Posted by: soniahs | August 28, 2010

Exam reading: “Laws of cool”

Again, another book that went in a direction I didn’t expect. Alan Liu’s “Laws of Cool” raises some important questions about the relationship between corporatism and knowledge work:

Summary: In this book, Liu takes a somewhat pessimistic view of knowledge work and the information economy. He contends that knowledge work, and the culture of “free information,” is the continuation of a developmental trajectory that minimizes history and subordinates individuals (and the humanities, as a field) to corporatist, profit- and efficiency-motivated thinking. In the new corporatist economy, personal identity and social class are subsumed into the team; workers are expected to constantly improve productivity, be lifelong learners, and effectively become “nomads” across the employment landscape. The producer culture dominates life and work to the extent that counterculture is an alternative “workstyle;” “cool” is the “shadow ethos” of knowledge work- the only way to resist while not being able to escape the system. “Cool” is characterized by a fusion of ironic snark, mockery, design that delivers unimportant or information-poor content in typically information-dense formats, and a politics (or non-politics) of the “bad attitude.” Liu especially criticizes “cyberlibertarianism,” which presses for some individual freedoms (e.g., access to Internet, free speech) while ignoring others (worker health, workplace privacy), and completely ignores class issues like social justice. According to Liu, students mistakenly associate school with the dominant culture and turn to (corporate-sponsored) pop culture; in order for educators to break this association, they must help students become grounded in historically-informed critical thinking.

Comments: Some of his description of the online aesthetic was dated (the book came out in 2005). Liu’s conclusion is that the fusion of avant-garde & electronic arts with the historical perspective afforded by the humanities is the most likely site of resistance to the new corporatism (though he also discusses historical critical thinking). I think there are two reasons why this isn’t necessarily an effective approach: 1) (shallow) not everyone can relate to this sort of art; and, 2) (deeper) perhaps the social justice and labor movements, which he does discuss, are more effective approaches to resistance (as well as appealing to a wider audience). Though, in the latter case, perhaps an argument can be made that we need conditions of scarcity for people to empathize with these materially- and collectively-oriented movements; Liu’s book was written from an affluent American perspective during fairly flush times, and maybe these movements could be more effective nowadays…

Overall, this book was more thought-provoking than I expected it to be. It got me thinking about social/environmental justice issues and how these interact with new media in a very different way than the dominant culture that Liu describes. His suggestion that what the humanities should offer “cool” culture is a historical grounding was also a useful thought, and is something that has added to my thinking about dissertation projects in the last few days.

Re: libertarianism and knowledge work, this book articulates some things that I’ve thought about but not from an employment-based perspective. For example, the lack of individual responsibility for the common good and the environmental consequences of non-regulation espoused by libertarianism are things I’ve really disagreed with before. The historical lack of attention to worker rights among libertarians (when they often define themselves as knowledge workers who you’d think would need these protections) was a new thing to think about for me.

Links to: Brown & Duguid (corporatism, knowledge work, changing education culture); Feenberg (philosophy of technological development); Lessig (“free” information); Norman (user-friendly design)



  1. […] to: Bolter (decline of authority in online publishing); Liu (similar tone of justification for humanities disciplines in a digital world); Lessig (copyright […]

  2. […] perspective than the authors. This paper ties into some of my core T&T readings, like “Laws of Cool” and “Datacloud,” that address the knowledge economy and the future of work. […]


%d bloggers like this: