Note: this is the sequel to a post I wrote a few days ago. Read that one first if you haven’t yet.
Before we start, I will admit that I don’t know all that much about Marc Andreessen, and I’m not judging him as much as I’m using a tweet he made as evidence to prove my point about economic marginalization (refracted through the lens of airline and hotel loyalty programs). I also assume that, as a billionaire, Andreessen has a very good track record of philanthropy. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. Finally, I don’t know the man’s sense of humor and considered that he may be kidding about all this. I doubt it, but given the absolute batfuck absurdity of his tweet, it’s certainly possible. I hope it’s a joke, honestly.
Okay, so why don’t I get to it and show you this stupid bullshit:
So remember what I was saying about how Citizens United codified the capitalization of speech in legal literature, which set the stage for the concept of speech-as-capital promulgating through society? Nowhere is that more evident than in this tweet, in which a multi-billionaire and tech genius has assigned a value to his speech as some sort of philanthropic gesture. Think about it for a minute: rather than just giving a bunch of money to a charity, he’s assigning value to his speech, selling it, and generously donating the proceeds to charity. The wealthy person’s value to society transcends his or her own capital worth: when you’re wealthy, you become a conduit for capital. Rather than giving capital away to charity, you perpetually generate capital which then you direct as you see fit. My head is spinning at how philosophically fucked up this is.
A person who owns $20 and wants to donate it to charity has thousands of options. The idea of donating to a particular charity in exchange for an inducement isn’t new, as landfills full of PBS tote bags will attest. However, the idea that one person’s communication is so important that it should be an inducement to donate to the charity of his choice is new. I suppose it’s not that much different from auctioning off a dinner with a famous celebrity or something, except that in this case, Andreessen is setting a fixed value for his speech, and he isn’t limiting it. A dinner with George Clooney is special because only one non-famous person gets to experience it. Andreessen isn’t saying that one lucky fan will get to be in an email correspondence with him, he’s literally saying that any time he writes an email, it’s worth $20 to the recipient because he’s so great. The sheer, unadulterated gall of this guy.
In being first-to-market, Andreessen also suggests that his speech is worth more than others’ – such as those who give away their emails because no one wants to pay for them. This is where we get into dangerous territory, because it suggests that everything a wealthy person does has value because that person is wealthy. When you speak, it’s worthless. When Andreessen speaks, because he’s so rich, you should pay for it – even if it’s some shit he dashed off on a smartphone. While most people can only manage paltry contributions to charity, Marc Andreessen is so great that he is a literal fount of charitable contributions, because he is so valued. He has become a capitalist tautology: he has value because people pay money for what he says, and people pay money for what he says because he is so valuable.
I didn’t just want to write this post about Marc Andreessen, though. I was actually thinking about my earlier post in light of the new video that Hyatt released today, trying to spread warm fuzzies around the World of Hyatt program. (Again, I’m not paying WordPress enough money to embed videos in my posts, but you can view it here.) First, this is off topic, but seriously fuck all the people who criticized the ad as being “too political” with a rusty rod. I can only assume the “political” statement is that the ad includes a muslim woman who doesn’t get verbally or physically abused by some fat redneck in a wifebeater. If you watch that ad and think it’s political because it advocates people of different cultures coming together, you’re an objectively shitty person… and also why the fuck are you reading a travel blog in the first place if you’re so goddamned xenophobic? Getting back on track, though, I like the concept behind the ad. Gold Passport is just a loyalty/rewards program, whereas World of Hyatt is a more of a concept based on bringing people together. Seriously, the world needs as much of this sentiment as it can get right now.
