Digital capitalism and the imperative to be noticed 

In Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, he writes of how interns voluntarily subjugate themselves in order to ‘be noticed’, even if they have little expectation that their internship will lead to a permanent job. From loc 1997:

There is rarely much reason to believe that internships in the public sector or at nonprofits will convert directly to permanent employment—they seldom do—so the best one can hope for is to make an impression, be noticed, position yourself for something down the road.

This coheres nicely with arguments Bauman has made recently about social media. The imperative to be noticed, the extroverted mirror image of the spectre of uselessness, thrives in an environment when occupational opportunities contract. People find themselves locked in an upward spiral of competitive escalation in their desperation to claim what are correctly felt to be a diminishing number of possibilities to claim the life long security and stability which post war capitalism was able to offer most of their parent’s and grandparent’s generations.

What I mean by ‘contracting opportunities’ is best conveyed by a U.S. treasury official (and former intern) the author quotes on loc 2063: “There’s so much demand for this kind of career path and such a limited supply, so we’re able to dictate how to get into the process.” Internships can be an escape strategy, a desperate attempt to break out of a cycle of precarious work – with the number of job shifts by young people continuing to increase – into the receding upper echelons of secure and rewarding employment. But internships themselves reflect this precarious work, as hopeful interns are increasingly forced to undertaken chains of unpaid or barely paid internships in the hope of breaking into full time work.

Part of the problem with internships is they further intensify this problem, making ensuing jobs more glamorous and exciting by allowing the transfer of administrative functions to the interns, as well as contracting the supply of entry level positions as organisations replace permanent staff with interns. Plus, as he succinctly observes on loc 3035, the internship system as a whole allows privileged children access to opportunities denied to others:

For well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds.

A comparable strategy to internships and social media self-promotion is discussed on loc 2519:

Staking everything on a career-launching internship, as sociologist Mark Granovetter points out, is not unlike working unpaid for shares in a Silicon Valley start-up: “There are a surprising number of people willing to work just for 50 or 60 thousand shares of a company that may never see the light of day … Unless they think that what the company is doing is the best thing since sliced bread, then they probably have no better alternative.” Interns at start-ups, such as “Nora,” often work for the possibility of getting an equity share in a company.

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