For seven decades, the country’s intellectual and cultural life was produced and protected by a set of institutions-universities, newspapers, magazines, record companies, professional associations, cultural venues, publishing houses, Hollywood studios, think tanks, etc. Collectively, these institutions reflected a diversity of experiences and then stamped them all as “American”-conjuring coherence out of the chaos of a big and unwieldy country. This wasn’t a set of factories pumping out identical widgets, but rather a broad and messy jazz band of disparate elements that together produced something legible, clear, and at times even beautiful when each did their part.
But, beginning in the 1970s, the economic ground underneath this landscape began to come apart. Michael Lind explains this better than anyone else:
The strategy of American business, encouraged by neoliberal Democrats and libertarian conservative Republicans alike, has been to lower labor costs in the United States, not by substituting labor-saving technology for workers, but by schemes of labor arbitrage: Offshoring jobs when possible to poorly paid workers in other countries and substituting unskilled immigrants willing to work for low wages in some sectors, like meatpacking and construction and farm labor. American business has also driven down wages by smashing unions in the private sector, which now have fewer members-a little more than 6% of the private sector workforce-than they did under Herbert Hoover.
This was the tinder. The tech revolution was the match-one-upping the ’70s economy by demanding more efficiency and more speed and more boundarylessness, and demanding it everywhere. They introduced not only a host of inhuman wage-suppressing tactics, like replacing full-time employees with benefits with gig workers with lower wages and no benefits, but also a whole new aesthetic that has come to dominate every aspect of our lives-a set of principles that collectively might be thought of as flatness.
It seems to me like another way of thinking about this flatness that Newhouse is talking about is in terms of commodification. The goal of this system is to turn everything in it—not just products and objects, but (and maybe most of all) people and ideas—into interchangeable pieces that can be arbitrarily priced and traded.