When, and why, did it all go wrong for the digital idealists? Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglas Rushkoff’s significant and empowering book, pinpoints one fulcrum moment: the end of 2013 in San Francisco, capital of 1960s counter-culture
For a while, protesters had been rallying against the distorting effects Silicon Valley companies were having on the life of the city – raising rents and costs for those who live outside the gated communities of the technorati. But in Oakland, as frustrations built, some started throwing rocks at Google’s employee-exclusive buses.
As Rushkoff ruefully acknowledges, this isn’t how the internet was supposed to end up. Since the early 1990s Rushkoff has been an ardent evangelist for this technology, seeing in the net a means of distributing power, voice and resources away from established elites. But it has become as readily associated with oligarchs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – a “1 per cent” making fortunes from our blithe clicking and sharing – as it is with the Arab Spring, or distance-learning in the developing world.
Rushkoff – and Arun Sundararajan, with his more focused essay The Sharing Economy – come with plans to redeem the promise of the networked society. Their appeal is directly to the business class, rather than to the rock-hurlers. After the last financial crash, and before the next one, can those who want their enterprises to serve society, rather than indifferent and turbo-charged capital markets, see their way to a new model?
13th century origins
Rushkoff’s fascinating, big-picture move is to locate the wrong turning way, way back – not in the deregulations of Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton, or the accelerations of financial software, but in the 13th century, the era when corporations were first invented.
His reading of medieval history identifies a golden moment, after the Crusades, when returning soldiers brought the bazaar, and new trading routes, back to Europe. This was “a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of eBay or Etsy”, quips Rushkoff, where “attention to human relationships promoted better business”. The bustling, burgeoning merchants that arose from these trades threatened the feudal power of the aristocracy.
The kingly response was to tax and break up the bazaars, and bestow monopolistic rights on land and trade routes to favoured merchants. Thus began what Rushkoff sees as the long march to the incorporated company – from workers “selling their wares to selling their hours”.
The idiosyncratic currencies that enabled these dense, face-to-face marketplaces were also extirpated by the nobles, who introduced “coins of the realm”. The core function of these national currencies, Rushkoff notes – with an eye on our current turmoils – “was to make wealthy people more wealthy”.
Rushkoff believes we are reacquiring an appetite for more human-scale, human-bounded economies – ones that keep cash circulating among immediate users as much as possible, rather than salting it away into corporate reserves. A “digital distributism” is his proposal.
Rise of the techno-bazaar
Bitcoin and its successors show that viable currencies can be launched without state bodies behind them, supported by the technical commitment of their users. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go, and platforms that help people utilise their physical assets like Airbnb and Lyft, establish direct, personal relations between services and their users.
Before we get too carried away, however, we should also consider the ride service Uber (and both authors do, at some length). Combining the underused cars in our driveways, our love for apps, and the need for that extra “gig” in the age of austerity, Uber is indeed a techno-bazaar, making value out of complex, self-employed, stuff-cluttered lives. The stated ambition of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, is to hire a million more drivers. Great.
But once they’ve achieved enough scale, the explicit plan is to automate all those cabbies out of business, as self-driving cars become the norm. A strange “human-scale” economy, this, that so airily imagines millions of humans as wetware, pulling fares while awaiting its upgrade.
Should we really brand all of this the sharing economy, as Arun Sundararajan proposes? His own analysis suggests that the term perhaps lends a rosy glow to a range of business models, some of which can be pretty hard-edged.