The Guardian – The Malfunctioning Tech Economy

Douglas Rushkoff


He has published 10 books detailing an increasingly fierce critique of digital society. Along the way Rushkoff has coined terms that have slipped into the lexicon such as “digital natives”, “social currency” and “viral media”. He has also made several documentaries and written novels both graphic and regular; consulted for organisations from the UN to the US government and composed music with Genesis P-Orridge. In 2013 MIT named him the sixth most influential thinker in the world, sandwiched between Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson.

His latest book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, is published by Portfolio Penguin on 3 March.

Was this a topic for this book something you’d been pondering for a while or was this book inspired by the Google bus protests in San Francisco?

Actually the germ of the idea was when in 2000 AOL announced they were buying Time Warner, which was a huge deal. It was the moment where I realised that digital businesses were not disrupting the underlying operating system of traditional corporate capitalism. The question I had been asking myself before that point was: will digital media ‘networkise’ capitalism or will capitalism commodify and destroy the internet? Initially, with people like Howard Rheingold and Stewart Brand the internet promised a retrieval of a 60s hippy communal approach to the world.

What do you find most objectionable about the kind of economy that technology appears to create?

What’s most pernicious about it is that we are developing companies that are designed to do little more than take money out of the system – they are all extractive. There’s this universal assumption that we have to turn working currency into share price.

You call this the “growth trap”?

The growth trap is the assumption of business that growth and health are the same thing – and I understand how they got back that way – that when you have a debt-based monetary system it has to pay back to the central banks more than was borrowed and that requires growth. So if you have a currency that requires growth in order to have value you’re going to have all these businesses biased towards growth rather than everything else.

For example?

Uber has nothing to do with helping people get rides in towns. Uber is a business plan. It’s a platform monopoly getting ready to leverage that monopoly into another vertical whether it be delivery, drones or logistics. The prosperity of all the people who used to be in the cabbie industry ends up sacrificed to the growth of this company. Corporations are like these obese people, they suck money out of our economy and store it in the fat of share price. That’s not business, that’s value extraction. They take all the chips off the board.

You’re an advocate of local currencies and bartering. Do you see “sharing economy” platforms such as Airbnb as their internet manifestation?

Yes and no. Initially they seemed to be leaning in the right direction, they appeared to be encouraging peer-to-peer exchange. Which is what we need the ability to do – I want to buy from you, you want to sell to me but without some big corporation being involved. The real problem is they end up taking too much venture capital and then the money people say you’ve got to extract more from that transaction – you can’t just take 5% for your little app, you should be taking half. So the young developer is forced to pivot from whatever the original idea was to become a monopoly that allows the company to reach a sellable event – an IPO or an acquisition – in order for the original investors to get 100 times their initial investment. Anything less than that is a loss for them, they need a home run.

Douglas Rushkoff speaks at Occupy Wall Street
 Douglas Rushkoff speaks at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. Photograph: Alamy

You left Facebook in 2013. How is that working out for you? 

Professionally, I’m thinking it may be good for one’s career and business to be off social media altogether. Chris Anderson was wrong. “Free” doesn’t lead to anything but more free. Working for free isn’t leverage to do a talk for loads of money; now they even want you to talk for free. What am I supposed to do? Join YouTube and get three cents for every 100,000 views of my video? That is crap; that is insane!

So business-wise I’m thinking that every time I post an article summarising what my book is about I’m hurting the sales and I end up delivering my ideas in a piecemeal, context-less fashion which ends up communicating less. And it makes my ideas much more easily applied for evil by corporations. That’s the lesson I should have learned in 1994 when I published Media Virus and my concept got turned into “viral marketing”, which took a slither of an idea and used it for pernicious applications.

I hope you don’t regard this interview as part of that process. 

Not at all, but if I write a piece for someone, they ask: “Are you gonna tweet it? Facebook it? Are you going put it on your blog? Are you RSSing that blog? Do you have a newsletter?” Oh my God, I became an author to sit alone and write ideas. It used to be when you finished a book it would be a celebration. Now it’s when the work starts. It’s torture.

You’re an established writer, but social media can be useful to someone just starting out.

Maybe I’m unfair. I’m sure there is a way of using Facebook as a ladder to get to somewhere else. But also knowing what Facebook does behind the scenes, I thought it was bad digital hygiene to encourage people to “like” me and make them more vulnerable to nasty things.

What kind of nasty things?

They’ll get marketed to. Facebook will market you your future before you’ve even gotten there, they’ll use predictive algorithms to figure out what’s your likely future and then try to make that even more likely. They’ll get better at programming you – they’ll reduce your spontaneity. And they can use your face and name to advertise through you, that’s what you’ve agreed to. I didn’t want Facebook to advertise something through me as an influencer where my every act becomes grist to marketing.

Do you ever feel like you’re shouting into the abyss? Most people are relaxed about the levels of surveillance and tracking that happen on the internet. They enjoy and use the services too much to care … 

I’m less frustrated by people’s blindness to the problem than I am to their blindness to the solutions – by how easy it is to develop local currencies, to use alternative websites, to do simple investments in their communities rather than in far-flung mining companies. People don’t realise how much power they have. And that’s partly because the real world has been dwarfed by this digital simulacra which seems much more important than our reality but it’s not – it needs to be in service of our reality.

I finished it in 1992 but the publisher believed the net would be over by 1993 so they cancelled it. So I sold it to HarperCollins – a Rupert Murdoch imprint, so I took a whole load of grief from my leftie friends.

You’ve been credited with coining the term “digital natives” – saying they are better equipped to navigate the current landscape. Is it not harder for them since they don’t have an experience of anything pre-Google, pre-smartphone etc?

Originally I thought they could navigate it better and my generation were the immigrants. I think they have more facility with these networks and platforms as they are designed but they have less insight that they are designed environments. They don’t see how they are tilted towards extracting value from them. They could benefit from engaging with those of us that saw how those networks were put together. That’s why I wrote the book Program or Be Programmed – if you don’t know what a piece of software is for, the chances are you are being used by it.

Do you still advocate taking a digital sabbath?

I came up with this thing which I now don’t like: the digital sabbath. It feels a little forced and arbitrary, and it frames digital detox as a deprivation. I would much rather help people learn to value looking into other people’s eyes. To sit in a room talking to people – I want people to value that, not because they aren’t being interrupted by digital media but because it’s valuable in its own right.