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The Coffee Machine That Explained Vice Media

Vice co-founders and executives Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi looking kind of wet at the 20th Webby Awards in 2016.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Webby Awards

Even before the fog machines were turned off due to unpaid electrical bills and the people on the first floor became aware that the walls of the executive offices upstairs had been torn open by their former occupants so that they could get at the copper wiring, there was something inescapably abstract about working at Vice. Some of this is specific to this industry at this particular low ebb, but not nearly all of it. In a large and growing tranche of wildly varied lines of work, this is just what working is like—a series of discrete tasks of various social function that can be done well or less well, with more dignity or less, alongside people you care about or don't, all unfolding in the shadow of a poorly maintained dam.

It goes on like that until such time as the ominous weather upstairs finally breaks or one of the people working at the dam dynamites it out of boredom or curiosity or spite, at which point everyone and everything below is carried off in a cleansing flood. The bosses used to prefer the word "pivot" to describe that, and still favor that kind of bloodless language when called upon to Make Some Remarks amid all the flood damage. It's jarring when people like the incompetents still gloating and riffing atop what remains of Vice talk about headwinds and achieving the ideal footing for success in the go-forward. This is not because the language is so meaningless—it is entirely meaningless, but by now also familiar as the sound capital makes during these little crises it keeps creating—but because of how that dry executive maundering clashes with the lurid wreckage around it, all the stuff that's upturned or off-center or otherwise off its foundations. That language feels like a taunt to those carried-away, but it is mostly just an attempt to sanitize a self-inflicted wound using the methods that this self-wounding cohort likes to use. The white-noise womp-womp of it blends and blurs; it leaves you, mostly, with the conflict between the faces of executives doing their best to project Being Concerned and all those newly naked spaces behind them, where some kind of structure used to be.

Vice was different in mostly cosmetic ways from other media companies, and media companies are different from other businesses in ways that seem less salient by the day. None of it is really very complicated: There are parts of the economy that are entirely abstract, and then there are those where that same kind of abstraction is poisonous. When agents of the abstract approach gain control of things, whether from within through cultural attrition or when an entity comes under the control of the abstraction economy's heroes—private equity, venture gamblers, specific nasty rich shitheads, the "activist investor" sub-phylum of nasty rich shitheads—what is legible about the business becomes secondary to the interests of the people aiming to enrich or amuse themselves by making it do something else.

That work virtually always ends with the business's stock in trade becoming worse and its labor force becoming smaller and unhappier. That none of this "works" in the sense of improving the business itself—nothing that abstraction economy types come to possess ever grows or flourishes—is beside the point. The idea of there being "a point" is also beside the point. Their business is sort of arbitrage but mostly rendering; what can't be sold as meat gets boiled down into a lesser commodity. The people that have been doing this to websites and big retailers are now also in senior care and housing and every popular entertainment, they own fucking hospitals and farmland and newspapers and Stevie Nicks's back catalog. They treat all of them exactly like this.

The queasy spectacle of what is happening to Vice—what's left of the company being driven in circles by a team of executives, all of whom make $770,000 and none of whom can find an open glue factory on their phones—almost but does not quite make the tonally different abstraction that defined it during its gilded heyday seem appealing by comparison. Vice was a hustle pretty much from the start, and very clearly the work of pyrotechnically untrustworthy types even before its most public co-founder became a committed fascist and moved to the suburbs (surprisingly, in that order). Those founders' affectations and idiosyncrasies became the site's values, in lieu of anything else more convincingly value-shaped.

Shane Smith, the ambitious founder who became CEO, proved adept at performing his role as a younger, cooler type of capitalist for the older, richer capitalists from whom he raised and raised and raised money. That money grew the company in a way that naturally never enriched or empowered the people making the stuff the company sold, but also never went toward making the broader endeavor more likely to succeed in the long term. No one cared about the last bit, and part of the performance that so beguiled the older rich guys was glorying in how little Vice paid the (generally young) people working for him; Smith called it "a sweatshop for trustafarians." He never did succeed in selling his company for billions of dollars, although it's hard to know whether that was because he couldn't make all that phony growth convincing, or whether the tide was already turning, among the cohort he charmed but couldn't quite breach. Smith stepped down as CEO in 2018 during a period of let's say "reckoning" with Vice's longstanding culture of rampant abuse, but he did get paid at least $8 million last year, per the terms of a secret contract that runs from 2019 until the end of this year.

