The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Unemployment Media

I just learned that Chris Meadows, smart writer and one of the most prolific bloggers at e-book site Teleread, was (until very recently) unemployed for sixteen months:

I’ve recently taken on a new full-time job, after sixteen months of life on unemployment, and in the rush of having money again have been considering a number of possible purchases—including an iPhone 4. But some articles I’ve been reading lately have started me thinking about whether I really even need one.

This resonates with me, because I’ve been unemployed and in need of a new laptop since the end of the summer; I cut my cable off and started writing and tweeting like crazy. And it’s no secret that my last big surge in Internet writing happened when I was stuck in the hospital.

What if what’s seemed like a sudden flurry of interest in and great writing about technological devices, much of it coming from no-or-low-revenue producing sites, has been driven by the economic crisis — a torrent of talented writers, information workers, and tech enthusiasts who not only couldn’t find full-time work (freeing up their time and attention to write), but who in most cases couldn’t even afford to buy the devices they were writing about, leaving them nothing to do but sublimate that desire into distanced obsession, and fantasies of unrealized alternatives?

There’s something so moving and human about that to me. Here’s my fictitious (loosely autobiographical) internal monologue:

If only Apple would make a smaller version of the iPad, that made Facetime calls and supported ePub. I have so many good ideas, if only someone will listen to me, and give them a chance. I guess we can’t afford a sitter to go to the movies — I’ll just see what people are saying about the new Blackberry phone. I know where LOST went wrong. Just one more, and everything will be perfect.

It’s the dark side of Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus, where technology and education haven’t just created a new pool of leisure time, but a pool of high-skill knowledge workers devastated by structural unemployment, with nothing to do but create and imagine and argue, struggling to hold on to the lives they imagined for themselves, or used to lead.

Update: Definitely check out the link Saheli posted in the comments to Richard Morgan’s “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How to Make Vitamin Soup.” I’d read it earlier in the week and almost definitely (and unconsciously) had it in the back of my head writing this post. Also see the now-quasi-classic Tina Brown essay “The Gig Economy.” I say “quasi” only because I don’t really know if it’s widely seen as a classic, but Rex built a company based partly on the idea, so, whatever.

Finally, for kicks, read The Gervais Principle and “Lost” and the High Narrative Price of WTF, two smart pieces of pop culture criticism that also try to make sense of how this decade’s economic crisis has already been represented for us.

Freelancers, amateur tech/culture bloggers, unpaid interns, adjunct lecturers, Demand Media — it’s all a part of it. A grand mashup of “Stuff White People Like” and When Work Disappears.


Suggested material for new blog: “Stuff White People Don’t Like”

The core of this post hits too close too home and is too depressing for me to comment on now, but it reminded of a recent Awl essay by a friend of mine from graduate school, reflecting on his years as a freelancer. It was revelatory b/c he is one of those friends I held up in both esteem and as a reproach to myself, discombobulated by his ‘pulling it off.’ Buried in the pages is a reveal that completely bowled me over and is quite relevant to this post; I won’t give it away.

Tim Carmody says…

I read this when it was published in The Awl, was really struck by it; I guess I had it in the back of my head when I was writing, although I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.

Obviously this idea doesn’t just apply to tech blogging, and it doesn’t just apply to the technically unemployed. I was talking to my wife tonight about how the weird restructuration of work (the now famous “no jobs, just gigs” model) has simultaneously f—ed up and revitalized our culture.

Alan Jacobs says…

The question is whether the revitalization can continue for any length of time, given the human costs this new dispensation tends to exact. And even if it does continue, will it do so by grabbing smart people for its “gigs,” using them up, tossing them aside, and grabbing others? This strikes me as the very, very dark side to Shirky’s “cognitive surplus”: the surplus is manifest at a very high level of abstraction, as a universal/collective phenomenon, but for individuals trying to figure out how to pay the bills the daily experience is not one of abundance. And how valuable is even a personal surplus that arises only because of unemployment?

Alan Jacobs says…

I send that comment and immediately discover that you have just tweeted a similar thought.

Tim Carmody says…

Well, this confirms my sense that it’s the natural next step.

(If you’re wondering, I wrote: “Maybe the different manifestations of our cognitive surplus need a more thorough, empirical, economic differential diagnosis.”)

I endorse this direction 100%. “The Varieties of Cognitive Surplus.” We need that post/essay/book.

rawckee says…

there are also many who end up with those less than perfect jobs. you know, that job that pays just enough to get you by but leaves you with a sense of broken promises, underachievement and general dissatisfaction.

Gosh, now I’m all self-conscious. I read you, but I had no idea you read me. And you called me a “smart writer” even. Like (I suspect) most writers, I have a problem believing the stuff I write is even worth wiping with when you run out of T.P. (okay, so yeah, people pay me money to write it so I guess they must see something I don’t), so it always floors me when I get complimented by someone else whose writing I like to read. And knowing I sparked such an interesting reflection on the psychology of geek unemployment is possibly even better.

