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The Great Sellout

May 2, 2012

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” – Jeff Hammerbacher

A famous American game show once asked: “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” By now, I think we can safely say that nearly everyone wants desperately to be a millionaire. This pervasive attitude runs rampant in Silicon Valley. There, young entrepreneurs compete with one another to design the next hot app or massive social network. They leave no stone unturned in their great quest for fame and fortune. Facebook’s $1 billion purchase of photo sharing app Instagram has only whetted this entrepreneurial appetite for riches. The men (and women) behind these startups tells us that they are helping people connect, and maybe they are, but only if by connecting them they become millionaires.

Answer: Everyone.

We can think of this current situation as a kind of intelligence bubble, ready to burst. Here are the brightest minds of my generation, and they’re more concerned with generating ad revenue and user subscriptions than they are with the urgent concerns of now. I recently met a girl who told me that she’d make a great elementary school teacher, but her real dream was to work in advertising. I asked her why and she weakly explained that advertising would provide her with a great creative outlet. It would give her meaningful work. What work, I asked, could be more meaningful than teaching a child? She couldn’t tell me. I wonder if she’ll one day look back on her life with pride, remembering all those clever ads she wrote – ads that moved products off of shelves, but which stirred not a single heart.

What I find most troubling is the growing superficiality of my generation’s interest in global issues. There’s this pervasive belief that technology (and by extension, capitalism) can solve the world’s problems (just watch a TED talk). Kony 2012 is a great example of this digital era activism (the so-called slacktivism). Some have defended the popularity of the Kony campaign, arguing that something that creates interest in an international issue, however superficial that interest may be, cannot be bad. Yet, the Kony campaign makes no effort to help its supporters understand the circumstances that allow a man like Kony to exist. Regular people – Ugandans, Congolese, Rwandans – may as well not exist. The real problems – colonialism, resource exploitation, rampant corruption – are not worth discussing. The entire conflict is boiled down to a single, solitary symbol of a man (who may or may not already be dead), whose capture or death is meant to make us feel good about ourselves. There’s this need to believe that social media, the great diversion of our age,  can actually be a force for good. We use global issues like Kony and climate change to distract ourselves from the guilt we feel.

Of course, there are plenty of extraordinarily talented people out there who are capable of solving the great issues of our time. What I see most people my age doing instead is convincing themselves, day after day, that their job is not merely satisfying, but meaningful. They delude themselves because staring truth in the face is too painful and too frightening. They come up with clever nicknames for themselves like “coding ninja” or “copywriting ninja.” It’s a way for them to imbue banal, meaningless work with artificial, self-created value. Without it, they’d be starting out into the abyss.

Below, I’ve embedded a clip from one of my favorite films, the 1938 George Cukor classic Holiday, with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. In the clip, Grant outlines his plan to get out of business (“while [he’s] still young and feels good all over”), travel, and figure out what he wants to do with his life. Watch as his fiancee and her father try to persuade him to stay in business and make money (“But you don’t understand how exciting business can be” and “There’s no such thrill in the world as making money”). It’s a classic Faustian bargain. Most people today have no idea that they’re involved in such a great sellout. Because it’s not about money; it’s about self-deception. Once we’ve convinced ourselves that our meaningless work has meaning, only then do we lose our souls.

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