The Economy Needs to Be More Human: A Chat With Douglas Rushkoff
The writer and media critic on the future of the web, his new podcast, and what's wrong with guaranteed minimum income.
Image: Iain Marcks
"When I first heard digital," Douglas Rushkoff said at a book event in May, launching into a thought stream, a gyroscopic, physical whirligig of economic theories, history, and emphatic hand gestures, "this is what I thought of as the digits," and he flitted his fingers. The professor of media studies was there in the early days of the Web, when social networking was message boards and chatrooms, and initially he thought "that the digital age was for people to get back into human creation, human production. For people to have their hands back on the—it's a terrible metaphor, I was going to say the steering wheel, the dashboard—back on the green engines of creation."
Instead, the economy became more corporatized, not more local; people became more remote from the economy and each other, not closer. The economy got optimized for financial prosperity, not human prosperity. Rushkoff slumped behind the podium.
"I'm really disturbed how all of these apps and platforms are developed to really make all of their effects invisible. It's lovely that on Uber you don't have to tip the driver. You don't even have to talk to them. It's lovely that on a smartphone you don't have to see the two refrigerators worth of electricity every time you download things. You just see the plug you're putting in the wall. The whole rest of the world is not there."
He continued: "And this great word—convenience! What does convenience really mean in a digital age? Convenience means, I'm not going to look! Ah, pretty colors, swipe, swipe, it's all good," he said, looking into his hands, mimicking browsing on a smartphone.
"But it's going to land on you. Its really going to hit you like a ton of bricks eventually. All the stuff you've externalized is going to come back."
No, you probably don't want to invite Rushkoff to your startup party. Over the better part of three decades he's been pulling back the curtain on the economy, in a smorgasbord of media: not only in books and articles and radio but in documentaries, a format that doesn't easily accommodate topics like branding or smartphone addiction or an economy built around capital growth and competition rather than sustainability and cooperation. Rushkoff has mastered the lecture game too—he is often invited to speak to many of the same tech executives he pillories—and has a knack for the tweetable aphorism ("The more you touch your phone, the smarter your smartphone gets about you and the dumber you get about it.").
"Literally, conspire means to breathe together. When people are breathing together is when they're dangerous."
But lately, the medium he's most interested in is face time.
"When you do look up from your phone and you do make eye contact with other people there's power in that," he said. "Eye contact is what forges solidarity, that's when the mirror neurons are going off, when you build rapport, when you see someone's pupils getting bigger because they're agreeing with you, or smaller because they're confused, or they nod: they breathe with you. That's when the conspiracy begins. Literally, conspire means to breathe together. When people are breathing together is when they're dangerous."
In the hopes of gathering new ideas—actual solutions to the problems he's worried about—Rushkoff has been putting in a lot of face time lately with some of the people he admires most on his new podcast. (We premiered it on Radio Motherboard earlier this month.) I asked him about the podcast, about the reception to his recent book Throwing Rocks At The Google Bus, and what's bothering him at the moment.
Motherboard: You're not new to the format, what with your WFMU show, but I wonder what led you to return to it, and what's valuable about a podcast from your perspective. And where'd you get the name "Team Human"?
Rushkoff: We actually changed the format. The original WFMU show was an hour slot, during drive-time. So I wanted to have a few different elements. It was a "show," after all. It was really hard for me to let go of that format: monologue, an eccentric "real person doing a real thing" (as almost a sarcastic demonstration of how none of us—except the guest—are doing anything real; we're just blogging and complaining), and then the main discussion with the in-studio guest.
As we moved from radio show to official media-branded podcast and finally to the freeform podcast we're now launching, we realized that a big formatted show isn't really the best way to utilize the medium. The internet breaks everything down into its component parts. So even if we're going to do a "real person doing real things" interview, it should stand on its own as a component.
So now, each show is basically a single theme, with a monologue by me and a conversation with a guest. It's much more about the live engagement than whatever book or accomplishment the guest comes with. This is not a show to talk to authors on tour, but to authors not on tour, if you know what I mean. So nobody is pitching anything other than what they're saying then and there. This is a chance to wrestle with the bigger questions about being human in a digital age.
A few months after the book, after going on tour and hearing feedback from readers—among them tech folks and executives—I wonder which concepts or models preoccupy you the most now. Are there some you are still working through and wondering about? Critical hurdles to a fairer and more human future? Ideas that people have pushed back on? Things that leave you particularly curious or anxious or worried?
Yeah, well, that's part of the reason I started the show. The main thing I'm getting is deluged by people looking for specific answers. CEOs write me: "How do I convince my shareholders to accept dividends instead of capital gains?" People ask how to start local currencies in their towns, or how to do crowd-funding for local businesses. Companies want to know how to become B-Corps. Others want to become platform co-ops. It's nuts. So that's the main overwhelming response.
The thing that surprised me—the thing I'm working through now—is this whole idea of guaranteed minimum income. I make a pretty strong case for it in the book: In a society with abundant resources, people deserve food, housing, and medical care. We have gotten to a place where people need jobs not because we need all that work done, but because we need an excuse to let them have the food and housing which is already in abundance. That's ass-backward. So just let them have it.
But I spent some time at Uber, and I heard my guaranteed minimum income argument come back to me but from their lips, and it sounded different. They were telling me how they understood that Uber drivers don't get paid a living wage—but that once the government instituted a guaranteed minimum income, then it wouldn't matter that the drivers don't get paid enough to live! Or that their jobs were replaced by machines. At least they'd have enough money to hire Uber cars when they need to get somewhere!
