The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…
This review of former Rust Belt cities (from the US and Europe) is way too long to do a thorough post on, so I’ll offer some thoughts below.
- The premise is that Rust Belt cities are far from doomed – instead, according to the authors, they are the next source of innovation and are a burgeoning market in and of themselves.
- They look at cities like Akron and Dresden, and highlight leadership, universities, big companies that are trying to remain innovative, and government initiatives as the reasons for these changes.
- Their optimism is tempered a bit by some of the challenges they see – more smart technology (and some emotional intelligence) is still needed for leadership, more focus on developing products rather than experiences or systems, more support for universities. They identify these problems, and thankfully don’t rename them opportunities.
- The authors have done a lot of traveling and have talked to a lot of the people who are driving innovation, and they use mostly these interviews (with a few well-chosen stats) to make their argument. That approach makes sense, and helps me appreciate Piketty’s intensively thorough approach even more. As a reviewer on goodreads commented that this book is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that methodology leaves a lot out…
- I’m troubled by the fact that there seems to be little focus on the folks left behind. Again, this argument fits neatly into the narrative that claims that smart technology will save us all, and the fact that robotics seems to mean that the work left for humans (yay capitalism!) will be either gathering all the money at the top or doing the dirtiest, meanest jobs that require some human decision-making (i.e., strawberry-picking), since building a machine to do that work would be more expensive than paying people minimum-wage and not offering them benefits doesn’t seem to occur to the authors.
- This part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 argument always seems the shakiest to me – it feels like such a dystopian, cyberpunk future, with elements of The Circle thrown in for good measure. The alternative seems so utopian as to be ridiculous…
- Despite my pessimism, though, I sincerely hope their vision of the future comes true.
I spent a recent beautiful Saturday in April visiting the AlphaLab Gear facilities in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Cole Wolfson was our host, and we both learned a lot and had a great time. Thoughts and a picture below:
- I am guessing that Pittsburgh in particular is appreciative of Gov. Thornburgh’s vision of the future, because unlike a lot of the rest of the Rust Belt Pittsburgh has been a bright spot (with a few hiccups) as far as economic restructuring.
- Prioritizing small, technically innovative businesses is still a sound development strategy, one my own town of Akron has followed with some success (as exemplified by the Bounce Innovation Hub, among other spaces). The fact that AlphaLab Gear, Pittsburgh edition, still makes a solid return on the investment the tax money the state grants them speaks to the long-term prospects of this approach.
- I’m always the idealist, and the success of these types of spaces (and their commitment to intentional, deliberate, and community-based innovation) makes me feel that we can solve our problems if we trust in local people.
Joel Kotkin argues in The Next Hundred Million that the United States adding another hundred million people by 2050, but unlike many he thinks that our country can handle the population increase. Thoughts below:
- Kotkin believes wholeheartedly I guess that we will absorb this next round of immigration by being relentlessly centrist. He critiques the extremes on both sides, and sees a smartly-regulated suburbia as our future.
- He also sees this future as being based in the United States because he sees us as being resource-rich and essentially optimistic. I hope that his optimism survived the rabid squirrels that mark Trump.
- Kotkin is an economist by trade, and he relentlessly pours through demographic data to come up with his conclusions. He seems to be uncertain as to why people could come to other conclusions…
- He’s sort of Panglossian, but I admire that – it’s way easier to blow up the world metaphorically, I think, then to propose solutions.
- The problem is that the solutions are a bit shallow – they are deeply grounded in solutions that he sees as human-centered, but there’s not much there yet in terms of actual policy proposals that are located in local government. He does advocate for local control, so maybe that’s why.
- He’s so immersed in data that his argument seems to lack emotional intelligence. That may not be fair – in person he might be remarkably emotionally intelligent – but this look at the future is devoid of much in the ways of story-telling. If he had added story-telling then the book would have doubled in size, but that might have been worth it.
- In particular his story examples feel cherry-picked a bit. He often uses one author or figure to represent a very wide range of thought, and the person he peaks is ridiculously extreme. For instance, to criticize environmentalism he quotes Paul Watson, who is definitely not a scientist.
