Feb/Mar 2009

Alien Nation

A trio of new books examine the origins and nature of the fragmented, postmodern American self—while hazarding a look at how the information age will further erode our sense of work, leisure, and place.

Tom Vanderbilt


You don’t have to look far to confirm much of the argument that Dalton Conley advances in Elsewhere, U.S.A. Take me, for instance. I work the same general terrain that Conley—a sociologist at New York University—explores in this sharp, engagingly composed study of the multiple kinds of fragmentation that torment the American self in the post-everything information age. I try to cultivate a critical detachment from the tumult and anomie that shape the pace and texture of a common world increasingly reduced to bitlets of predigested data and untethered instant communication.

Yet as I nod in knowing recognition before Conley’s detailed indictment of the protean, postmodern American self, I realize I’m not exactly part of the solution. There is, for example, the device (a MacBook Pro) on which I am taking notes as I read. Not long ago, I might have confined myself to scrawling marginalia, raising questions, conducting an inner conversation in an essentially closed loop. But the computer, so firmly entrenched in my literary habits, contravenes this process. A slight cursor trail away from the “bookforumreview” document, after all, resides the “Send and Receive” of my e-mail, and with my brain jacked up on dopamine neurons in a conditioned response to the promise of an e-mail, I struggle to resist.

And so with a click, the outside world comes streaming in. This not only takes me away from Conley but also makes it that much more difficult to return. Researchers Eric Horvitz and Shamsi Iqbal, in a study of Microsoft employees’ habits, found that “external notifications” took people away for an average of nine minutes from their primary tasks, and they needed an additional ten to fifteen minutes simply to get back up to speed on what they were doing. A random, but intriguing, comment by Conley—“how shocking or comical our 1959 cousin might have found it to notice that we wore an alligator or a man playing polo on our breast as if it were a military citation”—triggers a frisson of memory that Lacoste shirts already existed in 1959; and so it’s off to the Internet, where Wikipedia tells me that René Lacoste founded his trademarked clothing line in 1933 and that as early as 1952 “the shirts were exported to the United States and advertised as ‘the status symbol of the competent sportsman’, influencing the clothing choices of the upper-class.”

As long as I am within my browser, bulging with its tabs, I may as well respond to an invitation to join someone’s network on LinkedIn, a service that “strengthens and extends your existing network of trusted contacts.” I signed up in a moment of panic—the fear of being rendered obscure and obsolete—when I noticed friends of mine were already there, and despite acquiring many contacts, the bulk of whom are those “weak ties” I never actually see (and some of whom I don’t really trust), I have yet to gain any productive use from the service, beyond getting to see how many people I know know the other people I know. And so many other tasks await, under a surfeit of screen names and across a global complex of server farms: managing my dwindling investment portfolio, participating in “reputation management” on eBay, scanning a Twitter feed, checking a few blogs (as well as scrolling over to see whether my latest blog entry has occasioned pseudonymous comments on any other blogs), reviewing the ranking of my book on Amazon, monitoring the downloading progress of a BitTorrented television show, choosing not to answer a Skype call, etc. Before I forget, perhaps I’ll even visit Jott, a service that, as excitedly extolled by a friend the night before, allows the user to call in voice messages and have them sent back as text messages or e-mails. (I was too afraid to ask whether this transcription is done by computers or by humans.)

All this distraction, commodification, and fragmentation make me a model citizen of the age, Conley argues. “In the twenty-first century,” he writes, “the boundary between work and home has largely disappeared, technological gadgets structure family life, business often intrudes on leisure, inequality creates self-doubt in many of us, and dynamic polygamy (i.e., high rates of relationship formation and dissolution) colors marital relations.” Conley aims to chronicle a “new type of American,” set adrift in a world of “split-screen attentions” and a confusing array of dissolving social boundaries, the relationships of everyday life subtly yielding to market arrangements (e.g., therapist, nanny, home-care aid, dog walker, career coach).

This order of confusion quickly opens onto another nagging worry: Can my own unsettled self, inured as it is to mere journalistic scribbling, be trusted to get a firm handle on the sociological thrust of Elsewhere, U.S.A.? It’s not an idle question, according to Conley, quoting a popular Harvard Business Review article on executive “fraud anxiety.” Indeed,“this constant fear of being exposed, cut out, or outsourced, and thereby having one’s ‘capital’ rendered valueless, is the principal pathos of the era.” Conley confesses that he suffers from a version of this pathos. “This is not social science as I practice it in my day job, replete with falsifiable hypotheses, experimental methods, and the like,” he disclaims in an author’s note. “This is social criticism, and as such the real test lies with you, dear reader: Does what I argued in these pages strike you as spot on?”

Luckily, much of it does, as Conley, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes too briefly, maps the contours of the omnipresent new Elsewhere. It is, he stipulates, not so much a place as a condition, in which any number of “boundaries that were the hallmarks of industrial capitalism” have blurred: “investment v. consumption; private sphere v. public space; price v. value; home v. office; leisure v. work; boss v. employee; and ultimately, even self v. other.”

If, as Conley contends, the Protestant ethic, which valued “thrift over consumption, work over leisure, and meritocracy over social connections,” gave way in the 1950s to the ethos of bureaucratic capitalism, which emphasized “teamwork, compromise, and fealty,” in the latest sociological era, the age of Elsewhere, the midcentury tensions have been resolved: “Leisure is work and work is leisure. Consumption is investment. A tax-deductible home equity loan is savings. And the salience of social connections does not indicate nepotism but rather social capital and entrepreneurial skill totally consistent with meritocratic ideals.” But there are costs: “the fragmentation of the self, not to mention alienation and anxiety among today’s professional classes—those Americans who earn lots of money but need to work for it.”

Why should such free-floating anxiety exist among people in seemingly comfortable positions? One hears of executives being constantly uprooted in a job market rife with downsizing. Parents worry that their careers are not allowing them to spend enough time with their children. No one feels as if they have any time. But Conley points out that the facts tell a different story: Fewer Americans moved in 2000 than did in 1950. The percentage of people logging more than ten years with large firms has increased. This generation of fathers, he observes, “spends more time with their children than any in recent history.” As for the time squeeze, a study has found that higher-income women, even when they work the same number of hours as those earning less, report feeling more pressed for time. As Conley notes, “when you can earn more per hour, the opportunity cost of not working feels greater and the pressure is all the more intense.”

The frenetic, self-regulating regimen of one’s inner time manager is the chief culprit, Conley argues, in the forever-harried state of postindustrial labor. For the first time in history, the more people are paid, the more they feel they must work. Income inequality has risen absolutely, but particularly within the upper echelons of the professional classes. “From any link in the chain,” he writes, “it looks like everyone else is rushing away.” So the presumed leisure time that money might buy merely breeds anxiety over how much the moment is costing.

This anxiety is all but inscribed into the software of devices such as the BlackBerry, the info-status accessory par excellence for this generation of knowledge workers. Whether the device, which corrodes the boundary between work and leisure, makes one more productive is open for debate; the science writer Stefan Klein has noted that “when we are under stress, we are no longer able to filter out unimportant matters; we become scatterbrained, flighty and reckless.” So cue the BlackBerry users, working the digital age’s own set of worry beads. “We tell ourselves that the stress comes from a lack of time, even though it is really just the other way around,” Klein observes. “We are not stressed because we have no time; rather, we have no time because we are stressed.”

It’s hard to suss out whether all the conditions in Elsewhere-land are really symptoms of the same disease. But Conley brings an astutely conditioned—and suitably jaundicedeye to the task of tracking the permanently distracted self through its new placeless habitat. Consider tipping, an activity that has diffused into so many corners that I often find myself struggling to remember where it’s appropriate (e.g., at a full-service gas pump). For Conley, employing Georg Simmel’s theory of the evolution of labor’s remuneration, tips perfectly embody the “the new feudalism in the service economy.” Why must the worker depend on our largesse to earn something approaching a living wage? And why, in turn, are we casual consumers held hostage by the smiley-faced jar to encourage something that is presumably already priced into the exchange— decent service?

As at many other points plotted along the new social landscape, Conley sees income inequality at work here: “While the rich get richer, those who serve the rich are increasingly left to appeal to the better instincts of the well-off.” Tip jars are particularly rife in upmarket coffee shops, he notes, perhaps because the server is typically someone of roughly the customer’s class—hence, guilt looms larger—as opposed to, say, the employees of McDonald’s (who probably are paid less, work harder, and won’t be going back to college in the fall).

Nor is such blurring of once-familiar boundaries confined to awkward relations across the chasm of class, Conley notes; the imagineers atop the new digital order also have some serious boundary issues. At Google’s campus, where laundry machines and smoothie bars keep workers happily ensorcelled, Conley is told by CEO Eric Schmidt, sounding as if he’s just stumbled out of a 1960s high-desert commune, “The goal is to strip away everything that gets in our employees’ way.” But the world of newly fused work-life often makes for haphazardly arbitrated social roles and expectations. Conley sees the old industrial hierarchies of authority swept away, in an insouciant refrain of upspeak, as managers address subordinates: “Sometimes it was just a straight-up question, asked with an apologetic cringe as if it really would be the last time that she asked him to do some work.”

