A half-hour east of Seattle, not far from the headquarters of Microsoft, Amazon, and other icons of the digital revolution, reSTART, a rehab center for Internet addicts, reveals some of the downsides of that revolution. Most of the clients here are trying to quit online gaming, an obsession that has turned their careers, relationships, and health to shambles. For the outsider, the addiction can be incomprehensible. But listening to the patients’ stories, the appeal comes sharply into focus. In a living room overlooking the lawn, 29-year-old Brett Walker talks about his time in World of Warcraft, a popular online role-playing game in which participants become warriors in a steampunk medieval world. For four years, even as his real life collapsed, Walker enjoyed a near-perfect online existence, with unlimited power and status akin to that of a Mafia boss crossed with a rock star. “I could do whatever I wanted, go where I wanted,” Walker tells me with a mixture of pride and self-mockery. “The world was my oyster.”
Walker appreciates the irony. His endless hours as an online superhero left him physically weak, financially destitute, and so socially isolated he could barely hold a face-to-face conversation. There may also have been deeper effects. Studies suggest that heavy online gaming alters brain structures involved in decision making and self-control, much as drug and alcohol use do. Emotional development can be delayed or derailed, leaving the player with a sense of self that is incomplete, fragile, and socially disengaged—more id than superego. Or as Hilarie Cash, reSTART cofounder and an expert in online addiction, tells me, “We end up being controlled by our impulses.”
If we could step back a century, before the rise of the consumer economy, we would be struck not only by the lack of affluence and technology but also by the distance between people and the economy, by the separation of economic and emotional life. People back then weren’t any less wrapped up in economic activities. The difference lay in where most of that activity took place. A century ago, economic activity occurred primarily in the physical world of production. People made things: they farmed, crafted, cobbled, nailed, baked, brined, brewed. They created tangible goods and services whose value could be determined, often as not, by the measurable needs and requirements of their physical, external lives.
That relationship changed with the rise of the consumer economy. Sophisticated, large-scale industrial systems assumed the task of making many of the things we needed, and also began to focus on the things we wanted. As the consumer economy matured, an ever-larger share of economic activity came from discretionary consumption, driven not by need but by desire, and thus by the intangible criteria of people’s inner worlds: their aspirations and hopes, identities and secret cravings, anxieties and ennui. As these inner worlds came to play a larger role in the economy—and, in particular, as companies’ profits and workers’ wages came to depend increasingly on the gratification of ephemeral (but conveniently endless) appetites—the entire marketplace became more attuned to the mechanics of the self. Bit by bit, product by product, the marketplace drew closer to the self.
The “shareholder revolution,” as Wall Street dubbed it without irony, was a shock to the nation’s business psyche. For more than half a century, corporate America, heavily pressured by labor and an openly interventionist government, had hewed to a paternalistic capitalism, under which a large share of profits was reinvested in everything from worker training to community charities. But those times were over, for according to many conservative economists, it was partly such misplaced corporate generosity that had weakened U.S. companies in the first place. For these critics, the only way American companies could help society was, paradoxically, to jettison the older notion that business had any separate, social obligations other than making maximum profit. As Milton Friedman, an icon of conservative economics, argued in a seminal New York Times essay, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” And the best way for government to help this happen was to turn companies loose, by cutting taxes and regulations, and thereby allow the efficiencies of the marketplace to find the most direct route back to wealth.
The shareholder revolution would have upended American society in any case. But its effects were magnified by a second shock—a potent new technology, the microprocessor, which made computing vastly more powerful and much cheaper. By the 1980s, computer speed was doubling, and computer costs were halving, every two years—a trend, known as Moore’s Law, that quickly transformed every sector of the consumer economy. Business processes, from design to marketing, could now be supercharged and accelerated. (In Detroit, for instance, the time needed to bring a new car from drawing board to showroom fell from four years to 18 months.) By cutting the time between investment and profit, computers gave business a potent new tool to generate the faster returns that Wall Street was demanding—but also to deliver the gratifications consumers were now coming to expect.
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