Say what you will about the New Economy, that tired old tart: for me the dot-com bubble rocked. I got onboard in 1996, when the smart money was placing bets that two years later paid off fifty-to-one. That kind of action was way out of my league, but by the time the Nasdaq collapsed I was a public relations director in Manhattan’s financial district. And I was getting paid a healthy multiple of what I made in my previous career as a housepainter (with an MFA) in a Rust Belt city whose name is always preceded by the phrase “economically depressed.”
My job during the bubble was to get the money people interested in companies like MrWakeup.com. Remember them? No? Okay, how about Pets.com? Sure, you remember that one. The cute sock puppet. Commercials during the Super Bowl. I had nothing to do with that. But guess which dot-com is still around? That’s right, Mr. Wakeup. Why? If I knew, my personal assistant would be writing this essay. A better question is: where did my six-figure salary go? My apartment with the great view of the World Trade Center? And why am I back in Economically Depressed making less than I did as a graduate student?
The short answer is simple. I got laid off. I could have moved on to another PR gig, I suppose, but I didn’t. The peculiar features of the New Economy workplace that made such work tolerable, chief among them mobility, vaporized along with my stock options. At the height of the boom there was always a better job, a bigger paycheck, or a cooler boss across town. It was possible to believe that humanity—humane dispositions, humanities degrees—actually had some value in the corporate world. To put it another way, it was possible to believe that there really was a New Economy.
Naturally, I wasn’t there to be admired for my humanity; like the other kids I was there to get paid. I wanted an interesting job that subsidized an interesting life. When I got what I wanted I did good work. When I didn’t, I quit. I wasn’t unique by any means. The New Economy attracted a lot of people like me, concentrated them in a few select places like Manhattan, and fed them glorious stories about their value proposition to the organization. For a while I migrated from one technology company to the next. But no sooner would I have the pictures on my desk organized than Utopia would be laid waste, and it would be time to move on.
Why did these workplace wonderlands turn overnight into corporate gulags? This question is at the center of Andrew Ross’s new ethnographic study, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2002). Ross, director of American Studies at New York University, is well known as a sophisticated observer of cultural trends. With Silicon Alley in his backyard, he was destined eventually to enter the frenzy of Digital Age meaning-making. Oddly enough, by the time he chose to do so—on a “hunch” that the commercial media hadn’t been telling the whole story about the dot-commers—the stalls were being taken down at the fair. In November 2000, six months after the Nasdaq crashed, Ross set up shop in the headquarters of Razorfish, a “bleeding-edge” Silicon Alley firm. He remained there for sixteen long months, chatting with employees, going to parties, and scrutinizing the office decor. His gleanings make for interesting reading even if the zeitgeist has moved on.
Ross believes there is—or was—a distinct “profile of work in the knowledge industries,” as exemplified in the bohemians of Silicon Alley. He traces the lineage of these “nonconformist” no-collar workers back to roots in nineteenth-century artisan and craft traditions. At the same time he contrasts no-collar ideals and practices—“high tech skills,” “aptitude for problem-solving,” “autonomy in a data-rich workplace purged of rigid supervision and lifestyle discrimination”—with parallel traditions of the industrial assembly line worker and, later, the faceless “Organization Man.” However revolutionary Silicon Alley technologies claimed to be, Ross suggests, the mentality of the workers who employed these technologies arose from a centuries-old struggle over what work is and what it could be.
It certainly is no easy task to frame such a singular and fleeting moment, with its booming bourgeois-utopian rhetoric about erasing the old ways of conducting business and remaking everyday life. It was a moment that coined, circulated, and bankrupted a new language every financial quarter. Invented terms like “dot-com,” once signifiers for everything new and profitable, are now bit players in cheap morality tales about New Economy hubris. Wisely, Ross sidesteps the tired debate about New Economy jobs: were they “the workplace equivalent of the Big Rock Candy Mountains” or “a con job” designed to “extract long working hours and maximum enthusiasm from an impressionable and vulnerable workforce”? The important question, Ross concludes, “will be about the legacy of the kind of work environment” that flourished for a few short years at the end of the millennium.
Unfortunately, Ross’s field of observation is far too narrow to answer this question. He bases his research on Razorfish and, to a lesser extent, on 360hiphop.com, paradigmatic cool places for cool people to work.[*] He takes great pains to defend these choices, yet he seems at a loss to situate them in the vast field of possible New Economy subjects. He neglects, moreover, to give much detail about what it is exactly that Razorfish’s employees do, a peculiar omission for a study of workplace culture. Maybe that’s because his default analytical mode is psychological, not material. What you do isn’t as important as how you feel or what you think. Ross caters to Razorfish employees past the point of sympathy, and perhaps even identifies with them. He dotes on some of them as he might on his favorite seminar students. At the same time, he doesn’t listen to his new Silicon Alley friends with the same skepticism he reserves for Wall Street and the hype merchants who inflated the dot-com bubble. As a result, his analysis is strangely nuanced, almost fussy, but too thin to support his broad claims about the “nature of work” in the “digital economy.”
