The Laws of Cool by Alan Liu

Even with as many texts as have come out exploring and explicating our so-called information age, there has yet to be a more exhaustive account of just what the hell has happened than Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool (University of Chicago Press). Nevermind the misleading title. This isn’t another exposé on “cool hunting” and finding out what the kids are into. This lengthy tome is about how most of us came to be knowledge workers in the factories of information.

The Laws of CoolTo call this book “exhaustive” is an understatement. I can’t stress the reaches of Liu’s research or the sprawling implications of his book enough – and reading it is quite the lengthy process. Every time one thinks that Liu has found his bounds, the next chapter opens another door on which one wouldn’t have even thought of knocking. Yet, it’s a cohesive work, written with unwavering wit and erudition.

Exploring the Foucauldian climate of the corporate control culture, set off by IT and the mainframe, Liu shows how managers came to be “seduced by the system” (as Ellen Ullman put it in her book Close to the Machine). They used the abilities of their information systems to keep tabs on their workers – even where there had previously been no problems. His use of temperature-related tropes (e.g., “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” and especially “cool”) is confusing at first, due to the previous uses of such terms (i.e., as slang or as in McLuhan’s ubiquitous probes). These temperatures eventually come together to illuminate the weather of the twenty first century workaday, from the stifling of hot emotions by the cold machine to the warmth of friends and family and the cool of today’s assimilated, yet über-hip “knowledge workers” (“We work here, but we’re cool,” quoth Liu).

Taken whole, The Laws of Cool is a high relief, topographical map of the workscape of the early twenty first century. Couple this with Ken Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto and you have a crash course in post-Marxist labor studies.