Long before it came to an end, it was clear what all this was, and fairly clear where it was going to end up. The institutional performance of brashness was sweaty and dated long before it became untenable, and the plain and proud executive lack of commitment to anything but cashing out permeated the day-to-day in ways that were increasingly difficult to miss. You can only strip the wires and pipes from a structure once, and it makes the place uninhabitable, but also the belief that all that copper might just grow back or turn to gold, or just that the kids would find a way to do their shit regardless, was fundamental to the enterprise. Only some of this is actually a metaphor: The roof of the old headquarters really did leak when it rained; the new one really was built over two beloved DIY art and live music spaces that the company pushed out.

But I want to tell you about the coffee machine. This was in the new space, the Potemkin village on the Brooklyn waterfront, where I sat with my coworkers until most of us were laid off in 2017. As office coffee machines go, it was pretty deluxe, large and bright enough to draw attention to itself. A touchscreen offered customized experiences down to the type of bean; at the beginning, those beans came from a fancy boutique roaster with an easily identifiable logo. The coffee was pretty good, at least until the middle of the afternoon. Around then, the machine would start to struggle through delivering a half a cup of either wan or chunky coffee. By 3 p.m. or so, everyone knew there wasn't anything to be done, and that we would just have to wait for the machine to do what it did every day around that time, which was helplessly vomit what I remember as a jarringly large amount of wet coffee grounds onto the swank countertop and the floor, at which point someone would come and sweep it up.

This was not the machine's fault. If it and everything else and everyone else in that office was ultimately there for show—if it, and we, were effectively just props adding color for the tours of visiting men that Smith periodically led through the space—it was also not broken. It had just been installed improperly, or thoughtlessly, in that showpiece bespoke office. The coffee grounds should have been draining through a hole in the countertop, but that drain was not there, and so they built up until the machine couldn't really work and finally made a mess, at which point someone would clean up the mess that the original act of recklessness made inevitable every single day. It wasn't really a prop—it did make coffee—but it was treated that way by people who could only see it as one, and while this made a lot of needless nasty work for someone else, that all happened out of their sight. They were back upstairs by then, doing deals that somehow only ever made things worse in a conference room with a big taxidermy bear in it.

If Vice has finally reached its apotheosis—making nothing, for nobody, and employing no one but the highly paid executives who brought it to this point—it is not alone. It is, in its way, a model, or maybe just a whale from which everything that could be refined or resold has been stripped, leaving only a surprisingly small skeleton. The good stuff that Vice did was never a part of any business play. It was what workers did to amuse ourselves and each other, and because we liked to do it. No owner or potential owner ever valued any of that, both because it's not the sort of thing that type of people value but increasingly because valuing anything is déclassé to them. These are not nurturing types, but they are also not interested in anything—not creating things or even being entertained, and increasingly not even in commerce.

The idea that a business could make nothing but money, and produce nothing but dividends, is one of the strangest and most popular capitalist fantasies. The appeal of it is obvious, but incomplete even as a fantasy, or at least dependent on another fantasy—that the people on the right side of these deals will somehow never need or want any of the things, from entertainment to medical care, that they are making impossible or obsolete, and that everyone else will consent to losing not just their jobs but all these other otherwise healthy parts of public life. It's unclear what would be left, once everything is broken down and sold off. The idea, for the victors, is I guess to get enough money to ascend to a place of pure open-bar inconsequentiality, some vile branded party where the Chainsmokers are forever about to go onstage.

But this is maybe too abstract, as well. So: There is a class of investors, and a type of wealthy sociopath, that wants to extract maximum value from their investments, and then there is the much larger and less comfortable population of institutions and individuals who are downstream of that one big urge and subject to that extraction. The former is an invasive species. It will, if left to continue doing what it does, eventually choke out everything it can compete with or consume, and then starve itself in turn. For anything else to grow, anywhere, it is going to have to go.

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