Brooklyn Shrugged: New Media’s Bottomliners

An interesting fault line in American opinion breaks down heavily along one detail: those who have and those who have not read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This is not an endorsement of the book, just the opposite. The distinction is not conservative / liberal, but between people who have read it, whether they liked it or not, and people who discarded it because they felt it was so ridiculous they could not take it seriously (okay usually liberals).

Regardless of your position on the book, its triumph is the individual, who embodies our latest American revolution. Ayn’s objectified human archetype is what New Media’s bottomliners strive for; the type who would, at all costs attempt to discard the inherent human need for introversion, connectivity and complexity in favor of a simplified, emotionless, materialized world view and very gendered dominant/submissive sexual binary. Everything fits into boxes. Go into any advertising agency today and you will find people who love this book trying to put all of us, everyone in the world, into boxes to sell us things. They pay for those books of paper shown above, many of which are little more than glorified catalogs at this point.

Rand’s “secondhanders” – the moochers if you will – take on an interesting new meaning in a world of advertiser media. In our new media world, bottomliners are the moochers of culture, the greed-is-good proponents of this brand of objectivist singularity, imposed from the top down by marketing types separated by six degrees from anything resembling authentic culture. Like in Atlas Shrugged, now the individual is only celebrated for being normcore, consumed by monoculture. To ironically like Miley Cyrus or The Real Housewives franchise is to die a little inside. Corporate cultural movements are externalized as material products: the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, the car we drive, the music we listen to, and so on. The only thing that matters in this culture ultimately is green; it is its price tag. Without our attention it will die.

This is why we see a lot of content in Brooklyn, about Brooklyn, geared towards this page view perspective – the neighborhood power ranking competition, the divide and conquer POV, the immense amounts of knowledge we carry about the controversy of babies in bars, or cribs at restaurants, of not-researched factoids about fluctuating real estate prices – and not, actually useful knowledge about Brooklyn beyond its press releases about fashionistas and slow organic local whatevers. Those things are great, but they are not Brooklyn, we are all Brooklyn, and we are not all hipsters at fault for the apocalypse as some new media would have you believe.

The Brooklyn cultural exportation that everyone talks about – a place being the “Brooklyn” of that area – isn’t about exporting culture that is exclusive to our borough, it’s actually based on an economic theory of the University of Toronto urban theorist professor Richard Florida. His concept is “high bohemians” – artists, gay people, intellectuals – are the communities that grow everywhere and create positive circumstances for economic, environment and social benefit. Developers and real estate investors follow the artists into communities they never would have considered previously. These communities are used to grease the wheels of development, sending away the environmental and social benefits the original community established, to people who can afford to pay a premium for it, rather than spend their time investing in it. Politicians have read his books and recognized how to utilize these communities for their political benefit. Media builds empires reporting on it. Luxury condos appear and boom, this is then packaged as the “Brooklyn” of where ever, because its population, at some point, sought to be bohemian.

This parallels the content for and about so-called high bohemians on the internet, where our data is our culture. There we are externalized as information objects based on our innermost subjective desires. This enhances our predictability, to label us and place each of us as individual scatter plot points on a humanity sized graph.

Right now it’s monoculture that is in charge, and it pays lip service to all things at once while believing in nothing at all. It will show you anything you want to look at on the internet. It will build convenient systems to drain your browsers and devices of information. On this internet everything and nothing are possible. Humans are not celebrated for the complex and conflicting truths that each of us carries within us – our intricacies and only-ness – but rather our ability to come together at massive scale for communal groupthink.

This is supported by a marketing culture that says by tacit implication your attributes are ugly, buy these. It separates us out into those boxes based on our consumer preferences, our differences, rather than our universal and equal humanness. This is how, despite our connectivity, we are disconnected. We are alienated by the images that are reflected back at us, because we do not recognize them. They are mediated, and we are mediated from seeing each other honestly.

Rebecca Traister wrote in the New Republic on the feminist discourse around Sheryl Sandbery’s book Lean In:

It’s an example of how we are encouraged–by the media that publishes our stories and a culture that tells us that we are each other’s biggest problems–to engage issues of inequity and double-standards as intra-gender divisions, and not as larger complaints lodged against men or the civic and economic institutions they still control.

They just want our page view impressions to sell ads against, not true discourse or dialogue. Though monoculture isn’t a color or gender, its imperial nature has been the calling card of mostly white male Europeans who control the national discourse in America and ultimately much of the world. This is shifting as monoculture isn’t about color and culture so much as it is about money. Monoculture has been forced by the progressive movements of the last half century into opening its gatekeeping positions to women, gay and multiracial people to adapt to its environment.

The multicultural communities that are antidotes to monoculture are decentralized, scattered about the globe with the same problems in different area codes. People in these communities struggle to have their voices and experiences heard and seen by the monoculture media world, and often toil against each other in scenarios of relative privilege as witnessed in the discourse around Lean In. I think a lot of the discourse has been good even if ugly at times, as it uncovered a lot of ignorance and started a discussion about feminism, class and race. However, if we are having the debate in spaces that are heteronormative, monocultural and isolationist in social connectivity, like say Facebook, then it will be difficult to make the kind of transition a lot of people want to see in how our media, our narratives and storytelling reflects back our many cultures. Ultimately, those spaces are going to put you in a box and create a space where you will spend a lot of time bickering, whether it’s the reaction to your status update, or the ads on your sidebar. (Still have those? Get this.)

