As I shored up this column, news broke of the Bush administration's disingenuous, if not illicit, use of video news releases (VNR) to sway public opinion toward its Medicare bill. The Government Accounting Office reported that, as of Feb. 12, the VNR aired 53 times at 40 stations in 33 markets. Their source went unidentified.
Here's a decade-old quote: The apex of Boomer conformism is mass media news, which created the whole Gen X issue. Baboo (Baby Boomer) writers, editors and viewers are constantly looking for trends and movements, making them up if necessary. Today's press corps is largely worthless a pack of shallow conformists so easily manipulated that it's a joke.
That observation came from Mark Saltveit's Whatever, an essay in Douglas Rushkoff's GenX Reader, published in 1994. From that compendium of then alt voices Douglas Coupland, Richard Linklatter, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Beavis & Butt-Head Rushkoff parlayed a keen eye for cultural psychoanalysis into the rsum of a Gen X Renaissance man, professor, columnist, author of nine books, PBS Frontline producer and regular essayist for National Public Radio. He has articulated the sea change that Gen X engendered and, at the same time, the confabulation of the thing itself.
Generation X as a market segment seemed, from the get-go, a paradox. Researchers and consultants suggest that X, instead of marking a target, indicates a blank space, a variable with no easy algebra to ascribe it a value. As high-flying baboo marketing and agency execs in headier days sought the favor of Generation X, it meant defining the undefinable, some elusive key to selling stuff to people who didn't want it. The ascription of Gen X conjures an effort to fence in free-range animals. It's like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle at work: the act of taking a measure of Gen X ultimately altered it.
That irony pervades Rushkoff's writings. He deconstructs the Merchants of Cool, as he titled one of his PBS investigations, and their obsessive drive for sway among consumer minds. In this obsession lies the central Gen X conflict: it's the generation that wars with corporate America's presumption that the natural state of human discourse is being-marketed-to. Ten years after the GenX Reader, Rushkoff, interviewed via a series of e-mails from various stops along his schedule, put a prescient spin on that notion.
I don't think Gen X really refers to a generation as much as a newfound ability to resist media, he contends. The terminology [though not the term] was invented by marketers as a way of excusing the failure of their expensive methods. Their ads stopped working in the early '80s, and it seemed to be high school/college age kids who were resisting them the best.
Resistance is our heresy. Latchkey childhoods helped to forge us as consumers earlier than any other generation. Now, our first impulse is disbelief because information's gatekeepers have proved to be so credulous. From our vantage point, the stereotype of the Gen Xer as cynical gets flipped. We are recoiling from cynicism. Cynicism hangs your-ad-here on every vacant LED, movie screen and banana, Disneyfies storytelling into merchandising blitzes, grooms soulless faux rock rebels and, by the way, inserts blatantly propagandistic (VNR) news reports into a medium we're supposed to trust.
Rushkoff posits an imposing groupthink not just to this 360-degree assault on our consciousness, but also in the presumption that to object to it is fringe sociopathy. We are so inundated by the free market's rhetorical whitewash that we are fast approaching what can only be labeled market fascism: a social contract that can no longer tolerate any opinion or event that doesn't serve the speculative economy, he wrote in Canadian activist magazine Adbusters in the spring of 2001. Its adherents can't imagine alternatives to the logic of capitalism. Those who can conceive of counter-currents become the latest-variety enemy of the state. Market opponents must be eliminated or, better, assimilated.
Generation X does not turn away from the logic of capitalism in a specific, monolithic way. The entirety of the 49-million person cohort didn't march on Seattle in November 1999, even if our ranks compose the vanguard of the anti-globalization movement. Still, Generation X did anything but evince the psychographic malaise that confounded culture vultures ascribed to it.
It wasn't malaise at all, Rushkoff says. Volunteerism and creativity by all measures went up. There was more zine production, independent media, social volunteerism, by every metric. What went down was participation in mainstream institutional life. So this was recontextualized by marketers and social programmers as malaise. It was a refusal to buy stuff.
Sure, Xers consumed, but they wanted to find their stuff underneath the din, where it said something about them, not about them and 49 million others, or 250 million others. Rather than keeping up with the Joneses, they flipped them the bird. They sought something authentic amid the noise, Rushkoff posits. So corporations faked authenticity. As Nirvana's success eviscerated the smug, finger-on-the-pulse illusions of the record industry, major labels purchased or concocted sub-labels to sign edgier artists. They marketed Alternative into the mainstream. Macrobrewing corporations conceived or purchased craft breweries. Corporations, though merging and synergizing concocted boutique sub-brands to mask their heft. Waves of new products and irreverent communications aimed at a cutting edge segment that wanted something un-big, un-corporate, un-hyped, un-cola.
Did it work? To a degree companies garnered chunks of markets they otherwise might not have. But, they also accelerated fragmentation. Longing for the days of three channels and undivided attentions, advertisers sought incremental impressions by inserting themselves into any new media crevice they could, peer advisors, street teams, VNRs too. This onslaught only exacerbated the noise. Mass media, still grasping for Xers dollars, applied boilerplate creativity to an ever-consolidating entertainment businesses that drew fewer fans, eyeballs and/or cash transactions.
So, attention shifts to newer, softer-headed youth. Xers don't set the cutting edge anymore. Besides, we're overeducated, having fewer kids, getting our news from the Web and not worshipping God as much. We're still a crappy target. The effort of a Gen X member to survive to eat, clothe themselves, house themselves, etc. means that they have to eventually purchase things, says Rushkoff. They'll need strollers. So then all the corporation has to do is create the illusion that they've produced the stroller in some little cottage business. The only choice for the Gen X member is whether to be conscious of the futility of his or her efforts to buy something without participating in the perpetration of the mass illusion.
Sure, our distrust of authority has borne out in spades, but so what? As Rushkoff puts it, Our national psyche has descended into something much more like fascism than anti-authoritarianism. Our allegiance to commercial culture above all else will probably cost America its role as a major force for innovation. Gen X was an effort to arrest the development of this cancerous solipsism, this sacrifice of our children for the betterment of the quarterly bottom line. Now, Rushkoff says, that more idealistic concept of Generation X, if not the people itself, has been quite systematically and intentionally marginalized out of memory. Resistance is futile.