The Laws of Cool Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information
by Alan Liu
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Cloth: 978-0-226-48698-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-48699-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-48700-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Knowledge work is now the reigning business paradigm and affects even the world of higher education. But what perspective can the knowledge of the humanities and arts contribute to a world of knowledge work whose primary mission is business? And what is the role of information technology as both the servant of the knowledge economy and the medium of a new technological cool? In The Laws of Cool, Alan Liu reflects on these questions as he considers the emergence of new information technologies and their profound influence on the forms and practices of knowledge.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Alan Liu is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Wordsworth: the Sense of History and the developer of The Voices of the Shuttle (http://vos.ucsb.edu), one of the earliest and most active humanities portals on the Web. His major online initiatives also include Romantic Chronology and Palinurus: The Academy and the Corporation-Teaching the Humanities in a Restructured World.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0001
[literature, creative destruction, knowledge work, cool, cultural life, information age, politics, humanities, arts, education]
Cultural criticism has been brutally effective in demonstrating that the churning of literary capital has always been a part of the world of literature. A distinctive form of that churning in relation to the general economic and social churning is what Joseph A. Schumpeter, in his classic phrase about capitalism, called “creative destruction.” This book is a study of the cultural life of information or, more broadly, of contemporary “knowledge work.” It explores the role of literature in that cultural life and the future of the literary when the true aestheticism unbound of knowledge work—as seen on innumerable web pages—is “cool.” Cool is the techno-informatic vanishing point of contemporary aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality, and everything. The book offers a historical sketch of knowledge work and a theoretical frame for investigating its culture of cool. It then follows up with an argument about the role of humanities education and the arts in the world of cool. This latter argument turns on the general character of historical and aesthetic knowledge in the information age. (pages 1 - 12)
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Part I The New Enlightenment

- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0002
[David Lodge, Nice Work, knowledge work, academy, industry, business]
In David Lodge's 1988 novel, Nice Work, the heroine, Robyn Penrose, temporary lecturer in English literature, was challenged to confront the sooty business managed by its hero, Vic Wilcox, product of a Midlands technical college. Was this the utmost challenge that Lodge could imagine for the contemporary academic sensibility: to come to grips with the realism of “smokestack” industrialism as it has appalled fiction since the nineteenth-century industrial novel (Lodge's elaborate allusion) through at least D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers? If so, then we can adequately attribute Lodge's comedy to the slow, sly romance he builds between the academy and industry (and their protagonists)—to his deft dance of opposites that at last issues, if not in a classically comic wedding, then at least in the fleeting copulation of two faculties of expertise divorced since Victorian sages presided over the “idea of a university.” Just as Lodge's academic romance can be read in different tones, so too can our contemporary romances of knowledge work. (pages 14 - 22)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0003
[knowledge work, humanities, subject work, teamwork, New Class work, cultural class, identity group, cultural criticism, sociology, Pierre Bourdieu]
To understand knowledge work from the perspective of the humanities, this chapter reviews three explanations of the concept that arose independently and largely in ignorance of each other: subject work, New Class work, and teamwork. The first two are academic approaches characteristic of the humanities in their now prevailing cultural critical personality. The third is the neo-corporate business thesis that seems destined to buy out the others. Where there was “identity group” and “cultural class,” there will now be only that elementary unit of corporate knowledge work, the team. Since about 1980, the dominant, if unwitting, explanation of knowledge work in the humanities, especially in literature departments, has been the cultural criticism of identity and subject. Knowledge work was a subject or identity work as vast as all culture. New Class work also arose in the academy, but from the direction of sociology rather than literary cultural studies. This chapter analyzes the general sociology of culture-based class distinctions proposed by Pierre Bourdieu as well as the more specific sociology of the New Class. (pages 23 - 74)
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Part II Ice Ages

- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0004
[cool, knowledge work, World Wide Web, alienation, knowledge workers, intraculture, automating, informating, networking]
Amid the coldest and richest of our contemporary seas—awash in the bright, quick data streams and great knowledge surges—lies the continent of cool. The sea is the sea of information in which we variously surf, navigate, explore, and drown (the standard metaphors). The friendship of the World Wide Web, and everything it represents in the long history of work leading up to current knowledge work, is strangely cold. Precisely in this cold space of non-identity, cool appears as the cultural face of knowledge work. Cool arises inside the regime of knowledge work as what might be called an intraculture rather than a subculture or counterculture. This chapter reviews the history of contemporary knowledge work—specifically, the history of how knowledge workers grew so cold they had to be cool. Cold work originated in alienation as Karl Marx understood it. But what is most relevant in our context is the specifically twentieth-century history of alienation, which this chapter unfolds in three ages of ice named after the leading work paradigms of their times: automating, informating, and networking. (pages 76 - 80)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0005
[alienation, Karl Marx, identity, subject, object, automation, production, consumption, subculture, cool]
To understand the fate of alienation in the first half of the twentieth century, it is useful to review the “Estranged Labour” fragment of Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he defined alienation. Drawing on a Romantic metaphysics of identity, Marx first characterized alienation as the estrangement of object from subject: “The object which labour produces—labour's product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour which has been embodied in an object.” “Estranged Labour” is Marx's dramatization of fate as agon (man versus self) as well as antagonism (man versus man). To change the scene to twentieth-century automation, we need then only take all the drama out of alienation. When we contemplate the cultures of modern production and consumption in their convergence rather than fetishistic isolation, we witness the birth of twentieth-century cool proper. Subculture appropriated from the mainstream the paradox of hot versus cold. (pages 81 - 104)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0006
[informating, Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine, blue-collar work, white-collar workers, mainframe computing, automation, technological rationality, counterculture, work]
We can best approach the issue of informating by visiting two work locales of the early 1980s depicted in Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988). The book provides a sketch of one work site paradigmatic of a new mode of blue-collar work and a matching description of the new white-collar office of the time. Mainframe computing inaugurated not only sweeping changes in infrastructure and work routine, but also the possibility of a whole new mentality of work. Zuboff coined the term “informating” to mean that computers generate an inescapably thick wrapping of second-order information (information acting on information) around the primary interface of information acting on matter where automation occurs. Informating thus means building into automation the capacity metaphorically (and soon literally) to see the systemic whole of technological rationality—to glimpse not just individual files but the entirety of what C. Wright Mills named by synecdoche the “Enormous File” of white-collar workers. An important issue is the relation of counterculture to the entire baseline relating mainstream to subculture and work to leisure. (pages 105 - 140)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0007
[networking, information technology, intraculture, knowledge work, decentralization, cool, computing, communications, technological convergence, subculture]
Since about 1982, networking has taken the lead in setting the agenda of information technology. In terms of information architectures, the networking paradigm arose through a twofold rhythm of convergence in underlying technologies and divergence in understanding what might be called the “philosophy” of those technologies. The technological convergence occurred when computing and communications fused together in three overlapping stages: the preliminary decade of the 1970s, the years from 1981 to 1991, and the early 1990s. Networking eroded decentralization to the point of wholly ironizing the putative master/slave relation between client and server. What is cool in an era when all our techniques are bonded to all our technologies through a paradoxically de- and recentralized network of standards, protocols, routines, metaphors, and, finally, culture that makes knowledge work simulate an eternal, inescapable friendship? Might there someday be a subculture and art of the interface—one that is cool to the friendship system even while wired into the culture of that system? The answer is that such a subculture is already here: the intraculture of knowledge work. (pages 141 - 174)
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Part III The Laws of Cool

- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0008
[cool, Netscape, web sites, knowledge work, information age, ethos, style, feeling, politics]
On one of the best known pages of its web site in 1996–1997, Netscape asked: “What's cool?” The answer offered on the page quickly passes over the “we” who do not yet know what cool is (“someday, we'll all agree on what's cool on the Net”) to install a “cool team” charged with generating an empirical definition of cool—a list of web sites. These are the sites, the team says (itself now appropriating the first-person plural), “that catch our eye, make us laugh, help us work, quench our thirst...you get the idea.” What is information cool? Structured as information designed to resist information, cool is the paradoxical “gesture” by which an ethos of the unknown struggles to arise in the midst of knowledge work. Just four themes of cool in the information age—each phrased as an assertion about the life of information, followed paradoxically by its contradiction—will provide an adequate dossier. Cool is, and is not, an ethos, style, feeling, and politics of information. (pages 176 - 180)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0009
[cool, web pages, networked information, information culture, ethos, World Wide Web]
This chapter presents the results of a survey of “cool” and related terms on the World Wide Web using major search engines, conducted on July 6–7, 1998. There is clearly much more cool on the web in the form of self-declared cool pages, references to other cool pages, and general appreciation of things cool than might be expected for a word whose usage is non-functional. Second, the raw totals understate the case considerably because cool collects disproportionately in those parts of web pages that have premium value: in the encoded page title, the links on the page, and frequently even the URL or domain name. Third, cool exploits its position close to the bone of networked information to express information culture's awareness of itself. These results show that cool is an ethos or “character” of information—a way or manner of living in the world of information. (pages 181 - 194)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0010
[cool, design, formalism, modernism, information technology, graphic design, information design, information architecture, knowledge work]
If information cool is a form of “deco-technology,” then another way to say that its content is useless is to identify “uselessness” with the conversion of all the workaday techniques, procedures, routines, protocols, and standards of information into an experience of pure style, which in the producer culture of knowledge work is translated as “design.” Formalism is a necessary approach to information cool. Formalism, above all other twentieth-century artistic and critical movements, suborned the technological rationality of modernity by remolding its functionalist assumptions so profoundly as to imprint them with the distinctive style of “modernism.” Clarity of design in the modernist style molded itself to the new information technology. One of the most powerful aesthetic phenomena of recent decades has been the consolidation of graphic design and information display into a common “spectrum of tropes, icons, and graphic conventions that collectively convey the notion of information to the eye of the beholder.” The consolidation became even more pronounced in the flourishing sub-branch of graphic design known as “information design” or “information architecture.” (pages 195 - 230)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0011
[cool, feeling, World Wide Web, information, Project Cool, knowledge work]
Cool style at the beginning of the twenty-first century completes the severe revision the twentieth century had already initiated in old traditions of affiliation between artistic styles and modalities of feeling. Cool may not be exactly a “Fordized face” of no emotion, then, but as the alter-face of the interface of information, it is just as constrained. The heart of the problem lies in determining whether the cool “feeling of paradox” is in fact a structure of feeling at all rather than, equally intuitive, a lack of feeling. On the one hand, information cool is robust with feeling. Cool on the World Wide Web is a heady brio, gusto, rush, thrill, feeling of information. The best single body of documentation for studying cool feeling on the web is the Project Cool site. We should not be surprised that the epithets used to excess in the wake of the Enlightenment to describe detached, visually framed scenes of enjoyment should reconvene in the age of knowledge work to describe an equivalent visual frame—the computer screen. (pages 231 - 238)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0012
[cool, politics, cyberlibertarianism, World Wide Web, information technology, freedom, privacy, bad attitude, free speech, individualism]
Most users of online media are likely to have encountered—and in practice at least minimally endorsed—“politics for the really cool.” One does not need to be overtly political, after all, to feel a vicarious thrill of revolution while downloading copyrighted music at work or viewing previously restricted satellite images on the World Wide Web. Even purely fictional representations of digital information technology, such as the 1990s films The Net and The Matrix, implicate their audiences in this way. This chapter examines the logic of the politics of cool by focusing on “cyberlibertarianism,” the belief that the technological and social covenants of networked information are a new form—or reform—of politics. This chapter discusses the freedom associated with cyberlibertarianism, including freedom from government and freedom from big business. It also examines cyberlibertarianism as a flawed politics or, more extreme, no politics at all; cool as “bad attitude”; how cyberlibertarians treat privacy, free speech, and freedom of information; and the unstable balance between cyberlibertarian privacy and individualism. (pages 239 - 284)
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Part IV Humanities and Arts in the Age of Knowledge Work

- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0013
[knowledge work, information culture, cool, World Wide Web, anthropology, cultural education, humanities, arts, information age]
There is much “more,” as mentioned in the introduction of this book. If we were to press the phantom “more” or “next” button at this point in this book's argument, we would come to additional topics in the study of knowledge work and information culture. Clearly, this book has not dealt in depth with the effect of information culture on any particular aspect of the group identities discussed earlier. Perhaps most important, this book has focused on the United States and thus does not give due attention to the “world” even while making the “World Wide Web” a case study in post-industrial cool. It is now time to offer up the anthropology of cool in order to start upon the book's concluding topic. That topic is the cultural education of the cool and, correlatively, the future of the humanities and arts in the information age. (pages 286 - 288)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0014
[Society against the State, Pierre Clastres, societies, politics, Indian tribes, cool, sociality, knowledge work, laws, producer culture]
In his 1974 book Society against the State, the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres argues that there are societies without politics. Most Indian tribes of the Americas, Clastres says, “are headed by leaders and chiefs,” but “none of these caciques possesses any power.” The tribe of the cubicle, like the tribe of the forest, inhabits a sociality of mandatory disempowerment. The laws of this sociality—the post-industrial sociality of “neocorporatism” and informationalism—can be summarized as follows: the law of “nature,” the law of mobility, the law of modularity, the law of random access, the law of exchange, and the law of cool. These, or something very like these, are the laws of cool. These are the laws of knowledge work that now make it mandatory to be cool or at least—trained by cool consumer cultures that are really a lifelong, parallel education system teaching us how to live under the dominion of producer culture (the “corporate culture” of the new workplace)—to aspire to be cool. (pages 289 - 300)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0015
[humanities, aesthetics, knowledge work, cool, knowledge culture, post-industrialism, post-structuralism, cultural criticism, learning, humanities education]
This chapter speculates about the future of humanities education and the future of aesthetics. What will be the future role of humanities education in the age of knowledge work? What will be the role of such education now that the older, universalist mode of humanistic inquiry has been inflected toward difference, flexibility, and contingency by those movements that are the uniquely academic version of post-industrialism: post-structuralism and cultural criticism? A gigantic distance exists between the cool and the educational system. Cool is an ethos that starts as early as daycare and primary school, matures in high school, and becomes adept in college. Cool is nothing if not closely bound to the schooling system. Yet cool is anything but identified with schooling as such. Rather, it is a parallel system of learning—or just as accurately, anti-learning—that turns away from an educational system it believes represents dominant knowledge culture, toward a popular culture whose corporate and media conglomerates, ironically, are dominant knowledge culture. (pages 301 - 316)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0016
[knowledge work, information age, cool, creative destruction, creative arts, viral aesthetics, history]
The rationale of contemporary knowledge work is “creative destruction,” with the emphasis on “creative” and almost no serious reflection on “destruction.” The question of a future aesthetics is the question of the general legitimation of art in such an age of creative destruction. What is the function of the creative arts in a world of perpetually “innovative” information and knowledge work? The special potential of the arts in the age of knowledge work may well be to complement the humanities lesson that “cool has a history” with the crucial inverse of that lesson: history can be cool. Cool à la mode—the cool of the instantaneous present—can no longer be the exclusive obsession of knowledge workers. In the age of “creative destruction,” the sense of history will also need to be cool. This chapter looks at viral aesthetics and the potential of the new aesthetics of “destructive creativity” in the information age. (pages 317 - 372)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0017
[humanities, arts, history, future literary, information age, literary history, literature, cyberterrorism, viral aesthetics, cool]
The humanities stand to gain “cool” from the arts, while the arts might gain in return from the humanities a historical rationale for the new aesthetics (including “viral aesthetics”) currently struggling to emerge from the suffocating post-industrial credo of ceaseless, heedless creativity. The social, ethical, and aesthetic adequacy of the creative arts in the age of knowledge work seems to depend on acquiring such an aesthetic legitimation. What is socially redeeming about an art that resembles “cyberterrorism,” which in turn resembles “bioterrorism,” which itself is the “poor man's version” of nuclear terrorism, and so on up the scale of apocalypse in the contemporary logic of terrorism and counterterrorism? This chapter discusses the importance of an alliance between the arts and contemporary humanities to explain the legitimacy of the new aesthetic ideologies. It explains how, in the view of the contemporary humanities, history fundamentally transcodes creation as destruction, and vice versa. Finally, it examines the unique future of literature in the information age as well as the future of “literary history” and how it can contribute to the future literary. (pages 373 - 384)
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- Alan Liu
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226487007.003.0018
[ethos of the unknown, knowledge work, post-industrialism, cool, literature, arts]
This Epilogue reflects on how the author of this book found a strange yet utterly familiar thing that he came to call the “ethos of the unknown” from which this book grew. The author wanted to believe that an individual could match the world of corporate knowledge work—at least enough to criticize it. The Epilogue criticizes post-industrialism from inside because—here and now, in this place and time—there is no transcendental outside. One must think a little like a corporation to engage with post-industrialism. The Epilogue also addresses the question of whether critique from inside the corporate knowledge structure is just another kind of cool irony, but no more than that. Finally, it states that literature will have a place in a new-media world otherwise dominated by the design, visual, and musical arts. But we do not yet know how to theorize what the eventual nature and position of that literature will be among the convergent data streams of the future. (pages 385 - 390)
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A. Taxonomy of Knowledge Work

B. Chronology of Downsizing (Through the 1990s)

C. “Ethical Hacking” and Art

Notes

Works Cited

Index