December 04, 2003

The Support Economy, Shoshanna Zuboff, James Maxmin

Subtitle: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism.

I couldn't finish the book. I couldn't even skim it properly, so this is not a fair review. Possibly someone will come along and tell me what I missed, but mostly this is a placeholder to tie this Of the Moment! book into some history in the queue.

Now. My extremely patchy summary of the book is that the best employment opportunity for anyone who would need to worry about such a thing is - as a servant. Maybe as a timeshare servant, a concierge of the call center. (Ancien regime French is an odd choice of euphemism for a class system.) The New Enterprise Logic, through (thought-experiment) a support federation, pays all their routine bills... also pays their credit cards... and maintains cumulative records... renews memberships, makes insurance payments, pays subscriptions, and stores personal information about passwords, pin numbers, etc. ... SweetSupport checks with the [clients] to confirm payment amounts.... The support federation has lots of cost-comparison and projection software, and friendly people answering the phones for their personal clients. Its backend services are distributed among similar support federations, magically (?) leading to efficiency and transparency instead of monopsony and technological lock-in.

I don't see why that's a reasonable business; most of those functions should come built into one's mass-market OS in three years, and I certainly see risks in storing all my data with someone else. There's a cyberpunk novel lurking about the hideous call-center jobs at SweetSupport, and how two lonely peons gaslight the worst clients. It has three endings: one of cruel discovery and revenge in all directions; one in which the peons discover where the cash is really coming from and reroute it to themselves; one in which the whole world changes for the better.

Some of the other principles of the book are clearly meant to explain why this won't turn into a dystopia; for instance, The distribution of value thus leads to a more extensive distribution of ownership than was the case under managerial capitalism. Apparently one is likely to be an equity holder of the federation one uses; and all value originates in the trust of the individual... I really, especially don't get that part. It seems to be derived from No cash is released into the federation and its enterprises until the individual pays. What, it falls off trees now? Also, how is this balanced against the remaining material economy, which doesn't get smaller as people get rich and networked?¹ Why doesn't this turn into a system in which the few with a claim on natural resources or important IP or political power get all the "support"?

But, as I say, I couldn't read the book, so don't trust me. Why couldn't I read it? Because the second paragraph of the first chapter begins:

In the second half of the twentieth century a new society of individuals emerged - a breed of people unlike any the world has ever seen. Educated, informed, traveled, they work with their brains, not their bodies. They do not assume that their lives can be patterned after their parents' or grandparents'. Throughout human history the problem of identity was settled in one way - I am my mother's daughter; I am my father's son. But in a discontinuous and irreversible break with the past, today's individuals seek the experiences and insights that enable them to find the elusive pattern in the stone, the singular pattern that is "me." Their sense of self is more intricate, acute, detailed, vast, and rich than at any other time in human history.

The arguments seem to be based on the obvious discontent most people have with the current system, for instance widespread distrust of institutions, poor chances at promotion for most women; and they claim to be proposing a system in which everyone is better off. The haze of self-congratulation and chronological exceptionalism quoted above put me off all my attempts to find out why this won't collapse into a servant system. Maybe in the middle they propose a robot-supported Basic Income.

¹ In, oh, 1998, 1999, a coworker at Microsoft announced that the long nightmare of history was going to end because the economy had become digital! There was enough to go around!

We were in a 'Soft parking lot at the time, or rather standing under an arcade between a low fountain and rather a nice piece of environmental sculpture looking at the parking lot, and a more massive announcement that people with software wanted to trade it for material by the glossy long ton would be hard to state. As I remember, I said that archaeologists of the future would find at least as much Stuff among the rich of the '90s as among the rich of previous strata; probably more. I don't remember a rebuttal; vanity precludes memory.

ISBN: 0-670-88736-6

So wrote clew in History (21st c.). | TrackBack
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