FiveThirtyEight – Douglas Rushkoff Says Companies Should Stop Growing

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When Twitter went public, its initial stocked soared and Wall Street valued it at close to $25 billion. Its founders got rich, as did its venture capital investors. But Douglas Rushkoff sees these moments when tech companies cash in as dangerous. He thinks the growth imperative that corporations face, particularly data-driven corporations, means that they will never be able to fulfill the promise of building genuine communities online — whether they be political, social or economic.

For almost 20 years, Rushkoff has explored how the early promise of the Internet has been co-opted by corporate and advertising interests. His new book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus” goes right at the economic structures at play in the tech industry. On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Rushkoff discusses alternative economic structures that could make our data-driven lives more fulfilling.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

You are your algorithm

Jody Avirgan: We’ve talked about this on the show before. Your past actions become basically who you are. And in order for an algorithm to really understand you, it’s better if you just act according to type.

Douglas Rushkoff: And they’re going to push you to act more according to your type. But as you act more according to your type, and as the marketplace becomes more and more predetermined and predictable, you actually don’t get growth, you don’t get innovation.

Jody Avirgan: Why?

Douglas Rushkoff: Because now you have designers, who instead of being encouraged to come up with their own, new, crazy ideas, are being encouraged to do the things that have been proven by the data to deliver results. A lot of times, in thriving marketplaces, a lot of ideas come from the bottom up. You see new consumer behaviors, and then you go, “Oh my gosh, look at what these kids are doing.” But as you end up with more predictable, controlled consumers, you end up with a less innovative society.

Why metadata is creepier than individual data

Avirgan: We obsess about the creepiness of a corporation or a government kind of knowing about us as individuals, but you say that the part that creeps you out the most is the metadata notion — to think of yourself as grouped, not as an individual.

Rushkoff: When people think of privacy, they think of the content rather than the context. So the privacy is like, “Oooo, does Coca-Cola know that I masturbated?”

Avirgan: I don’t know why Coca-Cola would want to know that, but I bet someone in Coca Cola is trying to figure it out.

Rushkoff: And they do. And they do. Believe me, statistically they know.

Avirgan: I will never be able to forget that notion.You’ve just implanted that in my head.

Rushkoff: [Laughs] That’s the social programming of the activist in media trying to plant memetic constructs that slowly deteriorate our brand imagery. It’s not the specific thing that they’re going to find out, it’s thegroups that you’re in, it’s the metadata. So that, when you see the study that Facebook knows with 80 percent accuracy whether an adolescent boy is going to [come out as] homosexual in the next six months — that’s weird. Companies know things about you that you don’t yet know yourself, and they only know them in terms of probability. The world that you see is being configured to a probable reality that you haven’t yet chosen.