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<nettime> Bohos in Purgatory
McKenzie Wark on Sun, 2 Feb 2003 00:07:17 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Bohos in Purgatory


Bohos in Purgatory

Andrew Ross, No Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden
Costs, Basic Books, New York, 2003

Reviewed by McKenzie Wark <mw35 {AT} nyu.ed>


The bourgeois and the bohemian stand in a dialectical relation to
each other. The bohemian's revolt is purely relational. It appears
as revolt only because it upsets the bourgeois. The bourgeois, in
turn, measures proprietary in the mirror of the bohemian's
transgressions. This is an established historical pattern, governing
cultural life for most of the 20th century.

One new wrinkle, which appeared at the dawn of the 21st century,
was a shift in the location of this dialectic. In the 20th century, its
locus was the street, and its time was in the off hours. The
bohemian refusal of work, and dedication to everyday life,
confronted the bourgeois in the cafes and nightclubs. At the start
of the 21st century, the locus moved to the workplace, and into
the daylight hours. What was unusual about the version of the
bourgeois versus bohemian dialectic that longstanding Nettime
lurker Andrew Ross recounts is that it occurs within the very place
both sides would have once thought off limits.

No Collar, is about "the industrialization of bohemia." (10) It
investigates two versions of the new 'permissive' workplace --
Razorfish and 360hiphop -- in New York's so-called 'Silicon Alley'.
There are many books about the dotcom bubble, but this one is
unique in that its focus is on how the workers themselves thought
about their work. It is dotcom history 'from below'.

The idea of the permissive, playful workplace sat oddly at the turn
of the century with a quite different idea, the 'shareholder
revolution'. The former harked back, perhaps, to Thorstein
Veblen's dream of the revolt of the engineer against vested
business interests. The shareholder revolution, on the other hand,
subordinated everything about the corporate citizen to
maximizing returns to the shareholder. The idea of stock options
for everybody within the company was supposed to align every
subordinate interest with the interests of the majority stock
holders.

The wider context is amply covered in Thomas Carr Frank's book
One Market Under God. The stock market became the master
signifier in a system of moral values which saw market value as
equivalent to moral worth. The image of the entrepreneur's
business struggle against the big corporations was blended with
that of the bohemian's cultural struggle against bourgeois
inhibitions. In a remarkable feat of ideological engineering,
business became an agent of changing an social order based on,
well, on business.

Here the odd coupling of the permissive workplace and the
shareholder revolution starts to make sense. The association of the
entrepreneur with 'radical' change made the new digital
workplace the site where that change was to be affected. But to
make the workplace 'cool', it had to appear to embrace bohemian
values.

And so it did. A new labor aristocracy arose, which mixed some
modest technical knowledge with cultural capital. They entered a
seller's market, and took it out not so much in telephone-number
salaries as in control of the workplace. You could still be an artist,
and get paid, too.

The ideological short-circuit, by which business is the only radical
alternative to business, fostered the belief that some kind of social
change could be pursued inside the company. As one temporarily
wealth dotcommer says: "As a romantic soul with big aspirations
for what technology can do to change the world, I can realize
these aspirations much faster with 20 million in the bank, maybe
even 200 million." (129)

As Ross points out, what might appear as a radical kind of
workplace innovation could have quite unintended consequences:
"Features that appeared to be healthy advances in corporate
democracy could turn into trap doors that opened on to a
bottomless seventy-hour-plus work week. Employee self-
management could result in the abdication of accountability on the
part of real managers and an unfair shouldering of risk and
responsibilities on the part of real individuals." (18)

In a workplace where workers wear their everyday clothes, and
imagine themselves to be applying their creative identity to the
job, "perhaps the most insidious occupational hazard of no-collar
work is that it can enlist employees' freest thoughts and impulses
in the service of salaried time." (19)

But this was what Bruce Sterling calls the belle époque. The
ideology of radicalism as business and business as radicalism gave
rise not only to a host of start-ups, but put their 'enemies', the big
corporations on the defensive, looking for new technologies that
meshed with new images. To meet the demand, design companies
and technology companies merged, and recruited business
strategists and MBA types to present a full package of make-over
services.

