Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

vol. 1, #5, June 17, 1998


by Marylaine Block

That ain't workin',
That's the way to do it
Money for nothing and the chicks for free.
Dire Straits

Have you ever thought, as you giggle at a political cartoon, or watch ex-football coaches showing us a broken play, "My god, somebody pays them to do this"?

My grandpa was a railroad man, and he would have scratched his head in wonder. Because since my grandpa's time, entire new professions have come into existence.

Strong men throughout history have always been able to make a living, as soldiers and thugs, as manual laborers and builders — somebody had to haul those slabs of rock to build Stonehenge and the Pyramids, after all. But making a living playing basketball, or winning marathons or golf tournaments or being a whitewater guide is entirely new.

Lawyers we have always had with us. Legal analysts on television, providing play by play on trials, are a recent phenomenon. Lawyers who serve as mediators and arbitrators are a new and hopeful sign.

Doctors and nurses have been around a long time too. What's new is the medical researchers whose discoveries have saved so many lives. And because of them, we now need prosthesis makers to replace limbs, physical therapists to restore our muscle functions, bioethicists to help decide whether brain-dead patients should be kept alive, and transplant surgeons to recycle their organs when the bioethicists say no.

Storytelling is a basic impulse of the human race, but who'd have thought it would give rise to so many new professions? Ad writers tell 30-second stories of deep human needs solved by the right brand of coffee. Music video producers create weird and splendid fantasies as backdrops for the music.

More than ever, artists have become storytellers, as animators and comic strip artists. As illustrators of book jackets and movie posters, they capture in one telling image the essence of a story, and of course, the primary reason we should buy it. Graphic artists make a reporter's mind-numbing numbers and raw data intelligible in pictures, charts and maps.

There have always been leaders and politicians. Pollsters and opposition research specialists and press secretaries are recent, however. We have always had political reporters, but now many of them aspire to the job of “talking head,” so they can spread their wisdom on political talk shows, or at banquets and graduation ceremonies. Lobbyists have been around a long time, too, but public relations specialists who try to control how the public views an issue are new.

The impulse to make music is as old as humanity, and rock stars are merely the present incarnation of star performers of the past. But concert promoters are a new breed. So are music directors on radio and television, people who from their extraordinary memory for music can select the perfect clip to go with a particular story or image. And the job of stripping music of all individuality and emotion so it can become a productivity-promoting aural background is also new.

Americans have always been on the move, but now entire new professions are devoted to helping them do that -- travel agents, flight attendants, convention managers, ticket bookers. To serve their needs, we have not only a host of hotels and restaurants, but also travel writers and restaurant critics to tell them which ones are worth paying for.

And now, of course, information has become a basic commodity, zipping around the world at astonishing speed, and the people who know how to control that and make it run even faster are the newest professionals -- "data miners" and librarians, software writers, hardware builders, system developers, webmasters. Oh, yes, and content providers. Like me. Hey, it's a great gig if somebody's willing to listen to you.

My grandpa wouldn’t have recognized this America. He would have thought that much of what we do now is “money for nothing”-- so many people earning a living without ever having to get their hands dirty (though some of them may have to let their souls get soiled). DOing for a living has largely been replaced with KNOWing for a living, and the cost of too much information can be a lot less truth.

For all that, it’s a world that lets us live longer, and spend more time enjoying it; a world that finds a job to match virtually every human talent; a world where yesterday's misfits, geeks, and class clowns can find a place of honor in the world of work.

As a former misfit, I say that can’t be all bad.

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