Sometimes a Spaceship Is Not a Spaceship

This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.  It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

Don Draper’s Kodak pitch

I saw the first episode of Mad Men in a hotel in Harrisonburg, VA in 2007, when I was on the way to see my sister get married for the second time.  The show had been skillfully hyped by AMC in the run-up to its debut – in retrospect, a first salvo in the second wave of prestige television, which took the highbrow HBO fare of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under to the swinish basic-cable multitudes. 

I was immediately enchanted.  The clothing, the atmosphere, the pacing, the characters, the readily apparent social issues of the 1960s that any viewer could tell would unfold – it seemed like a miracle at the time, although the long side-eye of cynicism stretches over all our pasts.  We live in an age long after Breaking Bad and manifold semi-prestige shows fucked like gremlins across streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime; today, the advent of Mad Men looks a bit like a prophet that died. 

Why was Mad Men so captivating in its time?  In part, I see a hole of emptiness and heartache that encompassed the entire series, based on Don’s own experience of trauma.  The big pitch in the first season lays it out: what if we could go home again, to a place where we know we are loved? But what if we also knew that place never existed?

This is the essence of nostalgia, as defined by the late historian Svetlana Boym.  Nostalgia was always a yearning for a place that never was, an ailment that was diagnosed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries as an actual medical condition – its Greek roots deriving from words that mean a pain or despair felt about the idea of going home.

They say that comedy is tragedy plus time; one could say the same for nostalgia, but in any case, the key ingredient is time.  In my research and writing about the postindustrial, capitalist economy, I have kept coming back to the centrality of time in all considerations of work, ownership, property, and production.  My work initially examined how intellectual property rights collided with new information technologies.  The Internet, like the telegraph before it, “annihilated space and time,” meaning that IP such as mp3 files or ebooks could be duplicated and transmitted everywhere at close to zero marginal cost.  The amount of time it took to produce the creative work was collapsed into a jumble of ones and zeroes that could go anywhere, at nearly any scale.  I’ve subsequently interviewed and studied scientists and engineers who work in the tech sector, where there is a potentially long period of labor- and capital-intensive investment in a product, such as a pharmaceutical patent or a piece of software, which once created becomes, at least in theory, uncontrollably replicable. 

At the same time – no pun intended – time manifested as a concern in the lives of workers.  The libertarian CEO Jim Goodnight, founder of SAS in North Carolina in the 1970s, chafed at the rigid hours imposed years earlier by a major tech company in one of his first jobs.  He wanted to come into the office and go and return as he pleased to do his work, thinking that as long as it got done and creatively so, that’s all the company should care about.  The idea of a set 9-5 did not appeal to this proto-creative-class worker, and when Goodnight’s company began to thrive in the 1980s he instituted policies that allowed his quirky employees to work on their own timetable.

SAS bros in the 1990s, AKA shorn seals playing frisbee

The basic premise of postindustrial, high-tech capitalism in the late twentieth and earlier twenty-first centuries was that endogenous innovation – novel advances in technology and productivity – could make us all richer, as capitalism entered its late stages where fewer and fewer new raw territories existed to exploit.  These forms of innovation included the Internet, pharma, biotech, consumer electronics, business services such as consulting and analytics – but the value of each had to be protected by government, because otherwise information was infinitely replicable and the investments of business in new technologies would be unable to recoup a profit.  The bargain was innovation and productivity, resulting in economic growth and other benefits for society at large – with the implicit condition that government would enforce intellectual property rights and a thinly disguised industrial policy that favored Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and so forth. 

My problem with all this is that, yes, gains in efficiency in manufacturing can result in greater wealth, and advances in automation through information technology can accelerate the pace of both production and services.  These are all almost entirely embedded in material infrastructures and intellectual property, but a huge swath of the actually existing economy – known, blandly, as the service economy – is not really about tech or IP.  It’s about relationships, attention, care, and time.  These products and services unfold in real time – the paradigmatic example being a haircut, but it applies to so much more of our daily lives under postindustrial capitalism, from healthcare to education to retail and customer service. 

If we want to look at the actually existing economy in its fullness, we need to pay attention to the people who are paying attention: nurses, teachers, babysitters, social workers, call center workers, hairdressers, therapists, HR specialists, people whose entire work consists of deploying knowledge (embodied in their brains, not alienated in IP – a capacity, not a thing), experience, expertise, contact, touch, emotional labor, judgment, restraint, attentiveness, and care.  The only commodity that is utterly finite is time, and the work of attention and emotional labor occurs in time – it is time.  With minor exceptions, it can’t be accelerated or automated without depriving it of its fundamental content or purpose.  I don’t have a solution for how one reconciles service work or emotional labor with capitalism’s perennial diktat to always increase productivity and make more with less, but this project is about reckoning with the fact that so much of what we care about and need the most consists in the things that need time.  Our models for measuring output and economic progress do not account for the things we care about the most – chief among them, care itself.