The Royal Geographical Society Reviews ‘Throwing Rocks’

Read this piece at Geographical

If you create a business you want it to expand, preferably forever and a day. This may seem like the most obvious of goals but Douglas Rushkoff regards the underlying logic as ‘quite arbitrary’

Why, he asks, do we ‘accept the growth-based economy as a pre-existing condition of nature’? For Rushkoff, the process is one of the chief causes of social and economic inequality and it simply can’t be sustained: an infinitely expanding market is a myth, so structural collapse is only a matter of time.

Rushkoff may be whistling an old tune, but he makes quite an impression by applying his critique to the shiny new world of digital technology. After all, the internet was supposed to be so very different. The idealists hoped that it would be rooted in ‘decentralized connectivity and ad hoc social activity’. The ‘college dorm-room experiment’ was supposed to be the seedbed of an ‘equally distributed market-place’ and an endlessly creative ‘people-driven economy’. Regrettably, ‘instead of getting more varieties of human expression and interaction we pushed for more market-friendly predictability.’ In other words, if you were successful you began to play by the old rules, most especially that ‘growth was king’. Just look at Twitter, says Rushkoff. It didn’t cost much to create or maintain and it could have jogged along happily in a way that kept employees paid decently and customers satisfied. It did not require massive capital investment and yet it became a ‘publicly traded, multibillion-dollar company’ without adding anything of inherent value. It was ‘sacrificed… to the singular pursuit of growth.’

The new companies, Rushkoff writes, are ‘still operating as if they were 20th century industrial corporations’ and the same parlous consequences ensue. The human element is threatened and just as machines took the place of manual workers, so the manager is now replaced by an algorithm. The unique intelligence-gathering powers of a ‘living human interface’ are diluted and we encounter intrusive, data-mining bots. The space for genuine innovation or satisfying personal encounter between trader and seller is diminished. Worse yet, the obsession with growth means that there are winners and losers and in the digital world – with ‘commerce on crack’ – there is a quest to monopolise any given sector: ‘iTunes sells the music, Netflix sells the movies, and Amazon sells the books (and almost everything else).’ There is a veneer of diversity (you can sell your junk on eBay) but ‘everyone passes through the same digital turnstiles.’

What escape route does Rushkoff propose? He dreams of a ‘more functional, even compassionate economic system’ defined by ‘new, more distributed modes of value creation and exchange.’ People grow to maturity and then stop: why can’t businesses do the same? In the West, at least, most of us have all we need so we should ‘accept the potentially scary truth that we have finally succeeded.’ We can ‘make a whole lot less stuff – or even stop making more stuff – and still not end up waiting in 1970s Soviet-style lines for toothpaste.’

Rushkoff talks of a landscape filled with imaginative corporate structures that place social or environmental priorities above profit. He talks of old rivals sharing ideas and abandoning bad habits of secrecy and ‘scorched-earth determination’. There will be new ways of understanding money – treating it purely as a means to facilitate exchange rather than a commodity to be accumulated – and in the land of ‘sustainable prosperity’ people can work less, or be employed in public work schemes, or not work at all. Decentralisation will be regnant and we will return to the exciting commercial milieu of the medieval bazaar. The false idol of growth will be toppled and replaced by a ‘dynamic steady state’.

Rushkoff points to existing collaborative and imaginative initiatives that might be harbingers of this new dawn. He does concede, however, that his plan ‘sounds pretty grandiose’. This, I’m afraid, would be an understatement. Still, while many of Rushkoff’s ideas are fanciful and his tone borders on the homiletic, he reminds us that the true purpose of any economy is human betterment – whatever the stockholders might believe.