Harpers Magazine, Some Assembling Required

Nathan Schneider mentions me an article about Occupy Wall Street in this month’s Harpers Magazine.

18th century philosophy, 19th century institutions, 20th century outlook, and 21st century problems

I don’t trust Schneider’s language of betrayal, when he writes (as he has in previous articles):

“Reports about the planned occupation trickled out slowly, though, and mostly online. They betrayed the biases of the Internet: much discussion of Adbusters, U.S. Day of Rage, and, Anonymous, but hardly anything about the NYC General Assembly – which, despite not having an active website, still constituted the closest thing to a guaranteed turnout on the seventeenth.”

One cannot divorce Occupy Wall Street from the World Wide Web. It’s an open source beta-test of assembly and association brought about by the coming of age of the Internet generation; and the ineffectiveness of political parties and unions, except as fund raising vehicles. Consider it an attempt to reclaim the civic space; which, for many includes the Internet itself.

Shifting political, socio-economic landscapes remains unarticulated in our public discourse, because they are obscured, as it were, by narrow-minded extremities on the left and right of our corporate politic.

When Schneider or the mainstream media try to characterize swarms or social media, they fall back onto stereotypes or traditional mechanics of organized politics.

Those mechanics are certainly at play within American politics, and within the New York City General Assembly, and even within the movement called Occupy Wall Street. But, so is a generational shift between the boomers’ traditional forms of organized politics (built with heavy social capital), and the Internet generation’s swarms (built with myriad but equally important weak social ties). In fact, the tension lends itself, in part, to our nation’s myopia and Occupy Wall Street’s complexity.

This generational gap is largely unnoticed by boomers and their progeny. This generation is not fighting to emancipate itself from the past. It is fighting to emancipate itself from the future.

When the notion of property applies to the genes in our bodies or the ideas in our heads then an 18th century philosophy, 19th century institutions, 20th century outlook, and 21st century challenges present a vision many of us cannot afford to bank on, built on, or believe in. In fact, this kind of myopia is leading us into the dark ages.

While “the baby boom included the largest U.S. birth cohort to date, the game generation will ultimately outdo the baby boom in size… [and] in scope” notes John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade in their study of the game generation’s influence on organizational values.

The total size of the game generation is already greater than the baby boom ever was,” and the whole generation of gamers, “including X and Y and letters to be named later-simply approach the world differently than their predecessors.”

This new American generation is more transient and diverse then our predecessors. It takes globalization for granted, meaning from the point of view of the valley, not the mountaintop. It distrusts traditional forms of organized politics. It organizes by ideas and place – but place, as an experience.

Horizontalism in Corporate America

Even ‘horizontalism’ has been developing for years in corporate America. Stephen Barley notes in The New World of Work that the entire economy has moved towards a more horizontal division of labor and hyper-specialization.

A natural outcome of this development is a “horizontal labor market” with people tending to move laterally instead of vertically. “Climbing the corporate ladder is not much of an option,” writes urban planner Richard Florida: “Perhaps because there isn’t as much of a ladder in many of today’s leaner, flatter firms – and it is liable to shift or vanish before you’re halfway up.”

People bear more of responsibility and risks for their careers. Individual workers now invest more of their own time and resources into education and skill acquisition than at any other time before.

The trend is particularly acute among IT professionals, who, according to Rosemary Batt and Susan Christopherson , spend an additional 13.5-hours per week obtaining new skills: all of it unpaid.

Information Economy and the Creative Class

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida identifies the emergence of a new economic and social class of “thirty-eight million Americans roughly thirty percent of the entire U.S. workforce,” whose creativity is the driving force of our nation’s economic growth.

Today in the U.S, the creative class is larger than the traditional working class. The service class is the largest of all. The growth of the service class, according to Florida, is largely a response to the demands of the creative economy on the time deficit in the personal lives of the creative economies workhorses.

Regions have also segmented along class lines. I noticed in the run up to Occupy Wall Street that the political foment began in suffering working and service class areas like Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Idaho, followed by creative class hubs in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Austin.

War on Fear, Asymmetric Opportunities

Assemblies and swarms comprised of nameless, faceless, friends, and mother @#$%^ take place in virtual spaces too. They are a fundamental part of the history of Occupy Wall Street. They will also continue to be a fundamental part of our political landscape.

To cry foul because they created outreach, or minimize their role, in some kind of modernist shadow puppetry, is a betrayal to the facts of what those assemblies and people accomplished, and to the reality of the world that we live in today.

Asymmetry isn’t only a threat, it is an opportunity.