Interview by Dan Ackerman
Author and CUNY professor Douglas Rushkoff has been writing about the digital economy since the early 1990s. Over the course of 16 books, including 1994’s Media Virus, where he codified an early version of the concept of viral media, he’s explored how technology affects us, both culturally and economically.
His latest book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” is built around the preface that: “The digital economy has gone wrong. Everybody knows it, but no one knows quite how to fix it, or even how to explain the problem.” As an example, he cites protests over the fleets of private shuttle buses that ferry employees of Google and other technology companies to their Silicon Valley offices.
I talked to Rushkoff via phone on the eve of his book’s release, and this is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
What is it about the concept of a Google Bus — a private shuttle for employees of one big company — that elicits such a strong response?
It epitomizes how these companies behave like alien life forms invading our reality, rather than companies who are delivering on the promise of bottom-up activity. It reflects their willingness to extract what they want from our communities and from humanity without paying back. San Francisco has become the quaint cultural backdrop. It’s like a stage set for them. It feels like they live in San Francisco, but they’re not. The worst problem is that it epitomizes the way that digital companies extract value without distributing wealth. They’re taking money and value away from us and storing it in share price.
The subtitle of the book is “How growth became the enemy of prosperity.”Despite years of warnings that’s it’s not sustainable, why is growth still held up as the only metric worth pursuing?
I think it’s because a few Internet companies grew really big really fast, so there were a few lottery winners in there, whether it was Steve Case or Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. Everybody’s in a race to hit that home run, and what they don’t realize is when there’s so many people and companies doing that, they end up adopting a scorched-earth approach that destroys the underlying economy. The fact is, it’s such a one out of a thousand, or one out of a ten thousand, chance, it’s akin to the people taking their welfare checks and buying lotto tickets at the bodega.
Here’s a company, Twitter. It’s a great product. I love Twitter. I mean I know there’s things wrong with it. I think it’s cool because it doesn’t ask anything of me. It doesn’t like follow me around. It’s not big and heavy and thick and yucky like Facebook or something. It’s almost like texting. It’s just marvelous, and it’s profitable. [But] they went the wrong VC too soon, which demanded them that they go public too soon, and at too high a valuation, and now they’re going to have to kill their company.
I would say, start delivering dividends to your shareholders today. Make all your employees owners of the company. Look for ways to help users create value because if they’re making money off your platform, they’re going to be even more committed to staying with you, and communicate with your shareholders and explain to them that this is a long-term play and a long-term play is not bad, especially if you want to live a long time. Why not balance your portfolio with some actual things that make money instead of all things that just explode?
Does all this feel notably different to you than the days of dotcom 1.0 in the late 1990s, which we both lived through?
It’s different than the dot-com boom, in that the dot-com boom was a bunch of investors being fooled by developers and technologists, and this is a bunch of developers and technologists being fooled by investors. This is the revenge of Wall Street for 1999.
What do you make of this dust-up the other week about the Yelp employee who wrote an open letter to the CEO over the issue of living wages in San Francisco? Does it speak to a lot of the themes that you’re writing about here?
It’s like we’re justifiably angry, but we also have unreasonable expectations. What’s happening is that we’re using technologies that give us instant gratification and instant feedback, and we expect to be able to get that instant return on our investment.
I mean, I lived with people, we lived three or four in a single apartment. We lived in rentals. We did all that. The difference is there wasn’t as much wealth at the top. It was a different, there wasn’t this sense of this girl working at a company where there are billionaires. She’s all the more conscious of the wealth disparity, so on one level, yeah, maybe it’s her problem, but on another level, the company is not making her feel like she’s part of a mission. These are the values that are engendered by the business environment that she’s in. Everyone is in this for a quick payoff, and she’s living in San Francisco, which is not a place you can live as a young up-and-coming person any more.
I have hope, because a digital age makes all of these inequities so much more transparent. This is good. The conversation is out there. Yeah, there’s going to be casualties like that girl, because not everyone is capable of having these conversations without getting really tarred and feathered. It’s dangerous out there, but we’re having the conversation. There’s people lying in front of the Google bus as we speak.