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Unintended Consequences

jack_solomon
Author
Author
1 3 918

It could be argued that the biggest popular cultural phenomenon of our era has been the advent of digital technology and the Internet—a techo-cultural intervention at least as profound as television, in its time, and cinema.  To adapt the old McCluhan phrase from the pre-digital age, here the medium is indeed both message and massage, and there is no limit to the number of analyses of just what that message is.  But there is one angle on the significance of the Net that, while not entirely ignored, could use some deeper exploration, and that is the effect that it has had on the socio-economic and political situation in America today.

Timothy B. Lee's article, "Pokemon Go is Everything that is Wrong with Capitalism" (which will appear in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.), does a good job of showing how the economics of the digital explosion have redistributed American wealth into a small number of prosperous enclaves—like California's Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach, along with Seattle and Boston-Cambridge—at the expense of much of the rest of the country.  Languishing at the margins of the new economy, such regions (which comprise most of the Midwest and the South) have stagnated—an entirely unintended postindustrial consequence that goes a long way towards explaining the popularity of Donald Trump in regions that were once considered safely Democratic strongholds, like Michigan and Wisconsin.  And so it is especially ironic that Donald Trump himself makes such use of digital social media (especially Twitter, of course) to build and maintain his power base.

But there has been another, related effect, that has received rather less attention.  This is the socio-economic effect that the digital era has had on those places where the new economy has taken hold.  I am particularly sensitive to this because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and now live in Southern California.  The inflation that has been experienced in such areas—especially with respect to housing—is rendering it increasingly impossible for anyone but high income people to live there (this isn't whining: I purchased my present home 28 years ago and live in the sort of setting I prefer, but I would hate to be house hunting in my area today).  The result can be seen in the way that traditionally low income neighborhoods in, say, San Francisco and Venice, are being transformed, as young software engineers who want to live in the city and bicycle to work, move into the last areas where rents are affordable, thus driving up the rents astronomically, so that soon they will no longer be low income neighborhoods.

 

It is important for me to say that none of this was intended, and no individuals should be blamed (though a lot of such people are being blamed).  Young men and women who have worked hard to get their technological training—and simply want to live decent lives in which they can demonstrate their dedication to sustainability by choosing to live where they will not have to rely on their cars to get to work—are not culpable.  But the fact is that, whether we are looking at urban, suburban, or exurban neighborhoods anywhere in the vicinity of the great digital economic hubs, there is no place anymore for anyone but the upper-middle class, or those who already own there or are protected by rent control (an idea whose day is passing, by the way, under the same inflationary pressures).

 

It is also important for me to say that I cannot think of any solution to the problem.  To use that rather dismal verbal shoulder shrug, it is what it is.  If I had children of my own (I don't) I would feel compelled (with great reluctance) to tell them that if they want to live in a reasonably secure and pleasant manner, they are going to have to make plans to pursue high paying careers—not to be rich but simply to be able live in the middle class.  And that means, in all probability, STEM-related careers (including medicine), now that the Law (that economic mainstay of my generation of Humanities majors) has ceased to be a reliable escape hatch into the upper-middle class. 

 

That isn't the fault of the digital era, but it is a consequence of it, and we musn't try to conceal that fact.

 

3 Comments
sherry_mooney
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

These are interesting repercussions of technology in part because I think there was a real belief that technology would be both an economic but also a geographic equalizer.  In principle, those who develop technology could live and work anywhere in the world, yet startup culture is predicated on the alluring idea of a handful of people in a shabby office, eating company-provided takeout while they solve the next generation of tech concerns.  It seems to me that it is the culture surrounding the technology - and not the technology itself - that is creating this polarization of capital.  

I wonder if this is a phenomenon that might sort itself out as people who cannot afford to live in Silicon Valley or other tech hubs begin to push back for remote working situations - or as less technical jobs further embrace technology and the remote employee.  There is a great deal to sort out - is salary based on the work you do or the place you live, for one thing - but it could be an eventual light at the end of the tunnel, because it would return jobs (and people with money to spend) to a more diverse range of economies.  However, I don't see it helping the most impoverished or least educated communities, so there is still a great deal of work to be done...just as soon as we figure out how... 

jack_solomon
Author
Author

Of course there is another side to the matter that I didn't mention in the blog: the great tech hubs tend to be associated with areas where institutions of higher education are also concentrated, and such areas tend to be highly desirable to talented workers.  There is a flip side to this: without naming names, there are regions in which higher education—especially scientific education—is denigrated.  Such regions do not tend to generate technology startups—or even branches—and do not attract the kind of people who make high tech firms tick.  So, of course, you get a vicious cycle that greatly contributes to a redistribution not only of economic opportunity but of the people who create economic opportunity in the postindustrial era as well.  This is why the increasing domination of technology in our economy is not likely to smooth itself out, geographically speaking: those regions where people are awaiting a return to a pre-postindustrial economy will continue to languish, for even if tech workers were allowed to telecommute from such areas, they would be unlikely to want to live there, no matter how attractive the housing market.

sherry_mooney
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

Which means that this new frontier (to use a term that's been applied very effectively elsewhere) of technology is unavailable, or potentially even rejected, in enormous swaths of the country.  Yes, I see how that will negate any potential benefit of remote work options. It also further underscores the ferocity of the college affordability conversations in recent years.  If education is the gateway to this new frontier, then access to education becomes vitally important.  And if education - especially scientific education - is rejected, then the frontier is also rejected, which creates a lamentable, but also understandable, sense of hopelessness and anger. No frontier means no possibility for growth or expansion.  Bother.  I also can't see a solution.  I'll have to keep thinking.    

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.