#200: All Tomorrow's Parties
Among Glenn O’Brien’s many incisive aphorisms, his assertion that “parties are work” has always stuck with me. O’Brien claimed to have learned this from Andy Warhol: “When Warhol turned to me at a party and said, ‘This is such hard work!’ it struck a nerve.” I’ve never doubted this was true for O’Brien and Warhol, but what about everyone else? If the elite’s present norms do indeed anticipate those of the masses by a decade or so (as I discussed recently), maybe O’Brien was prescient in declaring that parties would one day be a sort of job for everyone—that more leisure activities would become suffused with opportunity that must be seized, and that the remaining boundaries separating work and play would collapse. To the degree that any IRL object or experience is potential content, it is also theoretically monetizable; it’s a cliche by now to describe social media usage as a form of (largely) uncompensated labor, or to point out that offices have kegs and ping pong tables to trick employees into staying there longer. As games become more like work, the rest of life becomes more gamified. The “creator economy” is O’Brien’s party-as-work writ large, an array of erstwhile pastimes reimagined as small businesses offering each proprietor the chance to “jump the queue, advance directly to Go, and collect $200.”
It’s not surprising that O’Brien cribbed such a prophetic line from Warhol, who seemed to effortlessly coin so many, and whose career foreshadowed and celebrated the infusion of money into every supposedly sacred domain. A century ago, Max Weber wrote, “The Puritan wanted to live a vocational life—we are forced to.” We could update this statement for the social media age by saying that past generations wanted to be famous, but we are forced to be. What was an opportunity for Andy Warhol or Glenn O’Brien is now a job for me and you. Again, today’s elite culture is tomorrow’s mass culture. While that seems like a promise of ever-increasing abundance, it’s not: As luxuries trickle down they degrade and even become compulsory, while the original rarified experience or its equivalent remains just as expensive if not more so. The evolution of air travel and car ownership exemplify this, as does Facebook’s expansion beyond college campuses. Warhol, an oracle of the post-scarcity conditions that electronic media had begun to usher in, seemed to realize that work and play would increasingly commingle if not converge.
Contemporary life is characterized less by “post-scarcity conditions” than by the contrast between digital post-scarcity and stubbornly persistent physical scarcity. This poses an ongoing existential crisis for humans: The sources of unlimited abundance narrow our potential contributions to society but still don’t fulfill our bodily needs. Man cannot live on bread alone, nor information. We find ourselves stalled out on the middle tiers of Maslow’s pyramid, with our value as consumers increasing relative to our value as producers (this shift is even imprinted on our global cities, where consumption inexorably crowds out production). AI, with its perceived threat to automate a vast array of jobs, seems like the apotheosis of post-scarcity existence, but in reality it just highlights how the dumb human component of so much work is that work’s essential and enduring quality. For years, it has seemed obvious to me that corporate PowerPoint decks should be the first thing we automate, but there’s one major obstacle: The purpose of a PowerPoint deck is to prove that a human knew enough about a topic to make the deck. If an AI found itself making a PowerPoint presentation to another AI, they would just shake hands (figuratively) and agree to nix the whole effort. One popular critique of crypto is that its necessarily costly proof of work amounts to a wasteful energy burn, but maybe we’re just offended when such proof of work isn’t left to us humans. And maybe even parties aren’t so much work as proof of work—fundamentally impossible to automate, and only as good as the people who attend.
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The last issue was about the aesthetics of content overproduction and text as decorative background imagery.
Max Pain (A Recent History), an excellent report by Nemesis (from December) about the post-pandemic zeitgeist/malaise. “The volatility of the past two years has created a landscape that demands an increasingly sophisticated consumer, one capable of managing risk in an environment where it is almost impossible to do so.”
John Herrman on the junkification of Amazon. An example of how the internet becoming shittier can be part of platforms’ overall strategy.
The rise of the shoppy shop—“smallwashing” and why every boutique grocer looks the same.