Recently, I started reading Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (recommended to me by multiple individuals), which consists of nine thought-provoking essays on topics ranging from the internet’s role in shaping our cultural and individual psychology to her pursuit of religion and drug-induced ecstasy. One of the essays in Trick Mirror focuses on seven scams that shaped the millennial generation. Fyre festival, the 2008 housing crisis, student loans, social media, and the list goes on. In the essay, she asserts scamming as the “definitive millennial ethos”, a strong accusation to push onto an entire generation. At first I was defensive, no one wants to be labeled a scammer alongside the likes of Billy McFarland (his wikipedia page literally has the words ‘fraudster’ as a title next to his name), but then I was intrigued to the role I might’ve unknowingly played in this “generation of scammers”.
A quick Google search will return to you the definition of scam as “a dishonest scheme.” A broad definition with lots of room for interpretation, but I believe you can track the seeds of “scam culture” as Jia defines back to the largest religion in the modern world, capitalism. And no, I’m not trying to declare capitalism itself a scam, but more that ingrained within capitalism is the promotion of scamming. When growth is seen as the supreme good, unchecked by any other ethical consideration, there is no way to ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. Banks are allowed, by law, to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, meaning that 90 percent of all the money in our bank accounts are not covered by real assets. And it is in this culture of credit, loans, and the immutable belief in economic growth that the millennial generation grew up in. We were basically told that you need to break some rules to make it to the top. And we learned quickly that scammers are the safest at the top.
And this “scammer mentality” was impressed upon us on day one. With aphorisms like, “Fake it until you make it.” Or advice like, “Think like a winner!” And just like that, we were taught to scam even ourselves. Maybe if I imitated the lifestyle of an influencer on Instagram, I’ll actually be able to live that life one day. Maybe if I pay a $250 membership fee for an “exclusive” co-working space for entrepreneurs, I’ll become a successful entrepreneur. Self-delusion is virtually a necessity to survive the modern day, like we’re living in an Orwellian world where “doublethink” indoctrination is mandatory for survival.
Take me for example, I was literally listening to this particular essay on Audible en route to buy groceries at an Amazon Go store, while Jia was detailing Amazon’s exploitation of state sales taxes and the scam that is modern day social media platforms. I work for Facebook.
So yes, you could say I am a scammer on multiple levels. Scamming myself, and even playing a part in perpetuating the “social media scam”. Of which, when I originally started working at Facebook, I rationalized by only choosing to work on teams related to supporting the integrity and safety of the platform. So at the end of the day, Jia was right about me at least. And I think the rest of us too; herself included.
So are we doomed to this cycle of “scamming” and “self-delusion”? I think yes, partly, as it feels necessary for development. And sometimes it works out. Sometimes “faking it” actually “makes it”. But I think we should stop blindly applying this mentality across all domains. Worshipping “growth” as our deity without bounds have led to horrifying institutions like the slave trade. And today, it’s hampering legislation and policy for climate change prevention. Jia provides no solution to the ongoing delusions each of us participates in and neither can I. Either way, I believe the first step for myself is acceptance before I can take steps to minimize this behavior in my personal life.