My experience at a handful of companies during the bubble does not make me a management expert, but I did gain a few hard-won insights. One of them is this: Bible Belt patriarchy suits New Economy firms just as well as no-collar humanism. I know this because the employer that plucked me out of the house-painting trade was just such a company. According to Ross’s criteria, Garmin International, a designer and manufacturer of GPS satellite navigation equipment, had all the makings of a worker’s paradise. Similar to Internet companies, its business was based on new technologies first developed by the Department of Defense. It was more nimble than its top-heavy defense contractor competitors. And its headquarters resembled the “high-tech office parks in the outer suburbs” (as Ross describes them) that nurtured the no-collar mentality before it became associated exclusively with urban new-media start-ups.
But when it was founded in the late eighties by two engineers, Garmin didn’t set out to break the rules. This was Kansas, not Silicon Valley. Gary Burrell and Min Kao—the eponymous “Gar” and “Min”—recreated what they already knew: a top-down corporate bureaucracy with strict hierarchies and a culture built on Christian family values. Marketing, advertising, and any profession tainted by creative enterprise was a necessary evil, best accomplished in-house, where Dad, the efficient engineer, could keep a tight rein on things. The Internet was less a promotional tool than a playground for idle hands and minds. I was one of only a handful of employees authorized for Internet access, and I had to write a memo explaining why I needed it to do my job.
Three weeks after the interview I woke up on the bare floor of my midtown Kansas City apartment and started life as a public relations specialist.
In preparation for my first interview with the public relations manager (Sherry) and the marketing director (Jon), I scrubbed the paint from my hands, bought a suit, and flew to Kansas City. On the plane I pored over the materials I’d collected on GPS technology as if I were studying for an exam. But my preparations were for naught. They didn’t care how much I knew about GPS. They weren’t impressed with my master’s degree. And they had local prospects with a lot more experience. What set me apart were my working-class roots; I was the only candidate who knew anything about hunting and fishing. Garmin wanted someone to help it crack the “outdoors” market: hunters and backpackers who might otherwise die of exposure without handheld electronic gizmos to lead them safely back to their SUVs.
Three weeks after the interview I woke up on the bare floor of my midtown Kansas City apartment and started life as a public relations specialist. Garmin headquarters was brand new, a sparkling granite and tinted glass façade wrapped around two stories of concrete on the edge of the prairie in Olathe, twenty-five miles from downtown. There was a soybean field on one side. On the other, acres of black asphalt ringed by wind-burned saplings anchored to the earth with wire.
Counting from the moment I locked my apartment door to when I returned home after a slow commute, I spent nearly twelve hours a day at work. It took me six months to acclimate. I developed a nervous twitch in my left eye. My jaw ached from chronic tension. And I lost twenty-five pounds of ladder-lifting muscle from sitting on my ass all day. At night I zoned out in front of the television. On the weekend I hung out at a coffee shop with other dilettantes or went to the movies. Mentally and physically, I was fading away. But I was good at my job. At the end of my first year I received a $3,500 raise, a promotion to “senior media liaison,” and, thanks to a new floor plan, a cubicle outside Jon’s office door.
Lacking a reference point, I had no reason to think Garmin wasn’t a good job. It was stable. The benefits were competitive. Business was booming. Loyalty and hard work were rewarded with small but predictable salary increases. And working for a high-tech manufacturer in a country that worshiped gadgets lent a certain dash to the most mundane chores. My father, a high-school-educated city police captain who ran a small construction business when he wasn’t on patrol, had gritted his teeth through my graduate school years, wondering when I was going to become a responsible member of society. For the first time in my life he seemed proud of what I did. Writing was at best a hobby, an indulgence. I didn’t agree with this view, but I inherited it all the same. I also inherited a “maverick brand of individualism” that Ross attributes to artisans and bohemian no-collar workers, although mine owed more to my father’s mad-dog libertarian streak. If I needed a real job to maintain some measure of social and self-respect, I would find one that gave me a longer leash.
Like some kind of double agent, I started calling New York City headhunters from a gas station payphone across the street, whispering into the receiver and scanning Garmin’s smoked glass windows for signs of countersurveillance. By this time I had assumed responsibility for managing Garmin’s PR across all markets, leaving Sherry, my immediate boss, free to pursue two-week shopping junkets to New York City under the guise of company press trips. Whatever nominal authority she held over me—and she enjoyed nothing more than wielding authority—began to crumble. More often than not I reported to Jon in direct rebuke to Sherry. It wasn’t personal. I just didn’t see the point in reporting the details of my work to her so she could claim it as her own in her frequent closed-door coffee klatches with Jon.
On one such occasion Sherry appeared at my cubicle entrance and demanded to know why I’d informed Jon of a big “hit” that I’d finagled on network television (any mention of a Garmin product in the press as the result of PR outreach was called a hit.) Clicking closed the browser window I’d been using to search for jobs, I spun around in my chair, and, affecting the most nonchalant tone I could muster, said, “Because I thought he’d want to know.”
Sherry stormed into Jon’s office. A minute later Jon poked his head out and asked me to come in. His face was pale. He hated conflict but this one had been brewing for months and he knew it. This was no longer a spat between children that could be handled with firm and loving paternalism.
After briefing me on Sherry’s complaints and corporate protocol, Jon opened the floor to Sherry, who was visibly upset. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, lips drawn into a tight, trembling line.
“Do you see me as a peer?”
It was a trick question. We were the same age. And at this point she couldn’t claim to know any more about PR than me. Certainly she couldn’t claim a fair share of the work. We were peers in all but one sense—she was the boss. In that respect there was only one answer.
“Yeah, I do.”
