How has technology turned us into self-branding machines? How can we escape the feeling that we will lose out on personal and career opportunities if we don’t constantly share our best selves with multiple audiences? Who are some of the people standing up to these pressures and advocating for change?
These are some of the urgent and vital questions Naomi Klein, the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, discusses with the undergraduate students in her course, The Corporate Self, as she seeks to explain to her students the social and economic forces that have created our relationship with technology and the ways we can respond to them.
The students in the class, who are split between the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SC&I) and the Rutgers Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, have had the opportunity to learn not only from Klein, but also from the activists she has invited to speak in her class. “I really try to expose the students to people who are organizing and proposing different alternatives to challenge the idea that there is nothing we can do in the face of these really powerful interests,” Klein said.
One of the people Klein invited to her class to speak is Emily Comer, who was included in the “TIME100, Most Influential People in 2019.” Comer organized the teacher’s strike in West Virginia, when she and other teachers at her school were told they had to wear technology that would count their steps, and the data collected would impact their health coverage.
In our interview with Klein below, she discusses the most critical information she wishes to impart to her students, the importance of being positive about the possibility of change, the ways many of today’s most pressing problems are feminist issues, and the need for a broader definition of what it means to be a feminist today.
What are the most critical messages you strive to communicate to your students? In other words, what do you hope they remember from your class for the rest of their lives?
The main message I hope they carry with them is that these systems that they find themselves in, particularly the technological systems that encourage a certain kind of performing and monetizing of the self, are human-created systems, and humans can unmake them. We are looking at the way in which technology companies are normalizing a certain kind of identity, the idea that we are advertising ourselves and running our own reality shows, and the idea that you have to do this in order to get ahead.
At the same time, these technology companies are at the epicenter of the gig economy, and as workers, we are being trained to accept an extraordinary level of precariousness. People can get fired by algorithms and people are working multiple gig jobs at the same time. This economic precarity just fuels the sense that you have to be constantly marketing yourself.
If taking your course inspires students to take action, what are the ways they can be most effective in the era of “surveillance capitalism,” and what tools can they use to best have an impact on the issues that mean the most to them?
I’ve been really struck by the fact that, in this last 14-month period, there have been so many changes. Even the term “surveillance capitalism” from Shoshana Zuboff’s book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” wasn’t widely used until a few months ago.
Recently there has been a huge wave of organizing within technology companies. November of last year was the first Google walk out with 20,000 Google employees protesting sexual harassment. Now we’ve seen workers inside Amazon organize to demand climate justice and a wave of organizing within Google to resist doing contracts with the Pentagon and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE).
I am trying to expose the students to different ways people are standing up to these technologies. There are outside-company campaigns, groups like Mejente, a migrant rights group pressuring companies not to work with ICE and be part of the machineries of deportations and surveillance against immigrants. Increasingly there are also workers inside these companies who don’t want to be building these technologies.
I feel really privileged to be in contact with some of the people who are doing really great organizing. It’s happening very quickly and always changing so it’s a really exciting time to be teaching this. I heard the phrase once from a book editor that it’s like hemming a dress while wearing it.
What are some of the most rewarding, and challenging, aspects of teaching your course?
I think Rutgers students are really curious, engaged, and busy – especially my students. Because I find I am attracting some of the best activists on campus, in addition to their jobs and internships, they are also organizing protests.
The challenge beyond having time to do deeper reading in busy lives is presenting this material, that can be really overwhelming, in a way that doesn’t just feel depressing. The material we are studying directly impacts the lives of the students and isn’t an abstraction. These are some of the most urgent issues they are dealing with, such as how technologies are going to impact their mental health, their sense of self, and their ability to have economic stability – and those are often in tension. So I really want to present the material in a way that does not feel oppressively negative.
I’ve learned as a writer to thread the hope through my books because I think we are all pretty on edge. I think for the course too, it’s important to thread the hope and the resistance through so that it’s clear that it is possible to stand up to these very powerful forces if we don’t try to do it all by ourselves.
Do you see part of your role as a faculty member and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies to inspire a new generation of feminists?
Absolutely! I think that having a position named after one of the great living activists is a real honor, especially because it’s rare that there are named chairs for people who are being recognized for having changed the world for the better. That is such an exciting position to occupy.
I’m someone who is most known for work on environmental and economic justice, and internationalism, and I’ve written a lot about the role of the U.S. in the world. The way I see part of my position is broadening the definition, a little, of what feminism is. Yes, it is about representation of women in structures of power, but it’s also about connecting the dots between violence against women and violence against the earth, a mindset of dominance that expresses itself through environmental destruction and the instability of workers in the labor force.
I hope that being in this position encourages more people to make more connections between siloed areas. For instance, in the environmental movement right now it’s so dominated by young women. You see it at the climate strike movement, you see it right here at Rutgers, there are lots of great men in the movement but the truth is it’s dominated by women. And yet, we don’t have a very sophisticated conversation about why this is a feminist issue. So I really welcome the opportunity to draw out those connections and have more cross pollination.
I think the spirit of the chair is about boundary crossing between disciplines, between Rutgers University and the activist community, and journalism. Having the first person in the position be somebody who is known for work in areas that are not typically considered feminist issues, it’s exciting for me. I get to show why these are feminist issues.
What does being a feminist mean in a world where the lines between “people and marketable products" are blurred?
I think this is a really big question that we have not begun to truly tackle within feminist theory. It’s very new. For Gloria Steinem’s and my mother’s generation of feminism, one of the key objections was rejecting the idea of women being objectified by the culture, treated as objects, and consumable sex objects, and the dehumanizing nature of that.
Consumer culture has brought us to the point where we objectify ourselves in that we literally think of ourselves as a brand – this idea we now take for granted. But being a brand means to create a self that is at a distance from our self – a self to be consumed by others. A brand is not what you are, a brand is how others see you. So we are being trained to put distance between our identity and this thing called our brand that we are presenting to the world. So it is literally a process of turning ourselves into objects to be consumed by others and we are doing it voluntarily – we are doing it to ourselves and we are doing it all day long. And feminist movements are even doing it because we are being told this is the only way we can get ideas out in this economy. Social movements needs to constantly brand and promote themselves. This may be true but we really need spaces to be able to pause and examine the implications of what this means to the broader goal of liberation, which is at the heart of any movement for transformation.
The Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies is a collaboration among Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information (SC&I), the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies within the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS).