"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

They Make Your Feet Feel Fine


In the summer of 1967, Marshall McLuhan and co-visionary George B. Leonard saw clearly into the "future of sex," and set out to explain the thing to the readers of Look magazine. "Sex," McLuhan and the other guy pointed out, "is becoming secondary to the young." And the same factors causing teenagers to lose interest in getting naked meant that "the divorce rate will probably fall," while marriage "may become the future's most stable institution." And homosexuality would, of course, soon "fade out." ("There is a striking absence of it among the communal-living young people of today.") They had evidence, too: The Beatles. Who had total, like, girl haircuts, and yet look how popular they were with actual girls!

Sex survived, except apparently in certain parts of Georgia and anywhere in the vicinity of the editorial staff at Nerve. Of course, we'll never know what would have happened if the Beatles hadn't broken up. We can only turn to the next question, and try to trace the prophet of Toronto's other social premonitions. Luckily for us, two of this year's better-reviewed books have already begun the inquest. Go ahead and guess: Social intercourse, like sexual intercourse before it, is becoming secondary to the young, and large portions of it are destined to fade out.

First a starting point from which the slow decline can lead to the long serious fall. Wharton School fellow and Beyond Beef author Jeremy Rifkin recently discovered that people have been concerned about the whole work, food, and shelter thing for quite a long time. "The nagging question of who should control the means of production and determine how the fruits of labor should be allocated," Rifkin writes in his book The Age of Access, "has shaped the political agenda for more than 300 years." And it turns out that this nagging question isn't even resolved yet. Rifkin is deeply concerned about the way the means-of-production/fruits-of-labor problem is pitching and yawing as culture is caressed and subsumed by commerce — did you know that social activity now costs money? — but he has a solution:

Only by making local culture a coherent, self-aware political force will we be able to reestablish its critical role in the scheme of human society. Tens of thousands of strong geographic-based human communities, knit together internally by embedded social relationships and connected with one another externally by a shared sense of the importance of sustaining cultural diversity, represent a powerful social vision as well as an antidote to the politics of global commercial networks operating in cyberspace.

Got it? Well, okay then: Get cracking. (And remember: They have to be human communities, or it doesn't count.)

There's plenty of that kind of thing to go around, too; Rifkin has hidden a couple dozen interesting and valuable pages inside what appears to be the transcript of one of Noam Chomsky's dinner conversations with a group of heavily sedated autodidacts. Nike, he explains at one point, is now primarily a marketing concern; they've farmed out the job of actually making shoes to sweat shops in the Third World that employ "girls as young as 13," who are sometimes molested and generally paid as little as "$1.60 to $2.25 in wages a day, less than it costs to provide three basic meals." Now we've heard George W. Bush making nice comments about these "Third World" people, so we're pretty sure they're charming; but when Rifkin summons readers into the parlor to unravel the mystery, his case looks pretty shaky. The real problem, he says, is that "the deplorable working conditions in outsourcing plants are never detected because the corporate supply networks are closely guarded and kept hidden from the public." We'll concede that our running-dog media could stand to report a little more MAI news and a little less My News. Even so, it would have taken quite an effort of will, over most of the past decade, for any individual to avoid hearing at least part of this hidden, closely guarded and never-detected news about Nike's sweatshops. It might be more accurate to say the problem is that nobody really wants to hear about deplorable conditions, least of all the people who live in them, but corporate conspiracy is a lot handier when you've got a self-aware, local culture to promote.

But an even bigger schism is forming. When those secret thirteen year-old girls get off work, they have another big problem: no computers or cell phones back at the hovel. "The world," it turns out, "is fast developing into two distinct civilizations — those living inside the electronic gates of cyberspace and those living on the outside." It's a shame the cyberspace access gap is creating a rift between the formerly close cultures of the first and third worlds, yes?

If Jeremy Rifkin has a sturm-und-drang addiction that muddies the impact of his work, David Brooks has what you might generously call the opposite problem. The Weekly Standard writer's weirdly celebrated Bobos in Paradise is glib to the point of vanishing, a cute little essay hooked up to a tire pump and sold as a book of acute, if genial, social observation. Needless to say, it received exactly 2.3 trillion times the amount of attention Rifkin's book got. Brooks seems to notice primarily that Bobos — bourgeois bohemians, or upper middle-class professionals who adopt a posture of notional counterculturalism — spend a lot of money on their kitchens, a fact he chortles on about approximately forever. "No more flimsy cooking cans with glorified Bunsen burners on top for today's domestic enthusiasts," Brooks writes. "Today's gourmet Bobos want a 48-inch-wide, six-burner, dual-fuel, 20,000 Btu range that sends up heat like a space shuttle rocket booster turned upside down. Furthermore, they want cool gizmos, like a lava-rock grill, a 30,000 Btu wok burner, brass burner igniters (only philistines have aluminum ones), and a half-inch-thick steel griddle. They want an oven capacity of 8 cubic feet..." And so on. And then there's an additional long paragraph of description about the kind of refrigerator these nutty people use, before the whole kitchen theme reappears nearly 200 pages later in a funny vignette in which a fictional composite of a Bobo actually walks around in her kitchen. "The Bobo glances at the wooden ladles she has been collecting. She is taken by their slender curves, and prizes them more than any other object she has harvested during her counter-connoisseur browsings...." Alright, already, now how do we get all this stuff? We'll take Jim J. Bullock to block.

But the most interesting thing about Bobos in Paradise is the way it reads alongside its neighbors on the current affairs shelf. Rifkin recites the phone book, in stentorian tones, to prove that community has faltered; we fell asleep next to the warm and cozy bodies of our neighbors, and woke up next to a big corporation that keeps trying to pretend it's the same old folks next door. "When all forms of communication become commodities," Rifkin writes, "then culture, the stuff of communications, inevitably becomes a commodity as well. And that's what's happening." Other writers follow different paths to the same fear: Community is suffocating, and the social isolation of a media-saturated, commercially driven world is depriving it of air.

David Brooks, meanwhile, gets mileage out of the way everybody's all into this community stuff these days, even if it tends to be a faked-out version of community. Bobos, he argues, are drawn to — and are creating — a nationwide series of "Latte towns" where people "stroll down the pedestrian mall" and the "local businessmen gather for breakfast every morning." Latte towns have all kinds of " arts councils, school-to-work collaboratives, environmental groups, preservation groups, community-supported agriculture, antidevelopment groups, and ad hoc activist groups... People in these places apparently would rather spend less time in the private sphere of their home and their one-acre yard and more time in their common areas."

The writer of big ideas, of course, would rather spend more time in the common area of trendspotting and cele brity interviews; and in a world in which young people no longer have sex, homosexuality has vanished, and marriage is magnificently stable, that lifestyle is more attractive than ever. But as we calculate the odds that either the boojwah smart-aleck or the aging entropist will prove correct in his predictions, we can't help thinking that the real trend in society is an update of that old Goldmanism: Nobody knows anything, but some people know more about it than others.


courtesy of Ambrose Beers


pictures Terry Colon

Ambrose Beers