For me, Lean In blew open the door to a new thing I think of as objectivist feminism, a world where women can now also strive to be Ayn’s protagonist John Galt – now in sleak skirt suit! When her monoculturalist perspective and the subjectivity of women of color met in discourse online, particularly with the response from bell hooks, all of a sudden what was missing from Lean In became apparent between the lines in stark contrast to the book’s white preciousness. This is not unlike an earlier feminist in the same vein, Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan. Just as there are lessons to be learned from John Galt’s self reliance and radical self expression, he is flawed. I don’t at all discount that both of these feminist treatises, also flawed, have positively empowered people to share their subjectivity. I believe from their flaws and failures we can all learn to become better and take another step towards progress.

It’s an interesting concept that I’ve heard from a lot of white people who think they can take Sandberg’s feminism and in some sense “fork it” for those communities whom monoculture media see as “other” in some top down gift of liberation from the hierarchy above. Your onlyness – a term I’m borrowing from the brilliant Nilofer Merchant – is the important part, it’s what makes you, you. Your subjective onlyness, your intersectionality, pairs with your universal human qualities to connect you to your culture, your community, outwardly, from the ground up. This can no longer be imposed upon by another culture, the concept of assimilation in America is dead.

The imposition of the monoculture meritocracy is the new assimilation. It marks territories around racial boundaries and says you have to be one of these, teaches new generations old ideas about what it means to be a citizen, a human, and to be valued, or not. Monoculture silences multiculture; it is externalized corporate culture versus our inner organic creativity and intelligence. It says, this is what a family looks like; this is what success looks like; this is what a man or woman looks like, and you better be one or the other; buy into a version of it; it implies that existence outside of its rules is void, meaningless, stupid or worse, despicable and untrustworthy – outside the meritocracy. For monoculture, it takes too much effort to deal with the complexities and nature of humans. Who has any time for that?

Making news media means imposing the old media model of picking a perceived audience with whom to develop a connection as a salable basis for a business. That model varies according to how much value can be derived from the audience’s attributes – their metadata. If you are a white man or woman with a college education and work in law, finance, healthcare or the like, and say are flipping through the pages of Vanity Fair, well, a company paid over $150K for you to look at that page. If you are a young multicultural feminist reading BUST, well, that company paid around $6K for you to look at that page. This may be the basis of eventual redlining in media.

When social media’s knowledge of us is paired with opaque technology, this gets even more intrusive and specific according to our ability to consume. Now is a time when most of us are naturally moving away from cultural or racially segregated existences into organic global multicultural settings and movements. While there have been revolutions and evolutions thanks to social media and new media technology, sometimes our already established networks makes it harder to break out of them or their perceived expectations, and with every generational update, our social problems are multiplied.

Piecemeal information in short snippets to a passive and fragmented audience – rather than a community – works towards the opposite end of democracy, but it maximizes profits in the current media model because all they need is to register an impression to make money. Previously, you derived some value from the content that advertisers were paying for, but now that is the exception to the rule. For some, doing good business means providing ambiguous or malevolent information with wide reach. Unless media can sell a large set of data demographics to marketers, the marketplace will not support their speech.

To be effective now and in the future, news businesses need to build trust with media stakeholders. In exchange for sustaining an open dialogue and ethical news, programming like Democracy Now, PBS or NPR, that organization provides immediate and, hopefully, honest information and cultural connection to a community. There is a layer of inexplicable magic there that is not as sexy on a balance sheet – the trusted source that begets financial contribution or a recurring subscription that internet media is starting to catch onto with Andrew Sullivan, Angie’s List and more. This is a special sauce only a few organizations have thus far balanced well, centering their business plan around the ethics of reporting valuable information that does not take page view impressions into account.

I get piles of mail touting offers from magazines to my home mostly aimed at my partner Rhett. He’s (the best) white guy in his 30s with a master’s degree, check, check, check. (Sorry honey, I love you!) Recently one offer arrived hocking a nice gift and virtually free subscription to the New Yorker in print and digital formats. That’s all well and good – but he already has a New Yorker subscription for which he pays 600% more than their offer. You’d think they would have cross-referenced their databases. Their note read, “In order to guarantee that we reach the audience we are meant to serve, the Publisher has authorized us to offer THE NEW YORKER to selected professionals at a special rate.” Meant. To. Serve. Manifest Destiny as magazine subscription? (Why was publisher in caps, like God?)

The reason they would undercut themselves in such a counter intuitive manner is because they want Rhett to be their product, not their customer. They are selling data and the most valuable data is that of a person they assume has the most buying power: a white educated man. He fits the type of reader they wish to coax because advertisers will pay a premium for his eyeballs on the print product – not on his iPhone or Kindle, though the magazine might get a larger chunk of cash out of his wallet from that $5.99 per month rate (minus Apple’s 30% cut) than at the special ‘you’re the right demographic’ rate.

Mass media’s motto in the new media era has been squeezing more value out of less; instead of creating more value for more people. That means Condé Nast is ostensibly undermining shifting to a new model to bring in $5.99 per month on a digital product – with far wider potential profit margins in the long run than they ever had in the print model – to maintain an advertising system that cares most about racial and class considerations as consumption bottom lines, over common humanity’s information needs in a democracy.

A few questions to consider:

Why should our media know any more about us than we offer to tell them?

Why would these companies continue to do this as the journalists who work for them simultaneously worry about the privacy of their sources and ability to do the job of reporting news?

Should data scientists and journalists consider this as part of their ethical standards when building an audience for a company, say Condé Nast?

Who owns Reddit?

This is the third article in a series based on a solo session Nicole hosted at SXSW 2014 called The Subjective Objective: Building Maker Media

Nicole Brydson Written by:

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