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Bedtime for Bobo

In their wildest NY dreams

By Annalee Newitz

I HATE TO SOUND like a whiny Californian, but the New York media is just way too obsessed with the so-called "demise" of Salon.com, far and away the finest and most successful of the general-interest online magazines. Rather than comparing Salon's recent financial troubles and layoffs to those experienced by publications in the magazine industry--where highly successful pubs routinely languish in debt for years before they become profitable--the New York Times and the New York Observer have decided that Salon's problem is that it isn't e-commerce enough. It's just way too content.

The New York Observer went so far as to predict the gradual, grisly withering away of Salon's editorial department until all the cool writers run away and all the cool editors take full-time gigs at Newsweek. And why are these New York media types so disgruntled? It all boils down to their total misunderstanding of how we do money out here on the new economy coast. Like a zillion other West Coast ventures, Salon raised money last year with an IPO, and therefore NY can't understand that, yes, Salon is a magazine, and not some sort of dot-com business.

But what New Yorkers don't realize, with their over-bloated publishing-industry cash flow, is that in San Francisco, where we have almost no publishing industry to speak of, an IPO is a legitimate way to raise a chunk of cash. It's sneaky and weird, but since when has finagling money to fund great writing ever been anything but?

New York Times-oids are also drooling over a wrong-headed new book, Bobos in Paradise, by David Brooks, a journalist and self-described comic sociologist. Bobos, as a helpful asterik on the book's dust jacket informs us, are "bourgeois bohemians," supposedly a new sort of upper-class person whose life choices are largely influenced by what Brooks quaintly calls "the information age." The idea is that because so much information is swirling around everywhere on the Internet and in the tech industry, you just can't tell the difference anymore between the values of rich people and the values of scruffy, countercultural bohemians. Rich people are now artists! Prep school kids go to Burning Man! This idea really turns New Yorkers on--they love it. Everything in the Times is Bobo this and Bobo that.

My favorite hideous sentiment in the book comes early on, when Brooks chirps, "I'm a member of this class ... We're not so bad. All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites ... Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse, and edifying." Ain't it great to be rich and educated? It's not so bad, as long as you're not part of the vast majority of the global population who can't afford a college degree and will never get to participate in "the culture industry" or produce "intellectual capital."

Not only is Brooks far too in love with himself and his fellow Bobos, but he knows nothing about the history of the upper class and information culture. The culture industry--which refers to the practice of mass-producing "culture" like movies, books, paintings, etc. that are sold everywhere simultaneously--has been moving full steam ahead for almost 100 years. It's not exactly a new thing for upper-class people to be "creative" like George Lucas or Tina Brown.

What's more, cultural capitalist Bobos have always sucked the ideas out of bohemia or the counterculture or the underground in order to fuel new fantasies for their mass-produced chunks of entertaining distraction. This does not make them "enlightened" or "smart." It just makes them pragmatic, in a kill-or-be-killed kind of way.

The BoBo is hardly a new upper-class character. And what Brooks' sparkly book fails to account for--with its tales of reconciling the ruling class with its poor little artsy bohemian cousins--is the growing and obvious distinction between upper-class culture and everything else. In the high-tech age, when getting your culture means having to shell out for a computer, impoverished outcasts are rarely mixing with the ruling classes, online or otherwise.

New forms of wealth and poverty--the IPOs and unwired ghettos--represent the cutting edge of class warfare. Forget the New York Bobos and come visit the real Silicon Valley to see the unreconciled haves and have-nots scrambling to survive right before your very eyes.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who needs a new acronym to describe her identity.

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From the June 28-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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