Essay

Youtopia and the Bubble in American Egos

By Theo Horesh on August 26th, 2009 1

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What happens when a whole society of people learns to project an image of success and capability that few members of that society actually possess? Let us create for ourselves an imaginary world – we’ll call it Youtopia – and explore what might happen there.

But first, let’s consider why we might want to project such an image. Personal development enthusiasts regularly teach that projecting such an image will actually make us more capable and successful. Fake it ‘til you make it. The technique works because self-image can be a powerful motivator. It changes how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us as well. We might begin this process being incapable and unsuccessful, but that changes as we begin to project a new image of ourselves.

In a socially mobile society like that of the US, in which individuals craft their own lives for themselves and must regularly recreate their own social worlds as they move from place to place and from one social class to another, the ability to project an image of success and capability can mean the difference between success and failure in almost any endeavor. So let us travel to Youtopia and see what happens when all of us do this?

First of all, it becomes difficult to distinguish who is actually successful and capable on Youtopia. For everyone will appear successful and capable whether or not he or she really is. And while new indicators of success and capability might be discovered, those indicators would be quickly learned by others on YouTopia, for if everyone possessed the ability to project an image of success and capability, whatever the indicators of success and capability were, they would learn them.

So there will be confusion regarding who is really successful and capable on Youtopia, and in this confusion many people will be promoted to positions they are incapable of succeeding in. What’s more, since investors will also believe the people working in businesses they might invest in are more capable and successful than they really are, they will tend to over invest.

But the investors will also believe one another to be more capable and successful than each of them really is. And investors regularly emulate the decisions of other investors they believe to be successful and capable. So, they will each tend to further over value the businesses they might invest in based on signals they read from one another. Youtopia is beginning to look a lot like the American bubble economy that grew more and more bubbles – dotcoms, housing, finance – as the message of personal development gurus became more integral to business in it.

But we should not ignore the role of the entrepreneur. Insofar as she is capable of projecting an image of success and capability she does not possess, she will be given signals from others that she is more capable and successful than she really is. After all, this is one of the reasons projecting such an image works. Hence, she will be much more likely to start a business she is not capable of succeeding in. And since this would be the same for all entrepreneurs in this personal development utopia, they will all be starting businesses that are unlikely to succeed. And of course, investors will also over value their own capabilities. And this will contribute to them over investing in these over valued businesses.

But as we delve more deeply into this Youtopia of self-esteem, something strange begins to happen. Everyone becomes more successful. More businesses are started, and more money is invested. The higher growth in the economy even brings in more tax dollars for social programs. The problem is that, as we have so recently learned with the housing and financial crash, wealth that rests on an ephemeral cloud of illusions is inflation. And inflated bubbles sooner or later pop.

So long as it is just a small percentage of the population that is capable of projecting an image of success and capability that they don’t yet possess, the technique will tend to be successful for them, providing self-esteem and opportunities. The impact on the economy will be negligible. And the individuals capable of projecting such an image will actually empower others to take control of their own minds.

But the closer we approach to a universalization of this ability, the more the ability to project an image of success and capability becomes a prerequisite to achieving anything in the world. It becomes a social survival skill, like the ability to suppress a fart in public. But suppressing farts in public actually does make everyone better off.

Once this ability to project a false image of ourselves is universalized, we all must learn to do it in the same way that members of court used to have to learn elaborate social graces to maintain their positions. And while those social graces or the ability to project a false image of one self can still have some benefits once it has been universalized, those benefits will be few.

When everyone learns to project an image of success and capability they may not yet possess, we as a society lose the ability to comprehend the people around us. Thus, we will experience some loss of community and increase in anomie and social alienation. It becomes easier for people to deceive us in many ways as well. And because it is easier, they are more likely to. So, the problem is not only that many will start businesses they are incapable of running and that those businesses will tend to be staffed with unqualified employees and that they will then be over invested in, thereby creating bubbles in the economy. Those businesses will tend more and more to sell worthless goods in an effort to deceive a public that is confused by the signals they are reading in others. Does this sound familiar?

Of course, people the world over have in all periods of history attempted to project images of capability and success that were not actually true. But there have been few societies as socially mobile as that of the US. So, there is a stronger incentive to project this image here. And perhaps for this reason it has so recently become an art. That personal development gurus have escaped the crisis in American capitalism unscathed is a wonder. For their arts have been integral to the business culture in which an economy of bubbles could grow to ripeness.

Theo Horesh is a social entrepreneur and freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado.

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9 responses to “Youtopia and the Bubble in American Egos”

  1. @mrteacup says:

    Theo, I'm glad that you're raising these important issues and needless to say, I share your concerns.

