Book Review: Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound, ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95.
The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the next century, computers were women (mostly) working calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit.
Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy” and convincingly articulates why it is bad for us. Past master of digital media and longstanding critic of those who control it and manipulate its users, this professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and author of many books on the impact of the digital economy under capitalism, is quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society.” In short, he’s a nonviolent anti-capitalist revolutionary out to organize the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains.
As soon as he put out a call for partisans, I signed up. As a card-carrying member of Team Human, I’ve eagerly awaited this book to show me how to collectively undermine the megaliths of our economy. But instead of assassinating CEOs or bombing banks, the team is tasked with building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order.
Team Human—Rushkoff’s thirteenth book—is part expository, part manifesto, and part self-help that takes its lessons from across the sweep of natural and human history. One oft-mentioned goal is for us to turn away from the intermediated world of bits on screens to cherish the physical one and each other, resolving to solve its problems with more authentic interpersonal interactions and productive pursuits. This call for right livelihood explains how corporations have debased the masses instead of liberating them. The book’s bright red cover (reminiscent of the sayings of Chairman Mao) proclaims in bold letters, “our technologies, markets, and cultural institutions—once forces for human connection and expression—now isolate and repress us,” and goes on to advise “it’s time to remake society together, not as individual players but as the team we actually are.”
Many other social critics (C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone come to mind) have described how technologies sap human agency and foster anomie, but not so succinctly and prescriptively as Rushkoff. The book is laid out in fourteen brief chapters with names like “Social animals,” “The Digital Media Environment,” “Figure and Ground,” “Mechanomorphism,” “Spirituality and Ethics,” and “Organize.” Each chapter consists of several sections serially numbered from 1 to 100, followed by 26 pages of notes. (The missing index would have come in handy.) The sections encapsulate his takes on the history of civilization, human nature, social relations, technology, invention, extractive v. generative economies, fiat currencies and much more, serving to shine a light on “bugs” in our society’s economic operating system that he wants to see fixed.
A digital media savant, Rushkoff has forsaken exploring virtual frontiers to take on the cynical opportunism of those who invest in them. Few among us fully appreciate how intensely competitive and niche-based the software startup scene has become or how much tech-derived money is being poured into it. Here in Boston, for about a decade, a mercenary club called Venture Café (“Connecting innovators to make things happen”) has been tutoring would-be entrepreneurs on how to strategize their inventions, pitch them to investors, staff and manage their start-ups, and cash them out with classes, presentations, coaching, and draughts of beer. Similar institutions permeate New York City (Brooklyn especially), whose proprietors sniff at the Boston tech scene as they focus their energies on eclipsing Silicon Valley as the innovation hub of the world. A newsy e-letter called TechNY Daily gives glimpses into the heart of the beast with tidbits like these (from its January 30th edition):
NYC’s Petal, which uses a holistic underwriting model to qualify consumers for its credit card, has raised $30 million in a Series B funding. Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures led the round and was joined by Greyhound Capital, Third Prime Capital, RiverPark Ventures, Afore Capital, Rosecliff Ventures and Story Ventures. Petal, which has now raised $46.6 million (excluding its $34 million credit facility) had more than 100,000 potential applicants sign up during its private beta phase. (www.petalcard.com) (VentureBeat)
NYC’s Knotch, a digital content intelligence platform, has raised $20 million in a Series B funding. New Enterprise Associates led the round with participation from StartX (Stanford-StartX Fund). The company’s platform is designed to help brands analyze the performance and impact of their digital ad spend. ( www.knotch.it) (Cheddar)
NYC’s RealBlocks, a blockchain-based startup for real estate fundraising and investing, has raised $3.1 million in a seed round. The funding was led by Science Inc. with participation from Morgan Creek Capital, Zelkova Ventures, Ulu Ventures and Cross Culture Ventures. RealBlocks allows investors to purchase tokenized micro-shares of real estate projects. ( www.realblocks.com) (The Real Deal)
Groovy tidings like these pour forth from the metropolis each week. The starry-eyed entrepreneurs who make the grade don’t stop to consider that every inventor, programmer, marketer and lawyer they attract to their swell startup’s business plan represents one person who might otherwise be contributing their creativity and labor to generative enterprises in real world communities.