- Thus the book often takes on a scolding tone. I guess if he thinks we’re going to make it we need to be scolded a bit…
- In a weird twist I’m reading Piketty right now as well, and I don’t think that he and Kotkin disagree on the symptoms. The only time that Kotkin gets negative is when he talks about increasing inequality. I’m not sure that he’s anti-tax, so he might even favor Piketty’s solutions as well. I guess I’m not sure that Piketty shares Kotkin’s optimism, but that might not mean much…
Kessler’s Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work is a sobering look at the rise and very quick fall of the gig economy. She pays particular attention to some of the positive stories within it in addition to chronicling the myriad problems, and the second half of her title feels particularly accurate as she looks carefully at the options that employees (and to some extent employers) have as their jobs disappear.
- The format of the book moves from case studies of employees (and one employer) to a bit more extensive look at the nature of work, all of this backed by Kessler’s work at Quartz.
- It features stories of some who have made it in the gig economy, some who have done okay, some who have been harmed by it. None of the stories are easy or simple, and even the gig economy thriver (a programmer from New York) provides one of the ending stories by taking a full-time job with SpaceX.
- Kessler raises many of the questions we need to raise, and finishes by noting that if we are to implement a gig economy we will need to provide much more infrastructure support.
- It sounds as if some politicians are trying (she interviews Mark Warner from Virginia, who has introduced legislation to help gig workers and the Obama administration implemented a policy or two), and some unions are trying to address labor concerns as well, but the task is a tremendously difficult one, especially in an environment of fear.
- I found particularly compelling her look at the ways in which even companies that try to do the right thing struggle because of the enormity of the task at hand, and I think of John Rawls’s good capitalist. Being a good capitalist requires an intentionality that is tremendously difficult, and in Rawls’s configuration results in the company either being bought or going out of business.
- Rawls’s depiction feels pretty accurate at this point, despite lots of tech company bullshit about being pro-worker.
- Her look at unions comes in stark contrast to McClelland’s nostalgia for hard-line, old-school, fight-the-boss-at-all-costs union workers of the pre-NAFTA days. I’m pretty sure I get both, and McClelland may eventually be right in that the only response to corporate and 1 percent greed lies in direct, intentional, uncompromising resistance, but my wimpy side says that I’m not willing to pay the cost – unlike several of the folks who McClelland interviewed.
- This look is encompassed within a broader section that looks at responses to the conditions that employees find themselves in. She seems particularly sympathetic to the effects that fighting this economy will have, and two of her stars – a woman who has decided to become a lawyer fighting for the rights of workers based on her experience at Mechanical Turk, and a young man in rural Arkansas trying to better understand how to help poor people become more financially secure.
- She also highlights the increasing immobility of class in the US, citing this study.
- She briefly mentions robots and AI, noting that AI will replace many of the most vulnerable jobs in our economy. She also in a very reporter-like fashion talks about UBI, and she comes to no conclusions about it.
Edward McClelland’s Nothing but Blue Skies: the Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland struck me, hard. As a fellow white, straight, middle class Gen Xer who grew up in the midwest, I understand his voice, and while he irritated the shit out of me at points I have a lot of respect for the unflinching eye he casts upon the region where I’m from.
- Part of what irritates me is what I perceive as an undertone that says identity does not matter. That is patently not true, and I do not think that said in that way McClelland would agree with it, but his point of view comes very close to feeling at the very least unsympathetic to the very real lived experience of people who are not straight, white, and middle-class.
- I won’t throw out this book and his arguments though because he does a far better job than I of actually gathering lived experiences from a lot of different people. He demonstrates a real empathy for the poor and the blue collar who are now poor, and shows that empathy by hanging out and gathering stories.
- This is not a series of stories from city fathers explaining why people should come back – it’s a bunch of stories of folks who are suffering the real effects of the Rust Belt’s decline – and who may not be entirely without fault in it failing in the first place.
- That said, this is not Charlie LeDuff channeling Dashiell Hammett. McClelland takes much more of an anthropologist’s approach, and while he hangs out among the people he writes about he does not pretend to share their lives. We need LeDuff too, don’t get me wrong, but McClelland is able to step back and see a lot more flaws without forgetting that their may be good things too.