The darling of this new marketplace was Razorfish, started in 95
by Jeff Dachis and Craig Kanarick. The Razorfish mantra was
"Everything that can be digital, will be." The firm projected an anti-
Wall st image, a hotbed of business revolutionaries, re-inventors
of the world.

Finding employees for Razorfish seemed as much a matter of
casting as of recruiting. While Silicon Valley was using the H-1B
visa program to bring in foreign programmers and drive down
labor costs, Silicon Alley had to pony up to culturally competent
slackers. Contrary to legend, the pay wasn't all that great. Ross
cites a survey that found Silicon Alley employees earning an
average $40K, compared to $71K in advertising and $86K in
broadcasting. But it was certainly more money than many of the
employees ever expected to make from a day job.

Of course, for many the day job turned out to be a day-and-night
job. Not only did Razorfish and its rivals expect around the clock
work hours, employees also had to keep updating their skills to
stay employable. As Ross says: "Ultimately, they are in a race to
optimize their own time against the time of technology." (35) Time
poverty became a mark of status. Where the old Protestant work
ethic mandated one day off a week for God, the new God of the
market demanded the Sabbath be added to make a seven day
sacrifice.

One of the joys of this book is the way Ross has recorded for
posterity the everyday life of Razorfish employees (called 'fish').
Life in the business world, for all its claims to be answerable to a
market 'reality', is a world of theater. As the company edged
towards respectability, technical jargon was replaced with MBA
speak.

Contrary to the leveling ideology Frank describes as One Market
Under God, there is a dialect and terminology specific to an elite
that holds power in part through cultural means -- its just that it is
not the old North-Eastern cultural establishment. It is MBA
culture.

It is no longer a matter of knowing the meaning of 'carpe diem',
but knowing how to decode something like this: If we can link
holistic selling to market addressability, and if churn rate variance
and data warehousing were properly leveraged by unified
customer reviews and effective opportunity management, then
we would have compelling deliverables and market optimization.

There was a cultural revolution on the cusp of the 21st century,
and it did -- finally -- dethrone an old cultural order. But it was not
a democratic revolution, but a plutocratic one. It merely
established once and for all the dominance of a business
mandarinate for whom the canon is business literature.

The 'bohemian moment', when art slackers suddenly found
themselves with real jobs was an aberration. A product of a short
term market shortage caused by the need for rapid corporate
cultural retooling. Its effects were short-lived, although it may, as
Ross suggests, provide a useful legacy for the future.

At the end of the 20th century, the brand emerged as the
corporate property par excellence. Businesses were hollowing out
their supply chains, shipping production offshore, employing
digital logistics to turn the firm into a matrix of vectors rather than
a collection of fixed assets. For a moment, the dream appeared of
a great leap forward, a one-off vectoralization of the commodity
form. It did not come to pass, at least not so quickly. But for a
moment, the transition from what I would call capitalist to a
vectoralist rule called into being the dotcoms.

And since it was indeed a revolution of sorts, it could attach to
itself a workforce of bohemians, some of whom really thought
they could change the world. As one of Ross' fish informants says:
"These people honestly don't believe they are part of the
mainstream. What are they thinking? They're working for
Schwab, Ford, IBM. They're working for the Man." (83)

And yet -- something not really explored in No Collar -- perhaps
there really was a change afoot. Just not the change the sub-
anarchist ideology of the bohemia thought it was. As another fish
says, "I thought I was some kind of rebel in the business world,
but I'm not. I'm the fucking target audience." (107)

Ross follows the tribulations of the fish through a series of
company 'reorgs'. Razorfish achieved notoriety -- and profitability
-- as an anti-Wall st firm, but after it became publicly traded, found
itself answerable to market criteria that it was powerless to
change. This external pressure punctured the bubble of the new
bohemian workplace. The "gulf between employee empowerment
and executive power became more apparent when layoff season
kicked in." (248)

If Razorfish was supposed to trap the energy of the counterculture
for business, it also produced its own internal counter culture to
the counter culture. Or in other words, once the bohemian
impulse is captured and made productive -- bourgeois -- it spawns
its own dialectical nemesis. Companies like Razorfish tread a fine
line in cooption. As Ross notes, some effort goes into designing
workplaces that incorporate the 'vibe' of the street, while making
it functional for the extraction of value. Where Warhol's factory
was art imitating business, Razorfish was business imitating art.

