The Rise of the Superfluous Class, Part 1

Superfluous1ClassJay’s Bar, my hangout back in the 1990s – through the heady years of the early internet, the cypherpunks, and the all-out gas that was the digital gold economy – seems to be coming back to its glory.

Not into financial glory, you understand. Jay’s is a neighborhood bar, with some overlap from downtown; it’s never going to be a huge money-maker… which is just fine by me. Jay is mostly retired these days, but his son Michele (mi-KEL-ay) is taking over from him… and ably, I’m pleased to say.

And now, the radicals are returning to Jays. Last time they were technical guys; this time they’re coming from what I’ve occasionally called the “superfluous class.” By that I mean people who, through no real fault of their own, have found no place in the modern economy.

Not only are most of the factories gone, but mom-and-pop stores barely exist anymore. And mom and pop’s kids don’t have many doors opening to them. There simply aren’t enough jobs, and it’s only getting worse, with self-driving trucks, warehouse robots, fast-food robots, and bricklaying robots all rolling into the world ahead of expectations.

Already there are tens of millions of these people, and all the system can do is to keep them on the dole, let them run up credit card debt and then reset every seventh year in bankruptcy (a kind of welfare for the clever), and of course to feed their Facebook addictions.

But something’s happening with these people, or at least with some of them: They don’t want to exist as couch potatoes. They want to produce, they want to create, they want to be challenged and to overcome.

And one by one, they’re beginning to stop in at Jays. Whatever magic this place has, I hope it never goes away.

2600 Recycled

Few people will remember this, but 2600s were groups of hackers… phone hackers, a generation before computer hacking became cool. (Their magazine is still published.) They used to meet, more or less clandestinely, to trade tricks and commiserate with each other. My local 2600 group used to meet by a bank of pay phones every Tuesday at 6:00 pm in the big train station.

And so, you can imagine my feelings as I walked through that station a few weeks ago and overheard three young guys discussing a Bitcoin and Ethereum system for some kind of business. I didn’t want to intrude, so I pulled a crumpled receipt out of my pocket, scribbled the URL of an anonymous chat room on it, handed it to one of them, smiled, and left.

Synchronicity, as we used to say.

And a week or so later, the synchronicity showed up at Jay’s. I walked in on my way to the train station, and lo and behold, I saw one of those guys sitting at the bar. I sat next to him, ordered a tonic and lime, then asked Michele if he could get me a plate of pasta from the Italian place next door.

The guy recognized me and thanked me for the link to the chat room. We talked for a while, and after I had established some more credibility with him, I asked what kind of work he did… with the appropriate “if you don’t mind my asking.”

He and his friends are from the superfluous class. They’re the children and grandchildren of warehouse and factory workers, mainly, and had no job possibilities in front of them, save perhaps at Walmart or the occasional political campaign.
But they refused to be idle and useless. And so, they’ve made their way to what people are calling the “gig economy.” In other words, driving for Lyft, renting out rooms on Airbnb, running deliveries, and so on.

This has worked to keep some of their bills paid, but it’s just barely keeping them afloat and it really isn’t very challenging after the first few times.

And so, they’re looking for something more, which has led them to Bitcoin, among other things.

The Page Turns, but the Song Remains the Same

I agreed with my new friend “Dan,” to have lunch with him and his friends from time to time. I explained to him that I’m semi-retired these days, but that I’d gladly help them stay out of trouble. He was excited to have some guidance. They had been working in the dark.

Learning how to function outside the authorized culture takes time and experience, and the penalties for a mistake are far higher now than they were back in my day.
Soon enough I had to run, but I promised Dan that I’d meet him and a friend or two back at Jay’s the next Thursday for a late lunch at 2 pm, a nice, quiet time.

As Dan walked out and I paid my bill, Michele smiled and said, “So, Professor [that’s what they used to call me after catching me grading papers at the bar], you’re going to start teaching the next generation?”

I laughed. “But only at your place, Michele.”

“Then this one’s on me,” he said and tore up the bill.

* As I’ve noted before but won’t keep noting, stories set at Jay’s bar, though based upon real people and events, are fictional.


Paul Rosenberg