Masters of the Unnecessary, Part I
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Tonight the Urban Man finds himself discussing the future of the American workplace while standing deep in the gloom of the Edison bar. It's the right place for the conversation. The Edison is that hip new lounge built into a former power station far beneath downtown L.A. You enter off an alley in the emerging loft district. Overhead loom dark streets and lost souls; but downstairs, you find a heady mix of artists, executives, and media types. Wingback chairs have been scattered among abandoned generators and huge cleaned-up furnaces from the industrial age. Handsome people serve smoky brandies. A guy with slick hair sings, "I've got you under my skin."
Near the bar, the Urban Man chats about globalization--you know, how all the really necessary work has moved to Asia--cars, clothing, code. How "guest labor" now takes care of the heavy lifting for us, here at home.
When I mention that even I consult for a globalization services company a woman emerges from the gloom to ask: "So what's left? What is the future of work in America?"
It's not just anyone doing the asking, but a famous financial reporter, so I take a long sip of Pellegrino before I say, "Really, it's not a problem. As the necessary gets outsourced, Americans are mastering the unnecessary in all its forms. Not just movies, rock, and TV, but designer water, spa cuisine, Swedish massage, ponied children's parties, overpriced cookies, beautifully-rendered sports equipment, large corporate art, tri-hull yachts, and eco-tours complete with ziplining.
"It's a great niche because of course, the unnecessary offers a much greater market than the necessary. I mean anyone can make elevators and cars, but only a master of style can fill them with the proper tunes and the right moca java in the cupholder.
"Surely," I continue, "Americans are now the acknowledged leaders in the unnecessary, passing Europeans even in flavored coffees. Take this bar," I say, indicating our post-industrial playground. "Style may be the mere after-glow of greatness, but it pays well."
The reporter looks uncertain, so I add: "You know, I think it's silly when people complain that American news media cover too much fashion and entertainment. I mean, they represent our coming core industry."
She gives me an odd smile, and starts to chat with…someone else.
Okay, maybe I got a little carried away, but it's not my fault. I mean, there's a certain giddiness that comes from holding a sparkling drink in a former industrial facility. Down here men worked hard in tough conditions, and now we Bobos get to stand on the same polished concrete floor making small talk and eating small sandwiches.
Suddenly, I recall the old 1927 film, Metropolis. In Metropolis, Fritz Lang envisioned a 21st century divided between Thinkers and Workers. Thinkers lived in a city of abstract skyscrapers and pleasure gardens while workers lived underground, tending machines they did not understand.
Lang couldn't know that here in the actual 21st century, workers would end up overseas, while Thinkers would flow into their former workspaces like a sweet aesthetic tide, redeeming the old warehouses, factories, and power plants with our galleries, lofts, and upscale bistros.
Since lately, white-collar jobs are also getting offshored, pretty soon we may be partying even in the cubicles of abandoned office towers. Picture peach vodka in those retro water coolers. Dancing in the hallways.
Of course, in Metropolis, the system breaks down in a messy way. The workers destroy the machines they don't comprehend, the lights go out, and a new, if undefined age begins. I go looking for the reporter to update her on this point, but she's gone. And come midnight, as the Urban Man emerges from the happy vaults of the Edison into the troubled streets of the real city, he can't help wondering how our movie will end.
For KCRW, I'm Marc Porter Zasada.
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