#15: Figure And Ground

Human inventions, back to front intentions


Today’s post has been influenced by a book called Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. It’s a fiery manifesto about how digital technology can do more for humanity.

Reading time: 2 minutes

"We must protect our social human organism from the very things we have created"

Douglas Rushkoff

Consider Thomas Jefferson's 19th Century invention, the dumbwaiter. A small lift operated by pulleys and ropes, it transported food and drink from basement to dining room, as if by magic. People marvelled at the convenience.

Over time however, the purpose of the dumbwaiter, became less about relieving the slogging servant and more about hiding the crime of slavery.

Great human inventions often end up like this - at cross purposes to their original intentions. Instead of the invention helping people, they end up undermined by it.

And when this happens, we start treating people as objects.

The subject becomes the object. Or in psychology 101 speak - the figure becomes the ground.

For example:

  1. The written word, when invented in Mesopotamia in 3,200BC, offered opportunities to connect people in previously unimaginable ways, but instead it was used by the literate and wealthy classes to assert power and control.

  2. Money was created to store value and enable transactions in the marketplace. Today, this dynamic is reversed. Acquiring money has become the goal with the marketplace simply a means to realise this goal. This has led to exploitation.

  3. Once advertisers realised the potential of social media, the global interconnected community, was subsumed by a bias toward isolation. Users were divided into "algorithmically determined silos” that kept them in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. Instead of being the customers, humans became the product.

We encode these "new" values into our technologies, because there is a financial incentive to do so. And money, as the primary value metric, drives this anti-human agenda.

"Protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of others, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit".

Jenny Odell

Can't See The Wood For The Tweets

Technology is revolutionary, and it has undoubtedly changed our lives for the better.

But the tech industry isn’t in the world-betterment business, it’s in the money-making business.

This means innovation is often directed towards low-priority, pain points that optimise for convenience, productivity, or ego - in other words, ideas with more commercial potential.

Meanwhile, “luxuries” such as the natural environment, clean air, animals, time spent with loved-ones and local communities get overlooked.

Soylent - escaping the need to eat, SpaceX - escaping the need to live on planet earth.

By adopting alternative values to incessant growth, such as security, knowledge, community and trust, businesses may not be able to provide as much in the way of material luxury, but they can instead, focus on innovating in ways that truly matter.

As technology advances further faster, evolving quicker than our own biology, we must make a conscious effort to bring people along for the ride. Otherwise, much tech will be like the dumbwaiter, offering magic and convenience, but at humanity’s expense.

That’s it until next Wednesday.

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Take care,