The Corporate Takeover of Cool

How big business and savvy marketing have reinvented coolness


| November-December 1997



Anybody who watches TV these days knows about the earth-shattering cultural change that's underway. Those who are optimistic about this shift argue that once we all own high-capacity computers, society will become radically decentralized and the nightmares of authoritarian government and soulless mass society, along with the age-old curse of elitism, will be ended for good. But those who are less sanguine see the big change as essentially negative. The sky really is falling, they rail, and civilization is wandering into a cultural catastrophe.

In part, of course, this is a predictable end-of-the-century sentiment, common to every year cursed with a nine as its third digit. But it's also a very real constellation of fears. As a culture, we've lost the ability to tell what's important and what's trivial. And nothing brings it home more concretely than the rise of the "culture trust," the group of media-behemoths like Time Warner, Geffen, Disney, and Westinghouse that have fashioned an industrial entertainment monopoly. What's happening looks like an almost literal realization of previous generations' fears of a totalitarian mass society: ever fewer voices talking to an ever larger and an ever more passive audience.

Both cyber-ecstatics and doomsayers are talking about the same larger phenomenon: the so-called information revolution and the unparalleled rise of corporate power that it seems to be fueling. The defining fact of American life in the 1990s is its complete reorganization around the needs of corporations. The world of business, it seems, is becoming the world, period. The market is politics, the office is society, the brand is equivalent to human identity.

Fast Company, one of the most prominent new magazines of recent years, calls this "the business revolution" and argues that business culture is replacing civil society. "Work is personal" and "computing is social" are points one and two in Fast Company's manifesto for the corporate revolution. If there's going to be any social justice in the world, the magazine contends, it will be because the market has decreed that there be social justice. One of the magazine's writers takes the argument all the way: "Corporations have become the dominant institution of our time," he writes, "occupying the position of the church of the Middle Ages and the nation-state of the past two centuries."

To many of us, this summons unpleasant images. It's going to be the triumph of hierarchy, of homogeneity, of spirit-killing order. Right? We're all going to be robots and automatons. We'll have to listen to Muzak all the time. It's going to be like 1984 or one of those dystopic Schwarzenegger films. Right?

Wrong. The corporate takeover of life in fact has already happened, but one of the most salient characteristics of our emerging corporocracy—this Republic of Business—is that it doesn't demand order, conformity, gray clothes, and Muzak; it presents itself as an opponent to those very things.