of the Information Age.

Web Citations: "The Great Divide," by Wen Stephenson (July 15, 1999)
The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me.

Why? Because, Rifkin says, as we transition from an industrial to a postindustrial age, the coin of the realm shifts from the physical to the intellectual; all of economic life becomes dematerialized. All that is solid -- there's Marx again -- melts into air. Ownership of physical capital becomes less important, indeed undesirable, while access to -- not ownership of -- intellectual capital becomes the ultimate goal. The important economic and political question in the future will no longer be, "Who Owns What?" but rather, "Who Has Access to What?"

When Rifkin talks about "networks," he's really referring to what the Cluetrain authors call markets or "conversations." He, like the Cluetrain gang, sees these networks as transformative, but he is far less sanguine about their effect, because he is less optimistic about what happens when commercial relationships replace formerly private or civic ones. (What happens when neighborhood watch groups are replaced by paid-for security forces? What happens when farmers no longer even own the seeds they grow and must pay conglomerates to lease the intellectual-property rights to their crops' DNA? What happens when the world's natural wonders and historical landmarks are transformed into market goods?) Where Cluetrain welcomes the incursions of the market into all corners of life as an agent of social change and solidarity (the Internet economy is the "biggest goddamn garage band" of all time), Rifkin sees the dangers of co-optation perceived by Tom Frank and the Baffler crowd.

When access becomes the key to status and economic success, the obvious danger is that fewer and fewer multinational conglomerates will control more and more of the access points to cultural experience; the public commons will get crowded out, and the entry points to culture fewer, more expensive, and more commercialized. All of life, as Rifkin's subtitle puts it, becomes a "paid-for" experience. All of life, in other words, becomes Las Vegas.

Nothing against Vegas; I've paid for a few experiences there myself. But would you really want to live there? The giddy optimism of Fast Company and The Cluetrain Manifesto notwithstanding, when all lived experience is paid for, there is a significant cost. "Persons in commodified relationships are there to 'serve' or 'perform,'" Rifkin writes. In this environment, what happens to empathy? What happens to the individual soul in relation to other souls?

Tracing the history of personal identity from the Middle Ages through today, Rifkin says (echoing familiar postmodern theories of social psychology) that modern man is giving way to "postmodern man" and the advent of the "Thespian Persona," whose identity is fluid, constantly changing depending on the interactions it's engaged in at a given moment. "Autonomous consciousness is slowly becoming an anachronism," Rifkin writes. "In its stead is a new person who is more like a node immersed in a myriad of relationships." Networks, in other words, are replacing the self, which exists only as a node in a web of relationships. (This suggests some tree-falling-in-the-forest type questions. If there's a Web node with no links to it, is the node really there? If there's a living being that's independent of any relationships, does it exist?) Henry David Thoreau alone at Walden has given way to Keanu Reeves enmeshed in The Matrix.

The Age of Access is ostensibly a critique of, and a warning about, the nature of "hypercapitalism." But, to borrow William Blake's famous comment on John Milton's Paradise Lost, Rifkin's sympathy is with the devil. Rifkin is such a technophile that his writing, like Milton's, becomes much more interesting and engaging when he's writing about the bad guy, our hypernetworked, super-serviced future. You get the feeling that he's excited about the New Economy and all the dynamic transformations it represents. Not that he shouldn't be; the New Economy, like the Old, is a mixed bag. But it's as though trapped inside Rifkin's analytic social-science exterior is a Fast Company business warrior struggling to get out. This makes an otherwise turgid book more readable. It also undermines Rifkin's credibility.
From The Atlantic:

"A New Social Type Is Born," by Thomas Mallon (June 2000)
In this work of "comic sociology" David Brooks presents a conceptual key to American society. A review of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.
There is a deeper contradiction in all this, too, whose significance remains elusive. Running through the whole Businessman as Revolutionary genre is an insistence on the primacy of the individual, of personal expression, of creativity and idiosyncrasy -- of "Be Your Own Brand." In fact, Fast Company's great commercial success is largely predicated on this. Fortune, Business Week, Forbes: they are all so fifties, so organization man, in their buttoned-up, dark-suit and white-shirt corporate style. Fast Company's success derives partly from an appeal to the businessperson as rebel warrior or skate punk or (as David Brooks, author of the inspired Bobos in Paradise, would have it) eccentric Bohemian: it's the individual first, the organization second. Yet how can this be reconciled with the idea that we're headed toward the submersion of autonomous personal identity in the great collective network? Rifkin gestures most explicitly at this collective network, but it's a concept that does run as a strong undercurrent through Fast Company and the rest of the genre. So which will it be? The triumph of a preening, me-first individualism over corporate conformity? Or the collective hive eradicating individual identity? Hard to say. But the very questions are enough to make you nostalgic for the Old Economy.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect and a lecturer in American Studies at Trinity College. He has written for numerous publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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