You Say You Want a Revolution?(Better Feed Your Mind Instead)

Here's a "MAD Lib" for you:Something is happening and it effects us all. A _________(consumer product or trend) revolution is changing the way we _________(activity), whipping through our lives like___________(natural disaster). With unsettling speed, two forces are converging: a new generation of_______(animal) is rewriting the rules of ___________(product or trend from line 1) and a _____________(adjective) breed of ___________ (marine life) is challenging the status quo.________(Media title: magazine, TV, Web site name) aims to be the handbook of the________ (consumer product or trend from line 1) revolution. We will ________(verb) the changes underway, highlight the new _____________(plural noun) shaping how____________(activity, line 2) gets done.So why now? Why ____________________? (name, line 8) Because in an age of ___________ (noun) the ultimate luxury is __________ (something scatalogical).Done? Okay, copy edit and you're ready with the "Letter from the Publisher" for your new magazine. Me, I'm ready with Munch, the bible of the snack food revolution. Our first cover story: how the Big Grab has changed the way we snack. Once folks served snacks as hors d'oeuvres and put cheese on them.Now, as Nabisco guru and SRI resident futurist Watts Wacker notes in Munch's unflinching interview, it's all about hand-bag-mouth, a formula that, for all its simplicity, means millions of dollars in revenue and is a process that continues to electrify our lives like Wyoming sheet lightning. Only slightly more seriously, (for what is life if not "serious fun"?), I am eager to be on the record with this pool-side revelation: We live in the era when the generalist magazine is dead or on life support (e.g., Harper's, moribund if not for the John R. MacArthur Foundation); the niches for niche magazines have all been filled, (whither American Window Washer and its juicy column about all-too-human acts witnessed while clearing away the smog?); and if you're going to publish a major magazine, your mandate, should you choose it, is to make a revolution visible. Slipping into the vernacular of this revolutionary stream, we are witnessing the rise of the Magazine as Document of the Revolution Paradigm. And in the contrarian mode of this paradigm skip (not to mention as CEO, CFO, COO, and BOZO of MDRP, Ltd.), allow me to say that this paradigm skip is new, and then again, it ain't. Pamphlets (cf. Thomas Paine's Common Sense, 1776) and samizdat dispatches (Prague's Chapter 77) have been historically vital to many revolutions back when revolutions threatened the state or capitalism.No magazine better exemplifies the MDRP than Fast Company, the new mag from Mortimer Zuckerman et al., publishers also of U.S. News & World Report and the Atlantic Monthly. Imitation, the old saw goes, is the highest form of flattery, and if so, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, publisher and president of Wired respectively, must feel like buttered popcorn encountering Fast Company: it takes the Wired model and applies it not to technology, but business.Listen, for a moment, to the torrential rhetoric of Fast Company: "A global revolution is changing business, and business is changing the world. With unsettling speed, two forces are converging: a new generation of business leaders is rewriting the rules of business, and a new breed of fast companies is changing the corporate status quo..... We're looking for ideas before they're safe.... to identify the knowledge workers, management innovators, and idea merchants leading the business revolution.We are just beginning to comprehend this new world even as we create it. This much we know: we live and work in a time of unparalleled opportunity and unprecedented uncertainty."In a letter from the editors, they report that during their launch, the "immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson hovered over us on a large whiteboard near the front of world headquarters: Faster, faster! Until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death."What Fast Company amounts to, in case you've yet to see it, is giving corporate managers the rock star treatment. And returning momentarily to my line about flattery, Fast Company should have Jann Wenner gloating, too. It was Wenner's Rolling Stone, after all, that first demonstrated how to give rock stars the glossy treatment, just as Wired now glossies geeks and Fast Company glossies Neo Organization Persons. (Pity Rolling Stone never sent Thompson to cover board meetings at Proctor & Gamble, eh? Then, in the good Doctor's immortal words, we might have {When the going gets weird, the weird turn corporate.") In fact, Fast Company's type treatment and page layout unabashedly rips off RS--to the point that after two issues they already refer to themselves as FC.It is all too tempting to rant about Fast Company. Fast Company's language and icons and articles (a third of them in the second issue written, it seems, by Kate A. Kane), are a field day for the repressed semiologist, a flashing chance to show your Barthes.Start with the title, which has a number of racy connotations. Making a fast buck, for example, usually means scoring some quick cash by swindling someone. Pulling a fast one needs little explanation, I imagine, and neither does a fast woman, or fast house, where you might find several fast women.Life in the fast lane, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, refers to a "a style of living characterized by recklessness or dissipation" and cites a 1976 song by Glenn Frey et al. It goes like this: They knew all the right people/ They took all the right pills/ They threw outrageous parties/ They paid heavenly bills/ Life in the fast lane, surely makes you lose your mind...." Is this like hanging with fast company?Fast Company also offers a love/hate affair for those intrigued by new words or usage. Sifting through its pages you'll find references to "wet blankets," "techno-troubadours," "change agents," not to mention the curious verb, "to magazine." [Pop quiz time. Use magazine in a sentence. She sipped her cappuccino, thought about her upcoming peer review, and then decided to magazine for a while...] The ads in Fast Company play the same game, too. An advertisement for Kinko's, for example, promotes "a new way to office." Or check the icon that illustrates the "Neo-Leisure" department of the magazine: a guy diving through a circus ring of fire, a perfect clue that for Fast Company guys and gals, leisure time is spent on activities that test you and make you more effective on the job. Get thee to a ropes course and come back a better team leader. We don't want to hear about no chaise lounges.Furthermore, Fast Company will give those with an allergy to pop cultural appropriation the hives. In the pages of Fast Company (FC #3), The Wizard of Oz is best understood as a fable of how to build a better boss. However, some of the photos and spot illustrations most likely to Dr. Spock your eyebrow, it should be pointed out, are brilliant. For starters, see page 62 of FC #2 for a wonderful, Magritte-inspired illustration by Brian Cairns. It strikes me as a poignant snap shot for the entire Fast Company enterprise.Rather than combing Fast Company for individual absurdities, perhaps the more interesting question to ask is how we got here. What brought us to this cultural/social/political moment when a magazine that makes diploma carrying MBAs the height of glamour--"job porn" as a friend aptly puts it--may not only find an audience, but thrive?Soon as you ask this question, you'll probably notice that Fast Company is only the most egregious example of a recent orgy of job porn. Look and you'll find "Dream Jobs," a channel on HotWired; Currency/Doubleday, a new book series that includes Art Kliener's The Age of Heretics; MTV Books' Now What?!: A Guide to Jobs, Money, and the Real World; an annual round-up of 'jobs that don't suck' in POV magazine, a bi-monthly, Gen X-equivalent to Esquire; or the profiles of comers in the New York Times business section, their computers and cars of choice carefully reported. Job porn shows up in advertising, of course, as well as cartoons, and has been a major theme of prime time soaps ever since Thirtysomething gave the advertising biz lifestyle credibility. Gone are the days of the high-flyin', Hawaii-livin' private investigators. Now we have L.A. Law and ER, all of them so professional, so managerial, so human resources. Now, lest I prove myself an even bigger hypocrite than I already am, I must take time out to confess that I seek a disproportionate amount of my own self-fulfillment in work. Indeed, I have long given credence to Dr. M. Csikszentmihalyi's study discussed in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi asserts that "contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments of our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times--although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to achieve them. The best moments occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."Dr. C. further suggests these kinds of challenging activities are often found on the job. I believe him. It's a large part of why I write. However, the experiences that tend to leave us happiest, he goes on to say, are the ones that hold, in his term, intrinsic value: doing them is reward enough. Returning to Fast Company, my protest then, is not that FC looks upon work as an area where one might achieve flow or realize personal growth. To the extent that Fast Company champions moving one's work or work environment in a direction conducive to flow, I applaud it. But, at least from what I've seen so far, I don't trust their priorities. Fast Company's vision of self-discovery is simply too narrow. The effect of reading it is to conclude that self-discovery is only possible in the workplace. Indeed, its chief accomplishment is to gather the kinds of thoughts that might make a person drop out of the world of business permanently and convert those thoughts into the latest seminar exhortations, the manifestos and lingua franca of "the new economy. In other words, FC takes "ideas before they're safe" and makes them safe for the company. If the central question Fast Company raises is, as I suggested earlier, how we reached this point where getting an MBA or going public or "doing more with less" in a small company is the stuff of centerfolds (I kid you not, Fast Company has one), it leads to several more questions to chew on. Are we really to believe that, circa 1996, the true revolutionaries are corporate VPs? Are we all just frogs in a pot of water slowly coming to a boil if we don't relearn how to take a meeting? And is that what people really want to be good at, attending business meetings?


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