In his great autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell remembers his schooldays:
There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914. It was the age when crazy millionaires in curly top-hats and lavender waistcoats gave champagne parties in rococo house-boats on the Thames, the age of diabolo and hobble skirts, the age of the ‘knut’ in his grey bowler and cut-away coat, the age of The Merry Widow, Saki’s novels, Peter Pan and Where the Rainbow Ends, the age when people talked about chocs and cigs and ripping and topping and heavenly, when they went for divvy week-ends at Brighton and had scrumptious teas at the Troc. From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and crème-de-menthe and soft-centred chocolates — an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song. The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that his oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last for ever, and was part of the order of things. After 1918 it was never quite the same again. Snobbishness and expensive habits came back, certainly, but they were self-conscious and on the defensive. Before the war the worship of money was entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience. The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue.
What follows is purely subjective and impressionistic, but: I think in America in 2013 we’re back to that point, back, that is, to an environment in which “the worship of money [is] entirely unreflecting and untroubled by any pang of conscience.”
We have plenty of evidence that the very rich are deficient in generosity and lacking in basic human empathy, and yet there seems to be a general confidence in the very rich — a widespread belief that those who have amassed great wealth, by whatever means, can be trusted to fix even the most intractable social problems.
Consider in this light, and as just one example, the widespread enthusiasm for the rise of the MOOC. The New York Times called 2012 The Year of the MOOC in an article comprised almost wholly of MOOC-makers’ talking-points, and even when the most prominent advocate of MOOCs abandons them as a lost cause, he still gets reverential puff-pieces. Some people can do no wrong. They just have to have enough money — and to have gotten it in the right way.
I think this “entirely unreflecting” “worship of money” is sustained by one thing above all: wealth-acquisition in America today, in comparison to wealth-acquisition in the Victorian age or across the Pacific in China, feels clean. Pixel-based and sootless. No sweatshops in sight — those are well-hidden in other parts of the world. We may happen to find out that Amazon’s warehouses aren’t that different than sweatshops, but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, in large part because our own dealings with Amazon are so frictionless and, again, clean: no handing over of cash, not even credit cards after you enter your number that first time, just pointing and clicking and waiting for the package to show up on your porch. Oh look, there it is. Not only are the actual conditions of production hidden, but even the nature of the transaction is invisible, de-materialized. (I could be talking about MOOCs here as well: they work the same way.)
It’s almost impossible to think of Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Sebastian Thrun as robber baron industrialists or even as captains of industry, even if the occasional article appears identifying them as such, because what they do doesn’t fit our imaginative picture of “industry.” They seem more like the economic version of the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor in Doc’s DeLorean: you just throw any old crap in and pure hi-res digital money comes out.
Cue Donald Fagen:
Just machines to make big decisions
Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when that work is done
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.