    Having said that, I have to say that I think your account of the situation doesn't get to the root of the issue, and may actually make things worse. You repeat the widespread belief in (bad) fake vs. (good) real, and this logic is exactly what makes fakery possible at all.

    The theory of "Fake it 'til you make it" depends on the insight that "real" is actually fake, a social construction, a representation, an image. You want entrepreneurs to have "real" skills, but signals and images will have to be used to communicate this "authenticity". Because humans depend on heuristics to make judgments, so these signals will be quickly codified, which immediately creates the possibility to fake it, putting us right back here where we started.

    I think the real possibility for critique is much simpler: there will always be a gap between signifieds and signifiers, so we should simply demand ethical, transparent communication that admits to this failure instead of representing it as truth. Then, we should ask the more pressing question: why is it impossible to articulate a genuine universal ethical standard today?

    • Theo Horesh says:

      You seem to suggest our efforts to express authenticity involve learning to communicate signals which once learned will then be codified so that everyone must learn them. So, when everyone is seeking to communicate authenticity, a social code will develop around this expression that we must all learn. And many will learn to fake the appearance of authenticity. There is no getting around having to learn social norms and having those norms manipulated by others! Brilliant points.

      However, I am not advocating that we seek to be more authentic or real here. I tend to think that authenticity is a fruit of other practices and ways of being. Moreover, I am not even suggesting we should not learn to project an image of success and capability. This has its place in the world and in the lives of self-aware individuals.

      However, there are social consequences to developing this ability into an art and then universalizing that art that would not occur if the social code we functioned under was not being so heavily manipulated. 1. Since a great deal of sophistication has gone into learning this art, it will be more difficult to detect than other social codes would; 2. Because it is more difficult to detect, it will be more likely to add confusion to our communications; 3. That confusion will harm the functioning of businesses; 4. And increase the likelihood of bubbles forming in the economy; 5. And facilitating deceptive practices throughout society; 6. Having to learn this art will place an undue burden on the socialization process. Perhaps Duff or Eric could add to this list. Perhaps I have misunderstood your points.

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  3. @mrteacup says:

    Theo,

    All your points relate to the slippery nature of signifiers, so they are really problems that have been with us for as long as language has existed. Although, I have to say that it's a bit of a leap for me to blame a unique & extraordinary economic crisis on a perennial feature of human culture.

    Society has increased in complexity, it's true, and that certainly makes things different. If this progress was stopped, and we returned to a less complex society, that might solve this problem. But even if we could do it, how far back would we have to wind the clock? And what would we have to do to keep it at that level?

    It's true that today we have the tools to solve yesterday's problems, but that fact alone doesn't convince me that going back to yesterday is a good idea, even if we knew how to do it.

    • Theo Horesh says:

      You are right to question "blaming" our economic crisis on this trend of manipulating our self images. This was my first written expression of this perspective and was far too lacking in qualifications. There are numerous proximate causes of the economic crisis we are experiencing:

      1. The proliferation of new and incomprehensible financial instruments that are nearly impossible to keep track of.
      2. The dominance of an unrestrained free market ideology that called for a bare minimum of social and political oversight of the economy.
      3. Lax monetary policy that led to over investment.
      4. A natural swing in the business cycle in which a number of industries moved toward demise.
      5. The shift to a more global economy that was far more complex and difficult to regulate.
      6. And I would add, though few have mentioned it: the deeper shift into an information based economy in which productivity, and the very process of work itself, become infinitely more challenging to keep track of since so much new work is unquantifiable and out of the watchful gaze of management.

      However, there was an inner dynamic to all of this – a culture of attitudes and behaviors that came coupled with all of these factors. It was to this that I turned my attention. This cultural shift allowed a number of the other issues to go unchecked.

      You wrote: "All your points relate to the slippery nature of signifiers, so they are really problems that have been with us for as long as language has existed." This statement has the ring of linguistic hegemony to it – as if linguistics were the foundational phenomenon in all human interactions. The problems I wrote of are very much located in a particular time (the information age) and place (the US) in which real people have chosen to learn and make use of recently developed techniques in order to transform their social and financial prospects, prospects that would not exist in numerous other times and places. Perhaps you could relate how this phenomenon that is always present in language makes these circumstantial phenomenon superfluous.

  4. Theo Horesh says:

    Mr. Teacup – it's really difficult for me to actually call someone this :),

    Well, thanks for the feedback. Just a little was enough for me to contextualize my argument a bit more. And for whatever it's worth, I really would like to understand your perspective better (it's clearly deep and involves influences I am not very familiar with), though we've probably gone back and forth here enough. Thanks again.

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