In the industrialization of bohemia, some few crumbs fall from the
table for the making of actual art. Ross notes Ada'web, hosted
Total New York, and Razorfish Studios (a separate company to
Razorfish by 1996), which acquired Bust magazine, Disinfo, and
Self Timer, the indie film producers. But as start-ups become
established, and eventually sell to major corporations, art falls by
the wayside. The vector becomes pure business.

By way of contrast to Razorfish, Ross also spent time with
360Hiphop, an internet start-up owned by Russell Simmons of Def
Jam fame. This looks like it was built to flip -- deliberately
designed for eventual sale. Simmons sold out to BET, which in
turn sold out to Viacom. In the process, 360Hiphop's commitment
to covering urban politics and culture vanished. It became yet
another vector for building and burnishing brands.

360Hiphop was a work environment with a hip hop feel. But the
staff were just part of the merchandise. 360hiphop wasn't selling, it
was the product to be sold, a brand in the making. Ross notes that
while Razorfish made concessions to attract the (mostly) white
bohemians into corporate work, 360hiphop was different. The
bohemian option is less available for people of color. "Voluntary
poverty is not generally regarded as a heroic or romantic choice
within communities that are already socially isolated and starved
of resources." (186)

In the language of an MBA type business strategist at Razorfish:
"Currently, we do not have permission to bring the business
transformation environment into being." (221) In order to survive,
the company had to transform itself into just another tech-meets-
culture shop for hire. Founders Jeff Dachis and Craig Kanarick
resigned. Still, as one fish says, as a work environment: "Razorfish
at its worst is probably better than mostly anywhere else." (247)

An idea Ross briefly touches on is that we may be witnessing the
complete commodification of what Marx called the 'general
intellect' as a source of value. In fits and starts, the subordination
of information to the artifact is reversed, and in the process, the
commodity becomes purely vectoral, the vector, commodified.
One place to track this is in the entry of culture into the workplace;
another, in the complete commodification of the place of nonwork
under the reign of the brand.

If No Collar is about the former, it makes an excellent companion
book to Ross' previous work, Celebration Chronicles, which
tackles the latter. Andrew Ross is an uncanny ethnographer of the
fault lines where radical change, both good and bad, intended and
unintended, is possible.

As Stewart Home once said, "Creativity is labor reified to moral
good; the name of the work ethic after its modernization."* And
here lies the contradiction in the industrialization of bohemia. It is
not that a radical fringe found a niche in the world of business.
Rather, business caught up with a radical fringe and revealed its
destiny -- as the furthest front to date of the commodification of
the intellect.

The results, in the workplace, could certainly be strange. As one of
the fish says to Ross: "Authority in this place is like love; it's the
light in another room. You see it but you don't know where it's
coming from." (116) Command becomes indirect, a matter of the
management of affect, rather than effect. Behind every symbol of
liberty lurks a more subtle mechanism of control. Regarding the
Razorfish policy of making the schedules of all employees
commonly accessible on the intranet, Ross notes that "the virtue of
common access also doubled as the threat of total oversight." (116)

Yet that would be too negative an assessment, and it certainly
doesn't stand as an overall summary of No Collar. Ross has a
novelist's talent for describing disparate forces at work, not
necessarily in dialectical conflict, but rather a multiplicity of forces,
nagging and nudging each other. He certainly finds some positive
eddies in the Razorfish fishbowl.

Regarding the utopian dream of the perfectly creative workforce,
Ross proposes that: "The widespread persistence of these ideals
has made it more difficult for corporations to stop employees
from taking their knowledge with them or to 'enclose' ideas and
technologies as their own property." (250) The dotcom employee
realizes that s/he too is part of the general intellect, the collective
author, not of production but of the production of production.

Ross' book bets that the main residue of new economy will be on
employee's expectations of work conditions. As one informant
tells Ross: "Workers behaving as if they are truly free and human
are a big threat to corporations." Even just the existence of
workers capable of holding that thought is a start.

___________

*Stewart Home, Neoism, Plagiarism and Praxis, AK Press,
Edinburgh, 1995, p13
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