By Brett Yates
In “Bit Rot,” Douglas Coupland’s recent collection of essays and stories, the author writes, “In the future, every day of the week will be a Thursday. We’re all working toward the grave, and life will be one perpetual fast-food job of the soul. The weekend? Gone. We all pretty much know it in our bones. Poverty without an Internet connection will be truly dreadful … but fortunately we do have the Internet—so bring it on, world! Every day is like Thursday, and I’m in.”
Until I’d read this impishly half-serious passage, it had never really occurred to me to wonder about the extent to which the gradual disintegration of the middle class in America has been made bearable—and therefore, in some sense, possible—by the grand palliative of the internet. Of course, an all-encompassing “gig economy” requires the internet to provide an instantaneous link between its constantly scrambling and pivoting workers and the temporary employers (and Uber riders) that sustain them, but the leisure possibilities offered by the web may have been equally important in the creation of the weekend-less lifestyle, which nobody really wanted.
An endless array of compacted, high-quality entertainment is now so readily accessible to all that one needn’t have an actual day off to enjoy it (it’s administered in bite-sized chunks, throughout the workday, by our phones, which we always have on us)—nor any substantial amount of money to purchase it, since it costs almost nothing. The other amenities of middle-class life—vacations, houses, the ability to raise a family comfortably—have to some degree been supplanted by their digital alternatives. Who needs perspective-expanding experiences of travel when you’re already electronically connected to the entire globe? Who needs a family when you have Reddit? What does it matter what kind of house you’re living in if you’re just staring at a screen all day anyway? We all now have a second life, whose unreality is part of its appeal.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labor unions fought bravely for the 40-hour workweek and the weekend—would they have bothered if they’d had as many amusing distractions in their pockets as we do? Would working 70 hours a week in a garment factory have been kind of tolerable as long as you could listen to podcasts throughout your shift?
People still long for the things that they’ve lost, certainly, and the impoverishment of the average American, in a country that grows ever wealthier, has wrought some devastating psychological consequences on our nation. Yet, in 2016, when two candidates (Trump and Sanders) made this problem the centerpiece of their campaigns, we ultimately chose the one whose cartoonish, disembodied approach to the issue belonged more to the “second life” than to the real world. The anger that he capitalized on was real, but everything he said served to create entertaining internet fodder rather than to articulate a genuine solution, and in the end he became perhaps the first president elected primarily “for the lulz,” as the kids say online.
So are we doomed? Will “Thank God it’s Friday” eventually become one of those phrases of obscure origin, like “mad as a hatter,” still uttered but emptied of meaning, except for some vague sense that, ages ago, Fridays were for some reason considered lucky, in the same inexplicable way that the number 13 was considered unlucky?
One of the many problematic aspects of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement was that the jobs it supposedly sought to restore to the U.S., from coal mining to manufacturing, made for monotonous and sometimes dangerous work that most people hated doing back when those jobs existed. Apparently, the precarious patchwork of part-time service industry labor that has replaced it is far worse, but a life of loving Fridays and hating Mondays never seemed fully healthy, either, even if it was secure and well-compensated. Someday we might actually want to lose the weekend, because it was never enough.
The “freedom” and “self-direction” of the gig economy, so far, are just euphemisms for instability and scarcity. But, somewhere far down the line, might we figure out how to collapse the boundary between work and life so that every day becomes Saturday, instead of Thursday? I think it is the future, not the past, that I want to live in.