Before I review "A Field Guide to the Yettie" I should first acknowledge that I cannot offer an objective critique. I am, after all, a "young entrepreneurial technocrat" -- a "yettie" -- myself. I write for an online magazine; I own my fair share of midcentury modern furniture, as well as a soundtrack downloaded from the Web that runs heavily to electronica. Most important, I pass the ultimate yettie test: Although I'm not an extreme example of "an employee of an Internet company [who] cannot explain to my mother exactly what it is I do for a living," my grandparents still can't figure out what I do. I carry a cellphone, a Palm Pilot, an MP3 player and a bike messenger bag, drink lattes and shop vintage chic. I know what Unix is.
According to Sam Sifton, author of "A Field Guide" and the latest cultural critic to try to coin a new catchphrase, I fall into a subcategory of yettiedom known as "Mouse Jockey" -- a creative but ultimately sad phylum that holds "a lowly place in the New Economy." And so, my sensitive ego wounded by this callous classification, I am revealing my biases: I am a yettie, but I do not like being called one. This book was bound to sting.
Of course, this isn't the first time I've been classified. Social observers love to sweep cultural movements into a glass jar and carefully sticker their specimens with perky mnemonic labels. "Yettie," however, might last. Like "yuppie," "hippie, "hacker" or "slacker" before it, yettie is a convenient nickname for one of this decade's sweeping trends. Ultimately, however, it's as meaningful as the others -- which is to say, not very.
By Sifton's estimate some 2.5 million yetties currently work on the Internet in some capacity. They range in age from 24 to 50, though most hover around or under 30. They're ambitious, gadget-happy, connected, socially liberal and comparatively affluent and they possess a strong sense of entitlement. They live and breathe the dot-com world to an almost blinkered degree.
Sifton's book posits itself as an encyclopedia and illustrated guide to the various subgroups of yetties, complete with a glossary of yettiespeak (bandwidth junkie, cybersquatting, scalability, etc.) and an acronym guide (DSL, P2P, ROFL, IRL). His offer to his readers -- whom he assumes will be bemused relatives or friends of yetties -- is to provide instruction on how they might Pygmalionize themselves into one of the breed, if they so desire. For those less interested in joining in the fun, his book promises to help breed contempt "in order to cast approbation -- or violent deprecation -- where it is due." "A Field Guide to the Yettie" is a featherweight, humorous commentary with a rather contemptuous punch line.
Sifton loosely categorizes all yetties into three main archetypes: the Nerd Made Good, the Neo-Yuppie Prepster and the Mouse Jockey. The Nerd Made Good sits at the top of the yettie food chain, garnering the most money and respect, and includes such characters as the Codewriting Geek, the Cyberlord CEO, the PornSiter and the H-1B Programmer. These are antisocial creatures whose grasp of technology has made them rich and powerful without improving their social skills one bit. They wear dot-com T-shirts and carry tiny laptops and stay up all night. (Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds, Larry Ellison and Seth Warshavsky would fit neatly into this category.)
Then there's the Neo-Yuppie Prepster, a creature straight from a Banana Republic ad who strives for upper-class normalcy and prides herself on her cultural savvy without actually having much of it. The VC, PR Bunny, Biz-Dev and Marketing Geek all fall into this category, beating their way up the corporate ladder with their expensive accessories, voracious business practices and self-satisfaction, all the while spewing the revolutionary rhetoric of the new economy. They wear designer (Prada, Kate Spade, Gucci) clothes and think deeply about their sex appeal as they wheel their Jettas about town from one sushi lunch to another.
And finally, there's the underclass: the Mouse Jockey, my forlorn tribe, which emerged from the mid-'90s "alterna-kids" subculture and took its place in the lower ranks of the digital revolution. The Content Provider, Designer Girl, E-Artiste and Geek Literatus all lead grim existences, "bright young men and women raised on computers and MTV, who are now stifling their self-styled creativity in the name of cubefarming temp work." Mouse Jockeys may have more street cred than other yettie archetypes, but really, they're just grunts working behind the scenes. They ride scooters, wear vintage eyeglasses and Steve Madden shoes and read McSweeney's.
Sifton introduces and then shreds each of these creatures -- complete with annotated photographs of each type -- with neat, witty prose. He eviscerates P.R. bunnies, comparing them in importance to "cocktail waitresses at a boite in the meat-packing district, perhaps, or coat check girls at a Soho nightclub," and characterizes the CEO wannabes he calls "Barristers" as "handsome All-Americans with good grades" and DUI police records, who [were] "destined for greatness, they said." The Crossover Geezer, a bricks-and-mortar exec who made the hop to the Net, is "a human security blanket," and the Content Provider is a girl with a tribal tattoo and thrift store sweaters who "still lives on high school's precarious bridge."
Much of this rings true on the surface, and Sifton has a gift for nailing certain traits of the yettie lifestyle in sharp prose. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny. But Sifton's smug superiority can be awfully grating. It's quite clear that he doesn't consider himself a yettie, and his book lacks the gentle inside humor of, say, Douglas Coupland's subtly self-deprecating "Generation X" or Po Bronson's laser-lensed "The Nudist on the Late Shift." On the surface, Sifton's observations can be nastily delicious, but give them more than a few moments' consideration and they're hollow.
The book may be humorous, but it doesn't strive to the nuanced depth of Neal Stephenson or Michael Lewis or even the maudlin Jon Katz. It'll make a good stocking stuffer, destined for dusty garage sale bins (50 cents a book) a year from now; but it won't shed much light on the revolution.
There's a fearful, defensive quality to Sifton's satirical superiority. According to Sifton, all of us, critics included, will eventually face assimilation. No matter how firmly we place ourselves in the yuppie or hippie camp, no matter how well we embrace the trappings of our current subculture, sooner or later we will all become yetties. "Yetties, capable of intelligent risk in the name of reward and possessed by a belief in the freedom that technology brings, have forever altered the way we look at the world around us, and the culture we develop within it. Do not deny this, friends ... ineluctably, will we all soon become yetties -- no matter what happens in the stock market, no matter how rigorously we avoid the charms of our digital future."
But don't worry, Sam, it's not all that bad. Sure, if you look from a distance, the yettie life may be a shallow amalgam of paper wealth and brand-name trappings, hubris and irony and a damn good work ethic all rolled up into one self-righteous package -- but it's no worse than any other stereotype we've lived through, right? It has less to do with the Net, really, and more to do with affluence: We have more, we consume more, but we've absorbed more irony and cynicism and power-to-the-people rhetoric than our yuppie ancestors.
Deep down beneath it all we're still only human; it's just the lifestyle and trappings that have changed.
Could I have a latte grande with that, please?