A song to read by: "Happy & Sad," by Kacey Musgraves
What I'm reading: "The Wretched of the Earth," by Frantz Fanon
Calling deserts peace
Have you ever had an epiphany with terrible timing?
Personally, I hardly know of any other kind — all of my best realizations come at the most inopportune moments, though I think that feeling of irony is actually more feature than bug: Severe circumstances are often what throw previously unseeable truths into new light.
I remember one in particular. I was in graduate school, in a semester where my small cohort had decamped to San Francisco for a quarter.
The four-month detour aimed to immerse the ten of us in the beating heart of the tech mecca itself, and our course load complemented the surroundings. We took classes in coding, product design, and startup economics, while each interning at a different tech-forward publisher. We took tours to visit the Google News Initiative and worked to design products for the San Francisco Chronicle. One night, a little drunk, four of us even thought we had hatched the next billion-dollar idea.
But the more I learned about the world of startups and the first principles that drive the tech world, the more the simple truth of it all dawned on me. Case study after case study quickly made it apparent that the kind of creative destruction that fuels capitalism generally operates by pulling one of two main levers: increasing sales or reducing costs. Nowadays, the former mostly comes through scale, while the latter mostly comes through automation.
It dawned on me, about halfway through the semester, that the same rules applied to journalism, especially digital media, where technological innovations have rendered scores of jobs unnecessary and widened distribution to previously unimaginable levels.
One evening, after grappling with this realization for weeks while growing slowly more disgusted by it, I blurted out angrily to my professor: “At what point is innovation just a euphemism for ‘eliminate jobs’?”
He countered, saying that, in fact, innovation creates jobs, a defense I have since heard more times than I care to count. Whenever I hear that rebuttal, I think of the line from Tacitus, describing the ancient Romans’ preferred method of diplomacy: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Job elimination by another name
Traditionally, innovation has created jobs by destroying other jobs, a process that almost invariably results in a net loss of jobs. That we continue to praise this dynamic is one of the most short-sighted tics of late-stage capitalism.
Like an entire country afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, we have fallen in love with the very businesses most rapidly automating away our livelihoods.
And whom does this supposed innovation serve? Not the billions of workers across the world, but an ever-dwindling number of executives, whose trademark paranoia is the natural byproduct of a lifetime of indefensible choices.
In light of this, I believe that instead of destroying jobs and calling it innovation, we need a system of economics whose chief objectives are quality of life and environmental sustainability, and that only advances that serve those ends can be rightfully called innovative.
In other words, we need to stop calling net destruction creation. And we need to stop praising new businesses whose sole advantage over their competitors is their ability to operate with fewer employees.
I understand that to make any of these criticisms anything other than hot air requires political action. Businesses of every industry will continue to behave in whatever fashion ensures their survival, and in an ecosystem of unchecked capitalism, we are all neck-and-neck in a race to the bottom.
But publishers, in particular, have an outsized role to play in stemming these conditions.
Both in the businesses we cover and the businesses we start, journalists need to reset the benchmarks of success.
Employing as many people as possible, rather than as few as possible, is a sign of success. Producing and consuming as few material objects as possible, reducing our carbon footprints to their tiniest possible selves, is a sign of success. Paying workers as much as possible, rather than as little as possible, is a sign of success. And innovations that create a net increase in jobs, rather than an isolated increase at the expense of others, is a sign of success.
When laid out so plainly, these assertions sound not so much radical as commonsensical. Who would disagree with this?
But our current understanding of innovation runs counter to all these ideals. Innovation in the traditional capitalist sense means reducing overhead and increasing profits, valuing bottom lines above workers' lives or carbon neutrality.
It should not be contentious to believe that we should encourage a system where as many people as possible can work. But to realize that, we need to stop praising and start actively censuring business practices whose value rests in their ability to eliminate jobs.
We need not innovation, but anti-capitalist innovation: advances in the world of business that serve people and the planet, not companies.
The role of publishers
Journalists play a dual role in this reality: They need to reflect these values in their reporting, and they need to reflect these values in their entrepreneurship.
Last June, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones called out the media industry for acting as “stenographers of power,” and the same criticism holds for our evaluation of corporate profit-chasing.
If there is quantifiable evidence that proves that as one company grows, it does so by eliminating more jobs than it creates, we need to say that. What is more in the public interest: Abundant opportunities for meaningful employment, or the enrichment of a small group of private business people?
If journalism aims to serve the people, the public interest, and the truth, it needs to hold deceitful corporations to account in the same way it does deceitful politicians. If a company claims to be creating jobs and yet they are doing the opposite, they are lying. It is the role of journalism to take them to task for such an abuse of power.
Second, in addition to reporting on the inequities of other businesses, we need to cull our own self-sabotaging behaviors. We cannot accept this slow bleeding away of jobs as an inevitability.
If we do, eventually the industry will give way to the most innovative publisher of all time, an epithet it will earn by employing all of one person.
We need to not only protect the jobs we have, but to bring back the tens of thousands of jobs lost in the last decade. We need to raise the pay for journalists by making a more equitable system. And we need to do these things while improving our coverage, both through diversifying it and devising ways to help it serve those who most need it, not those who can most afford it.
When a publisher or product brings us closer to that reality, that is innovation.
Some good readin'
— The Study Hall Digest is being rotated between guest writers, and unfortunately for my sense of self-worth, they literally just get better every week. (Study Hall)
— Here For It, a comedy newsletter, is very worth your time. (Here For It)
— And since two makes a trend, you should definitely be reading Miles Klee's ongoing masterpiece. (Miles High Club)
Cover image: "Bal du moulin de la Galette," by Pierre-Auguste Renoir