How Every Great Invention Turns Into Its Opposite
Money became debt, school became work, and people became objects
Human inventions often end up at cross purposes with their original intentions — 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 more effectively put it, the figure becomes the ground.
The idea of figure and ground was first posited by a Danish psychologist in the early 1900s. He used a simple cardboard cutout to test whether people see the central image or whatever is around it. We now know the experiment as the drawing that can be seen as a white vase if you look at the middle of the image or as two black faces in profile if you focus on the periphery. The model of perception was useful to psychologists, who were attempting to understand how the brain identifies and remembers things.
What fascinates people to this day is the way the perception of figure or ground can change in different circumstances and cultures. When shown a picture of a cow in a pasture, most Westerners will see a picture of a cow. Most Easterners, on the other hand, will see a picture of a pasture. Their perceptions are so determined, in fact, 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.
Neither perception is better or worse, so much as incomplete. If the athlete sees herself as the only one that matters, she misses the value of her team — the ground in which she functions. If a company’s human resources officer sees the individual employee as nothing more than a gear in the firm, he misses the value and autonomy of the particular person—the figure.
When we lose track of figure and ground, we forget who is doing what for whom, and why. We risk treating other people as objects. Worse, we embed these values in our organizations or encode them into our technologies. By learning to recognize reversals of figure and ground, we can liberate ourselves from the systems to which we have become enslaved.
Figure/ground reversals are easy to spot once you know where to look, and maybe how to look.
Take 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.
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 in order 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.
Or consider the way the human ideal of education was supplanted by its utilitarian opposite. Public schools were originally conceived as a way of improving the quality of life for workers. Teaching people to read and write had nothing to do with making them better coal miners or farmers; the goal was to expose the less privileged classes to the great works of art, literature, and religion. A good education was also a requirement for a functioning democracy. If the people don’t have the capacity to make informed choices, then democracy might easily descend into tyranny.
Over time, as tax dollars grew scarce and competition between nations fierce, schools became obliged to prove their value more concretely. The Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite in the 1960s led the United States to begin offering advanced math in high school. Likewise, for the poor in particular, school became the ticket to class mobility. Completing a high school or college education opens employment opportunities that would be closed otherwise — another good, if utilitarian, reason to get educated.
But once we see competitive advantage and employment opportunity as the primary purposes of education rather than its ancillary benefits, something strange begins to happen. Entire curriculums are rewritten to teach the skills that students will need in the workplace. Schools consult corporations to find out what will make students more valuable to them. For their part, the corporations get to externalize the costs of employee training to the public school system, while the schools, in turn, surrender their mission of expanding the horizons of the working class to the more immediate purpose of job readiness.
Instead of compensating for the utilitarian quality of workers’ lives, education becomes an extension of it. Where learning was the purpose — the figure — in the original model of public education, now it is the ground, or merely the means through which workers are prepared for their jobs.