From Library Babel Fish, November 5, 2014

I’m trying to read a book titled The Triumph of Emptiness because it sounds as if it channels so much of what I’ve been mumbling to myself incoherently for years. In it Mats Alvesson connects the dots between consumerism, the fact that having more doesn’t make us happy (by design – how else will you encourage more consumption except by ensuring we aren’t satisfied?) and how this plays out in higher education and the way organizations generally work today. It’s all about the shiny surfaces, the intense competition to stand out (while actually not caring a fig for the actual expertise or learning represented by the shiny surface) and how this emphasis to position ourselves as consumables that must be marketed relentlessly is putting our efforts in all the wrong places, leaving us with an awful lot of shiny surface to polish as what’s inside empties out.

This may not be the best book to read the day after a midterm election that seems to have demonstrated that systematic disenfranchisement is turning the clock back beautifully. Having my inbox barraged with demands from the party I support left me feeling pretty empty, myself (though Al Franken’s sometimes made me crack a smile, at least, before I hit delete). Then there’s that warning we keep trying to pretend we’re too busy to hear: the planet is not okay. It’s almost too late. Hello? Is anyone listening?

Don’t bother me! If I don’t polish the shiny faster than others I’ll be outshone and I can’t let that happen.

This seems entirely connected to the ways technology – that magical time-saving, tree-saving, empowering thing – has turned into a vast shopping and advertising desire-machine that has ballooned the amount of shiny surfaces we have to polish, the amount of stuff we create, the increasing demand to attract attention to our stuff so that it can be consumed. And it takes the joy out of everything.

I spent a lot of time with colleagues yesterday hammering out a statement of concern from one volunteer organization to another. This wasn’t a matter of wordsmiths quibbling over wording, it was negotiating how to interpret and respond to an unintentionally sexist decision. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it reminds me of how pervasive the combination of raised productivity quotas (measured in quantity and dubious reputational metrics of quality) coupled with the need to be spending a substantial amount of our time promoting our personal brand through multiple social channels is making it hard to do anything other than produce and polish that shiny surface like mad. No time to think, or learn, or listen. We can’t do those things because producing and polishing the shiny takes all of our time and we’re scared. Scared we’ll fail. Scared we’ll be overlooked. Scared we won’t make the rent. Scared we won’t have a future.

We should be scared. The planet is telling us in no uncertain terms that we won’t have a future unless we stop polishing and start paying attention to the cracks and the fissures opening up all around us. But who has time for that?

In higher ed, we pitch ideas for slots at conferences we can’t afford to attend and can’t afford not to attend because jobs and grants are scarce. In the world of genre fiction, you might hit one out of the park, but mostly you don’t and more people are trying, so you hope to get a spot at a fan convention where you might get some exposure, but chances are you’ll mostly meet other people looking for exposure, and this makes it hard to listen to each other or think about what somebody else is feeling and why they feel that way. Word among genre writers today is that a book a year is so over. Two isn’t enough. Three isn’t enough. Did you hear about the 25-year-old who got a billion downloads and a movie deal? Get cracking!

We’re cracking.

When we are responsible for making ourselves consumables in a competitive market, we can speak, but we can’t listen. We can write, but we can’t read. We can post and anxiously check to see who favorite or retweeted because metrics! Also, have I walked enough steps today? Dammit! I have to fit that in, too, at my treadmill-desk. This is madness.

Spoiler alert: I skipped to the end to see how it turns out. Alvesson doesn’t have an answer – except to encourage us to recognize the emptiness of our grandiose surface-polishing and think more critically about what we’re doing to ourselves and each other.

Aren’t we all sick of this? The planet is.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.