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Undoing Dystopia

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Douglas Rushkoff Wants Us to Rewind

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Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.

The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked 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”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and 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, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together.

Team Human—Rushkoff’s latest of more than a dozen books, and in his estimation his most important one—is part explanation , part manifesto, and part self-help that takes its lessons from across the sweep of natural and human history. Its overarching message is the need to break away from the mediated world of bits on screens in order to rediscover the physical one, so we can cherish each other, build more authentic communities, and engage with more productive pursuits. To achieve right livelihood, he asserts, we must reclaim our minds and communities from a corporate system that has long debased them for selfish, extractive, and destructive ends. The book’s bright red cover (reminiscent of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung) 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 works of social criticism (C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone come to mind) have described how technologies sap human agency and foster anomie, but few as succinctly and prescriptively as Team Human. 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 presents several of the book’s 100 numbered sections, and the book ends with 26 pages of notes. The sections encapsulate Rushkoff’s takes on civilization, human nature, social relations, technology, invention, economics, and much more. All shine a clear light on “bugs” in our economic “operating system” and parcel out strategies to fix them. Sadly, there is no index, a disservice to readers given how his themes and historical references are so tightly interwoven.

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 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 club called Venture Café (“Connecting innovators to make things happen”) has been tutoring wannabe entrepreneurs on how to strategize their inventions, pitch them to investors, staff and manage their start-ups, and then cash them out, with classes, presentations, coaching, and drafts of beer. Similar institutions permeate New York City (Brooklyn especially), whose denizens 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 this:

“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…”. has now raised $46.6 million.” Another bulletin informs us that “NYC’s RealBlocks, a blockchain-based startup for real estate fundraising and investing, has raised $3.1 million in a seed round…. RealBlocks allows investors to purchase tokenized micro-shares of real estate projects.”

Groovy tidings such as these portray the dubious stratagems of starry-eyed entrepreneurs and the investors who slyly fund them. More’s the pity, laments Rushkoff, because startups like these are bubbles waiting to be pricked: “Digital businesses are just software that converts real assets into abstract forms of shareholder value. Venture capitalists remain hopeful that they will invest in the next unicorn with a ‘Hockey stick’-shaped growth trajectory, and then get out before the thing crashes.”

Of course, according to UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, digital startups that make it to the big time do generate peripheral jobs in their communities (the “local multiplier effect”): “Hot companies generate five times as many indirect jobs as direct jobs…. The innovation sector has the largest multiplier of all: about three times larger than that of manufacturing.”

Local multipliers are highest in cities that host “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 yet again and hope its fleeing residents can afford not to live in squalor in a high-rent tech hub. Drain the urban swamp of ambitious go-getters and hope the remaining ne’er-do-wells get by somehow in their further devitalized municipality.

But what sorts of jobs get multiplied? Moretti vaguely suggests it’s a mix of professionals and service workers. The majority tend to be low-wage non-union and contract employees: office cleaners, security guards, parking attendants, messengers, clerks, and restaurant servers, plus the occasional receptionist and masseuse. (But not many store cashiers, as one can now supervise several checkout kiosks, and Amazon Go stores dispense with them entirely.) Many of these low-wage employees will work for multibillion-dollar and multinational corporations that invest or spend their profits elsewhere, companies like Staples, UPS, CVS, KFC, McDonalds, and Starbucks, all of which have rich histories of driving local enterprises out of business. This is the sort of usurpation that Rushkoff wants to scale back.

Too many employees, he asserts, are enmeshed in top-down groupthink that discourages questioning the conditions and assumptions they labor under. Their bosses, in turn, are enslaved by the rules of the game—algorithms, essentially—of an operating system designed to extract maximum value from suppliers, workers, and customers. Breaking out of corporate jail would require employees to interact around working conditions (he calls it “crosstalk”): “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.” But, fearing that solidarity begets unionization, employers harshly resist organizing efforts. To them, workers aren’t human beings to be valued so much as human resources to be deployed.

Rushkoff understands there will be bosses, workers, 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.”

Most of us get this. But it’s not just large corporations extracting value from localities. Small businesses and local governments also buy into it—to increase efficiency or because they have no choice—by adopting conveniences requiring extra capital expenditures that tend to accrue on balance sheets elsewhere. Consider the credit card readers and phone scanners that retailers must deploy to accept payments that lock them into financial services that all take cuts from gross receipts, draining proceeds from local economies. After being hollowed out, a local economy is more vulnerable to price-fixing global supply chains that are increasingly vertically integrated.

Such are the wages of extractive economies that Rushkoff seeks to overhaul. In his appearances, podcasts, and books, he explains how tech mechanizes people to run its software (perhaps best epitomized by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk digital assembly line), a behavioral inversion he calls “mechanomorphism,” and suggests what might be done to end such 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 things it wants lead to exploiting workers, consumers, communities, and natural resources.

When accused of committing evil, technologists and tech companies typically retort that technology is “neutral” and can be used for both good and ill. In saying “Technology doesn’t want anything,” Rushkoff appears to agree, while blaming technologists for not deploying their inventions more wisely. But suppose technology in and of itself is an extension of the force called evolution that that generates ever more complex organisms and ecosystems. If evolution is a process by which new and more intricate stuff gets created, isn’t that what technology does in spades?[1]

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 sum total of our infrastructure become humanity’s “Stepmother Earth” wanting whatever evolution wants?

Problematic technologies such as artificial intelligence, bionics, CRISPR, cryptocurrencies, the Internet of Things, air travel, and social media will likely persist for some time to come. They and other technologies we can’t anticipate will continue to change the world and by patterning us influence what it means to be human. Evolution isn’t over; technology and humanity will continue to coevolve no matter what political economy prevails. This is something Rushkoff does not address directly. He also does not flesh out where technology might take us should we somehow wrench it away from its extractive corporate clutches.

Still, many alternatives to corporatism more attuned to human and environmental needs exist that Rushkoff and others (such as Marjorie Kelly in Owning Our Future[2]) point to: 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.

Rushkoff does acknowledge as much. “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.”

Might not technology continue to hold us in its thrall even if capitalism were somehow to melt down, be overthrown, or overhaul itself? Would the virtualization of human experience continue apace or would we become more grounded in space and time? Would we take charge 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 by grounding ourselves in the here and now we can reaffirm our commonality and build a more humane society, one unmediated connection at a time.

Find the others, section 100 exhorts. Get together. De-program yourselves from apps of obeisance. Liberate the commons from the enclosures of passive investors. Together, develop collective immunity against the memes and algorithms of the matrix.

It sounds a lot like socialist revolution, yet strongly resembles how Amish communities successfully function within, yet apart from, modernity. They are inveterate tinkerers and inventors who cautiously, deliberately adopt and adapt technologies in accord with their mores in steampunk fashion—sometimes literally. There are steam-powered tractors (mounted with steel wheels to keep them off of roads) and horse-drawn diesel-powered threshers to harvest corn (possibly grown from GMO seeds).[3] They equip themselves with off-the-grid generators to run pneumatic machine tools and even kitchen appliances on compressed air. They converse on phones and ride in automobiles, but eschew owning them. Some even use cell phones and the Internet, but never from home. They are conscious consumers who caution their young folk to take it slow when cool new gadgets beckon, taking however much time they need—decades, sometimes—to decide, typically through a consensus of elders, what is compatible with their values. Faith and social structures dictate what sustains them, not Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the siren song of consumerism.

This is as it should be for the rest of us, at least as long as the wheels of industry and finance revolve about money markets rather than the commonweal. Retrieving our humanity from our corporate overlords will take much re-education, ingenuity, exertion, courage, and collective spirit . As Rushkoff likes to say, “Being human is a team sport,” one in which cooperation is mutual, competition is friendly, winners are generous, and losers aren’t vanquished. Keep finding the others.

Originally published in The Technoskeptic, April 25, 2019

(From book) Named one of the world’s most influential thought leaders, Douglas Rushkoff is an award-winning author, broadcaster, and documentarian who studies human anatomy in the digital age. The host of the popular Team Human podcasts, Rushkoff has written 20 books, including the bestsellers Present Shock and Program or Be Programmed; written regular columns for Medium, CNN, Daily Beast, and The Guardian; and made the PBS Frontline documentaries “Generation Like” and “Merchants of Cool.” Rushkoff coined such concepts as “viral media” and “social currency,” and he has been a leading voice for applying digital media toward social end economic justice. He is a research fellow of the Institute for the Future and founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism at CUNY/Queens, where he is a professor of media theory and digital economics. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.


[1] Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants (Viking Press, 2010, 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.

[2] Marjorie Kelly, Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012, 246 p.)

[3] Kevin Kelly, Amish Hackers, The Technium blog, February 10, 2009. https://kk.org/thetechnium/amish-hackers-a/

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