Has Technology Failed Us?
"It is easy to be mesmerised by the purported benefits of the digital age." This is how media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it.
The natural successor to philosopher of communication theory Marshall Mcluhan, Rushkoff was one of the first adopters of cyber culture but quickly saw how big business overturned the promise of the digital age in favour of making money. You’d be forgiven for mistaking Rushkoff for a pseudo Marxist rather than a media theorist. He uses words like “value extraction” and “scorched earth approach” and there is a lot of truth and heartfelt compassion in what Douglas has to say. His ability to cut through all the jargon of the tech age and say it as it is especially in his latest book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, is refreshing. A punk and pioneer, Rushkoff comes at this hyper-capitalist sector with venom. He has been left heartbroken having originally thought that this tech explosion would bring us the fruits and spoils of open collaborations and more transparency. Nonetheless his fight goes on, Rushkoff opens up to us passionately about the disfigurement of the digital age and how we can try to fix it.
Douglas, I’ve been following your work for some time and I have to say at times I find it a little confusing. I am trying to figure out which side of the tech divide you are on. Earlier on in your career you were one of the earliest adopters of cyber culture and now it seems like you’ve gone off the other end?
Oh not at all! I love technology! I think digital technology is powerful and could likely solve the majority of humanities problems. I honestly do. From climate change, to distribution of income, to sensor-based agricultural practices, to food, to education. Digital technology is amazing, but when all of the decisions about how we deploy and use digital technology are in the hands of people who solely want to make money by having money, then what we do is implement a very dangerous form of digital capitalism. We’re not in a free market. We’re not in a place where the people have the same access to tools and technology as the masters. When a young person has an idea they automatically go to a money person because they think that’s the only way to get their product developed. But it turns out the beauty of the internet age is that you don’t need money to make a project, you can just do it! That’s what the kids at Slack realised and now they have this giant company that everyone is afraid of because they didn’t take any VC money.
In relation to building a startup, we spoke to Fareed Zakaria and he said millennials are now worshipping people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. They are the new poster children of our age, even though there are probably a lot of people out there that deserve more attention. Is the digital economy just a house of cards, or an emperor’s new clothes? So many young people are out there spending 10 or 15 years of their lives building something that they think is going to contribute but in reality with all this borrowed money and high percentage failure it’s a weak contribution.
I’ve seen it happen so many times. I think that many young developers and entrepreneurs do start with an idea that they genuinely believe in. They believe it will help the world in some way and be empowering not just to them and their investors but to some industry or consumer base. But then they take money from angels or venture capitalists and they’re forced to pivot. They’re forced to accept a different logic. Some are mad about it but some are like, “oh I get it. I got this far with this idea but now I have to deliver a home run. I’m in a different game and the rules are different.” The original product is no longer the main product of the company. Now the main product of the company is the stock. How are we going to sell this stock to the series A people? And then the series B people? And finally to IPO when it no longer matters what this company does. It’s about the win. So business itself becomes gamified. And Bezos is a winner, though he hasn’t won yet. It’s him versus Sergey Brin, versus Mark Zuckerberg.
"It’s about the win. So business itself becomes gamified. And Bezos is a winner, though he hasn’t won yet. It’s him versus Sergey Brin, versus Mark Zuckerberg."
You make the point that you’d like the public to reject platform monopolies like Uber in favour of worker owned co-ops, orchestrated through authenticated systems like bitcoin and blockchain. I think a lot of people prefer a more open source, gentle democracy, yet everyone is still sitting in café’s drinking their lattes and checking their phones.
Right. That’s why we don’t have it. Everyone would like all these good things but rather than waiting two minutes to hail a cab, they’re all still taking the short term fix and getting an Uber. So yeah, but people don’t right now have the cues to think differently. The ways that they do have to think differently is sort of limited to kneejerk Donald Trumpian responses. It’s tricky because people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have all the convenience of digital industrialism but also somehow have their jobs and wealth and everything that would come with a different social system. As I see it, the reason people are attracted to Trump and Brexit is that the college educated competent government officials and CEOs are not addressing the real problems.