I honestly think there may just be something to that. Not necessarily in my case, at least not entirely—the reason my writing for TeleRead has kicked into high gear over the last few months was partly that I didn’t have anything else to do, and my incipient Aspergers focus made writing about techno-geekery the most natural thing, but partly because TeleRead’s new corporate owners started paying me a small monthly stipend for the writing assuming I met a monthly minimum number of articles.

(On a per-word basis, it’s not a lot compared to what I could make doing piecework freelancing, as I also did for the Springfield Business Journal to supplement my unemployment checks—but on the other hand, I can write what I’m interested in, not whatever random story gets handed out to me, and it’s getting paid for stuff I’d write anyway even if I would ordinarily be too lazy to write quite that much of it.)

As far as freelance writing goes, I’m really more of a dilettante than that article from the Awl, or my best friend who does it as a stay-at-home job so he can take care of his kids. I never managed, or even really tried, to get enough assignments that I would be writing full time.

Partly that I was lazy, and partly that I was really scared that I would procrastinate so much that I’d fall behind and never get it all done if I had to do it as an eight-hour-a-day thing. Even writing two or three pieces per month for the SBJ was sometimes a challenge—when you suddenly have to do what you love or stop getting paid, the love can grow a little strained.

So I spent 489 days largely noodling around, playing computer games, slowly running up a big credit card debt that I’m going to have to pay down (well, “big” for me means “small four digit figure” which is still going to be a challenge to find money for over the next few months) as my unemployment insurance plus freelance income turned out to be just a little too small to live on…and being delighted at last to land a job just when I was about to reach the end of my rope.

And yeah, I spent a lot of time daydreaming over the latest kewl toys that I knew I could never afford to buy. Getting my hands temporarily on a Sony Reader, an Astak 5″, and permanently (so far) on a 16-gig wi-fi iPad helped a lot.

I’m thrilled to have a “day job” again, in which I simply don’t have the opportunity to slack off and not do what I’m supposed to (I took the Matrix dictum of “know thyself” to heart). It’s nice to look at that money coming into my bank account and realize that once I get my finances a little better under control I’m going to be able to buy those gadgets I’ve been wanting.

It’s a little challenging to keep the TeleRead writing up around the pressures of a 40-hour-a-week job, but, again, it’s a lot of fun, it’s what I’d like to write about anyway, the stipend is going to help me out month to month…and if I stopped they might make me give the iPad back. (Not that they might not anyway if I don’t keep putting it to good use. Hmm, better go hunt up another app to review. 🙂

One of the things that surprised me last year, as people were losing jobs and gigs dried up, is that it didn’t actually make it easier for some of the volunteer-driven projects I participate in to get people involved. Economic instability seemed to hurt many people’s comfort with spending time on unpaid work. The ideal situation for spare time projects seems to be stable personal finances with work that’s flexible enough to do things on the side.

Thinking about this more–I don’t mean to dismiss increased blogging or other downturn activities that are happening–but I thought it was interesting that un- order under-employment often means one is less free to commit to nonpaying projects, instead of being more available (I guess that’s the whole idea of precarity in a nutshell). Also I think there may be a pattern to what nonpaying projects do make the cut: ones with personal significance (not just professional), things that help make up for one’s lack of spending power in material or psychological ways.

Tim Carmody says…

I think the other appeal (such as it is) is that blogging looks and feels like white-collar work. Sitting at a computer, doing research, polishing a document and waiting for feedback. Twitter’s like a virtual break room, Facebook a virtual bulletin board — (maybe not, I don’t have a great metaphor here.)

This is the other thing about the cognitive surplus thesis that needs analysis, almost in a therapeutic sense. The old leisure model had a much clearer work/home divide. You’d go to the office or factory or whatever, then come home, mow the lawn, go to a local sports game, and watch TV. Now, we go to work (or don’t) and then come back to work on the very same machines, editing encyclopedia entries and messing around with relational databases.

This is why Pete Campbell is such a singularly tragic figure on Mad Men. His job, at least early on, is to do what Don Draper does in his free time. He takes clients drinking, finds them prostitutes, and pretends to be their friend, trading on his family name and connections–yet has no friends and no real family support. “When I got this job, you said I was good with people,” he says. “That’s funny, because nobody ever told me that before.”

Jake says…

At least with respect to gadgets, this seems like a good excuse to embrace retarded consumerism and join the Cult of the Somewhat Delayed or Last Year’s Model. Personally, I wish we could get more (free/very-low-cost) functionality out of dumb phones, not just smartphones. Barebones programs that use as little data as possible or only data synced via USB, and use the full range of the phone’s sensors and GPS.

I just wanted to endorse this comment, despite lacking utterly in any power of endorsement or potential influence. 🙂

I had a different view of a similar circumstance ten years ago. (I just last week found my photocopy of “You’ve Got Blog.”)

20 years ago, when I left the studio where I was an assistant and sometimes shooter, my soon to be former employer and mentor gave one bit of particularly good advice:

50% to book studio time

25% day of shoot

25% upon delivery of the job

This is easily adapted to all sorts of other creative work. Be good enough to insist on these terms and then insist on them.

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