Monday, April 27, 2015

The Ridiculous Rise Of Individualism In Response To Complex Social Problems

Have you noticed lately how in North America no matter what kind of problem you're talking about -- social problems, labor problems, culture problems -- the solution seems to come down to some kind of individual action? How did this frame of seeing the world get such massive traction so quickly over the past couple of decades?

For example, we read over and over that looking at screens at night is bad for our sleep and that looking at our smartphones too much is killing us. Not surprisingly, the light from gadgets makes us wakeful. Not surprisingly, looking at phones while driving kills people. Not surprisingly, when parents look at their phones too much they ignore their kids and the kids feel sad.

Every article or opinion piece I read about this problem has the same suggestions. Turn off your phone at certain times. Don't check it during meals. Don't do email in the evening. If all else fails, get this crafty software that changes the quality of the light as it gets later and later. And voilà!

Does no one notice or care that for a lot of people the reason they're reading texts in the car or doing email at night is because their work requires them to? I'm not referring to myself here --  I'm lucky to have one of the last five jobs in the Northern Hemisphere where I can mostly decide how and when to do the things I need to do. But tons of people either work in a place where the culture is for late night email or they work in some kind of super-competitive industry where if they're not clients or whoever emailing at night, they just can't succeed. 

How the hell is it helpful to tell these people, "Oh and BTW -- turn off your phone"?

Another example is this thing I wrote about before about body anxiety. A Guardian writer wrote this very touching and interesting piece about her crushing body anxiety and constant worry about her appearance and thinness. This isn't like just an annoyance. This is like something that's ruining her ability to live a happy life.

This is the kind of thing most women -- and probably a lot of men -- identify with and experience themselves. So I was struck that the author felt guilty and felt that her emotions were at odds with her feminist commitments. Like, if you're a feminist, you should somehow be able to personally and individually regulate your thoughts so you feel "Yay, I love my body!"

Of course that's ridiculous. That's not how social feelings work -- you can't just decide not to have them. Plus, as I pointed out in the previous post, there are armies of people whose job it is to make you feel like you're ugly and fat and stupid and bad. How can the resultant problems be problems with Feel Good Individualism solutions?

A final example is this recent essay about how the modern economy is an asshole factory -- that is, instead of actually making things or providing services or pleasing customers, most companies are just increasing the number of assholes in the world.

The narrative part of the essay is excellent and really showcases how debased modern work has become. The author recounts the experience of a friend who works in retail, being unable to find something better despite multiple degrees. Among other things, the friend is monitored, measured, and shouted at all day long every day. From the essay:
"Her sales figures are monitored…by the microsecond. By hidden cameras and mics. They listen to her every word; they capture her every movement; that track and stalk her as if she were an animal; or a prisoner; or both. She’s jacked into a headset that literally barks algorithmic, programmed “orders” at her, parroting her own 'performance' back to her, telling her how she compares with quotas calculated…down to the second…for all the hundreds of items in the store…which recites 'influence and manipulation techniques' to her…to use on unsuspecting customers…that sound suspiciously like psychological warfare. It’s as if the NSA was following you around……and it was stuck in your head…telling you what an inadequate failure you were…psychologically waterboarding you…all day long…every day for the rest of your life."
If you think he's exaggerating, check out what it's like at an Amazon fulfillment center.

The asshole factory essay points out how once you're in this type of job, you have to become the kind of person who perpetuates the existence of this kind of job -- another asshole created.

These are huge issues, literally wrecking people's lives. And yet, at the end of the essay, when the author address the question of what to do, the answer is, "Don't be an asshole. Be yourself."

I know this is well-intentioned, but WTF? Is the idea really that a million readers are going to show up at work tomorrow and say to their bosses, "No, sorry, I won't monitor/shout at/abuse that employee, and yes I know you'll fire me for that,but that's OK because maybe if the paperwork works out I can go on food stamps and feed my kids from the garbage dumpster?" Please.

How did we get here? It doesn't have to be this way. In France, there are public discussions and policies related to limiting workplace email, and to general working conditions, and even to the fashion industry.

I'm not saying their solutions are the right ones. I'm just that it's possible, in some nearby possible world, to have a completely different framework for these conversations, one that doesn't come down solely to prodding individuals to take action that they can't take anyway and then blaming them when it doesn't happen.

Why can't that nearby possible world be our world? What the hell happened here anyway?


Janet Vickers said...

Because there is no such thing as society here. And soon there won't be people either. There will be consumers, tax payers, and numbers. The anthro-hyenas will have eaten the people. It will make 1984 and Brave New World look like Downton Abbey.

Christopher Grisdale said...

I love Downton!