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I, Consumer

Stranded and Branded in the New Economy

Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
By Paulina Borsook PublicAffairs(2000), $24

Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
By Naomi Klein
Picador USA (200), $28

By Chris Thompson


Illustration: Jo Rivers

Every nation has its founding myths, and each myth contains a moist kernel of nostalgia for a past whose actual existence is dubious. It’s a Morning in America tableau in which our doors went unlocked and we knew our neighbors’ names–when we were not mere consumers or colleagues, but citizens and congregations. There may be little value left in this cliché, and every generation brings with it a longing for an unrecoverable past. Still, we all share a very real fear that our sense of civic belonging and community is being eroded by a cold-blooded modernity. From Oliver Goldsmith’s "The Deserted Village" to Babbitt to Robert Putnam’s new book Bowling Alone, we have had our share of literary fretting over a grasping materialism that threatens the less tangible qualities of our lives.

Now, two new books offer an unsettling and thorough analysis of two recent socioeconomic forces–and the ethos behind them–that have sapped our sense that there must be some space, any space, that can be left to ourselves without the intervening clamour of the free market and its loudmouthed cousin, advertising. In Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, we are subjected with a dismaying thoroughness to the last two decades of evolution in the concept of the corporate brand, as well as the ease with which it has come to penetrate sanctuaries once reserved for education, public space, or nature. And in Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, we will no doubt be aghast to learn that it is our very own Bay Area, and the peculiar antagonism to government and anything not wired, virtual, and dedicated to the liquidity event that prevails in our signature industry, that will set the tone of our nation’s future.

If techies have taken comfort in the oft-repeated notion that Silicon Valley’s critics just don’t have the background to appreciate it, they will not be happy to read Paulina Borsook’s resume. As a high-tech writer with twenty years of experience and one of Wired’s first contributors, Borsook has had a close look at this boomtown for more years than some of its residents have been potty trained. In Cyberselfish, she examines the odd emergence of a semi-conscious but passionately held libertarian disposition among the dot-com coffee achievers. Rants are usually a headache, but Borsook’s entertaining prose drives home a good point: although decades of government-funded research developed the microchips and Internet that led to the New Economy, and although copyright and bankruptcy laws–to say nothing of more mundane tasks like paving the roads–are critical to nurturing and developing this industry, these coder-monkeys and Web designers are absurdly, irrationally convinced that everything government touches turns foul.

This almost exclusively male group devours Ayn Rand, fetishizes the entrepreneur-as-rugged-individual, applies pop-science voodoo and ecological metaphors to economic models in order to rationalize its laissez-faire attitudes, and imagines that high-tech gizmos are so nifty that no one but themselves should be overseeing them. Workweeks are devastatingly long, families are considered liabilities in the rush to the IPO, and if you haven’t made your fortune by age forty, you’re through. "[H]omes, who needs them, except as satellite offices," Borsook writes. "The demographic sector (those in their twenties and thirties, who aren’t necessarily much into nesting anyway) is part of the culture of what in South Park/Multimedia Gulch are sardonically called veal-fattening pens: places where the young are kept immobilized indoors to be sacrificed for greater economic productivity. And ooh, they have such tender white flesh because they don’t get out at all!"

There are countless social ills in the New Economy: the lack of affordable housing for teachers or cops, the dismal state of public education except as an adjunct to high-tech, and the gradual elimination of public space and basic social skills, as even shopping malls are replaced with glowing boxes, and the cybergeek’s antisocial clumsiness is recklessly lionized. But Borsook’s technolibertarians figure that all these problems will be solved by the next generation of software. Borsook’s prose is occasionally distracting, and her tendency to capitalize trends like the Next Big Thing betrays her years spent rooting around user groups. But she has displayed a remarkable courage in daring to defend Big Government, in reminding us that we should never lose sight of its indispensibility in our rush to go public.