Wrong answer. Sherry’s face froze. Her hands started to shake. Her mouth opened but no words came out. So I decided to dig the hole deeper.
“It’s not like we’re in the Army, Sherry. I don’t have to do something just because you order me to. You’re not my superior. You’re my boss, but you’re not my superior.”
Jon’s forehead hit the desk.
New York City chose me as much as I chose it, although I wasn’t aware of the various forces at play. As Ross explains it, the growth of New Economy jobs in urban areas was based upon a “ready supply of underemployed creative workers, an available network of Web-based skills pioneered by urban artists, and a temporary supply of substandard office space at depressed rental prices.” My career trajectory had more to do with the “cycles of real estate speculation” in the city’s garment district that gave rise to Silicon Alley than it did my particular experience or disposition. Lucky me.
We were recruited from every field, no experience necessary. The only skill required of us was a thick skin.
Silicon Alley was in full swing in November 1998 when I arrived at LobsenzStevens (we called it “LS”), a mid-sized PR agency with a small technology practice. Every PR agency in the city, no matter their specialty—health care, say, or financial services—was positioning itself to cash in on the dot-com boom. What’s more, venture capital firms often required their clients to employ PR agencies to promote their investments and give them the gloss of legitimacy. It’s no wonder technology divisions sprouted up overnight in agencies across the city. No one wanted to be left out of the bonanza.
A lot of us PR flacks worked hard at something we didn’t understand. I was one of them, a foot soldier in what Ross calls the “army of pundits and shills promising redemption, salvation, and transcendence.” We were recruited from every field, no experience necessary. The only skill required of us was a thick skin. Our clients paid big bucks for our ignorance, and sometimes they understood less about what they were doing than we did. In this environment the results they expected were never defined, and everything could be renegotiated at the end of the month after the invoices went out. Business was good.
LS’s eleventh floor offices were a far cry from the sleek office utopias that Ross explores in No-Collar. The ceiling tiles were stained brown from leaky pipes. The interior offices were simple drywall boxes crammed with files of indeterminate age and organization. The rumpled carpet and uneven floors caused people to stumble and smudge the hallways with their fingerprints. Steam radiators clanked and hissed in every corner, and every office had its own climate that, when adjusted for comfort, negatively affected the climate elsewhere on the floor. The receptionist had the demeanor of a Long Island tollbooth attendant. She was famous for dropping client calls on transfer and taking two-hour lunch breaks. The network crashed so often that rebooting became a coffee break occasion. Computer problems? It was best to work around it rather than incurring the systems administrator’s wrath. But I loved it—all of it. I felt like a test subject sprung from the laboratory into the glorious chaos of the real world, free from the behavioral modification system of punishments and rewards practiced at Garmin.
Nancy, the VP of LS’s technology practice, was a former Julliard-trained violinist and member of what Ross calls “a distinctive community of early Internet users, hackers, techno-hobbyists, and Web enthusiasts,” with two books about Internet culture to her credit. However, she didn’t share the “anticapitalist” sentiment or have “bitter misgivings about the commercialization of the Internet” that Ross ascribes to her old school colleagues, many of whom were busy launching downtown dot-coms. Her job was to parlay her connections into new business, for which she received a percentage of the take. I took the job at LS because I thought I could learn something from her.
But I wouldn’t have the chance. Half the original team left LS soon after I arrived, including Nancy. By default I took over leadership of LS’s technology division with a 25 percent raise and a promotion to “management supervisor” in charge of two junior account executives and a handful of exasperated clients. Leaving aside the additional money and responsibility, if someone would have pulled me out of my cubicle at Garmin and told me that I’d soon have an office with windows that opened onto Park Avenue, I would’ve laughed. If they told me I’d leave it two months later for another job, I’d say they were crazy. But I did leave LS, and then left the job that I left LS for in less than a year.
Without the media to hype our hype, PR was worthless. We measured our value and based our fees in the amount of ink and airtime our clients received, whether or not it resulted from our efforts. Scores of new magazines, television and radio programs, and Web sites were hungry for content about “fast companies” to break up all those advertising pages they were selling to those same fast companies. Without the old media to promote them, Silicon Alley firms were just so many Flash animations blinking in the digital void of the Web.
Yet, in every chapter of No-Collar, Ross displays a curious contempt, second only to his hatred of Wall Street, for the “media circus” that ignored important issues in favor of reporting on “IPO fever, soaring stock valuations, and insta-millionaires.” He has a good point, if not an especially remarkable one. Does Ross honestly expect, say, BusinessWeek to run special features on the history of the humane workplace, complete with footnotes and references to Marx? Of course not. That’s why we have tenured critics to illuminate the dark, neglected corners of popular culture.
I’m all for bashing the PR business and our media doppelgangers. But it needs to be done right. The bubble was a two-way street. Hype and promotion played a crucial role in making the speculators rich, but it also underwrote the fortunes of the Silicon Alley firms that Ross uses for examples, along with the perks and self-important attitudes. But for Ross, the media is merely a crude purveyor of fast-food stories penned by “celebrity-porn journalists” who never went beyond reporting about “gimmicky workplace trappings” that appealed to “public curiosity, suspicion, and occasionally, ridicule” of new media companies. There are rhetorical echoes between Ross and Jeff Dachis, the colorful co-founder of Razorfish, who described his competition this way to CNETnews.com:
You can go to “McWeb” or whatever, but that’s not what we deliver. We’re the haute cuisine in a premier custom solution shop every time. You can’t box innovation. You can’t put boundaries around inventing and reinventing the world. It doesn’t work like that—and if it does, you become a commodity. So all of those guys will become a commodity and we will continue to be the premier service provider that we are.
