The digital hipster: when cultural modernism meets accelerated work

I spent the second half of this week thinking about the ideal of the digital nomad, he who takes advantage of the affordances of digital media to live a life of constant movement, working with a laptop from a different place each day. We can see this expressed in extreme form in contemporary lifestyle minimalism, defined by a competitive escalation in the number of accoutrements one can dispense with while remaining functional. However it has also percolated into the broader culture, coming to constitute existential common sense amongst great swathes of freelancers and cultural labourers.

This was a mode of existence glamorised in the coverage of early digital gurus within magazines like Wired. But it built on a cultural impulse which predated these institutional entrepreneurs, something which Fred Turner locates within the counter-culture: the amorphous and apolitical cultural movement often conflated with the action-orientated new left. However this in turn has broader roots than the commune dwellers who are the focus of Turner’s study. Thomas Frank quotes Norman Mailer’s early expression of this moral source on loc 381 of his Conquest of Cool:

“The only life-giving answer” to the deathly drag of American civilization, Mailer wrote, was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to live for immediate pleasures rather than the postponement of gratification associated with the “work ethic,” “to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The antithesis to the man in the gray flannel suit was a figure Mailer called the Hipster, an “American existentialist” whose tastes for jazz, sex, drugs, and the slang and mores of black society constituted the best means of resisting the encroachments of Cold War oppression.

Assuming we accept this cultural genealogy, we confront an apparent paradox that a refusal of the work ethic can come to be such a crucial component of  a contemporary culture of over-work. As Turner puts it on loc 3838 of his study, it leads to “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier”.

My suggestion is that this hinges on the locus of fulfilment for Mailer’s hipster moving from life to work. As Frank summarises on loc 397 of the same text:

Unlike the “over-civilized man” with his diligent piling of the accoutrements of respectability, the hipster lives with a “burning consciousness of the present,” exists for ever-more-intense sensation, for immediate gratification, for “an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.”

The accelerated conditons of intensified labour for creative workers, as working life is constituted through their rapid movement through a heterogenous array of projects with an equally varied range of collaborators, feeds this “burning consciousness of the present” in a way that even the most excitingly hedonistic life would fail to do. There is no rhythm or routine, only an endless succession of experiences, continually challenge one to self-transcend. To the digital hipster, personal  life has become the theatre of stultifying conformity while working life promises liberation from it.

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