In his 1996 book Infinite Jest, the late American writer David Foster Wallace imagined a near future in which corporations could sponsor the calendar. Instead of counting up from the birth of Christ, the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) develops a “revenue enhancing subsidized time.” Year of the Whopper. Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
Wallace never explicitly connects Subsidized Time to Gregorian calendar years, but readers have speculated about the timeframe for the book’s action. It’s in our present’s past now, probably 2011 or so. And while Subsidized Time hasn’t arrived in the way Wallace envisioned, something like it sure has: Cause Time.
It started with laudable goals. Black History Month was first proposed in 1969 as an expansion of Negro History Week, which had been observed in Februaries since the 1920s. President Gerald Ford made the commemoration official in 1976. Others followed, established by official proclamation. Some followed the model of Black History Month, seeking to recognize under-appreciated communities and cultural practices. Black Music Month (established 1979) and Women’s History Month (1987), for example. Others, like National Ice Cream Month (1984) were more playful, marking cultural predilections and avocations. Many more exist, too, not all of which enjoy congressional or presidential recognition.
The best-known cause-related commemorative month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). First founded in 1985, it turns everything from yogurt lids to flight attendant uniforms pink during October. Often criticized as a money-grab that mostly benefits its primary sponsor, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, NBCAM’s success nevertheless set a model for charitable awareness campaigns, formal and informal.
The Movember Foundation, for example, runs an annual campaign that encourages men to grow moustaches in November, prostate cancer’s answer to the apparent profligacy of the preceding breast cancer month.
As the cause marketing calendar fills, its proponents must make increasingly cutesy appeals to draw out the public’s attention. Just this week, The 92nd Street Y rolled out #GivingTuesday (complete with built-in hashtag) as a charitable alternative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Following suit is Devember, an attempt to out-portmanteau The Movember Foundation. “We think everybody should learn to code,” the website declares, comparing its cause to the fight against illiteracy.
Partaking of Devember turns out to be a lot more work than growing a moustache or buying a yogurt. Participants are supposed to sign a contract committing them to program every day. There’s evidence that raising awareness doesn’t really help improve the lot of a disease or a social condition; one has to credit Devember for at least encouraging participants to do something rather than just to be aware of it.
But it’s not clear that Devember will work. Its goals—“learning programming,” “programming a took to manage wi-fi,” among others—assume a high level of existing know-how. To help participants share work, the organization has published a jargon-filled guide to using version-control systems like github that’s sure to alienate anyone who doesn’t already know the esoteric practices of coding in the first place.
And so, Devember devolves into the same rhetorical function as most cause marketing initiatives. Their purpose is not really to encourage or support a cause, but to reframe an ordinary activity—and often a commercial one—as a cause. Health care becomes a dream of hypothetical future research rather than a practice of supporting the public welfare. Programming becomes a hero’s journey from barefoot illiteracy to industrious and creative proficiency.
It’s apt that Devember starts the same day that Mark Zuckerberg announced his gift of 99 percent of his Facebook shares—to his own closely-held private entity, which was created as a for-profit entity, not a charitable trust. The purpose of causes isn’t to do good for the underserved public, but to make whatever you were already doing appear to be a selfless, moral act. Year of the Facebook Mobile App.
Almost 20 years after the publication of Infinite Jest, the once-lurid book seems retrospectively tame. Its title refers to a weaponized film so powerful that its viewers lose interest in everything else, until they eventually die. The plot revolves partly around a plan to deploy “the Entertainment” in a terrorist attack. Wallace thought television was the greatest danger to modern life, but having finished the novel in 1995, he didn’t anticipate the Internet, which is far worse—a weaponized entertainment that really does devour all other inclinations. Even Wallace wouldn’t have guessed that Facebook would want to fly drones over the developing world, firing data down to villages via laser-beam.
Likewise, Sponsored Time might actually have been far better than Cause Time. At least advertising wears its heart on its sleeve. Advertising is earnest, with clearly desired outcomes: “Please buy these wholesome dairy products.” Giving all of our attention to product manufacturers is one thing—and it’s something terrible. But Cause Time does something far more insidious: It re-casts commercial interests in the roles of missions or charities. Learning to code might be a good professional move and it might even be an important type of literacy. What it isn’t, ever, is righteous just by virtue of existing.