To his credit, Conley seems determined to broaden the analytic sweep of sociological writing and reclaim the confident study of American character found in classic midcentury works such as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). Inevitably, though, the ambitious reach of Elsewhere, U.S.A. raises interpretive questions of its own. The fragmentation of the self may be rendered more visible due to technology (“when we can have multiple selves with the click of a mouse and the creation of a new online identity, there is no single core to protect from public view,” writes Conley), but is the fundamental reality new? What are, say, the films of Douglas Sirk if not taxonomies of the multiplicity of the self? And what of William Butler Yeats—a predigital thinker if ever there was one—who famously remarked that the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”? Maybe the only salient difference here is that today the poet no longer thinks he has time to eat breakfast sitting down.

Conley does draw some useful historical contrasts by framing his prototypical Elsewhere subject against the prototypical “Mr. 1959,” who dwelled in a seemingly halcyon time of relative income equality (90 percent marginal tax rates!), labor and management consensus, and rising consumption power. (Indeed, unlike today, one of the products “purchased” was leisure, in such abundance that John Kenneth Galbraith wondered what we were to do with it all.)

Of course, Mr. 1959 had his own era’s invidious ways of shoring up his rickety American self—and central to that undertaking, David Kushner contends in Levittown, his absorbing study of racial politics in America’s model postwar suburb, was the social privilege of white flight. For Levittown, the planned community that developer William Levitt launched in 1948 on Long Island, New York, promised its incoming class of transplanted urban families a vision of tidy social equality—unless, that is, you happened to belong, as the leases spelled out, to one of those groups labeled as “other than members of the Caucasian race.”

The Supreme Court had ruled against segregation laws in 1917, but, as Kushner writes, “an ugly but well-oiled machine churned behind the white-picket-fenced towns.” The machine took various forms, from the “ethics code” of Realtors to the intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan—in the 1920s, notes Kushner, one in eight white residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island belonged to the group —to the less overt, but no less malign, influence of the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, which institutionalized residential segregation through underwriting. Levitt, whose family had profited on the 1920s suburban boom, was both a product and a proponent of this exclusionary environment. In the first Levitt-branded suburban community, bearing the lovely aspirational name Strathmore-at-Manhasset, Levitt—whose grandfather, Kushner notes, “had fled anti-Semitism in Russia for America in the 1860s”—barred Jews from buying. “No one realizes better than Levitt,” the builder wrote, “that an undesirable class can quickly ruin a community.”

This is the brutal flip side of the fragmentation of the suburban self—the bald equation of racial exclusion with “community.” Kushner can give no definitive account of the psychic fallout Levitt suffered from his capitulation on the question of race (though, by the story’s end, he assumes the archetypal role of a “broken man”). But when the first Levittown opened in 1948, Levitt was still playing the businessman hamstrung by larger social forces of which he was somehow not a part. “As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice,” he said. “But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into this community.”

Kushner concentrates on the second Levittown community, which opened in Pennsylvania four years after its Long Island predecessor, since that’s where the racial tensions worked into the master plan first came to national prominence. Written as a sort of novelistic narrative history, Levittown traces the stories of two sets of disparate protagonists, couples drawn to Levittown as part of “the greatest internal migration the country had seen since the western expansion of the 1800s.” On the one side, Bea and Lew Wechsler, committed left-wing activists from the Bronx who left their apartment for the suburban dream, though with a political twist: so they could transfer their Bronx lease to a black family facing eviction at the hands of their landlord, Met Life. On the other, Daisy and Bill Myers, an African-American couple living near Levittown who were looking for the most basic amenities of suburban life—good schools, a bit more room.

For nearly a decade, Levitt’s company had fought off a number of integrationist challenges, usually on the grounds that it did not build government-provided houses (even if the loans were government-backed). The company had evicted a black resident from the Long Island Levittown; in Philadelphia, meanwhile, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP fought for an injunction against Levitt, given that many of his residents were relying on federally managed loans. As geography and social destiny would have it, there was a house for sale next to the Wechslers, who had moved in without issue (though a left-wing background, which they kept largely under wraps, was almost as suspect in Levittown as blackness). They had since been quietly discussing, with some local progressives, the idea of a “Negro family” moving into Levittown.

