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  • Attacking the Borg of Corporate Knowledge Work:The Achievement of Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool
  • N. Katherine Hayles

Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information is a big book—big in scope, ambition, research, vision, analysis, and the challenge it presents to the academy. Its publication represents a landmark event in understanding where we are headed as we plunge ever deeper into the infosphere of ubiquitous computing, global Internet culture, and information economies. Although Liu's original subject was to be the place of literature in the Age of Information, in fact almost all of his analysis is a kind of ground clearing that he considers necessary before we can even begin to entertain this issue. In the process he delivers a masterful, if occasionally overstated, analysis of the new landscapes of information culture and the relation of "knowledge work" to the traditional knowledges taught and perpetuated within the academy.

In positing the concept of "knowledge work," Liu brilliantly analyzes the pop literature of business culture to expose and dissect its ideology. Particularly astute is his deconstruction of "diversity management" within corporate culture. He argues that diversity management takes to the logical extreme ideas of "cultural class" and "identity group," but in a way that renders both of these previous categories, developed within the context of ideology critique, obsolete and unnecessary. Diversity management works by parceling into "skills" and "attributes" the differentially specific traits of different ethnic, cultural, and national groups, thereby obliterating their historical specificities and dissolving the cohesion that defines the group as such. Thus reconstituted, individuals become part of "teams" that are now formed, produced, and managed to work with maximum [End Page 235] efficiency within the corporate informational culture. "The fundamental move is made," Liu explains, "when identity is from the first swallowed alive by the cult of the team . . . the team is the unit of ephemeral identity that most flexibly fuses technologies and techniques into the skill sets (called 'innovation,' 'creativity,' or 'resourcefulness') adapted to the changefulness of the global economy" (47). This and other practices of contemporary corporate culture are deemed inevitable within the discourse of diversity management, because it assumes that competition within a global economy will require the implementation of these changes and enforce their perpetuation. Any company that resists or fails to grasp the new paradigm will simply be driven out of business, because it will not be competitive in the face of global exchange and transnational information networks.

As an exercise in understanding the assumptions and underlying logic of diversity management, and more broadly the ideologies of contemporary corporate culture, Liu's analysis is perceptive and chillingly compelling. As a statement of how the world actually operates, however, it fails to distinguish sharply enough between the ideology and the actual state of affairs. Even under the coercive management of Henry Ford's "Ford Sociology Department" that attempted to surveil and control every aspect of a worker's life, including his home environment and even the magazines to which he subscribed, workers found ways to resist the coercive surveillance, as Liu notes in discussing this parallel to contemporary corporate practices (92–95). In light of Islamic fundamentalism and the growing power of the Christian right in the United States, surely no one can believe that the ethnic and religious identifications that define these groups can simply be erased by corporate culture, not to mention all the other ethnic, cultural, and national affiliations that seem to grow stronger and more contentious with each passing year. The exigencies of corporate culture are not the whole story, then, and in many instances are not even the most important story. I emphasize this aspect of Liu's argument because what follows rests upon the implicit assumption that the major challenge facing contemporary culture is resisting the practices of corporate informational culture. A related assumption is that corporate culture acts as a kind of ominous cultural Borg, absorbing all other cultural activities into it and reproducing within them its own model of "knowledge work"—that is, knowledge practices that are deemed productive and useful to the drive for profit that defines the modern corporation.

Because there is...