It would be difficult to find another Silicon Alley company that benefited more from media hype and self-promotion than Razorfish. Not that Ross, a premier service provider in his own right, was fooled by any of it—all the overheated journalism, that is. As for the hype that passed for normal conversation with the company’s executives and employees, Ross is somewhat less than objective. A fortunate coincidence put Ross together with a Razorfish manager on a conference panel in Amsterdam. They hit it off and she invited Ross to stop by the office. After years of lurking on Web bulletin boards and searching the press in vain for “an adequate description of how employees executed their work on a daily basis,” Ross soon found himself standing in the lobby of a high-flying Silicon Alley firm, admiring the “cerebral” décor for its evocation of “the ur-garage of Hewlett-Packard fame.”
Due to the nature of their work, Razorfish employees were mostly well-educated, white, privileged, middle- and upper-class young people of a mild artistic bent one might call “quirky.”
You will search No-Collar in vain for a description of what Razorfish employees actually did on a daily basis, but you will learn how cool they are to hang out with. On a visit to Razorfish’s hip new London quarters, Ross’s antennae, ever tuned to the pop culture frequency, can be counted on to identify the “light, bouncy trance” soundtrack playing in the background. Turning the dial to the history channel, there’s Ross placing the building in its proper context, from the stink of its “medieval heyday” as a meat market to today’s neighborhood of “sleek cappuccino bars and pricey wine stores.” On the talk show channel, Ross banters with a Razorfish employee who gives the dish on Razorfish’s owners: “‘Over here . . . Jeff and Craig were always seen as a pair of wankers.’” But there’s no channel dedicated to actual work.
Ross is more concerned with the fragile feelings of the no-collar knowledge worker, not the work itself. In many ways Ross and “the golden children of Razorfish” are a match made in heaven. Due to the nature of their work, Razorfish employees were mostly well-educated, white, privileged, middle- and upper-class young people of a mild artistic bent one might call “quirky.” Sort of like NYU students. They also have quite a lot of time on their hands. (In February 2001, in the middle of Ross’s tenure at Razorfish, the chief financial officer reported that the company’s utilization rate—the amount of billable time employees spent on client projects—was just above 30 percent. An average company, by Wall Street standards, would have a utilization rate at least double that.) No-Collar relies heavily on idle Razorfish employees whose nimble fluency in the postmodern bazaar of self-expression allows Ross to draw all manner of conclusions about the New Economy workplace.
When CEO Jeff Dachis tells Bob Simon of Sixty Minutes II that Razorfish has “recontextualized what it is to be a services business,” Ross doesn’t hear the song of a well-spoken huckster. He hears the plaintive “voice of a company in an uncertain business landscape, where the identity of firms could mutate from quarter to quarter . . . the voice of a juvenile industry trying to establish its legitimacy by adopting the lexicon of business English.” The New Age slacker musings of Razorfish’s “lead technology evangelist” about the “Taoist . . . metaphysics of engineering and hacking” provide a convenient jumping-off point for Ross to discuss the historical tensions between “the producer economy of yore” and the new “spin economy.” One self-described “rule breaker”—in charge of hanging drawing paper on the walls so doodling employees could fill it with “survivor art that [was] . . . a genre-and-a-half upstream from the artwork of convicts on death row”—is, in Ross’s view, executing a new generation of motivational management techniques “that took their cue from the art of viral marketing.” These kids would be wise to use Ross as a job reference.
No matter how Ross tries to spin the company, Razorfish was always a “front end” design firm. It made its fortune and sustained its reputation designing and building Web sites. Think of it as responsible for applying the finishing touches on a complicated three-tier wedding cake: a highly visible and creative task, but one that accounted for a mere fraction of the result. This analogy isn’t meant to diminish the role Razorfish or any other design firm played in the New Economy. But if Ross intends to sample a representative slice of the IT workplace he needs to go much deeper than sticking his finger in the frosting.
Granted, the engineers who performed the “grunt work of Web-enabling bulky databases” haven’t developed the sort of ironic sensibility that Ross mines to great effect all throughout No-Collar. They don’t own burlesque clubs where they entertain Ross with “delicious routines” and carry on debates “over martinis” about how “the counterculture was duped into thinking they are not working for corporate America.” Nor do they invite him to exclusive “fringe happenings” to watch them DJ in their off-hours. Engineers are rather boring, literal-minded people. That might explain why Ross, on a visit to Razorfish’s Boston offices, a “back end” database integration shop called I-Cube before Razorfish acquired it, buddies-up to the only freelance poet in the building for an interview about the seating preferences of Web designers, after which Ross heads off to the kitchen to document the tell-tale presence of “Nutrigen cereal bars, Ritz Bitz sandwiches, M&M’s, Hunts Potato Chips.”
