Apres Le Perturbation

There are three ways to look at what’s happening right now to the economic and social viability of the professions and various kinds of cultural work. One is silly, one is depressing and one is ambiguous. Guess which I prefer?

The silly view is the magical thinking of digital utopians, that a new communicative technology has the intrinsic power to banish all questions of scarcity, to be the rising tide that floats every boat except for the CEOs of big companies, to liberate human creativity and invention to its fullest potential, to automatically make a commons where we shall live out our happy future. In this perspective, early modern copyright was a purely negative invention of rent-seekers and 19th Century professionalization nothing but monopolization by a small set of bourgeois aspirants.

The depressing, loosely Marxian view is that digitization is the kind of material transformation and social reorganization of production that enables the subjugation of independent or artisanal labor. That the production of profit-making expressive culture and of professional services was largely outside the control of industrial and monopoly capital until the late 20th Century because capital lacked the technological and social means to reorganize and control value in those domains up to that point–but that digital technologies, algorithmic processes, the production of a massive surplus of credentialed professionals by educational institutions and concerted attacks on the civic authority of professions and artists to set the terms under which they perform their work have succeeded in proletarianizing professionals and cultural workers. In this paradigm, advocates of digitization are just useful idiots for 21st Century capitalism, enabling private ownership and profit to fully penetrate professional institutions and exposing the everyday production of cultural works to “openness” while large companies like Google, Apple, Comcast or Disney become much less open.

The first view is simply wrong in its account of the history of intellectual property and professionalization, though there are episodes and dimensions of that history that fit this sketch. It’s also far too technologically deterministic. It’s the kind of view that deserves the critique offered by the second interpretation, because it’s worth at least paying attention to the dangers of uneven ‘openness’. If Google, Apple, Comcast and so on are allowed to sit behind impregnable castles except when they sally forth on intellectual property pillages or fling legal serfs at one another, then culture’s old burghers should do their best to keep control of a few free cities and hold out as best they can.

But I think both views are impoverished as descriptions of what’s happening and as guides to further action. Let’s just say for the moment that we buy into the language of “disruption”, which has the virtue of intermingling positive and negative meanings, in part depending on whether you’re the disruptor or the disruptee. But the word and its some of its less negative synonyms (disjunction, interruption, intermission) also offer the possibility that we are being offered a chance to see many accustomed practices in new ways, to reimagine some of our work and aspiration, to reorganize and retool.

So what can we learn? I’ll restate a few points that I tend to repeat a lot at this site:

1) That the professions had become far too closed both institutionally and substantively, too quick to exclude or disdain rivalrous or alternative forms of expertise and practice. The great force of authentic innovation and service that gave the professions their power and wealth in the 19th Century was dissipating, replaced by rent-seeking and timidity. Paradoxically, this is also what made it so easy for each of them to be tackled in isolation by profit-seekers and regulators. Professionals were, over the course of the 20th Century, less and less socially connected to one another as an overall group and progressively less concerned with an overall ethos, a general sense of responsibility, mission and commitment to quality that applied to any professional in any field. The current ‘disruption’ hasn’t yet led to professionals reconnecting with each other–each group has tended to face its own crisis in isolation, in parochial terms, and even to cheer as other groups or professions lose their favored place at the table. Nor, for the most part, have any professional communities really tried to re-engineer the institutional structures of their work to reconnect with larger publics, to embrace a wider conception of their mission and expertise, or to reinfuse their practices with innovation. But there’s still time for most, if not all, of the major professions of the 20th Century to move in that direction.

2) That the middlemen of 20th Century culture industries, editors and publishers and producers and administrators, were vastly too narrow-minded in their assessment of what could count as “good culture”, and even what could sell as “profitable culture”. Some of this can be attributed to the overhead costs of 20th Century mass and elite art and culture. Those costs made risk-adversity be sensible. But many brokers of taste, including critics inside and outside of academia, ended up believing in a vision of exclusivity. In fact, they ended up believing in it even when they said they didn’t, and continued to believe in it well after the underlying economics of cultural production changed for all but a very small subset of forms and genres. What the Great Disruption has revealed as an absolute fact is that there are a great many more people capable of writing, filmmaking, acting, photographing, reporting, cooking, staging, editing, programming, sculpting, storytelling, singing, painting etc. quite well, many more works to value or view or read than there once were. Moreover, some enabling technologies have let many people see behind the curtain to find that what was taken as great individual originality was in fact mastery of craft secrets and techniques. At the same time, most of us can see that there is still a very big difference between exceptional work (defined in a variety of ways) and ordinary “good” work, and equally that there is still bad culture. As the message of Ratatouille suggests, it may be right than anyone can cook, but not that everyone can–and that there are still artists like Remy whose work is distinctive and highly valued. After the disruption has run its course, the real question will be whether we can find a way to reward ‘ordinary’ creators for the value they generate in a way that is commensurable with their work and whether ‘extraordinary’ creators will still be in business in some fashion. My thought is yes to both–and it will be important to find an answer that suits both groups of producers.

