Day 88: Ellen Ullman

Read this.

Read this.

Ellen Ullman, from "The Museum of Me," written in 1998 and collected in Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology:

What had happened between 1995, when I could still think of the Internet as a private dream, and....1998 was the near-complete commercialization of the Web. And that commercialization had proceeded in a very particular and single-minded way: by attempting to isolate the individual within a sea of economic activity. Through a process known as "disintermediation," producers have worked to remove the expert intermediaries, agents, brokers, middlemen, who until now have influenced our interactions with the commercial world.

... The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service.

... All those who stand in the middle of a transaction, whether financial or intellectual: gone! Brokers and agents and middlemen of every description: good-bye! Travel agents, real-estate agents, insurance agents, stockbrokers, mortgage brokers, consolidators, and jobbers, all the scrappy percentniks who troll the bywaters of capitalist exchange—who needs you? All those hard striving immigrants climbing their way into the lower middle class through the penny-ante deals of capitalism, the transfer points too small for the big guys to worry about—find yourself some other way to make a living. Small retailers and store clerks, salespeople of every kind—a hindrance, idiots, not to be trusted. Even the professional handlers of intellectual goods, anyone who sifts through information, books, paintings, knowledge, selecting and summing up: librarians, book reviewers, curators, disc jockeys, teachers, editors, analysts—why trust anyone but yourself to make judgments about what is more or less interesting, valuable, authentic, or worthy of your attention? No one, no professional interloper, is supposed to come between you and your desires, which, according to this idea, are nuanced, difficult to communicate, irreducible, unique.

... The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service. Where companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you—"Avis, We Try Harder"—their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself. The lure of personal service that was dangled before the middle classes, momentarily making us all feel almost as lucky as the rich, is being withdrawn. In the Internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with Web pages, and feel happy about it.

... In 1998, I spoke of a society becoming divided between those who receive the goods of the world at their doorsteps and those who bring the goods to them. Then the goal for the receivers was to stay at home and connect to the world digitally, while other people, those in a different and lower social classes.

... Yet this moment of the chasm between the receivers and the deliverers is just a blip on the way to the complete peonization of the working class. Amazon wants to get rid of those guys with their flimsy dollies; the company is moving to replace them with drones. Uber drivers, the ultimate symbol of the sweep and penetration of the gig economy, are on their way to be supplanted by self-driving cars. The starkest and most terrifying description of this fulcrum moment comes from the media-and-technology critic Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote: “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment."

As is the case with everything she writes, acutely observed and stated with clarity and force.