Chronicle of the Future Life in the Future
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Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol

Warhol promised everybody 15 minutes of fame

This lonely self, by definition, could have no past. It could only appear as a series of presents. Andy Warhol promised everybody 15 minutes of fame. Since fame was all that was worth having, this reduced the rest of life to a series of preparations for, or attempts at, that moment.

And so, even as the self was glorified, the concept of identity became increasingly fluid as it was more closely linked to the discrete social occasions at which the self was expressed, the moments at which it tried for fame. This led to the cosmetic society in which clothes, make-up and, most importantly, the cultivation of the body became the outward signs of the continued will to survival of the atomised self. The freedom of the self had led, inexorably, to the consumerisation of the self.

This was a crucial step, which Marx - who was, occasionally, right - had foreseen. In capitalism, he wrote: "all that is solid melts in air". The material cult of consumption requires, paradoxically, that things be dematerialised. Nothing must last, everything must wear out and be replaced. An everlasting car or stereo would mean the end of General Motors and Sony, a computer that did everything you could ever want it to do would destroy Microsoft. The old must decay and the new must be better. So we became used to the idea that the material world was made of transient objects. And, because our selves had been consumerised, they too became changeable, temporary.

We could buy newer selves by going to the gym, changing our wardrobe, having a "makeover" on Rikki Lake or Oprah Winfrey, or perhaps, as the promises of biology became ever more extravagant, by altering our genes. Or, with Dolly the sheep, there was the promise that we could try our lives all over again. Human cloning, apparently coming ever closer, was the symbolic apotheosis of the society of consumption and the dematerialised self. We could buy a replay of our lives - press stop, rewind and then play.

But surely work could save us. As people sought reasons for their lives, what they did for a living became ever more closely identified with what they were. Work was one kind of story and, as technology blossomed, there were ever more varied forms of work to be done.

Yet work failed us because it changed beyond all recognition, becoming a complex, difficult
and unconsoling place. IBM was once the computer company that ruled the world. Its employees regarded themselves as IBMers, tied to the company for life. Then, when Microsoft outwitted IBM, the company faltered and had to abandon large parts of its workforce. The effect was more fundamental than simply the loss of a job: it was the loss of an identity. Some ex-employees were seen wandering around supermarkets, still wearing their IBM suits, ties and identification badges.

That was just the beginning. Since then "company man" is a role, a life story, that has all but vanished. As companies, especially the biggest, "delayered", stripping their workforce down to the bare minimum, employees realised it was pointless to offer lifelong loyalty to organisations so capricious, brutal and so ill-defined. These organisations were no longer oil or engineering companies, but exotic hybrids born of the abstractions of money. The global mega-markets in financial derivatives had more authority than a bridge, an oil well or a job. Employees' lives were determined not by loyalty between themselves and their employer, but by rootless global forces mediated by ignorant young men chasing phantom billions through computer screens.

As a result, the idea of the career has changed. It is no longer defined as devotion to one or two companies; rather, it is the story of a person's trajectory through their working life. They might work for many companies, or be partially or self-employed. They are more likely to work at home - alone. People now have to be reluctant entrepreneurs for their own working lives. The old paternalistic security of the company has gone. If you are to find your identity in work, you must do so alone. This may be liberating for some, but, for most, it is scary; surely the whole point of affluence was that it provided security. "Get the strength of the insurance companies around you," ran an old television ad in which an insurance policy formed into a cartoon castle round the nuclear family.

But now our affluence provides only an enervating pursuit of a condition of stability rendered implausible by the shifting global economy. As world stock markets gyrate, even the act of saving as a defence against the vagaries of work turns out to be risky. Our new wealth is not even a paper wall, it is a tightrope.

So in work and in life there is no one clear story. Rather, there are many tales offered for our feverish consumption. Life stories are laid out in front of us like Walkmen in Dixons. How can we choose? What do we want? And why choose at all when what we buy might at any moment be superseded by something better?

In consumerism the subject becomes an object. We become what we consume. As the self is consumerised, it acquires the quality of obsolescence, and this loss of a stable, continuous identity reinforces the loss of a belief in anything larger than the self. "In its new meaning," wrote Lasch of the concept of identity, "the term registers the waning of the old sense of life as a life history or narrative - a way of understanding identity that depended on belief in a durable public world, reassuring in its solidity, which outlasts an individual life and passes some sort of judgment on it."

In fairness, there was, within this cult of youth and self, a new kind of morality. It was closely linked to the next two big stories of the post-war years - the story of America and the story of technology. Another philosopher, Charles Taylor, has called this the story of authenticity. It arises from "the individualism of self-fulfilment", in which the central value is to be true to oneself. What counts is to follow your star, wherever it leads. If that means broken families, a fluid and incoherent social realm and a refusal to honour the ties that bound us in the past, then so be it. People are called to authenticity, it is a vocation. It has become the crucial moral orthodoxy of our time.

So when the Titanic, bearing Kenneth More and Honor Blackman, sank in the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, it was understood as a public disaster with public implications. At least, thanks to this disaster, no new ships, we were assured, would have too few lifeboats. But when it sank bearing Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio in the 1998 American movie Titanic, it could only be understood as a private, romantic tragedy. One love affair was more important than the loss of 1500 lives or the challenge to the accumulated wisdom of the shipbuilders. Between these two films, the public realm vanished, to be replaced by the private realm of the authentic self and its fulfilment.

Look at any magazine, preferably American. The best example is Rolling Stone, the rock journal that was born in the 1960s. Virtually every advertisement is predicated on the idea of authenticity. This Jeep is sturdy, authentic; Timberland makes sturdy, authentic clothes; Levis are real jeans; even this coffee is sturdier and more authentic than any other.

There is a contradiction here between the optimism of Taylor's conviction that authenticity is a valid new morality and the pessimism of Lasch's view that the cult of the self is vacuous, destructive and antisocial. But the phenomenon they and many other serious thinkers describe is the same - a culture of the survival of the self. It is no accident that the products described in those Rolling Stone ads tend to have a defensive air. In this car, in these clothes, you can survive. The ads offer the possibility of durability in a world in which "all that is solid melts in air". They flatter the competence of the self, the better to hide its loneliness. One can sympathise with the impulse, but one can scarcely believe it.

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