The Infantilization Economy
The latest craze sweeping Silicon Valley: mass hysteria for, crazed pursuit of, frenzied investment in…chatbots, shopping assistants, personal helpers, concierge apps, and so on.
Let’s change the world, guys!
Or are we? Are we building, instead, what I’ll call in this essay, the Infantilization Economy? Let’s put aside our prejudices and biases for a moment, and think about it clearly.
The economics of this market are trivial. The average American can’t scrape together a grand for emergencies. So they’re not likely to use digital valets to buy luxuries. Instead, these apps, in a stagnating economy, are likely to end up platforms for shady networks that organize price discounts in exchange for recommendations, thus rife with what economists call “adverse selection”, where markets select for lemons, not against them. Think Sam’s Club by way of Groupon with a kawaii logo.
So the real question is: why is Silicon Valley hysterical with this folly?
You’ve heard me say it a billion times before. The world has historically epic problems. Social scientists call them “wicked problems”, because they are titanic in scale, resistant to simple solution, and systemic in nature. And there’s a very, very long list of them today — far longer than at any point in human history. Climate change, inopportunity, economic stagnation, social fracture, lost generations, and so on.
Are…virtual shopping assistants…concierge apps…VVVIP restaurant bookers…going to help stop crapitalism from melting down the planet, destroying democracy, suffocating the economy, plunging the world into something like a neofeudal dark age ruled by ultra-wealthy dynasties? Are you kidding? Every dollar invested in this stuff is a dollar not invested in stuff that matters.
But that’s the obvious part. Here’s the less obvious part. Infantilization Apps are probably going to make us less capable of changing the world for the better. Here’s why.
The App, A Novel by Hyper Kafka
Who’s going to use such apps and bots? The imploding middle that can barely afford to send their kids to college? The kids just graduated from college with life-crippling debt and an endless series of McGigs? Nope.
In other words, they — the imploded middle, the young with few opportunities, and of course the poor who are something like America’s indentured serfs — are going to be the labor force for infantilization apps. They’re the butlers, maids, gofers, and chauffeurs such apps are likely to exploit.
That’s right. Exploit. Not employ. Because infantilization apps don’t really employ people, right? They merely “contract” them, at arms-length, and claim they’re marketplaces.
I’m Not a Marxist, But.
The simple fact is that productivity vastly outstrips incomes. That is, what you earn is a fraction of what you produce. Is that fair? Probably not in the short run. But maybe you can earn it back in the long run. That’s really the only economic justification for being systemically underpaid, in fact. So it’s not necessarily exploitation. As long as, maybe, it’s a step on the ladder of human potential. But if all you are is a butler, maid, gofer…then it’s probably an irrevocably step into the abyss. Like most of the new poor, such “jobs”, portfolios of gigs, lead precisely nowhere.
Yesterday, you joined an institution. Maybe even in the mailroom. But there was a ladder up. Errand runner, assistant, associate, vice president, CEO. If you worked hard, and if you were white enough, male enough, from the right pedigree enough, you probably had at least a shot.
Here’s the harsh truth.
There’s no ladder in the low end McGigs that make up today’s economy. The ladder got yanked away. What was it replaced by? We’ll get to that.
OK, champ. Congratulations! You landed that gig as an errand runner at AssRabbit. Now what? Where are you going to go? AssRabbit isn’t going to hire you, right? You’re just a “contractor”, and they’re a “marketplace”. There’s no way you’re ever going to become a manager there by working through, in them. There is no path to advancement.
Kafka wrote about people trapped by the impossible demands of modernity, for whom there appeared to be no way out, in situations they couldn’t get out of. But if Kafka was writing today, he’d have to write novels about people who couldn’t get in. We’re creating an economy that’s beyond Kafkaesque. There’s not just no way out. There’s no way in. People are forever trapped by the infantilization economy on the precarious periphery of prosperity.
Hence, exploitation. Not only are you systemically underpaid in the infantilization economy, to fetch, polish, or clean stuff for the overgrown babies of the world — you’re left crippled. Economically stunted, financially handicapped, and probably, hence, a little emotionally destroyed. There’s no way in.
Appartheid in Douchetopia
So what did the old economy’s ladder up get replaced by? A wall. If you peek over it, on the other side, you can see adult babies living like kings. They’ve got fleets of neoservants.
What’s a “neoservant”? Let’s think about it. Yesterday’s servants enjoyed in many ways better social contracts than today’s McGigWorkers. The master had to offer the servant a deal, too, right? Free room and board, some level of noblesse oblige, not always being at beck and call, minimal levels of healthcare, in some cases providing public goods like educating their kids and investing their money.
But today’s McGigWorkers don’t have any of those. All they get is underpaid to serve overgrown babies. Their deal is minimum wage at maximum cost, risk, and effort. They have no unions, protections, or privileges. Hence, the flipside is also true: “neomasters” aren’t like the old world’s masters, either.
They’re often cursed as the Biggest Douchebags the World’s Ever Known…and they are. Because they can be. They have all the privileges of feudal overlords…with none of the responsibilities. Hence, the Infantilization Economy is a system for the powerful to treat people not even like trusted, perhaps valued, servants…but more like disposable, interchangeable servant-commodities.
If crapitalism is a system to suck as much life out of people as possible, then the Infantilization Economy’s neoservitude is the apogee, the perfect blood extraction device. It makes people servants without even making other people masters. The machine is the new master. And the algorithm doesn’t care. The old master was human, at least. But the machine has no emotion, no conscience, seeks no redemption. It is only perfect calculation.
