September 18th, 2021


Beware of the High-Tech Hustle

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published Feb. 1, 2019

The culture pendulum swings inevitably and inexorably, and its wide arc often surprises us. Labels are nearly always limited to selected slices of reality, but they're convenient in marking important change.

The latest is "digital drudge," convenient for measuring the lives of millennials and their computer labor, and hyped as creative grit in a newly minted "hustle culture." Slogans such as TGIM ("thank God it's Monday") glorify ambition as a lifestyle, an adrenalin-inducing, endorphin-producing high, making toil trendy and the grind glamorous, even if it disrupts relationships and chips away at the quality of life. "Rise and Grind" is a slogan for Nike, and it applies as well to high-tech millennial strivers.

This hustle culture is "obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape," says Erin Griffith in The New York Times. She compares it to Soviet-era propaganda in getting the masses to enjoy their work. As a new version of Soviet realism, however, it doesn't scorn profit making, even if the founders and investors, not the worker bees, make the big bucks.

Griffith interviewed David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of software company Basecamp, writing: "Mr. Heinemeier Hansson said that despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies." When the social lives of their underlings must be work-related — as in "networking" — and the pleasures of a private life are a cause of guilt, sacrificed to the lure of the ubiquitous small screen, it sounds like the underlings have been hustled by the hustle culture. That may be cause for alarm.

High-tech internet communication expands information for the masses, but its full impact is not yet clear. New sources of facts and factoids bombard us with uneven results, as demonstrated by the BuzzFeed fiasco, where it reported that Michael Cohen had lied to Congress at the request of President Trump, which special counsel Robert Mueller quickly shot down as inaccurate. He was fearful of the damage it would do both to the president and his investigation.

What goes viral often has little to do with significance and lots to do with those at the keyboard of dissemination. The digital revolution has been compared to the revolution ignited by the 15th-century German blacksmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg, and his invention of movable type and the printing press.

The invention put finis to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts the monks delivered on behalf of the church, ensuring that what was lost artistically was a gain for individual freedom and the opportunity for the masses to read a much wider spectrum of ideas. The printing press empowered the individuals to think for themselves.

High-tech empowerment may be as radical today as the printed word was in the 15th century, expanding audiences with speed and variety. But its ramifications in culture and politics are still glimpsed as if through a glass, darkly, in contemporary experience. The digital miracle delivers real news and fake news; information, misinformation and disinformation, at the speed of a click, creating a jumble of confusion and perception. This may create emotional dependency, as well as intellectual dependency.

Malevolent offshoots suggest addiction for young people growing up in the high-tech society, that changes manners and mores in their modes of communication, and in their relationships, too. The consequence is a new kind of loneliness for the isolated data collector who searches for photographs and responses to the latest apps.

Adults, too, become dependent not only on the information but also on the delivery of it, hooked on the search for greater speed to spread "the latest" into a telephone, notebook or computer. With constant bombardment of personal and public inputs, it's harder to make distinctions as to what's important and significant.

Such information frequently acts as a Rorschach inkblot test for users who see in it what they want to see, and pass on interpretations in support for what pleases their social group, political party or activist congregation.

In the 1960s, we thought we were in a cultural revolution, too. The elders in a generation of ascending hippie influence bemoaned the repetitive use of the slogan "Turn on, tune in, drop out" popularized by counterculture guru Timothy Leary. He famously spoke to a "Human Be-In" in 1967 in San Francisco, appealing to what was characterized erroneously as the "love generation" that rebelled against the puritanical work ethic of their parents' generation.

Fathers of that generation had returned from fighting a war and were eager to get on with the traditional values of creating a family, earning the money to buy a house and appreciating the culture that helped them win World War II. Their offspring, some of them flower children, only wanted to scrap constraining and conventional bourgeois values.

But nothing in the culture is permanent. The pendulum always swings again, bringing a new hustle with it.

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