the flattening of people and society


“You had been a paper boy to me all these years – two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night you turned out to be real.”
John Green


Preface: for some pieces I feel the need to state I am a capitalist and believe the capitalist system, properly done as an idea, is a force for increased overall prosperity, progress, and innovation. I imagine I feel I have to say this whenever I am critical of capitalism.


I would say we are in a world increasingly attempting to flatten people. As Marshall McLuhan would say we live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes. I will argue today that it is the system’s objective is to have ‘flat people.’ Anyway. The flattening of people is basically the downward leveling of progress towards generality. It ignores the combinatorial complexity ‘of the people’ which powers the rapid expansion of ideas and progress found in the number of combinations as the moving parts of a situation increase and change. I’m not suggesting any guaranteed result if we didn’t flatten people, however, probabilities decrease significantly (downward leveling) if we flatten people because it is people who can creatively and imaginatively expand situations and connectional opportunities. This is, basically, to suggest culture is an open system not a closed system. What I mean by that is people are consistently ambiguous and vague and is extremely difficult to understand what people are thinking when they make up their minds to do something therefore are open to things beyond the basic linear and predictive. I say that to suggest that if humans are in a constant mental flux, complex and irrational as they are, culture itself ends up being a bit malleable. Which leads me to how the system encourages a ‘closed culture’ and something that Marshall Durbin said in 1973. “Cultures are best seen as an asset of control mechanisms, plans, recipes, rules, instructions, which are the principal basis for the specificity of behavior and our essential conditions for governing it.” I’d buy that there are some organizing principles underlying cultural behavior and I buy that those principles offer some boundaries or constraints that make up the social contract of normal accepted behavior, but I chafe on controlled mechanisms despite the fact he may be correct. Control mechanisms, when implemented by the system, flatten humanity, flatten people, flatten progress, and inevitably create a flattened world. That said. The flattening is occurring. Generally speaking, those control mechanisms are designed by the system and implemented by institutions with the intent to attain power through authority. They attempt to define what is best for people, and society writ large, so that those who ‘do the worst’ can be identified as ‘not of the system.’ I would also suggest in a capitalist system, control is embedded in the products, services and prices (especially those things identified as ‘the good things’). Regardless, many of the control mechanisms are positioned as what is best for the people, what is best for progress, and what is best for society. It’s a clever move by the system because if you squint hard enough you will see they are rarely ‘the best’ but rather just constraints and controls on who and what people can be, i.e., they are conserving conditions. I will also note all of this is accompanied by words and language. The system propagates specific language on what is good and what is bad, what is logical and what is not logical. This language typically is bereft of any nuance. Look.  I fully buy that logic demands some language with some semi-precise meanings so that there is less ambiguity in order to navigate a relatively uncertain world where guarantees are few and far between, but logic should not flatten people and their progress and their ideas and their possibilities and their potential. What I mean by that is the truth is 90% of almost all environments and contexts are not fully observable so the system language and the system control mechanisms are constructed to suggest that the unobservable is manageable and in the worst cases suggests concrete certainty attached to the unobservable.

Which leads me to one of the greatest unobservable but seemingly observable creators- the capitalistic society.

A capitalistic society is a framework within which people decide, or do not decide, how to implement an economy – of ideas, things, and behaviors. It is those decisions which create the narratives; narrative like materialism or ‘consume-ism.’  Consumption, and what we decide to consume (‘consume-ism’), craft a societal narrative. The products and services developed by the capitalistic system create a mindset of wants and needs. These products and services serve as a story, or a myth, for how lives should be lived, and viewed. But in the end all of those stories and myths propagate beliefs with regard to what a good life is supposed to be. Basically, these narratives deprive people the opportunity to craft their own stories. That said. I purposefully use propagate to suggest that the system is creating a social consciousness which becomes resilient to any ideas that challenge it. Yeah. It is a self-fulfilling narrative. The system suggests “this is the way,” offers products and services which, generally speaking, are beneficial (even if you don’t really need) that are embedded into people’s way of life therefore proving out the system which created it all in the first place. And if life doesn’t suck, and maybe even pretty good, the system becomes even more self-affirming and change becomes even more difficult.