Where Bernie Sanders is right is that, if Hilary Clinton is in the pocket of Goldman Sachs then people are right to question her allegiance. Either she’s cynical, which I don’t think she is, or she believes that their model of economic extraction is somehow going to trickle down into the general public. And it’s not. She’s no worse than Tony Blair. I don’t know how you feel about him but these people would have been considered conservative when I was growing up. Economically speaking anyway.
A lot of your newer work revolves around these technology mega-companies that infringe on our lifestyle. Some people think it’s for the good and some people think it’s for the bad, but don’t you think that they should have more of a responsibility or at least a large discourse about how they can fix a lot of these hellish issues that humanity are facing?
You would think so. I’ve gone to the actual companies and spoken to them, and the odd thing about them is how liberal they are, they also think that things like guaranteed minimum income will just arise to fix the problem. I gave a talk at Uber and they said – we don’t really worry about all the out of work cabbies because they’ll get guaranteed minimum income. It’s almost like they stressed the word minimum. Like, don’t worry, the peasant class will still have enough money to keep Uber going because the government will make up the difference that we’re not paying them in salary. But how is the government supposed to do that if these businesses are completely irregulated and storing all their money offshore and not paying any tax?
"I gave a talk at Uber and they said – we don’t really worry about all the out of work cabbies because they’ll get guaranteed minimum income."
So then the question remains to be asked, if we cannot rely on big business to help us, what is their purpose?
Well the way I worded it in Program Or Be Programmed was, who’s your customer? Is Facebook’s customer the little boy who is using it to make friends? No, it’s the company that is buying the little boy’s social graph. And once you understand that then you understand who the platform is for. Who is Uber’s customer? It’s not the driver certainly, which it should be. It’s not the passenger, which it could be. It’s the shareholder, the investor. Uber doesn’t care about creating a decent, sustainable taxi industry, it’s going to move through it the same way that clear channel moved through the FM dial in American radio.
If you were in a room with Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook, what would you say to them?
These very same things. That they shouldn’t look at one another as competitors. I guess the main thing I would do is tell them that they have to lobby in Washington to change the way that capital gains and dividends are taxed. If dividends were taxed low and capital gains were taxed high then the capital they gain from their shareholders to grow their businesses would disappear. Then they would be pressured instead to create sustainable revenue and not to grow, because growth would mean higher taxes. It would change the whole thing. This is what we’re facing now. I’ve given talks at companies like IBM and Coke and Pepsi, these are all companies that are required to grow. If you’re one of the top fifty biggest companies in the world and you’re still required to grow, that’s a real problem. I would try to help them understand that the obligation to grow is an artefact of the industrial age and for being programmers they are painfully ignorant of the operating systems on which their companies are running. If they really want to be disruptive, they would figure out how to disrupt more than just some tiny little market.
Walk me through the mood right now in Silicon Valley and also the media landscape. I’ve never seen so much disruption in the media and it seems like such a chaotic time for social media as well?
I think a lot of the mood is like what I described in Present Shock in 2013. People are so busy and constantly trying to keep up with all of these news feeds that are poking at them, so it’s hard for them to apply any narrative to their experience. They don’t know what’s going on. They’re just moving through their day moment to moment, and that’s a disorienting place to be because they’re watching the time if their lives slip away without satisfaction, another day gone to Instagram.
As opposed to being caught up in your own mind, before social media, and just watching your life go by in a different way?
No, I think people had a more physical experience of one another before. It’s very calming and reassuring for the human organism to look into someone else’s eyes, to literally move into sync with a person. Now we have so much communication without any of those subtle cues or reciprocal reinforcement and it ends up with us feeling empty and more exhausted. People are living between their emails and their calendar, making appointments that they don’t even want to have and thinking, “when am I going to fuck my wife? Or spend time with my kid? Or do any of the things that used to make us happy?”
So there’s that on one hand and on the other hand there’s – “can I get in on this thing before it’s completely gone?” People can sense that we’re in a bubble and they’re not sure if there’s a way to cash in on it, or if they should start preparing for a world after this is gone, when there is no more bubble to hitch onto .The mood in the startup community is changing, and I think Mike Judge’s show Silicon Valley has been a great education for a lot of people. If you look at the numbers, IPO’s are going down, valuations are going down. The number of companies seeking Series A and Series B are going down. People are looking for less investment at lower valuations because they finally realised that the more investment and bigger valuation they take, the less control they have over their company, and the less likelihood they have of coming out of it with anything. I’ve spent the last five years doing talks where I basically say, you’re better off having a one in ten chance of becoming a millionaire than a one in a million chance of becoming a billionaire. They realise – “hey, if I just made 10 or 20 million that would still be pretty cool.”
"I’ve given talks at companies like IBM and Coke and Pepsi, these are all companies that are required to grow. If you’re one of the top fifty biggest companies in the world and you’re still required to grow, that’s a real problem."
I get on the bus every morning and I am succumb to my technology addiction like everyone else, but sometimes I look up and check out how many people are actually looking out of the window rather than at their phones. It’s usually about 50/50. Do you think this trend will continue in 50 years?
It’s hard to know what will happen. I like the optimism implicit in your question, asking, what will we be like in 50 years rather than whether we will be here in 50 years. The question of how we will have adapted to technology seems to be a much smaller proportion of the impact of technology than all of the externalized impacts of technology that we don’t talk about.
I’m less concerned with how the iPhone is changing my vision than the two refrigerators’ worth of electricity the iPhone is using when it’s operating, or the African kids that are being sent into caves to get rare earth metals to put into my battery, or the electronic waste that’s being buried in South America and China, or the children of Pakistan who are being poisoned by old CRT monitors. These people are going to be impacted way more. In my own crowd and the young people I talk to, I actually don’t see people so enamoured of their technology as older people. It’s the boomer and maybe some Gen-X-ers or Gen-Y who love all of this stuff, their Internet of Things. Younger people either know they can’t afford that stuff or really just don’t care so much. They don’t see it as so central to their experience. Yeah there’s a lot of texting going on but even that. . . I look at my daughter’s class, they’re 10 or 11 years old and they don’t like the stuff. I think we’re going to see people using technology much more appropriately in the future and in a more limited fashion. That could mean a very big disruption for the growth of all these internet service companies that think we will just want to do more and more. Then again maybe they will just fade into the background. Maybe you’ll have smart devices that can get data from what you’re doing but they don’t affect you as much.
"I’m worried that it’s easier for most people to imagine a zombie apocalypse than to visualise what life will be like 10 or 20 years from now."
Douglas Rushkoff on the optimism of our future
What really keeps you up at night? What are you most concerned about in society?
The thing that disturbs me most is when people accept the artefacts that have been left for them as the given circumstances of nature. When people look at corporate capitalism, or Facebook, or the religion they have, as if they were given by god and not invented by people. It’s this automatic acceptance of how things are that leads to a sense of helplessness about changing any of them. I am deeply concerned about the environment and the degree to which temperatures are rising, and how the worst expectations of environmentalists have already been surpassed.
I didn’t used to care so much, but I guess the change for me was when I had a child. In the 90s before I had a kid I thought the worst case scenario was that I might have a front row seat to the end of civilisation, and that would be a shame, but what an interesting time to be alive. But after I had a kid I thought, well she’s going to be in this world, however it is. So it is going to be more incumbent upon me to try to make it better. I think the strategy of being wealthy enough to isolate yourself from the harsh reality of the world. . . that’s going to be harder and harder to do, unless you’re Jeff Bezos. So that became important to me. I’m not worried about a zombie apocalypse, but I’m worried that it’s easier for most people to imagine a zombie apocalypse than to visualise what life will be like 10 or 20 years from now. I’m concerned that we lack the imagination and courage to engage in the way that we really should be and we will resort to these Trump, Brexit, kneejerk reactions.
It’s a city at human scale. Anywhere I stand in the city I can feel my body in relation to the city. I can hold it in my awareness in a way that I can’t in most others. It feels like it grew more organically somehow.
He helps you see how each of us lives in a reality tunnel and how that doesn’t matter, as long as you remember that we do and that it’s no more accurate to someone else’s reality tunnel.