The Internet and the "American Dream"

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America has always promoted itself as the land of freedom and opportunity, but is that really the case today, asks Matthew Mitchell.

John Ralston Saul (1992) has suggested that most cultures are based on a kind of mythology or ideology. In America, this mythology seems to be based around the idea of the "self-made man". In other words, the ability of any American to become rich if they just apply themselves. If you are rich, it is because you deserve to be rich. In America, unlike Old Europe where wealth is inherited, people become rich by applying themselves to hard work either in industry, their own education or both. Based on this concept of meritocracy, America has promoted itself in the past as the "land of opportunity".

But is that true today?

Let us consider the merit of the bankers who take home enormous sums. Are the people whose ingenious inventiveness in derivatives led to global financial collapse really worth those large sums? Presumably, merit in a meritocracy such as America claims to be should lead to benefits for all? Otherwise, it is not really a system that rewards merit at all – or least not what most people would consider merit – but rather a system that rewards pure selfishness and greed. And even that at the expense of everyone else.

Let us examine this land of opportunity even further.

It seems that many American "opportunities" for gaining work and experience in a range of fields are either disappearing overseas (to China, India and other low-wage countries) or being automated away (Ford, 2007). The opportunities that are not automated away probably mostly remain with vulnerable small to medium enterprises (with varying degrees of profitability) or with large bureaucratic organisations in which work (and thus workers) is standardised and controlled as never before. Recent evidence suggests that active efforts are underway by large players to eliminate smaller ones as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. This is especially the case with respect to agriculture and food production, which appears to have a revolving door between corporation positions and government regulatory roles, much like the American financial industry. [See, for example: "Obama seizes farmer's money", "Baker's Family Farm under Attack" and "Farmageddon".]

So, if the only opportunities outside of large organisations like Walmart are to work for businesses whose jobs and services cannot be offshored or automated, and if even these are under attack from the large corporations (using fair means, or more likely foul), then how is America any more a "Land of Opportunity" than, say, Mexico? Now I am happy to take debate on this point, but let me just suggest that this "Land of Opportunity" claim is wearing rather thin — yet Americans still believe in it. Why is that?

It seems there is one domain in America that provides sufficient evidence to make this myth continue to seem plausible. That domain is technology. The internet and its related success stories prop up the entire crumbling edifice of American opportunity. It is the internet that is allowing this myth to extend way beyond its use-by date and, in doing so, is thus preventing American's from making a fundamental re-examination of their entire culture. It is the internet that is propping up the 1 per cent and the promise that any member of the 99 per cent can escape to a life of wealth of fame — if they are talented enough. It is the internet that provides sufficient rags-to-riches stories of the likes of Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, etc, so as to beguile a whole nation. A nation not only adoring of technology for its own sake, but also because of its promises of wealth and privilege for the common-man.

Support for the premise that the internet has been used to sell the "American Dream" can be found in a joint publication produced by some of America's leading technological evangelists, including Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler. The following are some quotes from their 1994 publication Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age:
‘To some people, that statement will seem melodramatic. America, after all, remains a land of individual freedom, and this freedom clearly extends to cyberspace. How else to explain the uniquely American phenomenon of the hacker, who ignored every social pressure and violated every rule to develop a set of skills through an early and intense exposure to low-cost, ubiquitous computing."

‘Those skills eventually made him or her highly marketable, whether in developing applications-software or implementing networks. The hacker became a technician, an inventor and, in case after case, a creator of new wealth in the form of the baby businesses that have given America the lead in cyberspatial exploration and settlement.’

The extract above refers to the opportunities for freedom (read: wealth) that are available in America and ‘the uniquely American phenomenon’ (another myth) of the penniless hacker whose talents (read: merits) lead them to success.

So the elite continue to mislead the public.  Fortunately, for the elite, this myth was established well before the financial crisis hit so as to maintain the illusion even as the Occupy movements across America declared the inequalities of American society.

Social and Technological critic Langdon Winner wrote an article linking the ideas of Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age to right wing conservatism and suggests the influence of Ayn Rand. This influence is quite sad, as Rand suggests that ones' abilities and talents are entirely one's own. Thus those fortunate enough to be gifted by nature with intelligence and ability owe nothing to their fellow man. In fact, these unfortunates are to be despised, as most likely (according to Rand - see "The Fountainhead") their ignorance and incompetence will just hold back those who are more talented. Is this the meritocracy of America? Where the strong exploit, rather than help, the weak? That seems to be evident in both banking and corporate behaviour more generally in America.

If so, then:

God help America. 

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