Of course, tech startups that make it to the big time do generate extramural jobs in their communities (the “local multiplier effect”). According to UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, “Hot companies generate five times as many indirect jobs as direct jobs.” Undeniable, and according to him, “the innovation sector has the largest multiplier of all: about three times larger than that of manufacturing.”
But what sorts of jobs are they? Moretti vaguely points to a mix of professionals and service workers. Let’s assume that they are mostly the usual low-wage non-union and contract employees: office cleaners, security guards, and parking attendants, clerks and restaurant servers, plus the occasional receptionist and masseuse. (But not many store cashiers, as one can now supervise several checkout kiosks.) Many of these low-wage employees will work for multibillion-dollar and multinational corporations, who will invest or spend their profits elsewhere, companies like Staples, UPS, CVS, Pinkerton, Merry Maids, KFC, McDonalds, and Starbucks, all of which have probably driven local enterprises out of business. This is the sort of usurpation that Rushkoff wants to scale back.
The minds of employees, Rushkoff asserts, are enmeshed in groupthink by top-down corporate cultures that regard them as factors of production and sources of revenue. Their bosses, in turn, are enslaved by the rules of the game—by algorithms, essentially—designed to extract maximum value from everybody and everything. Breaking their bonds requires human interactions among employees about working conditions, “crosstalk” he calls it, and points to union membership as an excellent way to promote that. Employers fear such eventualities, and that’s why they push back against unionization campaigns as hard as they do, It’s also why “taxi apps and internet errand platforms don’t have features that allow workers to converse with one another about their experiences. Crosstalk breeds solidarity, and solidarity breeds discontent.”
Local multipliers are highest in cities containing “innovation clusters” with nutrient-rich tech ecosystems, and lowest in cities struggling to attract tech enterprises. Moretti has a solution to that:
“Unemployed individuals living in areas with above-average unemployment rates should receive part of their unemployment insurance check in the form of a relocation voucher. The voucher would cover some of the costs of moving to a different area. Instead of encouraging unemployed residents to remain in Detroit, in other words, the federal government could help them relocate to another city with financial support that covers part of their moving expenses.”
Brilliant! Downsize Detroit and hope its fleeing residents can afford not to live in squalor in a high-rent tech hub. Give them one-way Greyhound tickets out of Palookaville encumbered with suitcases and backpacks. Drain the urban swamp of ambitious go-getters and hope the remaining ne’er-do-wells get by somehow in their devitalized municipality.
Rushkoff can’t abide this sort of zero-sum thinking. He understands there will be winners and losers in any economy, but extractive ones produce many more losers than winners:
“When a big-box store moves into a new neighborhood, it undercuts local businesses and becomes the sole retailer and employer in the region. With its local monopoly, it can then raise prices while lowering wages, reducing employees to part-time status, and externalize the costs of food stamps and health insurance to the government. The net effect of the business on the community is extractive. The town becomes poorer, not richer.” (47)
Most of us get this. But it’s not just large corporations extracting value by their presence in a place. Small businesses and local governments also bring it on themselves—usually in the name of efficiency—by adopting conveniences requiring extra capital expenditures that tend to accrue on balance sheets elsewhere. Consider the devices that retailers must deploy to accept payments, such as credit card readers and phone scanners, locking them into credit card network services that all take cuts from gross receipts, draining proceeds from local economies.
Such are the extractive effects of modern appurtenances that Rushkoff seeks to ameliorate. In his appearances, podcasts, and books he explains how tech mechanizes people to run its software and suggests what might be done to end their servitude. Still, he says “Technology is not driving itself. It doesn’t want anything. Rather, there is a market expressing itself through technology.” The capitalist operating system that runs the market “drives an antihuman agenda in our society as much as least as much as any technology.” The capitalist operating system, he asserts, does want certain things, many of which end up exploiting workers, consumers, communities, and natural resources.