"[M]y memories of a time when public services seemed to work and people felt some sort of connection with a commonweal that was more than saving taxpayer dollars and NIMBY are probably … useless," Borsook concludes. "But … I don’t believe that a culture that presents itself as being the One True Way of the future, but which in so many ways embodies the worst of the past … is one that is cause for rejoicing."

Just as Borsook argues that the technolibertarian sensibility of high tech threatens to undermine civic life and public space, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo contends that a much more ravenous phenomenon has infected what little public space we have left. Klein’s premise is fascinating–indeed, it should be an indispensible plank in anyone’s understanding of contemporary culture. Tracing the evolution of the corporate brand over the last twenty years, she argues that where once a brand name served as a signifier for a quality product –and perhaps one or two community values that the company hoped would spring to mind–now brands serve to embody a wide-ranging set of values, ideals, and meanings, until it no longer matters what the brand is selling.

Taking Nike as the pioneer in this trend, Klein traces the process by which the trademark swoosh swelled: Once a mere insignia for a scientifically developed jogging shoe, it came to signify in the public mind all forms of athletic endeavor and prowess, the discipline and amibition it takes to become the master of your sport, and even the ideal of urban black empowerment. In the process, Nike no longer merely sells shoes–it sells community space in venues such as Niketown, or sports drinks or clothing lines. It even sells athletes; Nike has gone into the sports agency business and counts many famous athletes as its clients and–in a seamless transition–as its spokespeople. The physical product that Nike hawks is no longer important; what it sells is the swoosh, and anything blessed by the logo’s imprimatur. And its main rivals aren’t other shoe companies, but Disney, Intel, and any other contender for space in the public consciousness.

At a time in which traditional public institutions have become starved for both money and credibility, Klein argues that this universalization of brands has encroached upon our everyday lives, until there is no public space left unbranded. Countless super-branded corporations are attempting to make inroads into public schools. This is considerably more than a company sponsoring a sporting event; in the new scheme of things, the company and its logo are the main attraction, and the football game or science fair merely sideshows. Textbook covers are cluttered with advertisements, school cafeterias are festooned with fast-food kiosks, and collegiate research departments are simply doing R&D for pharmaceutical companies, and any information they unearth that may have unflattering results for the company can be suppressed by gag clauses in the contracts. As long as kids are learning how to read, these companies ask while dangling money before bankrupt school boards, why can’t they learn how to read about how wonderful our company is? Or if they’re doing arts and crafts anyway, why not assemble new designs for Old Navy shirts? Because the youth market, aesthetic, and street cred is so critical to maintaining the supremacy of these super-brands, public schools are transformed into focus groups and consumer experiments.

"Many parents and educators could not see anything to be gained by resistance [to this trend]; kids today are so bombarded by brand names that it seemed as if protecting educational spaces from commercialization was less important than the immediate benefits of finding new funding sources," Klein writes. "Thus it became possible for many parents and teachers to rationalize their failure to protect yet another public space by telling themselves that what ads students don’t see in class or on campus, they will certainly catch on the subway, on the Net, or on TV when they get home. What’s one more ad in the life of these marked-up and marked-down kids?"

But this phenomenon has nonetheless spawned its own form of resistance. As the fluidity of boundaries and trade agreements renders governments less capable of action to preserve justice, grassroots groups such as the Seattle anti-WTO activists have targeted the corporations themselves, as well as the logos and brands that are the key to their stock values. If the key to Nike’s success has been its attachment of a mythic set of values to the swoosh, then the key to undermining the company and forcing it to act responsibly is making the swoosh synonymous not with black empowerment and the "Just Do It" anything-is-possible promise, but with human rights abuses and sweatshop outrages in Indonesia. These super-brands are now beginning to worry that their companies’ fortunes may actually be at the mercy of college kids and grassroots organizers who could stain the meaning of the symbols they have pushed for decades. Klein offers something approaching hope at the end of her book, and when the Oakland School Board backs away from yet another Pepsi deal, as just happened, that hope is perhaps not unfounded

paulina b.

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