Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.