Ross’s methods would be familiar to any nineteenth century anthropologist. The natives provide him evidence of what he already suspects to be true. Little surprises him and he sees reflections of himself everywhere. And nothing is more titillating than participating in tribal rituals. In a subchapter devoted to describing a Razorfish holiday party “loaded with wry symbolism,” Ross rubs elbows with a young woman “who was the one of the very few people [he’d] met from a working-class background.” That doesn’t prevent her from appearing to Ross—or performing for Ross—as if she were an honors student invited to a faculty shindig. In an effort to impress her hosts, she “expertly flicked her scarlet boa back over her shoulder” and, commenting on the party’s stuffy downtown Wall Street location, she sniffed, “It’s just like a Princeton eating club.” Oh dear me, such a naughty wit!
The banter was just as rarefied in the PR trade, but no one took it seriously after the client left the conference room. At the last agency I worked for, the senior managers were no better than thieves. If they could’ve fleeced clients by using life-sized cardboard cutouts to provide the illusion of a fully staffed agency, they would’ve done it. I went back to the corporate side as a PR manager for a company I’ll call “EducatedGuess,” a fast-growing Web integration firm with a lofty pre-Internet pedigree and brand new offices on Times Square.
Beneath Satan’s yoga-and-Chai veneer was a duplicitous, horn-rimmed, fifties-style middle manager with the survival instincts of a starving leech.
Stability wasn’t a feature of the no-collar workplace, as Ross observes, “nor did strong institutional ties or company commitments rank very highly on the list of no-collar priorities.” This was especially true in marketing departments. Our know-how was transportable from one job to the next, regardless of what the company did. Unlike Web designers or programmers, our skills weren’t threatened by automation with the latest software release or outsourcing to programmers in India. As long as the bull market remained strong, we could go anywhere at any time. Turnover occurred at light speed. My first act as PR manager was to fire EducatedGuess’s PR agency and hire an assistant. Senior management soon added another layer between themselves and the rank-and-file by hiring a marketing VP. Kerry, the marketing director who hired me, squirmed under this new authority for a month and then quit.
The marketing VP replaced Kerry with a fork-tongued consultant who quickly earned the nickname “Satan.” Beneath Satan’s yoga-and-Chai veneer was a duplicitous, horn-rimmed, fifties-style middle manager with the survival instincts of a starving leech. She held fast to her corporate host through a proven regimen of upper management ass-kissing, covering her own ass, and whipping the asses of those beneath her. She used her position to advance her species, siphoning off the marketing budget to consultant friends who didn’t know the first thing about the company or the industry except how to apply their mouthparts to the money hole and suck.
The last thing Satan wanted was to reveal her absolute ignorance. Drawing from her bag of consultants tricks, she hid behind a new set of “performance metrics” designed to put her smack in the middle of the department’s self-managed workflow. These “reforms” were supposed to make the freewheeling marketing staff “accountable” to corporate goals, but they were really Satan’s way to meddle in various projects whenever she needed to deflect upper management’s attention from her blood feasting. She took no responsibility for the “deliverables” to which she made us pledge our souls. Work ground to a halt. We spent so much time filling out forms, creating reports, and attending meetings to explain what we were doing and to learn how we should be filling out forms and formatting our reports, that it took twice as much effort to accomplish anything.
Satisfying though it may be, it would be wrong to lay all the blame at Satan’s feet. She took advantage of a situation. EducatedGuess was experiencing an identity crisis familiar to many New Economy companies. It didn’t know what it wanted to be. Rather, it didn’t know what Wall Street wanted it to be: Internet services provider? Web hosting firm? Custom integration shop? End-to-end solutions provider? What was the magic combination that would drive up the stock price?
Above all, EducatedGuess hoped to transcend its stodgy reputation as a practical engineer of Internet technologies that it helped pioneer in the eighties when it was part of the New York State Education Research Network. It wanted to be seen as a sleek, fast-moving Internet company. And things moved fast at EducatedGuess. It used proceeds from its IPO to buy prime Times Square office space, extend its network through an acquisition spree, and add staff to make it all work.
Had Ross investigated a company like EducatedGuess, he would’ve found the no-collar workplace in transition. It was the ideal New Economy corporate organization—the kind that (as Ross put it) “was assembled with minimal starch, and maximum flex, to turn on a dime, and thereby reinvent itself from quarter to quarter.” But as the “fluidity” of its “unstable” no-collar workplace dried up, EducatedGuess morphed into a traditional organization, the kind that Ross identifies as being “governed by formal work rules and rituals.”
Garmin’s product cycles were predictable, its markets stable, and the company was responsible only to its small cadre of private shareholders. By contrast, anyone of EducatedGuess’s services could be applied to thousands of customers in scores of potential markets. No single PR message could possibly address such an unwieldy audience. And EducatedGuess was a public company. The most important audience of all was the stock market, which scrutinized company news every day for a whiff of future profits. I required a direct line of communication to senior managers to not only get the latest news, but also to fine-tune and distribute it for maximum Wall Street satisfaction. It was a fluid process that couldn’t be filtered through layers of middle management, and therefore it was a direct threat to Satan’s control of the marketing department.
“The absence of chains of command between employees and managers” (Ross again) was the last no-collar perk available to me at EducatedGuess. Otherwise I would’ve walked. Unlike the rest of the marketing staff, my job put me into almost daily contact with senior management. The more Satan tried to worm her way into my established network, the more I flaunted my connections and protected access to them. If traditional power structures favored Satan—she was my boss, after all—I could at least sprinkle salt to stop the slime trail at my office door.
