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Selling Your Soul to Yourself

Technology enables us to make a living by being ourselves. But it also incentivizes us to become whatever the market needs us to be.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
4 min read
Selling Your Soul to Yourself

One of the happiest periods of my life was while working as a construction worker. I completed my military service and the obligatory backpacking trip around Asia-Pacific and was trying to save money and avoid reverting to a lifestyle of clubbing and drinking. I would wake up at 5, stir-fry my own lunch, and start work at 6. My two co-workers were both migrants, and we shared no common language. Work was physical and simple. After work — and even during work — I had nothing to stress about or plan for; I could think about whatever I wanted, sing to myself, and daydream.

I've had better jobs since. More interesting, more engaging, more financially rewarding. But I often miss that simple, healthy feeling of not having to sell to anyone, not being manipulative or manipulated, of just doing my thing in peace. Very few professions and situations offer this type of experience.

Commerce forces people to interact with each other. As commerce increases, people interact more. In cases where many people sell similar products, it is the personality of the seller that determines who gets the sale. In turn, humans who want to sell more are incentivized to alter their behavior or even their whole personality. This requires effort.

In the 19th Century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted how industrialization and the expansion of global trade were turning personal feelings into a handicap. The economic system made it rational to behave in a way that maximizes economic gain. But such behavior was not always in line with how people felt. At the time, this affected mostly merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, and other professionals who worked for themselves.

As the production of goods became more industrialized, so did the management of emotions. In The Managed Heart (1983), the sociologist Arlie Hochschild described how large corporations systematically managed employee behavior to beat their competitors. She noted, for example, how Delta Airlines trained staff to use "deep acting" in order to respond cheerfully to insults and other inappropriate behaviors.

Similar dynamics are familiar to all of us in all other professions. As Bob Dylan pointed out, even those who aren't officially in a service job still "gotta serve somebody." In an interconnected world governed by large corporations, everyone needs to alter their natural behavior in order to make a living.  

Karl Marx had his own take on this topic, noting that when a "labourer co-operates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality." Large industrial corporations turn all of us into cogs in a big machine.

But Marx was an optimist. His analysis assumed that if we could extract the individual from capitalist-owned corporations, men and women will be free. Most of us implicitly share his assumption: Leaving a corporate job is seen as an act of self-liberation, of "becoming your own boss."

In the 20th Century, there was some truth to that idea. Work was structured, and corporations had clear boundaries. Stepping out of that structure, crossing to the other side of that boundary was indeed an act of liberation.

Today, work is less structured, and corporate boundaries are unclear. This makes it hard to notice whether you're inside or out, whether you're your own boss or just a cog in a big machine. The most obvious examples of this are on-demand platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit. Such platforms give workers the freedom to choose their own schedules and assignments, but they also relegate workers to management-by-apps-and-algorithms.

But this dynamic extends far beyond gig workers. And the less obvious examples are where things get interesting. As I noted previously, the corporation of the future will look more like an investment fund or Hollywood studio; instead of a stable hierarchical organization, it will be a dynamic and amorphous portfolio of bets on creative projects and individual people.

These individual people will not be gig workers like those on Uber or Taskrabbit. They will be creators, scientists, and engineers who have their own personal brand and an army of fans and followers. A growing number of these people no longer need to be employees; they can do their own thing, earn millions of dollars, and raise money directly to build whatever they want — or even get paid to just "be themselves."

In the 20th Century, the basic financial entity was the corporation. The corporation raised money from investors and distributed some of it as salary to employees. Corporations were under pressure from investors to meet certain goals, and corporations put pressure on employees to behave a certain way in order to meet these goals. The financial incentives for employees to suppress their own personalities and emotions were indirect.

In the 21st Century, the basic financial entity is the individual. Individuals are exposed to the whims of the market directly, incentivizing them to suppress their own personality and emotions in order to "be themselves" in a way that is likely to generate the highest financial return.

This means creators and entrepreneurs are freer than ever. But it also means they are trapped in an invisible financial machine that encourages them to completely forget who they are, to become the person that the market needs them to be. The most obvious examples of this are platforms like OnlyFans and Instagram, where people make money being "authentic" — but where being authentic means constantly responding to feedback from thousands of customers and market signals.

The same process and incentive structure will gradually dominate all our interactions, blurring the distinction between life and work, between "emotional labor" and "being ourselves". Marx worried that industrialization was stripping humans of their individuality and turning them into economic inputs. Now, the division of labor requires us to be individuals and economic inputs at the same time.

Have a great weekend.


🎧 I had a chat with Mark Lutter about the impact of technology and remote access on cities and suburbs.

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