This research examines how the concept of start-up has transcended its original acceptation as a synonym for early-stage, hi-tech company to become a historically specific way of knowing, ordering, and acting in the world. Relying on the Foucauldian archaeological project, I define such a historically specific way of knowing as an episteme, understood as a series of regularities across contemporary discourses. Echoing concepts from complexity economics, design thinking and Agile software development, the start-up episteme provides a model by which to interpret reality and articulate power, both over others and within ourselves. To capture the manifold implications of the start-up episteme, I conducted a 22-month ethnographic investigation of Vancouver's digital and new media industries. Through participation in professional groups, interviews with digital practitioners, and review of managerial literature, the research analyzes how the start-up, as a broad signifier for progress and disruption, is reshaping corporate organigrams, informing local development policies, and constituting new professional identities and collective work cultures. The fieldwork reveals how living and working in the start-up episteme requires people to remain constantly open to jumping on new projects (pivoting in start-up jargon) to maximize the chances of stumbling on successful ones. This need to stay flexible and agile at all costs justifies risk-prone practices of self-exploitation, which are justified as performative displays of a proper hustling work ethic. The result is the proliferation of professional subjectivities (e.g., the digital nomad, the solopreneur, the freelance, the bootstrap entrepreneur) trapped in a state of perpetual becoming, where self-actualization and stability seems always one project away but is never achieved. The findings emphasize the tactics employed by digital and new media workers in the attempt to escape new forms of managerial (self-) control and to create a more just and inclusive workplace. Besides contributing to the ongoing debate about digital and entrepreneurial labor, this research shows how ethnography can be employed to experience and study macrotheoretical concepts and narratives. This approach acknowledges the impossibility of understanding some forms of knowledges through simple observation and invites ethnographers to hybridize their research practices with those of their participants.
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Thesis advisor: Lesage, Frédérik
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