When makers of weapons of war and computer technologies are accused of manufacturing evil devices, they typically retort that technology is “neutral;” it can be employed for both good and ill. Don’t blame it when it is misused. Rushkoff appears to take such an instrumental view. But how can he be so sure that technology has no desires of its own? What if technology is an extension of the force called evolution that brings into being ever more complex organisms and ecosystems? If evolution “wants” to try new stuff and create complexity, isn’t that what technology does in spades? For millennia, our evolving technological capabilities have constructed a ground of being for humans and their domesticated species apart from and often antagonistic to nature, to Mother Earth. Has not the total of our infrastructure become sort of a “Stepmother Earth,” wanting whatever evolution wants, if not a bit more?
In denying that tech drives itself, Rushkoff avoids considering where technology might take us should we somehow wrench it away from corporate clutches. It’s easy and almost anodyne to say that tech would be less dehumanizing under a new operating system that’s less hierarchical that works much closer to ground level, more attuned to human and environmental needs. There exist many alternatives to extractive public and private corporations that Rushkoff and others (such as Marjorie Kelly in Owning Our Future) point to, like employee-owned enterprises, benefit corporations, co-ops, farm-to-market, barter communities, local currencies, and municipal utilities. But even under such regimes, future technologies will still evolve in unpredictable directions with unanticipated consequences to humanity, Mother Nature, and Stepmother Earth. Perhaps the inventors and producers of future technologies should be made to chip into a fund to be tapped to fix things that go wrong with them. Until then, tech companies should have a Chief Remediation Officer to oversee rectifying whatever messes they make.
Rushkoff himself suggests that technology may have a life of its own, sitting in the driver’s seat while we’re just along for the ride (and not just in autonomous vehicles):
We shape our technologies at the moment of conception, but from that point forward they shape us. We humans designed the telephone, but from then on the telephone influenced how we communicated, conducted business, and conceived of the world. We also invented the automobile, but then rebuilt our cities around automotive travel and our geopolitics around fossil fuels. (55)
Might not technology continue to hold us in its thrall were capitalism somehow to melt down, be overthrown, or disassemble itself? Would the virtualization of human experience continue apace or would we become more grounded in physical space and time? Would we achieve greater control of our future or simply adapt to our bespoke infrastructure, as our species apparently always has done? Douglas Rushkoff offers no sure remedies, only the hope that regrouping in an unmediated here and now can reaffirm our togetherness and spur us to assemble a humane society, one unmediated connection at a time.
Find the others, he finally exhorts in section 100. Get together. Deprogram yourselves from apps of obeisance. Liberate the common good from the enclosures of absentee landlords. Build collective immunity against the memes and algorithms of the matrix.
It sounds a lot like socialist revolution, yet strongly resembles how Amish communities function, within yet apart from modernity. By no means Luddites, they are inveterate tinkerers and inventors who cautiously, deliberately adopt technologies in accord with their mores in steampunk fashion. Whatever “digital natives,” (a Rushkoff coinage) may dwell amongst them don’t inveterately or individually adopt every cool new gadget or app that comes their way. They converse from phone booths and ride in automobiles, but eschew owning them. Some Amish affect cell phones and even the Internet, but never within their homes. They equip their workshops with off-grid generators to power pneumatic machine tools and even home appliances on compressed air. Their horses pull diesel-powered threshers across fields that may even be planted with GMO corn. They are conscious consumers whose faith and social structures dictate what sustains them, not Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the siren songs of marketers.
The Amish’s technology ethic is one worthy of study and emulation. Versus how we are prone to individually embrace cool new stuff, Amish communities embargo new technologies, taking however much time they need—decades, sometimes—to decide, typically through a consensus of elders, how well they can coexist with community spiritual and practical values.
This is as it should be, at least until we have re-centered the wheels of industry and finance to revolve about the commonweal. Good luck with that.
Geoffrey Dutton, February 2, 2019
 Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants (Viking Press, 2010, hardcover, 416 p) calls the sum total of our technology the Technium and regards it as a purposeful Seventh Kingdom of life, even going so far as to say certain technologies are “inevitable.” Perhaps they are under our operating system, but not necessarily under other ones.
 Kevin Kelly, Amish Hackers, The Technium blog, February 10, 2009. https://kk.org/thetechnium/amish-hackers-a/