One afternoon Dave, the CFO, stopped by my office. For an Internet company executive there was nothing slick about him. He was tall and gangly, and he spoke with a slight stutter. He was from the working-class, industrial wasteland on Syracuse’s west side (EducatedGuess’s network operations were centered in Syracuse). To mask his lack of refined social skills he’d adopted the crude swagger of a frat boy.
“Hey Featherbrain,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “How come you can’t get the stock above $30?”
“Isn’t that your job?”
“Fuck you! Where’d you learn to write, anyway? That last press release was—it sucked. New VP of sales?” He moved his hand up and down in a jerk-off gesture. “Who gives a shit?”
“I’m only as good as my material.” My office shared a wall with Satan’s office. I got up and closed the door. “What’s up with the California deal?”
“Like . . . what? A week? Two weeks?”
“Forget it. We need some new business releases. What about New Era?”
“Waiting on their approval.”
“Waiting on their approval. Great.” Dave was growing agitated. He jabbed his index finger in the air. “We need to have a press release every—one every week. What else do—is there anything else we can release?”
I didn’t know what else to say and I didn’t want to make any excuses. Satan had me working on a stupid project having to do with EducatedGuess’s sponsorship of the Boston Marathon. It was stupid because it was, at best, a regional story. Stupid because it had zero news or business value. Stupid because it was 100 percent promotional, the kind of PR that pisses off journalists. I had to direct the efforts of Satan’s consultant friend in Boston to whom we shelled out ten grand for local media outreach. The whole thing was Satan’s first real project. She didn’t want to do any of the work, but she wanted her hoof marks on it in a big way.
After Dave left my office Satan appeared outside my door, her bony fingers wrapped around a steaming mug of tea. She had a deliberate manner of speech common to unlicensed therapists. A conversation with her came with a lot of slow nodding and “uh-huh, uh-huh’s” to suggest she was listening with utmost care and attention. Cultural appreciation—or appropriation, take your pick—dictated her mode of dress. Today she was wearing some kind of half smock, half sari thing with a bold floral print.
“So . . . Steve . . . tell me. . .” She blew into her mug of tea to cool it. “Where are we with the Boston Marathon?”
“Haven’t even started it.”
Satan raised her eyebrows and smiled as if I’d admitted some embarrassing psychological problem. “I think . . . we need to really move on this . . . . Get some momentum going, you know?”
“It’s not a priority.” The race was six weeks away, I explained. Announcing our sponsorship now didn’t make sense. In fact, it would hurt any chances we had with the media. As I spoke Satan tightened her grip on her mug. Her knuckles turned white.
“Uh-huh . . . Uh-huh . . . Well, it’s a priority for this department, Steve.”
“Yeah. I understand that. It’s just not a priority for me right this second.” I waited until Satan took a deep, cleansing breath before I hit her with my trump card. “Dave told me that he wants new business releases. He wants the stock to break $30 by the end of the quarter. It’s kinda important.”
She exhaled through her teeth and reminded me that I had agreed on particular goals in our last meeting, and that I needed to be more accountable to the “contract” the marketing department had made with the marketing VP to get the most out of the Boston Marathon sponsorship. It was all bullshit, of course, punishment for going over her head to Dave.
“And from now on . . .” she said. “I want to see all press releases . . . before they go out. I want to see . . . a project matrix . . . of the releases you’re working on. And I want it updated every week.”
It was clear where this was headed. Satan was maneuvering to wrest control of the press release process. I fought it for a few weeks until I realized I’d be better off slipping my head from the noose. For me, self-management was the best thing about the no-collar workplace. But with Satan’s constant undermining I was getting worn down. Satan didn’t want to make important decisions; or, if she did, she wanted a scapegoat at the ready. That’s what she meant by these ridiculous contracts and accountability measures. That’s why she had us put everything in writing like signed confessions.
If she wanted control of PR, she was going to get it all, including “new kinds of mental and emotional shackles” (Ross) that came from such close proximity to “Wall Street’s upsides and downsides.” All I had to do was transfer the load from my shoulders to hers and watch her stumble. Either way I’d win. She’d back off or I’d quit a job that had become unbearable.
The time came soon enough. Dave called me into his office late one Monday afternoon to tell me that the California deal, an acquisition of a network company based in San Francisco, had wrapped. EducatedGuess could claim a coast-to-coast network. It was a national player now. It was big news—real news.
“I’m ready to pull the trigger,” I said. “Just say the word.”
“First thing tomorrow.”
“Let’s do—we need two releases this week. Combination punch. What else do we got?”
“Boston Marathon is slated for Thursday.”
Dave made a sour face. “I don’t want that thing going out right after the acquisition. It’s bush league. Bump it.”
“New Era is set for next week.”
“If that’s all we’ve got for new business. Run it Thursday.” Dave thumped his desk. “Thirty dollars by Friday, Featherbrain.”
I spent the last hour of the workday fact-checking the California release. At five o’clock sharp Satan appeared at my door wearing a cape of some sort and a wool cap with a South American pattern woven into it.
“Brian’s done with the Boston Marathon site,” she said. “I think . . . the press release . . . should go out tomorrow. It’ll be more . . . effective.”
“Can’t. The California deal popped. It’s going out first thing tomorrow.”
Satan shifted her bag to her other shoulder. She wasn’t pleased about being left out of the loop. Worse, she might have to miss her yoga class.
“When did this happen?”