However, linguistically, I have some issues with this idea of the loyalty program becoming a concept. I don’t think any of this really occurred to any of Hyatt’s marketing folks, although – again – these are trends in our cultural subconscious which certainly come out in things like corporate marketing programs. Anyway, in the last post, I wrote about structuralist linguistics (the division between signifiers and signifieds), but I want to flesh it out a little more here, specifically how it relates to structuralism as a school of thought in cultural studies. One of the tenets of structuralism is that culture is governed by structures, which underline the meaning of the things that exist within that structure. Think of any time you’ve read a review of a movie that talks about it in a larger context (ie: “In the context of martial arts action films, Enter the Dragon is an example of…”). That’s structuralism in a nutshell: that the larger context explains the singular example. (In the context of other, more useful points and miles blogs, Windbag Miles somehow manages to be both irritating and boring.) Saussure – the guy who came up with the signifier/signified thing – also identified a difference between speech and language. In the last post, I kind of conflated them, but the idea is that speech is the actualization of language. When you speak, you’re speaking a language. Language governs, orders, and provides meaning to speech, and speech cannot exist without language. (This is why Wittgenstein argues that language must explain itself: because any attempt to explain language is already dependent on the rules of that language.)
I talked about loyalty as a form of speech, and as speech becomes increasingly capitalized, so goes loyalty. This is how we end up with transactional loyalty – expressing your affinity for something by giving it money. But what about language? When you demonstrate loyalty for something, either performatively or transactionally, what language are you speaking? There are a couple answers: specifically, you’re speaking the language of the loyalty program, but that’s really more like a dialect of a more ambiguous language around travel loyalty in general. When Hyatt extolls their new program’s lofty goals, they’re implying by contrast that Gold Passport was unambitious and unimaginative. I would argue instead that it was too literal of a dialect, which locked Hyatt into a fairly predictable pattern of behavior in order to deliver on the brand promise it was selling.
What Hyatt has done with the new program is to realize that the language of loyalty is much more ambiguous and prone to slippage than the dialect they were using. By remodeling the loyalty program’s identity to be more ambiguous, they’re simultaneously able to tap into a cultural need (among everyone who isn’t a Trump-sucking eel) to feel connection and harmony in the world and to change the focus of the program to benefit wealthier customers. They get away with this seeming contradiction precisely because they’re speaking a more ambiguous language – and rather than being a dialect of a language most frequent travelers are familiar with, they’re creating a new one. From a marketing perspective, I think this is ingenious. In contrast, take a tagline like American’s “The World’s Best Flyers Fly American” (or whatever the exact wording is): it’s transparently idiotic, because everyone knows this isn’t true. It’s as ridiculous as saying “The World’s Best Flyers Fly out of Charlotte, Philadelphia, or Dallas.” The thing is, American made that claim using the same language as all other airline marketing, which is what made it so easy to decode and debunk. Hyatt’s claim is more slippery – World of Hyatt is the entire world, it’s connectedness, it’s literally an empty square into which you could put anything.
By focusing more on their loyalty program being a language, they’re better able to dictate the meaning of things like “rewards,” or “loyalty,” or anything else that’s part of that structure. After all, language can’t be explained – so rather than operating a loyalty program within a previously agreed-upon language of loyalty programs, Hyatt is making their own. Now they can say that loyalty means whatever they want it to mean, and it will make sense. It just so happens that, in this new language they’ve come up with, loyalty means spending money.
The release of their video today reinforces my original point by making it clear just how much Hyatt is employing the essential emptiness at the core of “World of Hyatt” to mess around with what it means to be a loyal traveler. It’s just too perfect that the logo they chose is literally empty inside.
Edit: my wife says I’m being totally unfair to Marc Andreessen, and that it’s very reasonable for the person who invented the web browser to offer up his time to benefit a charity. She further commented that I’m being cynical and obstinate for no reason. I maintain that it’s not the concept of offering his time as an inducement for someone to donate to charity that I take issue with as much as the idea of selling speech for a set price an infinite number of times because you can. Also, I was stuck in traffic behind one of those goddamned giant buses that cart tech people around so they don’t have to rub shoulders with the unwashed masses on public transit, so maybe I had a chip on my shoulder about tech people today.