Thursday 03 August 2017

Meet the team

If you've spent any length of time as a jobseeker, data scraper or sales researcher, chances are you have been initiated into a select club of internet cognoscenti: those who can comprehend the select terror of a seemingly innocuous tab on the average corporate website. Like the opening of any decent horror, it begins with a door into a homestead that seems welcoming at first, even charming. But the more you look around, the stranger it becomes: the more uncanny and less benign. It’s a phenomenon that goes by the same name everywhere you turn: Meet The Team.

On the face of it (or to be precise – faces, and lots of ‘em), it’s a logical prospect. In an age of interconnected social existence, where everything is digitally mediated, no company wants to be seen as bland or ‘faceless’. The intensely administrated approach to brand consistency means that any large organisation can appear like a monolithic logotype unless it is softened with photographs of its employees - reminding us of how human they are beneath the corporate sheen. And small businesses are even more reliant on the idea of quality through intimacy – a bespoke squad of personalities who are there to care. So, ‘Meet The Team’, three words that give us entry into a facial catalogue of the human capital behind a business. It is designed to make us feel at home in this world, and yet – in an enjoyable irony – prolonged exposure to this gallery of floating heads will do anything but.

 

This isn’t entirely obvious to the casual viewer. At first glance, you encounter a row of smiling faces who seem perfectly amiable. In the case of hip and happening agencies or media companies it’s especially effective: their staff are allowed to wear their own clothes so they look normal and relaxed. You’d enjoy going for a drink with them, probably. In the case of big companies, where professional services are involved, it’s less so: even on an initial enquiry, it’s obvious that you’re staring at a C-level suite of greying men in identical slate-coloured suits. This is the sort of bureaucratic rank of moneyed angels that populate Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or any number of easy business satires that are easy because they’re representative of something so drearily true. Even superficially, it’s strange that – in the attempt to seem more human and relatable – these companies advertise a collection of senior staff so non-diverse, you’d be forgiven for enjoying a momentary break from reality and imagining whether they don’t recruit top executives by mashing one another’s faces into a paper photocopier and hooking up the print-out to the advanced person-creating technology first demonstrated by the teenage nerds in John Hughes’ Weird Science.

To get to the deepest level of Meet The Team’s contradictions, however, you have to have been submerged in their world too long. The most likely candidates are online jobseekers (of the kind of jobs
which require you to understand a company’s ‘culture’), and data scrapers who’ve been hired to compile a spreadsheet on who’s who in an organisation. Typically, these are sales roles or consultancy-based positions – the ultimate meta-level, second-order jobs of advanced capitalism. Getting to grips will require you to click through screen after screen and business after business. It’s not unlike a night of Tinder swiping, but you are not confronted with one face at a time, and the erotic element is suspended under the bleached whiteness of the corporate photography’s intense lighting and backdrop. Here, in this other-world reality of employees staring out at you with a mixture of forced mirth and uncertainty, you begin to see the very workings that these companies want to hide.

In particular, it’s typically the companies offering professional services of some sort or another who are most keen to promote their brochures of human capital. The brand agencies who promise to articulate your ‘tone of voice’ in amongst the word soup of digitized dialogue and marketing communications. The various consultancies who will charge you an arm and a leg for their services, but never a head, because the head contains the expertise for which we all pay. These service providers want to do everything they can to throw attention from the smoke-and-mirror manifestation of advanced capitalism: it’s not that there isn’t hard graft involved in what they do, it’s just that – to use an apposite line from Mad Men – they ‘grow bullshit’. Strategic expertise and imaginative branding opportunities are forms of opinion dressed in a thousand percent mark-up. They represent money changing hands at the upper levels, where apparently ideas are the new capital. Without the ballast of a thousand faces to launch one lonely little ship into the war of corporate competition, it’s hard to say whether any client would walk away feeling satisfied. Hence the briery desperation that’s also attendant to this phenomenon, the sense that someone (but who, who can you point toward?!) is trying much-too hard to convince us of what, deep-down, we could never believe.

In Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie (published at the very end of 2016) he draws the distinction between two seemingly exchangeable but arguably quite distinct ideas. The eerie, he argues, comes to be when we see something only partially emptied of its human element: an abandoned dwelling, perhaps, or a person in whom dementia has partly destroyed the natural workings of the mind. Freud, elaborating on the work of the author E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote of the uncanny as a feeling of dread when faced with something familiar but somehow not quite the same: often occurring when something is repeated until the repetition makes us question the familiar thanks to the vertiginous quality of that constant repetition. It should be clear that trawling through ‘Meet The Team’ pages has some combination of both these psychological phenomena, but Fisher’s conception of the eerie is most relevant. These photos are, after all, tokens of a service emptied of anything concrete – evidence that people are employed to do something, only you can’t exactly photograph the results.

The irony is that in attempting to differentiate themselves, these companies lay bare how similar we look and how similar they themselves are. The photo galleries almost smear, in our mind’s eye, to a fractal re-organisation of various facial features – as if spawned digitally by some great appearance engine. Their quest to assert, at once, humanity and individualism quickly turns into its opposite. They make it easy for us to access a type of learned prosopagnosia – where, although we can still distinguish one face from another, the necessity or wisdom of doing so begins to seem doubtable.

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