3) In the 20th Century, we accepted the institutionalized, routinized use of people with ostensibly high-value professional training for tasks that didn’t require their expertise. Or well before the intrusion of certain kinds of rationalizing economies, the professions devalued their own work. Professors moved to marginalize and massify teaching before their administrations required them to do so, doctors moved to minimize contact with patients before insurers asked it of them, law firms assigned young lawyers to mechanically process large bodies of documentation in the discovery phase of litigation, and so on. The professions cleared the way for their own reorganization and mechanization largely to create more privileged terms of labor for the most senior or powerful professionals. This was a brief moment in the history of the professions, especially marked in the 1960s and 1970s, but it opened the way for what came later. If the current disruption has positive value, it might be to spur professionals to identify far more sharply what kinds of labor require extensive credentialing and training and to understand where there is a mismatch between the needs of the professions and the training they have insisted upon to this point. Some of this has already happened, either under duress or as a creative response to changed circumstances. More needs to happen.

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4 Responses to Apres Le Perturbation

  1. Gavin Weaire says:

    As usual, this is a somewhat fuzzy and tentative thought. But I feel that this post on some level is assuming a clear-cut notion of “the professions” that perhaps does not actually apply in everyday American society.

    The old solidarity of the professions (I realize that this is an obvious observation) depended on there being a tightly restricted list of things that counted as professions which were sharply defined against other occupations that did not count as professions and carried much less prestige. An interesting question: at what point did it become normal English to commend a skilled tradesperson as “doing a professional job” of fixing a burst pipe or whatever?

    Note: I’m not saying that actual social practice has necessarily changed all that much. Male doctors may well marry female lawyers at close to the rate at which male doctors used to marry the daughters of male lawyers. They would however now marry journalists and members other groups that once upon a time did not have the apparatus of professional education attached to them, or, like IT people, did not actually exist.

    But I think that, conceptually, Americans now mostly inhabit a world in which what were once professions are *jobs* – good jobs, jobs that call for a great deal of further education, but not categorically different from other jobs and therefore not to be conflated with one another. A doctor self-identifies and is identified by others as “a doctor,” not as “a doctor, which is to say a professional.”

    Solidarity among “professions” is therefore perhaps a non-starter without bringing back the array of social attitudes which supported it once upon a time – which is (a) unappetizing and (b) fortunately almost certainly impossible (see your previous post). So perhaps it would be better to look elsewhere as a point of departure.

  2. Part of the problem is that the unappetizing attitudes were bundled in with some roles that were important. Chief among them, to repeat a point that Louis Menand and others have made recently, that professionalization at the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th, was very consciously meant as a counter to the marketplace on the grounds that the work that the professions did had an importance that needed to be secured against a pure market–that law, medicine, teaching, and all the other professions that came along in their wake needed to be done in a way that wasn’t just about profit, that they needed a value system that was both an internal code or ethos for practicioners and a commandment to public service.

    So in becoming “just jobs”, the professions themselves have lost something–they are increasingly less and less “good jobs”–but the wider society has also lost something. I think it’s the latter that’s particularly important to recapture–that we still have a need for medicine, law, teaching, counseling and so on to have a sense of higher mission and to have some kind of autonomy to pursue it.

  3. Gavin Weaire says:

    Then, to push back, how do you distinguish that from a claim that a lawyer, as a person, is *better*, more pure and high-minded, than an electrician? Because I see very little possibility of any such claim enjoying any kind of success in the 21st century, and, again, I’d look for a different point of departure.

    Incidentally, while I don’t disagree in substance with the account that you offer (not qualified to do so!) as someone who works on the exact other chronological end of the process, it strikes me as a little foreshortened and underestimating the degree to which a lot of this is visible in the rather different economic and social circumstances of the 1st century B.C.

  4. You’re right to finger the degree to which I’m seeing something here that’s peculiarly tied to modernization, and that’s certainly open to question. It’s not so much that professionals as people are better or more high-minded, but that the professions had a role in 19th and 20th Century global society that strikes me as distinctive. To some extent, electricians, plumbers and other craftsmen who also needed special training and often forms of certification (still do) fit into the model rather than challenge it.

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