All of this flattens the idea of society, the economy and how life should be lived. The patterns get embedded further and further and everything gets reduced to the terms of the system itself.

Almost everything is discussed and defined by the self-fulfilling rationality of the given system and of its quantitative measured definitions. For Individuals, families and communities being successful gets whittled down by this reality. The system inevitably claims society as a whole. In other words, the capitalistic system becomes the capitalistic society and the system begets itself. Being successful within the system identifies the individual with this society and through it with the society as a whole. Yeah. Read what I just wrote out loud. It sounds incredibly rationally irrational. And therefore, we once again get confronted with one of the most maddening aspects of a capitalistic civilization: the rational characteristics of our irrationality. And by irrational I don’t just means humans, but the system itself. This capitalistic society is actually all kind of nuts if you think about it. The productivity, the efficiency, the increased comfort beyond needs, turning waste into need, the way resources are destroyed to construct material goods, and where the objective world is just an extension of the capitalistic system and all its trappings. It’s kind of an upside down way of thinking about things where bad is necessary for good and useless is the path to usefulness. This may sound extreme but, in the end, people become commodities within a system where finding meaning and identity is found through their cars, homes, recreational equipment, hobbies, and the clothes they wear. The mechanisms of the society tie the individual to the system by which social control is anchored in the new needs generated by the system and the things which the system and the people have produced. Once again, that’s kinda nuts and completely irrational. The reason why this is so irrational is all this productivity is actually not just destructive to the world within which the people live, but it’s also destructive to potential. What I mean by that is the potential found in the development of human minds, real human needs and human thinking where the growth actually exists. Why? The system itself represses the real possibilities in the system as the humans that make up the system focus on the struggle for existence within the system as existence defined BY the system. Yeah. The system actually deprives people of the agency to its potential. Its nuts.

It can seem even nuttier if you take a moment to this about something Herbert Marcuse said:

“while the capabilities as an intellectual and material of today’s society is immeasurably greater than ever before, which means that possibilities are greater than ever before, the scope of society’s domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than even that.”

The point here is a capitalistic system actually gives people an immeasurable amount of power to do good things, think things, and create things. And, yet, the system, by investing itself into society, has gained immeasurable power in shaping HOW we think about markets, business, and work. In addition, it has encouraged people to ritualize behaviors, and beliefs, so much the people ‘implement life’ without much reflection on how the ‘system’ is minimizing thinking and creation potential. Everything has become subservient to the capitalistic system and to the benefit of the system itself. Oddly, the abstract capitalistic society becomes concrete ‘productivity hacks’ to minimize time and effort in service TO the system. Once again, this is rational irrationality and its, well, nuts. As I pointed out in the wayback machine in my “will of the institution” people get untethered from real civilized society and become ‘units of production’ within a capitalistic society where our meaning is whatever our utility is to this society. We are a people OF the market and the system mobilizes us to capture value anywhere it can be found regardless of cost to the collective good let alone the planet.

Which leads me to the ultimate consequence of flattening: stagnancy.

Regardless to say, stagnancy is bad. The whole piece points out how the capitalistic system flattens everything out in a capitalistic society and how that flattening only encourages status quo, i.e., stagnancy. But there is an additional social connectivity consequence which almost stratifies that stagnancy. In this flattened system, society gets split between those who only understand flattened simplified versions of ideas, perspectives, and behaviors of a complex world and those who grasp observational complex thinking, Ultimately, they find it relatively impossible to not only communicate, but agree on anything. Neither side believe the other because they don’t understand them (literally and figuratively). In the intellectual circles this is called ‘a lack of common sensemaking.’ But it gets a bit worse. The flattened thinking side has a strong sense of sequential occurrences while the non-completely flattened tends to have a strong sense of a degree of tenuous connectivity of things. This only broadens the gap. Anyway. My point here is that this all happens because the system actually encourages flattening people and flattening how they think about things. Ponder. This seems important.

Written by Bruce