The Culture of the New Capitalism

“Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary institutions. The culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience.”

Richard Sennett has a newish book out called The Culture of the New Capitalism. I heard him interviewed about it on a BBC podcast, and there’s only one copy left at Amazon’s UK store, but he’s less admired here in his own country, as far as I can tell. Sennett is concerned about the people who don’t fit the needs of this economy. They’re not the stars the talent spotters want, or they are too old, or too needed by dependents to hold a Blackberry tether with grace. Or maybe they’re the kind of people who find that shifting loyalties make them anxious and sad.

I had just enough of a taste of the old work culture of pantyhose, punchclocks, and marble lobbies to be grateful to be born into this new work style exported from the Bay Area. By Sennett’s standards, I was designed for this economy. I have more curiosity than ties. I’m childless. I’ve moved like a stone skipping across a pond: 120 miles, 500 miles, 3,000 miles, 6,000 miles from my hometown, touching down only lightly in each place. In Hernstein and Murray’s creepy Bell Curve analysis of intelligence structures, I’m a “symbol analyst.” A “master of change.” That makes me a good catch.

“When we hired you, we weren’t interested in your experience. We were only interested in how fast you could learn,” I was once told. At 24, that’s flattering. It’s also a relief–thank God, it doesn’t matter that I know feck-all. I’m a little bundle of potential. But at 34, it’s disconcerting to have a dozen years of your life dismissed. I could have stayed in bed rather than bothering to get trained on Wall Street? I didn’t need to sweat through those startups to learn why entrepreneurs have more in common with artists than with MBAs, and what it really takes to turn an idea into a change? I needn’t have bothered with volunteering, with learning to write, with riding the public buses around Bolivia?

For all that this amoral economy suits me well, I’m making a promise to my future self that if I hear at 54 that my experience is uninteresting to capitalism–and I expect to–I’ll stand up, excuse myself with a big smile, and go back to the woods for good. We’re human beings. Our stories matter. Grown-ups have more to contribute than babies. And where we have been and who we take care of matters more to me than symbols, models, and theories. A Love Letter

Ten years ago, I experienced the internet only through paper. It was reverently capitalized back then, like the Electric or the Motor-Car, and for those who visit but don’t yet live there, it still is.

I was working at Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin while my future ex-husband finished his thesis on delivering video through noisy channels. I’d had little chance to use computers, and was hazy about his post-graduate research. When I found the first issue of _Wired_, it didn’t occur to me it might have any connection to his work. _Wired_ burbled with the promise of this World Wide Web, and I pored over it with the fizz of discovery, even though the typography was maddening. More than once I had to trace with my finger some distressed fuschia font as it wobbled from a lime-green background to the purple overleaf. I felt like a dyslexic with a treasure map.
Continue reading “ A Love Letter”

Strong Language

Engineers, scientists, and military officers often turn out good prose. Their sentences may not always be limpid, lyrical or arresting, but as writers they are capable of a clarity and precision that academics and marketers often can’t or won’t match. Their work demands it. When a software engineer writes vague instructions, her program breaks. When a scientist notes observations imprecisely, her experiment suffers. When a Green Beret commander gives a rambling order, his guys are put at risk.

But a literary theorist who expresses his ideas in clear language betrays the “expert” mystery on which tenure depends. An MBA student who avoids crass jargon might fail for seeming not to know it. A marketer who relies on simple, direct language must know exactly what the product can do for the customer–and understanding that takes effort.
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Do You Know What the Problem Is?

My gut reaction when someone offers a solution is, “That’s great, but do you know what the problem is?” The mere characterization of a product as a solution suggests that people are pushing the answer without first knowing the question!
– Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR, quoted in an ITSMA / Babson College study

Since I’ve woken up as a language crank this morning, here are links to two of my favorite writers complaining about the same lazy “solution” to a hard copywriting problem: how do you explain what a company does, and why people should care?

From Erin Kissane, whose Call to Arms is worth following:

Solution: Meaningless, Self-Indulgent, Arrogant
“Solution” is much too vague to be useful. To compound the problem, companies frequently use it in the short blurbs that describe what they do – in which clarity is essential and space precious. It’s a punt at precisely the wrong moment, and throws away a crucial opportunity to communicate something real.
Read the rest

And Tim Bray sputters:

May it visit laryngitis, halitosis and a severe stutter on those vendors who describe disk drives, network routers, printers, computers, or pretty well anything that contains silicon and plugs in, as “solutions”. A disk drive is not a solution, dammit, it’s a disk drive.

But though Tim’s business card says Director of Web Technologies at Sun, even he can’t keep this nonsense off their home page. He’s reduced to translation:

Dear world, take it from me: at Sun we sell actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions; you can safely ignore the marketing-speak.
Read on