I told her that I’d just found out an hour ago and was trying to confirm all the numbers before everyone left for the day. She should talk to Dave, I suggested, about the Boston Marathon release. He had his own ideas about it. I didn’t get into the details. Satan nodded and made chewing motions, as if she were trying to unhinge her jaw.
“Uh-huh. . .Uh-huh. . .You need to be more. . .responsive, Steve. I’ll have a chat with Dave. In the meantime. . .let’s. . .stick with the original plan.”
The California release didn’t make much of a dent. The stock went up a few cents in morning trading then settled back to where it started by day’s end. I had expected to hear from Dave but he was busy fielding questions from analysts. Nor did Satan have her “chat” with him by Wednesday afternoon because, as far as I knew, we were still going with the original plan. It was a train wreck in the making. Against Dave’s wishes, I loaded the Boston Marathon release for distribution and got out of the way.
There were two messages from Dave on my voicemail when I arrived at work Thursday morning. First: “Where’s the fucking New Era release?” Then: “Call me as soon as you get in.” For once I had followed corporate protocol to the letter. I let my supervisor make the decision and did as I was told. Dave was going to rip Satan a new one, but I was going to take the initial hit. I punched Dave’s extension. He put me on speakerphone.
“Hi . . . Steve.” It was Satan. My heart froze. How long had she been in Dave’s office? I was a dead man. “We have an . . . issue . . . that needs to be . . . addressed.”
“I got Dave’s message a minute ago,” I said. “I’m confused. I assumed Dave agreed with the Boston Marathon release going out today.”
“Uh-huh . . . Well, that’s not what . . . we . . . agreed on . . . Steve.”
I didn’t know what else to say. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just call Satan a liar. Dave cut in. He was tripping over words more than usual. “Work it out later. Right now we need—Can we get—Steve, where’s the New Era release?”
“I proofed Steve’s version last night and adjusted the . . . messaging. It’s ready to go out any time.”
Two more lies. But who was counting?
“Yeah, it’s ready to go,” I said.
“I want it out before noon.” Dave hung up.
I had to hand it to Satan; she was crafty. Old school, Politburo crafty. What made me think I could beat her at her own game? Personal connections were all fine and good, but I couldn’t rely on them. EducatedGuess wasn’t that kind of company anymore. Dave’s loyalty ran one way: to the shareholders. A monkey could write the press releases for all he cared. And that was as it should be. He’d just have to find another monkey.
DeepBridge was so new my paychecks still had the name of the old company on them. The cramped four-room office was at the end of the hall in a building on lower Broadway, a block from Wall Street and Trinity Church. The VP of marketing, Sydney, made me a generous offer in a closet-sized utility room as she ran off a copy of one of my short stories. We shook hands, me standing on one side of the copy machine, and Sydney on the other.
I thought DeepBridge was going to be different. It was a small back-end integration firm with real clients and real expertise, not a fly-by-night dot-com. It didn’t make absurd “e-everything” promises; its specialty was something I could sink my teeth into. The cofounders, Jim and Tony, were engineers and therefore, I assumed, rational and logical in their decision-making. And in a market that had begun to falter, DeepBridge was backed by $50 million in venture capital, one of the largest single placements in the industry. People a lot smarter than me had confidence in DeepBridge and its senior management.
It was too much, perhaps, for me to expect that my last real job in Manhattan would last any longer than a year. None of my other jobs had lasted more than nine months. In what was now a predictable pattern, my supervisor and mentor, Sydney, left the firm within six months. Her no-collar management style, honed in the competitive custom software shops of Silicon Valley, was tailor made for start-ups like DeepBridge. But DeepBridge had trouble starting up. The market was tanking. The planned IPO was put on hold. Meanwhile, the company acquired a Web design firm based in Washington, D.C. to capture some of the front-end business it was outsourcing.
The second sign of the Apocalypse came when DeepBridge hired a consultant, named Mark, who also happened to be an old college buddy of Mark, the owner of the recently acquired Web design firm and now the marketing department’s reluctant new boss. Mark the consultant was based in an old farmhouse outside of Rome, Italy, where, among other relevant business activities, he pressed, bottled, and sold private-label olive oil. Mark from D.C. didn’t want to deal with marketing. There was a lot of pressure on him to generate new business in the pharmaceutical market. That’s why he brought on Mark from Rome. At Mark from Rome’s request, I updated the corporate boilerplate to reflect our new “sales office” in Rome. According to him, it was important to project our “international reach.”
“I give us six months,” I whispered, leaning on the waist-high partition that separated my cubicle from Piyali’s. She was digging into a pasta salad over which she had shaken half a container of red pepper flakes.
“You think so?” This was Piyali’s first no-collar workplace experience and she was still somewhat bewildered by what was expected of her. She had left a stable and prestigious, if boring, job as an analyst with Goldman-Sachs and put her H-1B work visa at risk by coming to DeepBridge. “Aw, Steve-o! I don’t know what I’d do.”
Six months later, almost to the day, the marketing team was laid off. Jim, the CEO, took us into a conference room and gave us the news. It came as no surprise to anyone. The company was struggling. Still, a few tears were shed. I took the rest of the afternoon off and walked down to Battery Park. At Bowling Green I passed a Japanese man who stood unsmiling next to the big brass bull statue as his wife snapped a picture.
I boarded the Staten Island Ferry and stood on the back deck facing lower Manhattan. It was a beautiful spring day. The sun flashed and skittered along the sleek glass façades fronting the financial district. The World Trade Center towers looked like two giant solar panels mirroring the blue sky. I was tired of the corporate hopscotch game I’d been playing and dreaded the prospect of looking for another job.
