Mary Burger

from The semiotics of the rubber duck

It's rare, or maybe it's common, that an object that was intended to have no particular significance, that was intended to be smiled at and given to a child or thrown away, would have this many meanings.

The history attached to an insignificant object­the meaning of the object­is unstable and unpredictable. As the duck moved off the manufacturing line, as it got sprayed and stenciled with its various markings, packed and shipped and distributed, all the while it was changing.

It was changing from a throw-away made-in-China party favor at a high-tech holiday bash to a marker for a particular point in time­the time when corporations wanted to celebrate themselves with mementos both whimsical and cool. The time, not long ago, when young people were still astonished at their opportunities. When it was all just starting. When it was starting to be what it would be, when it was becoming apparent that it was what it was. When people were coming, and coming, and coming. When nobody knew exactly what it was, but everybody could tell it was happening: there were more people. There were more people looking for apartments, and paying more to share an apartment with more people. There were more people looking for parking. There were more people talking on the phone in more places, talking on the phone as they walked out into the middle of the street to hail a cab, as they stood in line at the check-out, as they paid their fare for the bus. There were more restaurants. There were more condos. There were more people moving out of apartments that became condos.

There were jobs. Everywhere, there were jobs. It was hard to find someone who wanted a job who couldn't find one.

It didn't come out of nowhere, the particular revolution that came. And it didn't come unannounced. The decentralization of data transmission was the obvious next step in penetrating further into the human capacity for being productized.

Though, surely, it must be more than that. There must be some other capacity too. Like Mussolini's trains. Like the Roman aqueduct. Like British schools and hospitals in India.

It may seem odd now, that so many had the spirit of the glowing, sunglassed rubber duck. The whimsy, the swagger, the optimism, the kookiness. It may seem odd that so many were ushered into instant prosperity without even knowing how it happened. It may seem odd that anyone would speculate so wildly, that so many expectations were built on air. It may seem odd that it could change so suddenly, it may seem odder still that it could happen at all.

It may seem odd that these people who were needed were then suddenly not needed. It may seem odd that people who thought they could take part in this, thought they were implicated in the nexus, were suddenly not.

The confluence of meanings of the rubber duck­the excess, narcissism, indulgence, immaturity, the playfulness, confidence, openness, curiosity, the commodification, the disposableness, the aggressive youthfulness, the vanity, the nostalgia...the multinationalism, the tiered globalization.

The Chinese factories that brought millions from the countryside into the cities, transforming family into something not yet definable; the astonishingly unregulated manufacturing, the new kinds of injuries, diseases, and crime, the new societies that no one had expected and no one knew the rules for,

The rubber duck that bought a house. The outsize flood of money that buoyed up a floating toy. The accidental jobs that helped buy everything.

There are two of them, on the lid of the toilet tank. Because it felt more companionable to have a pair. And two, identical but slightly varied, different only in an ornamental detail, the presence of two nearly identical but pointedly varied in one discreet fact, declared the possibility of infinite numbers.


What percentage of Chinese workers have relocated from smaller inland cities or farmland to huge manufacturing centers on the coast since China began its industrial commodity expansion. When can we way that actually began.

What percentage of the Chinese economy is invested in the manufacture of exported goods? What percentage of imported goods in the US come from China? What percentage of goods sold in the U.S. have some component manufactured in China?

What portion of the decrease in U.S. manufacturing jobs can be traced to expanded manufacturing in China?

In what way did the tech boom, precipitated by the creation of the world wide web, rely on or partner with the increased manufacturing capabilities of China and other low-wage countries?


Rubber ducks may have evolved from the tradition of hunting decoys, somehow merged with the category of toys.

On the internet, you can buy a wide assortment of different styles, colors, and sizes of rubber ducks. Some of the ducks don't float, and are described as being for "companionship", to distinguish them from floating ducks that can be used in the bath.

But that seems like the most important thing about a rubber duck, that it can float.