When You're Living in an Immaterial World, What's for Sale?

On influencers, symbolic analysts, and buying and selling in the age of turbo-capitalism.

I LIKE A get-rich-quick scheme—what American doesn’t?—and not too long ago I alighted on drop-shipping. The idea came up like this: Plastic straws were in the moral firing line, and if they were banned, I figured Americans would soon need another way to slurp our iced coffees.

Twenty metal straws could be found on Amazon for $10, and I calculated I could sell them to cafés for $1.50 each, and they could charge $2 each, and we’d all do well by doing good. But then, as all who chase accelerated prosperity do, I got greedy. Surely I could find a cheaper wholesaler, an obscure Chinese clearinghouse where metal straws went for pennies. Realizing, too, that my modest floor space couldn’t hold much inventory, I was delighted to learn that manufacturers in China ship, then drop—drop-ship—straight to customers.

I was in. If I offshored not just the manufacturing but the warehousing and packaging and shipping of the straws, I’d just need to design some kind of advertising come-on; set up an online shop where every purchase would trigger the wholesaler to release straws to the paying customer; allow the wholesaler to dock my merchant’s account for the low price; and the markup would go to me me me. I’d never even have to see the straws, let alone store them or (God forbid) make them, like some hard-hearted, tireless American industrialist of the 1890s or 1920s. I said get rich quick.

Finding a wholesaler was easy. You can use Oberlo for that. I chose something called Dunhuangwang (or DHgate) in Beijing for its 30-cent metal straws, and I ordered 100 myself to prime the pump. I had goods! I had a shipper! Set­ting up my site for “The Last Straw” on Shopify was also a breeze. Ablaze with ambition, I engineered the site to take bitcoin, eyes on the horizon, high on my private prosperity gospel. Then I headed over to Instagram to make ads …

And there was the catch-22. Of course I can design a picturesque hero shot of a stainless-­steel straw aimed at seducing clients inspired by fine design and an organic-­modern lifestyle, if not by the taste of metal in their mouth. But how to get the posts seen? Even when I paid to promote them, they attracted few likes, and I couldn’t make a sale to save my life. To win customers I’d need to become an influencer, it seemed. And if I had a formula for becoming an influencer, I’d already be rich—and being rich already is as quick as getting rich gets.

The lesson was demoralizing. Not only is building influence via clever posts what must be done to make a fortune in the US, it’s one of the only things we Americans can do, whether well (like Kylie Jenner) or poorly (like me). Drop-shipping leaves the college grad with Andrew Carnegie dreams only one task, the kind formerly assigned to unpaid youths with trust funds: Turn some darling digital pictures viral.

There’s some real economics to this. Most Americans stopped learning farming or trades a century ago, and then a vast swath also stopped learning factory work, blue- or white-collar. The manipulation of undigitized, offline objects, stuff with mass like wheat or stainless steel, was no longer a promising field of endeavor.

The traditional professions like law and medicine hung steady, but as everything offered less security, even professors, doctors, lawyers, and accountants found they had to market themselves. Meanwhile, people in retail, advertising, and every kind of customer service did sales, sales, and nothing but sales, and most of us in journalism also ended up shilling for ourselves online.

This is precisely what a cluster of gloomy polymaths predicted in the 1990s. Figures like the eccentric Edward Luttwak, the conservative booster of coups, described a future where capitalism was vertiginously unfettered by government, where corporations would no longer take care of employees from start date to gold-watch retirement. What he called turbo-capitalism would, he wrote, leave many, many Americans in the economic dust. The survivors would work in pixie dust, pixelated dust, the new galaxy of online symbols.

These economists foresaw an all-scab labor force—or “freelancers,” since trade unions too would be all but obsolete. Like scabs, freelancers would assume social and economic risk—not by crossing picket lines but by forgoing the security, benefits, fellowship, and regularity of salaried work. What’s more, our labor would be a form of make-work that economist Robert Reich once called “analyzing symbols”—writing copy, organizing information, making spreadsheets, and otherwise avoiding the world in favor of representations of it. Forget about working in three dimensions. On the internet, are we even working in two?

In 1994, just as economists were fretting, my first cousins Bert and John Jacobs launched a blockbuster T-shirt company called Life is Good. The original shirts featured an irresistible stick figure in a beret called Jake, one of the thousands of doodles they used to toss off when we were kids, when they were known as athletes and artists facing what one uncle archly called “limited prospects.” LPs.

I was in graduate school for English at the time, anxious about my own LPs: life as an adjunct, always on probation and forever angling for tenure or at least a living wage. I knew that the cousins were finding fun and profit drawing, while also doing the elbow-grease work that was mysterious to me: cotton, dyes, factories, workers, trucks and ships. It seemed very … material.

I had my own path. And at the start of this century, there was also room in the traditional economy for an immaterialist like myself. In 2003 I joined a union that put my labor as a journalist on par with the skilled drivers of trucks that deliver newspapers by the ton. But that was the last time I felt secure at work. When I left the union in 2011 for a higher-paying job, I actually felt cold at first, newly vulnerable to some undefinable elements the union seemed to have been protecting me from. There’s a Major Tom factor to being a freelance symbolic analyst, floating in a most peculiar way. But I tell myself I’m used to it.

My cousins and I caught up over the summer at a family reunion. They’re my teachers in so many arenas, including hope and love. I adore them. They faced turbulence in childhood, started selling shirts out of the back of a van, and entered the rag trade when it was mostly unchanged from the 19th century.

I began to tell John about my failed venture in metal straws but couldn’t bring myself to describe the folly. Later, Bert told me that at the start of the pandemic Life is Good had nearly gone bankrupt. Retail stores closed. Half their business vanished. What’s more, he and John wanted to join the effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. They blueprinted topical shirts (“Wash Your Paws,” “Stay Calm, Stay Cool, Stay Home”) but the traditional retail cycle requires at least a year from design to distribution. To adjust, they invested in technology that allows them to respond quickly to demand—and shortens the time between design and distribution. They hold limited inventory, and the company is more lifestyle brand than rag trade. So maybe they are symbolic analysts too.

If Bert and John experience the same something-more-than-alienation I feel when analyzing symbols, they don’t show it. They take life as it comes. John always says the brand’s optimism is less for “easy street” types and more for people in hard times, or pandemics, who are grateful for things like Frisbee and sandwiches. They give 10 percent of profits (“no matter what,” says Bert) to help kids coping with trauma.

It’s pretty clear I should have ignored the life-is-dismal economists and followed Bert and John into T-shirts in the ’90s. I’m going to follow their lead this time and try for more equanimity, and even sincerity that risks sentimentality, in the ’20s. The Jacobs brothers are never wrong. And I’m telling you, they are actually happy people.

This column first appeared in Wired.