A Dangerous Auld Bitch and Moan on the Rise of the Entrepreneurial Self and the Perils of the Attention Economy

“Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.”

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990

Recently I reluctantly read a Think With G00gle article by a fellow who seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of the marketing industry’s collective obsolescence. Recently being a couple of weeks ago, and reluctantly because of late I’ve come to trust the primacy of experience over investment advice from the only bank in town. But more on that some other time. The author waxed enthusiastic about the speed of machine learning, the wondrous emergent innovations that shall enable brands to target consumers at their most cash-partingly vulnerable moments, and the fact that from all of this “Some organizational change will be required.”

What he meant to say, but couldn’t for the gold-plated ball in his mouth, was that these changes will bring more job losses, more blood on the bloody, bloodied tracks of an increasingly desolate Adland. Bill Hicks may be smiling down at the prospect, but the article like so many before it, got me questioning: After we’ve been replaced by the machines of loving grace, who so shall be left with the ability to buy any manner of anything? And, when did it become a professional imperative to argue for our own demise? These questions have elicited a lot of nervous laughter, but little in the way of genuine engagement. Which is bad news for a person like me, who has struggled to come to grips with the professional realities of the Duopoly’s much vaunted Attention Economy. So bear with me while I abdicate my shrinking right to say nothing and play this one from the fucking heart.

 

Artist credit needed

 

Thanks to the diminishing returns of employeedhood and the cruel realities of the gig economy, the so-called social web has made grinning whores of us all.

Before unpacking the double-barreled insult of Grinning Whoredom, the royal we must consider cause, if only in the superficial manner afforded by an SEO-unfriendly blog post. Here it would be easy, if not tempting, to blame the tools. But while knives make murder possible, the requisite pathology to use them for violent effect is a thing apart. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Just as SnapChat and Instagram don’t create narcissistic assholes, but rather provide platforms upon which to assail others with delusions of our #fabulousness.

Many of us have grown hoarse decrying the commoditization of creativity, without acknowledging that the Western neoliberal mission appears to have been engineered for this very purpose. Public policy, public education and private media conspire to breath life into an idealized, entrepreneurial self: a wholly independent and self-sufficient individual capable of unsurpassed industriousness, but moreover influence. After all, what good is social engineering if the program doesn’t self-replicate? To ensure the success of entrepreneurial hu/man, or homo econonimus, another line of self-replicating code has been promoted to ensure that critical thinking doesn’t get in the way: <a href=THINK POSITIVELY, yo.>

POSTIVETHOUGHTSCREATEPOSITIVEACTIONSPOSITIVETHOUGHTS

More or less forced to create a second, ‘best’ self, the Personal Brand exists as a necessary evil for many – an amusement or inconvenience that requires care and feeding like a needy Tamogochi. For others, it exists as a source of anxiety, a virtual high school popularity contest where snark and derision are nearly better than radio silence. Small wonder youth court naked infamy. If a person posts to social media and nobody Likes it, does that person even exist? The Great Duopoly’s algorithms suggest not.

For anyone with the misfortune to think deeply about the implications of the Attention Economy and its inevitable product of a Kloutified social web, the dream of free speech becomes a Foucauldian nightmare. Forced to apply relentless ‘hustle’ and militant positivity to ensure engagement and survival of the second self, any hesitance, discernment or protest inherent in the real self dies, taking a part of our humanity—and any possibility for divergent thinking— with it. For anyone with the misfortune to be critical (oh, you misguided fool!), cynical (oh, you poisonous arsehole!), unsure (s/he who hesitates!), or merely private (sorry, you are?), clarion calls for Authenticity! and Positivity! seem bitterly ironic.

At its outset, the Internet had an air of meritocracy. But that now appears to be an honest delusion arising from an inability to understand a reality fabricated on algorithms. All beings may in theory be equal, but in a competitive economy, some beings are more equal than others. Blessed be the beings who understand the power of frequency above all else. For those squeaky wheels wield the greatest following and the greasiest palms.

On the happy, shiny surface, the tools of the social web appear to hold the promise of personal empowerment and unfettered access. But these tools are double-edged swords: slicing through social strata like a Ginsu, while severing objective reality from personal mythology and objective talent from reward.

Without yet having fully realised the implications of corporate personhood, we’ve been thrust into a new age of personal corporatehood. In this reality, marketable skills are less valuable than a marketable persona. And this is good news, for some. The rhetoric of the entrepreneurial self doesn’t discriminate against the feeble minded. Rather, it encourages feeble-mindedness and the act of doing publically. Reduction of the self to a virtual consumer functionary surely has some utility (it behooves us to question for what or whom ultimately), but it calls to mind that terrible revelation that work will set you free. And we’ve heard that somewhere before, albeit in different circumstances.

You likely never imagined life as an avatar for the neoliberal agenda; a digital minstrel skipping merrily toward a future owned by Bigger Brands that sublet personal brands in order to gather tribes around the consumption of their products? I didn’t. And I’ve spent nearly 20 years marketing for those Bigger Brands, advocating the soft-sell of branded content. But here we are. Grasping for relevance in the feted era of micro-influence. Please Sirs, Xirs and Mses, can’t you Share some more?

HONK IF YOU STILL LOVE AUTHENTICITY

If you doubt the dark allusions of this simile, I envy your wiring. But consider how many people in your Facebook are now actively marketing to you, as opposed to sharing some auld shite they read, or something they’ve made, like a joke, or dinner, or a baby. How many of them are promoting nebulous lifestyle products wrapped in an ideology such as militantly positive thinking, or spiritual entrepreneurship. Eish. Chances are, there are a few. Maybe they’re corporate refugees, who burned out when 80-hour weeks never amounted to a promotion or pay raise, but a redundancy. Maybe they’re wage slaves, who can’t make the mortgage the bank told them they could afford with their retail job. Maybe they became a casualty of an industry clinging to relevancy and profit margins wot traded experienced staff for enthusiastic noobs blind to their spot on the woodpile. Maybe they grew tired of pitching for their own obsolescence and took a figurative shit on the boss’ desk before they could be replaced with subscription software that costs more per month than they ever did, but offers a slightly higher conversion rate and is never absent due to illness or work-related divorce. The possibilities are myriad. But the chances are good they’re being real troopers, true entrepreneurs of the self, putting on a brave face, decorating their feeds with can-do aphorisms that embrace the hustle and their inner, grinning prostitute, if not some shady multi-level network marketing scheme semi-obscured by a hashtag bomb and an artfully filtered image of their newfound freedom, AKA underemployment.

Reducing the person to a flicker on the cave wall, the personal brand makes personal growth a much slimmer prospect. How many epiphanies have been had on-stage? And how many more must lose the right to say nothing before the Entrepreneurial Self of the Attention Economy dominates the real into obsolescence?

 

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  • Richard Weiser says:
    Jul 25 at 04:33

    Damn straight Trista. As an adland survivor I think there’s lots of truth here. That said, I always felt my opportunity in advertising was not to help the consumer, they’ve always had the power to make change collectively if they only say so, but to use the system by grinding my own axes, multiculturalism, acceptance of LGBTQ in mainstream, in ads paid for by corporations that could care less.

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