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.