So guaranteed minimum income doesn't really empower anybody. It just creates more cash for people to spend as consumers. It doesn't give the workers any more ownership of the "means of production" than they had before.
And I'm still working on this problem, since I believe that food, housing, and medical care are basic human rights for which you shouldn't need a job, but I don't like how guaranteed minimum income becomes an excuse for more exploitation of those at the bottom, and a new two-tiered society.
"The extremists have hacked the mainstream's allegiance to balance, by moving the fulcrum of balance itself."
Given what you've written recently, including the piece about Trump being the epitome of a "digital" candidate, do you have any particular hope for the way the internet develops, going forward? I'm thinking particularly of the way the web and its platforms, economies, and media are built predominantly upon advertising—and how journalism has been folded into this media landscape, to its detriment, and at a time when it's never been more needed.
My hope doesn't lie in the way we develop the internet so much as in the way we learn to compensate for its effects out here in the real world. Journalists in the mainstream TV and print media, for example, can no longer feign "balance" in a media space as polarizing as ours is today. In a sense, the extremists have "hacked" the mainstream's allegiance to balance, by moving the fulcrum of balance itself. Where balance may have once meant questions such as, "how much of our attention should be on global warming—half or all?" now it's at the level of, "is science real or the work of the devil?"
There are ways to change our real-world behavior and approaches that can easily compensate for the dehumanization of the web, the corporate surveillance of our every action, and the mockery of the democratic process. They require us to be more conscious—more human—thus, Team Human.
As for the web itself, indeed. It is built predominantly on advertising. And now that navigation and discovery are controlled by advertising companies like Google and Facebook it's all the trickier. You see publications moving into the supposedly safe harbor of Facebook because all of their incoming traffic consists of social media links, anyway, and they know Facebook is going to promote them a lot better if they surrender to Facebook assimilation than if they try to go it on their own with their own websites.
Eventually, though, Facebook will create such a walled garden that people will come to realize it is not the equivalent of the internet. Just as they realized this about AOL in 1998. And those of us who have remained on the open Internet will become really interesting to people again. So it's really a matter of time, and of not feeling oh-so compelled to participate in the Borg for a sense of existence.
The other thing I've been thinking, almost musing on, is that originally the net was where we counterculture people went find a safe haven. And now that the net is utterly infected by corporate interests, we find refuge out here in the real world. The losers are running around online for fear of missing out, and all their getting is the honor of being data-raped. Those of us in the real world are having flesh experiences as well as high bandwidth intellectual encounters that make anything online pale by comparison. That's part of why I'm conducting most of my interviews for Team Human in real life.
How have the issues you discuss around labor now—both an always-on, cultural activity and something that's increasingly tenuous and scarce, as economic growth slows—impacted you personally in recent years, and how do they impact you now, as a university professor? And how do you address these concerns personally?
Well, my wife has had some difficult medical issues over the past few years. And as the economy gets more exploitative, I see it the best through the way she and her doctors are treated by the corporations that have taken over medicine. We pay more, the doctors are paid less, middle management is bloated, and incentivization is wack. When buying medication, it's often cheaper not to use insurance. A co-pay on a drug may be $500/month, where buying it without insurance is $60. Or insurance forces us to use a pharmacy that the insurance company owns, then charges double for the medication. So I'm seeing the convoluted things that happen when large corporations take over an industry, and when government regulation is written to soothe those companies instead of serving people's needs.
As far as my life choices, I'm lucky. I was in the right place at the right time—and ready to chronicle and analyze the emergence of an entirely new media landscape. Had I not written books like Cyberia or Media Virus in the early '90's, I don't think I would have been given a platform to write and speak about things now. It's rough out there, where everyone expects you to work for free in order to support some other thing. So you're supposed to write for free in order to support talks, or speak for free in order to support a consulting career, and so on.
"Without intervention, the market will kill humanity."
That's gotten harder and harder. The freelance life is not easy, particularly with a family and with real life crises, parents who need support, and so on. I am glad to have the teaching gig, because it's a way to avoid participating in the darker side of the tech world, or marketing, or any of the other industries through which I could supplement my income. The more leftist and people-oriented my work, the less most publishers are willing to pay for it. If a book can be somehow convoluted as a how-to-market-online title (even Present Shock and Media Virus were purchased primarily by marketers looking to understand how communication works today), then it will get a good advance. If a book is clearly about the disintegration of the economy or social injustice, then its business applications seem more limited, and—as we live in a world increasingly defined by business interests—won't generate as much interest from the publishers.
Partly for these reasons, I decided to do the podcast as a completely free thing, instead of going with a radio network or even a media company like VICE. I wanted to do something completely devoid of market considerations—which doesn't mean less popular, but may not be as good a backdrop for advertising, not so good at scraping data from listeners, and fully dedicated to human welfare. That means adopting a more natural rhythm, producing episodes as we want to rather than to meet some official schedule, and just not worrying about how this fits into some business plan.
Really, I've learned that the market as it's currently configured, and human life, are at odds. Without intervention, the market will kill humanity. It will kill us as individuals—whether we are dead or just walking dead—and will kill us as a civilization. That's why I'm on Team Human.Watch Motherboard's video interview with Rushkoff