So we look across the wall and we see the Babies being served like kings. Swaddled, clothed, fed. They chirp and laugh gleefully. People commanded by machines scurry after their every whim, desperate for pennies. The truth is that like all walls, the walls of the Infantilization Economy produces a kind of apartheid.
In Kafka’s tales, people were never allowed to grow up. Gregor Samsa, who turned into an insect, instead of a man. But the infantilization economy stops us even from that. We cannot even turn into insects. We don’t become at all.
We’re left eternal babies. Attended to by a Gigantic Nanny Machine.
Babies whose every whim is catered to by helicopter nannies don’t grow healthy, secure, sane. They grow insecure, avoidant, tantrum-prone, anxious, spoilt, nasty, and horrid.
What we’re really making in the tech industry today is a Gigantic Nanny Machine that produces the Greatest Douchebags the World’s Ever Known. Why? Because they can be. The Gigantic Nanny Machine doesn’t produce well-adjusted humans. It makes adult babies who expect everyone else to change their dirty diapees. Forever.
The Endless Adolescence of the Universal Geek
But what does it cost the babies? I’ve made the point numerous times that they’re getting a bad deal too, because their neoservants are never creating things like cancer cures and space telescopes which might one day benefit everyone.
But there’s a deeper price.
The babies never fucking grow up.
What do we want from our lives? Do we wish to dare, risk, defy, rebel, create, imagine, dare? Or do we wish our diapees to be changed by nannybots into our graves? You can’t do both. To grow, you must let go.
Geek culture doesn’t handle adulthood very well. It never grows up. Geeks idolize action figures as art and video games as literature and bad words on internet pics as satire. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. But surely if that’s all you’re seeing, reading, knowing, you’re probably losing out on Orwell, Dickens, Picasso, Michelangelo, and so on. Can you do both? Maybe, though we’ve all got limited bandwidth, memory, attention. Yet I don’t see geek culture lionizing the great accomplishments of the humanities.
So it’s hard to pretend there’s not a link between geek culture’s infinite adolescence, and the infantilization economy. Geeks don’t want to grow up. They want their mommies to coddle them, and that’s too often why they struggle with relationships. Sorry, go ahead, kill me, I said it: mommy issues. But where do they come from?
Like all of us, geek culture betrays a profound lack of love. Geeks are bullied, picked on, abused…unloved. They’re the butt of the joke, at the bottom of the pecking order. I know, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it. But the truth is this.
We don’t find the love that we’re looking for by buying it. We don’t find the respect we’re desperately hungry for by commanding it. You can’t tell an app to order people to love you, respect you, care for you.
Love must be earned. Even — especially — self-love. How? By growing up. Growing up, two difficult and painful words. It means, at a minimum, acknowledging your flaws, admitting your fragility, recognizing your weaknesses, your frailty, your inhumanity, to yourself. And then working to lessen them. Not through even greater inhumanity: punishment, deception, contempt. But through grace, gentle compassion, one heartbreak at a time.
All that is what it takes to earn love. Beginning with ourselves. For if we do not respect ourselves to rely on ourselves, we surely cannot love ourselves. But we cannot even begin if we are ever coddled. If we are infantilized, the price will be our ability to love — beginning with ourselves.
The World’s Biggest Baby at the End of the World
Let’s put that more simply. I’m Bob, the World’s Biggest Baby. I have a gleaming smartdevice bursting full of the latest Infantilization Apps.
Man, I need a snack. Zap! Yum. But what about the wrappers? I’m not going to clean those up. Zap! I’m bored. Let me order a toy. Swipe! Fun! What’s that, Rover? You want to be walked? I can’t do it. Hold on, tap! I’m bored, I wish someone loved me. Swipe!
And so on.
Bob has a wonderful life, right? Maybe not. It’s not just that it gets old after a while. Maybe it never does. Maybe it’s the perfect drug. No hangover, no habituation.
And that’s the problem.
The more effective the Infantilization Economy, the less Bob grows as a person. He will never develop the capacities to dream, imagine, dare, create, persevere…because there’s no reason for him to. He’s pure appetite. A dollar sign attached to a mouth throwing an endless tantrum to get what it wants, instantaneously.
Now imagine a world full of Bobs. A giant meter’s forecast to hit the earth. The economy craters. The stock market crashes. Humanity has one chance, organizing a space mission to stop it. What do the Bobs do?
Probably…nothing. They’ve never developed the capacities to. The courage, wisdom, empathy, grace, fortitude. And so so they keep playing with their toys, ordering their dog-walkers. Their fundamental concern is what their own immature sense of self-entitlement.
That’s pretty much where we’re headed. The planet’s melting down, the economy’s stuck, the young are toast. And the Infantilization Economy is going to make it less possible for us to change it. Not just by making 80 percent of us neoservants. But also by making 20 twenty percent of us overgrown babies. Who, like all babies, cry for the Gigantic Nanny Machine when the monsters come — instead of bravely venturing into the darkness to fend them off.
The Gigantic Nanny Machine won’t save the world. We can’t call on-demand TaskRabbits to fix climate change, economic stagnation, social decay, lost generations. We can’t call an Uber to drive the globe into a better future.
And therein lies the truest danger of the infantilization economy. It subtracts from the sum total of human potential in the world today. It encourages and coddles us to stay eternal babies.
But humanity needs precisely the opposite if it is to prosper. It desperately needs to grow out of its fractious, troubled immaturity, its proud and vain adolescence. And into a youth full of love, grace, and rebellion.