Cognitive Capitalism: What Is It, If Anything?

phrenology map

For decades, scholars, activists and social critics have grappled with how to characterize the economic shift that has transformed the United States—and, indeed, the world—since the 1960s.  I have written elsewhere about the analytic challenge observers face in giving this change a name: postindustrial? Informational? Service? High-tech? Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine were among the first out of the gate, noting the decline of manufacturing as a relative proportion of employment and speaking of the “postindustrial society” in the early 1970s. (Bell had been using the term for a while, but his 1973 book helped put it on the map.)  The late futurist Alvin Toffler, in his breathless way, … [Read more...]

Into the Spaceship: A Visit to the Old Burroughs Wellcome Building

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When the pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome chose to move its headquarters from suburban New York to North Carolina in 1969, it was a major turning point for the state's growing Research Triangle Park (RTP). The park was founded in the late 1950s in a bid to attract higher-paying and more advanced industries (the word "high tech" was not common at the time) to a state that had traditionally been dependent on agriculture and low-wage industries such as textiles and furniture.  The pharma giant was one of RTP's biggest gets after IBM, and the company  helped define the image of the park with the iconic building it commissioned by celebrated modernist architect Paul Rudolph. I talk about … [Read more...]

The Sound of Motor City: Ruin Porn, Popular Memory, and Protomartyr’s Vision of 21st Century Detroit

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For the past couple years, one of the most vital sounds in music today has come out of that ruined city of the middle west, Detroit.   “Before recorded time, in some suburban room, see the devil in his youth,” Protomartyr’s Joe Casey croons over a rapid postpunk beat. “He grew up pale and healthy with the blessings of his father.” Indeed, Detroit’s residents might recognize the suburban devil depicted in the opening song of band’s third album The Agent Intellect. “His privilege came before him, the promise of adoring, the devil in his youth.” Anyone familiar with the Motor City’s postwar history knows the critical place race has played in Detroit’s rise, fall, and current but perhaps not … [Read more...]

Floridian America Redux?: Wicker Park, Hipsterdom, and Neo-Bohemia

"Turn on the bright lights" the WP after dark

“Creative people have always gravitated to certain kinds of communities such as the Left Bank in Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village,” wrote Richard Florida in his ubiquitously referenced The Rise of the Creative Class. “Such communities provide the stimulation, diversity, and richness of experiences that are the wellsprings of creativity. Now more of us are looking for the same thing.”[1] With his 2002 work, Florida staked his claim as an iconic New Economy urbanist and laid out a vision for urban growth in the new century that if not completely accurate rings true in many ways.  In general, more jobs would be based on “creative” or intellectual, knowledge-based skills rather than the … [Read more...]

Waiting for Righty: How Uber Plans to Change the World

waiting for lefty fist

Eighty years ago, Clifford Odets wrote a play about striking taxi drivers in New York City. With too many drivers on the road and bare-bottom wages, the cabbies debate whether to strike for better pay. Two years after Waiting for Lefty, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia introduced a law that limited the number of officially licensed taxis to 16,900. The point of the system? To curb the number of taxis, ensuring that the streets weren’t filled with overworked, possibly unqualified drivers desperate to find fares. The so-called “medallion” program, which made a fixed number of taxi licenses available, might have provided a safeguard for the wages of drivers, since it shielded them from the effect of … [Read more...]

The Tragicomedy of Postindustrial Labor

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Why do we play the shell game of the so-called "knowledge economy"? The reasons are many, and few of them are quite so intentional as a long con. Since the 1960s, scientists and other intellectuals have warmed to the idea of an information society because it flatters their own sense of personal importance. Intellectual property interests have found this rhetoric useful in their quest for state sanction against technologies of reproduction. Meanwhile, the incorporation of information technology into all forms of production and services has lent prestige to intellectual property and its power, creating new conveniences and advances of productivity (particularly in the 1990s) that cannot be … [Read more...]

Information Goes to School

Education concept

Education is a classic example of the confusion that arises when we reframe all different kinds of economic sectors in terms of information. A scholar once challenged my critique of the idea of the information economy, asking during a talk if it was not true that piracy undermined the economy by threatening the livelihood of people who make intellectual property. “I produce intellectual property,” he said, “and I think it deserves to be protected.” My response was only to ask how many people actually produce intellectual property. “In this room,” I said, looking around a seminar full of history professors, “that number is approaching 100%.” The answer may seem simple in the company of … [Read more...]

Stroking the Platypus

Time Enough at Last

What is information, though? And what is intellectual property? These questions bring us back to the issue of alienation, and the purported difference between industrial and service or knowledge labor. The celebrated sociologist Manuel Castells acknowledges that “information, in its broadest sense, e.g. as communication of knowledge, has been critical in all societies,” but he also maintains that the late twentieth century saw the rise of “a specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing, and transmission became the fundamental sources of productivity and power…”[1] What does it mean that information (and the handling of information) is the main source of … [Read more...]

The Thing Called Information: Understanding Alienation in the Post-Industrial Economy

Knowledge workers?

“Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.” “That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.” “Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become." Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl. - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle, 1963[1] The late Kurt Vonnegut loved to skewer the irrationality of both science and religion in his novels. In the acclaimed Cat’s Cradle, he invented Bokononism—a faith that encouraged its adherents to believe in lies or, at least, “harmless … [Read more...]

ToM “Besties” of 2014

TOM best of montage

Hello there. You are now witnesses to a kind of confrontation between me and these three men. And it ain’t so simple, treasonous crime. No it ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why When Detroit’s Protomartyr released their 2014 album Under Color of Official Right (itself eerily descriptive of public discourse from all sides this year), how could they have known their mix of Wire-like punk dirges would be emblematic of the last 12 months? The year seemed punctuated by rough arguments, sometimes violent confrontations, and the kind of disagreements that as Protomartyr sings, “Ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why.” Yet, our little blog dedicated to engaging these sorts of “conflicts” … [Read more...]

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