Not So Brave New World

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted April 9, 2009 in Arts & Culture

Will you see yourself in sociologist Dalton Conley’s study of contemporary American life Elsewhere, U.S.A.? You might if you live in Silicon Valley or Renton, Washington, or work in the production end of L.A.’s entertainment industry, or the tattered remnants of New York’s financial district or Chicago’s commodities market. Conley describes a sort of indentured servitude that has captured the upper reaches of our service sector economy. In short, thanks to technology, we’ve become slaves to work. This on-call existence affects every part of our life, from our family affairs to our sleeping habits.

But is it a stretch to think the pervasive market and technology-driven existence covers all of us? Examine the cover picture. Is that you and your family at the dinner table, ma, pa and the kids, three laptops, one personal listening device, an untouched salad, empty plates, four distinct worlds, on task or not, in a single dining room?

You may not recognize yourself but you certainly know the scenario. Conley’s here to define it, to compile statistics that reflect on what we already fear about contemporary life. He’s good at separating the pixels from the larger picture. But when it comes to seeing the entire screen and telling us what it means, well, draw your own conclusions.

Conley’s premise is that technology and the hustle of the modern workplace (which is everywhere) is transporting us out of life itself. We’re never really present. Instead, we’re on our cell phone, tabbing across computer screens or checking our Blackberries; elsewhere in our heads and our perceptions. In describing the modern family, Conley writes, “Dad wishes he could be totally engaged and interested, but he simply can’t. It’s not just that he constantly multitasking. It’s not that his attention span seems to have shrunk. It’s not just that he is more and more worried about work. It’s his kids, too; even if he were totally available, they are not.”

Reading Conley’s book about the distraction in American society is like looking in an old, dirty mirror. The image is only generally recognizable. And like a mirror, many of Conley’s arguments are projected in reverse. Technology has so attached us to one another that we’ve become detached. What we own is so common to our sense of identity that we are no longer identified by what we own. Technology has made us so work-efficient that we must work harder to keep up. Where does it all stop?

In Conley’s new age of anxiety, existence is not the question. Instead of asking the meaning of life, we ask what value our life has in the grand economic design. We are defined by the “capital” we represent, namely our value to our employer. Having that capital rendered valueless—“being exposed, cut-out or out-sourced”—is, Conley says, “the principle pathos of the era.”

As in all books of this type—think Macolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point—Conley’s uses buzzwords to carry his narrative. Here, sadly, the words don’t have much buzz. He’s big on constructions—“weisure” to describe the intrusion of work into our leisure time, “intravidual” to describe the fragmented self—but the terms seem more cute than descriptive. The new definition of “poverty,” he asserts, is not deprivation but “the lack of control over life choices.” This probably seems odd to those who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure or who have no choice but to starve.

In that way, Elsewhere, U.S.A. seems behind the curve. Some sense of the current economic upheaval, and its effect on the well-educated, upper-crust working class, would have made the book more timely. Conley can’t really be faulted for his timing. What he can be faulted for is the lack of a pertinent conclusion, even a condemnation of what he describes. For all his talk of class in a chapter titled “Convestment: The Way We Earn and Spend,” he suffers only a liberal guilt for the hands-on working middle class. His sympathies are with those whose six-figure incomes don’t allow them to escape work and the pursuit of further wealth. At times, he seems to be calling for a third way, an economic and social counterculture that values its time and personal pursuits more than status, income and interconnection. But he never quite declares it. In fact, he makes an about-face—the mirror again—at the end of the book when he calls for government policy that allows more time for work, simpler taxation, radical privatization (“…if Rupert Murdoch owned the Pacific Ocean…”) and for individuals to “bend” with the new social order. I’d rather break. Still, Elsewhere, U.S.A. is a fascinating look at America’s new class and social order, even if it falls on the wrong side.

Elsewhere U.S.A. by Dalton Conley, Pantheon, hardback, 221 pages, $24   


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