Kushner writes, “The Myerses were simply looking for a good home, but never wanted to change the world. The Wechslers had always wanted to change the world, but had never been in a position to have such a chance. Now both families were cast in this drama.” And a drama it was, a harrowing, ugly “fight for the soul of new suburbia” that Kushner relates with judicious economy and an eye for the effective image (as Sputnik circled Earth, he observes at one point, crosses were burning on Levittown lawns). It has become a tired trope to insinuate that the suburbs are not so perfect as their veneer might suggest, but in Levittown the “Crack in the Picture Window” made famous in the 1956 book of the same name by John Keats is not a metaphor for boredom-induced alcoholism or infidelity, but the result of a stone through a window of the Myerses’ home. “The rock,” Daisy recalled, “weighing less than an ounce, carried tons of hatred with it.”

And the ending is bittersweet. The Myerses, through heroic endurance, won the right to stay but left in 1961. Kushner notes that when the seventy-four-year-old Daisy returned in 1999 to a hero’s welcome, the town was still nearly all white. (Long Island, meanwhile, with its 94 percent white Levittown, was dubbed “the most racially segregated region in the country” by the New York Times in 2003.) The third Levittown, New Jersey’s Willingboro, made famous by Herbert J. Gans’s defense in The Levittowners and the subject of a bitter integrationist court battle (Levitt lost), was less segregated, and still is. But that’s another vastly complicated story.

Of course, suburban life can be more than just metaphorically ugly—as another set of familiar critiques, such as Whyte’s The Last Landscape (1968), is quick to remind us. In Big Box Reuse, Julia Christensen examines the fate of the Wal-Marts and Costcos that have grown up out past the old inner-ring suburbs, into the “extreme-commute” realms of Conley’s Elsewhere. Architecturally, these buildings are so undistinguished as to be almost invisible; indeed, notes Christensen, an artist, writer, and academic, “the lack of accoutrements, which leads to a misconception of a lack of design, is indeed a very conscious decision, meant to advertise the point of the big box’s existence: a place to shop.” Invoking the famous duck-shaped shed cited as an example of aesthetic-functionalist virtue in the celebration of postmodern architecture Learning from Las Vegas (1972), she notes, “This is a decorated duck-shed with a mission.” There are no windows in these stores, because why would you want to look outside when you’re busy buying things? And what would there be to see, anyway, except another big box?

Christensen spares no criticism of the brutalist aesthetic of the big-box world, but her book is more than another jeremiad against the supersize landscape of exurbia. Instead, she extends the studies of “vernacular landscapes” published by J. B. Jackson and Dolores Hayden, while also evoking D. J. Waldie’s poetic meditations on place in his suburban memoir, Holy Land (1996). For while she takes full measure of the big-box nexus as a “power center,” she is more interested in what remains when the hulking retail operations leave. This happens surprisingly often: The Wal-Mart closes, only to reopen a mile away at a more fertile highway intersection as a Wal-Mart Supercenter, with thousands of additional square feet.

Of course, the economic downturn will accelerate this trend—especially since many of these same exurbs are now suffering punishing rates of home foreclosure. So the eerie permanence of the big-box structures will likely loom larger still in the years ahead—and as Christensen notes, they’re not exactly easy to overlook. “The lot itself continues to be a strategic location after the corporation has left it behind, and in fact after the structure has been removed,” she writes. “The gravity remains.”

But what goes into that vortex, this place on the edge that had briefly become a “new center”—the “new iteration of Main Street, U.S.A.”—before the market gyre spiraled ever wider? Another big-box retailer would make sense, except that such commercial tenants usually secure restrictive covenants preventing the competition from moving in— often for as long as a hundred years. The buildings are frequently kept empty, as mere “placeholders” for some future real estate increase. What can you do with tens of thousands of square feet wrapped by windowless, blank facades in an ocean of parking?

The answer is surprising. As Christensen argues, “the building itself does not necessarily have to change nearly as drastically as its image has to change in the imagination of the beholders.” Her survey of this reconfigured landscape yields a variety of cases, some unexpected, some ennobling, some fairly tragic. Evangelical churches are a popular repurposing of the venues. Like Wal-Mart, they attract lots of people and don’t want the building to get in the way of the activity. Some vacated big-box sites play host to a succession of enterprises—meaning that, as Christensen notes, these “faceless, nameless corporate big box buildings have stories behind them.” Parking lots begin to take on the informal function of town commons. Charter schools are another particularly apt tenant of big-box structures. That’s not simply because they can start small, occupying only a part of the building, and ramp up as they attract students, but also because the very form is symbolically at one, in Christensen’s view, with its big-box forerunner: “It is as if the dispersed nature of our electronic culture, our automobile culture, our suburban culture, has been transferred to a new typology of education where the student body no longer needs to live next door to one another,” she writes; the “building is the hub of the network, the server for the broadband of automobiles that stream into the lot day in and day out.” Like they’re all looking for Somewhere in a land of Elsewhere.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (Knopf, 2008).

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