Figure and Ground

This is the fourth post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the fourth section of this book. Rushkoff begins, “Human inventions often end up at cross purposes with their original intention—or even at cross purposes with humans, ourselves. Once an idea or an institution gains enough influence it changes the basic landscape. Instead of the invention serving people in some way, people spend their time and resources serving it. The original subject becomes the new object. Or, as we may effectively put it, the figure becomes the ground.”

The figure is that on which we focus, the ground is the background. And the perception of figure or ground can change in different circumstances or cultures. Most westerners when shown a picture of a cow in a pasture will see a picture of a cow. On the other hand most easterners will see a picture of a pasture. Their perceptions are so determined that people who see the figure may be oblivious to major changes in the background, and people who see the ground may not even remember what kind of animal was grazing there.

Rushkoff writes, “Neither perception is better nor worse, such much as incomplete. If the athlete sees herself as the only one that matters, she misses the value of her team—the ground on which she functions. If a company’s “human resources” officer sees the individual employee as nothing more than gear in the firm, he misses the value and autonomy of the particular person, the figure.”

Consider money. It was originally invented to store value and enable transactions. Money was the medium for the marketplace’s primary function of value exchange. Money was the ground, and the marketplace was the figure. Today, the dynamic is reversed: the acquisition of money itself has become the central goal, and the marketplace just a means of realizing that goal. Money has become the figure, and the marketplace full of people has become the ground.

Rushkoff writes, “Understanding this reversal makes it easier to perceive the absurdity of today’s destructive form of corporate capitalism. Corporations destroy the markets on which they depend, or sell off their most productive divisions to increase the bottom line on their quarterly reports. That’s because the main product of a company is no longer whatever it provides to consumers, but the shares it sells to investors. The figure has become the ground.”

Rushkoff says that the true legacy of the Industrial Age is to get people out of sight, or out of the way under the pretense of solving problem’s and making people’s lives easier. As an example Rushkoff considers Thomas Jefferson’s famous invention, the dumbwaiter. We think of it as a convenience: instead of carrying food and wine from the kitchen up to the dining room, the servants could place items into a small lift and convey it upstairs by pulling on ropes. Food and drink appeared as if by magic. But the purpose of the dumbwaiter had nothing to do with saving effort. Its true purpose was to hide the grotesque crime of slavery.

Rushkoff contends that in the Industrial Age there were many mechanical innovations, but in very few cases did they actually make production more efficient. They simply made human skill less important, so that laborers could be paid less.

Rushkoff contends that today Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe that their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

The mass production of goods, requires mass marketing, which can be just as dehumanizing. Once products were moved from the people who made them, mass production separated the consumer from the producer, and replaced this human relationship with the brand. So where people once purchased oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image—in this case a Smiling Quaker—substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person would.

When consumer culture was born, media technologies became the main way to persuade people to desire possessions over relationships and social status over social connections. The less fruitful the relationships in a person’s life, the better that person was for synthetic ones, thus undoing the social fabric.

Rushkoff writes, “Since the Industrial Age, technology has been used as a way to make humans less valued and essential to labor, business, and culture. This is the legacy that digital technology inherited.

Rushkoff concludes this section as follows: “…the new culture of contact enabled by digital networks was proving unprofitable and was replaced by an industry-wide ethos of “content is king.” Of course, content was not the message of the net; the social contact was. We were witnessing the first synaptic transmissions of a collective attempting to reach new levels of connectedness and wake itself up. But that higher goal was entirely unprofitable, so conversations between actual humans were relegated to the comments sections of articles or better, the reviews of products. If people were going to use the networks to communicate it had better be about a brand. Communities became affinity groups, organized around purchases rather than any sort of mutual aid. Actual “social” media was only allowed to flourish once the contact people made with one another became more valuable as data than the cost in missed shopping or viewing time. Content remained king, even if human beings were now that content.

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