For the next few months I kicked around Manhattan, spending my severance pay and doing things I never got a chance to do. It was hard to enjoy myself. I felt defeated somehow. Thousands of laid-off Silicon Alley workers wandered the streets, wondering what had happened to them. We stood next to each other in quiet reflection at museums, waited in line for discount matinee tickets to Broadway shows. The question wasn’t whether we’d find another job. There were still plenty of opportunities. The question was whether the “workplace idyll” we had tasted was just “a pricey indulgence” or “a reasonable expectation.”
Ross answers with a quote from his favorite “superbohemian” Razorfish employee:
It’s like saying we can only have good things, like women’s rights or human rights, if you are affluent, and then you put a price on these things, or you see them as toys that get handed out only when there’s enough to go around.
On the surface, it’s a pithy sentiment worthy of enshrining in a worker’s Bill of Rights. What the Razorfish employee was really saying, Ross interprets, was that a good job “should be a matter of justice, and not a fringe benefit of the right kind of education, or a reward for a lucky throw of the Nasdaq dice.”
It echoes a theme that runs throughout Ross’s book: the heroic no-collar worker and the visionary companies they work for are victims of “stockholders . . . clamoring for blood.” Their knees buckle in the soil of an “unstable geology” littered with needles from junkie investors looking for their next “Nasdaq fix.” If the “incoming high tide” doesn’t drown them, “binge capitalism” and “hungry wolves” are waiting to gobble them up.
This is the legacy of the New Economy workplace? An elite class of hacker kids tapping on keyboards?
It’s hard not to share the sentiment—the knee-jerk reaction against what Ross calls “the financialization of the economy (and the workplace) [that takes] a heavy toll on jobs.” But the simple fact is, the Razorfish ideal was paid for with lots and lots of money, both public and private. The problems started when Old Economy companies that were spending billions on IT projects cut back their budgets. It wasn’t as easy anymore for Razorfish project managers to bully chief technology officers into paying kids $200 an hour to build a Web site. The idea that a standard of living earned by an inexperienced middle-class workforce at the peak of a speculative bubble is somehow equivalent to “human rights”—that a cushy job at an exceptional company is in any way related to “justice”—originates in a sense of privilege so exalted that no system, capitalist or otherwise, could live up to it. It’s the stuff of Utopian fiction, of dorm-room philosophy, which is exactly how Ross ends No-Collar, in a reductio ad absurdum glimpse of a future that looks suspiciously like a multicultural version of The Matrix.
In Ross’s “satisfyingly bad movie” the future is ruled by—surprise!—a monolithic organization called the “Global Trade Authority” that has enslaved the world’s population in a seamless virtual reality called “Softer Time.” Work is performed by human drones programmed by the sinister “Brain Dome.” Fear not, because in a dark corner of the Brain Dome, “our nascent rebel, Roxanne, is hacking her way through the last layer of advertising on the Softer Time firewall,” where she will hook up with “Miguel, one of the human prototypes who worked for a first-wave Internet company in the twentieth century.” The beneficiary of a fantastic severance package, Miguel lives “debt free” in a quasi-communal society with the unfortunate name, “Bono Zone.” He and Roxanne team up to “shred the firewall” and expose the “false utopia of Softer Time” to the rest of us fools trying to pay off our credit cards.
This is the legacy of the New Economy workplace? An elite class of hacker kids tapping on keyboards? To whom is this fantasy even relevant? If this is the future, I will have less chance of getting a decent job than I do now. With my skill set, I’d be relegated to painting Miguel’s mansion—for free!—in the Bono Zone. I’d be better off sending my resume to the Brain Dome in hopes of landing a gig hyping the wonders of Softer Time.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I’d planned to stop by the DeepBridge office to say goodbye to Jim and Tony. I was leaving New York for good and moving upstate. It was only a two-stop subway ride from Jersey City to the World Trade Center, and a short walk from there to DeepBridge. Of course, I never got there. I watched the day’s events unfold from across the Hudson River.
Two weeks later I used my DeepBridge business card to get through the security zone that extended all the way to Canal Street. I worked my way downtown, arriving at 60 Broadway only to find the building empty. The entire financial district was a ghost town covered in three inches of gray dust. The guard at the lobby desk gave me fifteen minutes to take the elevator upstairs and retrieve whatever it was I needed. I didn’t need anything, of course, but I went anyway. The eighth floor hallway smelled like smoke. I stared at DeepBridge’s locked door for fifteen minutes then turned around and got back on the elevator.
On the way uptown I stopped to watch the recovery effort. This was before the NYPD had erected plywood walls to keep onlookers from clogging up the sidewalks near the site. I’d been out of work for four months, but standing there, watching firemen carry plastic buckets up mountains of smoking rubble, it felt like four years. My short career in the New Economy had been, to quote Ross, “converted . . . into instant nostalgia.” And nostalgia is the appropriate term since it describes a desire for something lost that never really existed.
[*] 360hiphop.com, a Web site produced by “topnotch writers, recruited at the top of their game from the music and media industries,” as Ross puts it, was part of rap impresario Russell Simmons’ efforts to “fulfill the political promise of hip hop.” He fulfilled it quite handsomely by cashing in his equity before the bubble burst.