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Everyone is talking about change. In the Bay Area, it’s the privileged who are “changing the world” one start-up, acquisition, or application at a time. They call it “creative destruction” and “disruption.” In India, pandits and pundits are still processing the results of the parliamentary elections. Celebrants say it was time for “change.”
Everyone is talking about change, but they also mean change: the former is something new; the latter, cash money. In every utterance resides the double meaning.
I was talking to an old friend recently. At seventeen, he was going to be a neurosurgeon, then he took up poetry, then he wound up in consulting, and now he’s a business student with his heart set on a future IPO. If, a decade ago, the nation’s top graduates flocked to the banks, now they’re headed to the Bay, to make a difference, or so they say.
“My colleagues and I live in fear,” he said. “What if, twenty years from now, we’re middle managers at Google? That would mean we hadn’t made a difference, that we hadn’t changed anything.”
I raised an eyebrow. Working for Google: the new signifier of techno-elite failure? The way he said it, he might have been talking about flipping burgers. But what he meant was that Google is comfortable and predictable, and that substantial, disruptive, paradigm-shifting “change” won’t issue from the ranks of the hegemon in the future—in either sense of the word.
Now, I grew up in the Valley, but my parents emphasized intellectual risks, not profit-driven ones, and I have not drunk the cult of entrepreneurship Kool-Aid. I find the current overemphasis on innovation and change—rhetoric borne of the Silicon Valley, but which now permeates the mainstream media, non-technological industries, and the staid towers of academia—faddish and ironically unimaginative. It is often politically suspect (just who is changing what for whom?), and it has inaugurated new, myopic structures of personal and professional valuation (cue my friend, living in fear of a non-disruptive corporate salary).
In fact, the whole country has got Valley Fever. Stanford is the new Harvard. New Yorkers are talking about “founder hounders” moving West to wed start-up kings. It’s the gold rush, baby. Again. People I grew up with drive Tesla cars and ride the Apple bus up and down the Peninsula. When I moved out of my Berkeley apartment, I was priced out of the rental market. A term like gentrification doesn’t begin to capture what’s happening. All along the Embarcadero, people in their twenties, making more than their parents ever did.
Rana Dasgupta’s book on the transformation of Delhi, Capital, calls what’s happened there over the last decade an “eruption:” an eruption of money—more black than white—that has transformed an already precariously unequal society for the worse, that has neither created jobs nor decreased poverty, but has inaugurated new structures of prejudice, segregation, and misery.
Is Dasgupta’s “eruption” that far from our own “disruption?”
Tech evangelists know that companies like Netflix eventually contribute to the failure of brick-and-mortar stores and cost tens of thousands of jobs. But my Google-fearing friend says Netflix has done great things for the average Joe. “Now everyone can watch whatever, whenever,” he says. “Netflix has fundamentally improved our quality of life.”
Defenders of “start-up innovators,” like Duke professor Aaron Chatterji, maintain that while the WhatsApps and Instagrams of the world don’t actually create significant numbers of jobs, they “almost always create real value in the economy.”
“Quality of life.” “Real value.” This is the rhetoric, but I don’t buy it.
Going to the movies used to be a relatively affordable social event, an opportunity for engagement not just with a cultural artifact, but also with fellow viewers, friends, dates. Now the only people who watch movies in large groups are those with surround-sound “media rooms.” I preferred the ritual of going to the movies, the illicit thrill of hands held in the back row of a Camera theater, the ticket stub found weeks later in a back pocket.
And what is “real value” anyway? Writing in 2008, novelist Amit Chaudhuri observed that in the era of globalization “the ironical register of the term ‘value’ is, on the whole, no longer available to us.” Chaudhuri argued that we once used to be able to talk about the “value” of culture, “the stock” in this or that writer, and the “treasure” that is the goal of spiritual life in such a way that it was clear from our language that we didn’t mean the market value. We meant a higher value, an entirely different structure of value. The language of the market gave our statements an ironical, double meaning. Today, value no longer retains its metaphoricity, and to speak of “value” is to enter the discursive sphere of the world market, from which there is no escape. It’s “change,” but only in one sense of the word.
Consider the language of these recent headlines: “Rich Indians Are More Likely to Pass Wealth to Children Unconditionally.” “Low-Cost Water is Hard Sell in Delhi Colony.” Riches, wealth, hard sell: words that give texture to our cognitive maps of the world. We might once have meant the other inheritances we pass on, the living infrastructure of the natural environment, the wealth of knowledge, and the value of education, but not anymore.
“Pay-per-use” water flowing out of A.T.M.s is not a hard sell because its privatization is repugnant to the robust moral sensibilities of our society. No, it is literally a hard sell. People aren’t paying the $1.70 fee for the smart card to access the machines from which they’re expected to buy water, to which they have a universal right.
My friend wants to do something valuable with his life; he wants to make change. Economists see the real value created by entrepreneurial job-killers. India went to the polls in an election of world-historical proportions, and all anybody could talk about was the value of change. There was nothing metaphorical about it.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.