Douglas Rushkoff is one of the world’s leading humanist critics of contemporary capitalism, particularly of the digital economy. His latest acclaimed book is TEAM HUMAN and I began our conversation by asking him to describe the purpose not just of his writing, but of his professional life. But it was the human Rushkoff I was searching for. The man behind the philosophy.
So I hope my conversation with Douglas Rushkoff uncovered the man behind the philosophy. And not just because he’s such a self-evidently engaging and attractive human-being. You see, I think there’s a critical connection, a kind of a symbiosis, between Rushkoff the humanist philosopher and Rushkoff the man.
The essence, I think, of Rushkoff’s humanism is his focus on our social qualities. We are truly human, he suggests, when we have rapport with others, when when we can look each other in the eye, when we can display sympathy and thus solidarity with others. Man, Rushkoff remixes Aristotle, is a social creature. Politics, particularly democracy, then, is a social thing. Only this is a warmer, more accessible Aristotelianism – one forged in Brooklyn rather than in Athens.
Therein lies the tragedy of the digital revolution, Douglas Rushkoff says. Rather than bringing us together, as digital punks like Rushkoff dreamt back in the early Nineties, global digital capitalism is dividing us. Rather than soothing us, Twitter and Facebook are compounding our anxiety and rage. Rather than making us sympathetic, social media is making us mean. Rather than enlightening us, digital has become a tool of propagandists. Instead of a renaissance, a rebirth of the social, digital capitalism is killing our ability to collaborate, to have rapport, to look each other in the eye.
What’s the answer then, the fix to this descent into the anti-social? Rushkoff says the answer lies in the local. In a return to the manageable social networks of the local community, of local democracy, of small scale handcraft and agriculture, above all of the collaborative commons. That’s how, Rushkoff says, we can “retrieve” our humanity, retrieve what he calls the social “mechanisms” that we’ve left behind.
All this imaginary localism might appear a bit daunting in our seemingly inevitable global age. But that’s why I think this conversation is as much about Douglas Rushkoff the human-being as Douglas Rushkoff the philosopher. His essence, I think, is his ability to talk, to be sympathetic, to establish rapport, to even recognize the weaknesses and contradictions in his argument. Being political, strengthening democracy, then, requires a return to the social, to our ability to establish solidarity with others. It means becoming more like Rushkoff himself.
So if, as last week’s guest Ian Bremmer suggested, the way to fix democracy is to talk to people with opposite opinions, Douglas Rushkoff, the spirit behind Team Human, might be our model for how to begin to do this.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with Douglas Rushkoff, you can find out more about him here:
Find his books here:
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus - How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity
Program or Be Programmed - Ten Commands for a Digital Age
Present Shock - When Everything Happens Now
Life Inc. - How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back
Get Back in the Box - How Being Great at What You Do Is Great for Business
Nothing Sacred - The Truth About Judaism
Please be sure to check out DLD’s up and coming events,
Produced by Jason Sanderson -Podcast Tech
Douglas Rushkoff the author of Team human also of many other books an acclaimed technologist.
Douglas tell me a little bit about yourself. How would you summarize your achievements or lack of achievements in your life.
I guess the main thing I've been doing in my professional life has been fighting over the set and setting of digital technology. I was very enthusiastic about the potential of this stuff to unleash a dormant capacity of human beings to collaborate and cooperate in ways that we hadn't yet imagined. You know that it would be as big as language or text in allowing for new forms of communication and working together. I feel like I've been fighting against what turns out really to be corporate capitalism towards fighting against the idea that the Internet is here to figure out ways to extract more money and data from people and to support these exponential business plans. It's really that you know I'm from the early cyberpunk psychedelic pro human technology culture and I watched it get overrun by the Wired magazine business culture and I'm still here to write books and do talks and make podcasts and movies that really are looking at how do we retain or even enhance human autonomy in spite of all this.
Well I'm thrilled you're still around you've got this new book Team human which came out of a team human podcast. The reason I ask that question is.
I'm guessing that your self definition and your definition of what it means to be human a kind of the same. In other words do you see yourself and your goals in your life. Are they a kind of manifestation of a certain kind of humanness certainly in intent if not in result.
Yeah I'm probably as much a victim and perpetrator of the things I'm railing out against as anybody else. I have my for one k plan and I have an automobile and you know I'm not living a totally human life that I would aspire to but yeah I'm kind of a lateral thinker and I'm someone who looks at the patterns in new ways and tries to feel fresh and alive and connected to other people rather than so automated. So I value my very local existence my eye contact with other people and that sort of on the ground scaled human reality.
So you juxtaposed yourself or your kind of lifestyle with the corporates with the wired magazines with the Titans now of Silicon Valley are you suggesting that those people on the other side. Are they not really human.
Oh they're definitely human. They're definitely human. They've just succumbed to really dehumanizing models of the world they've accepted corporate capitalism as a fact of nature. They really believe that Darwin wrote a book about evolution that says that individuals compete for survival against one another and they think that's the science and they think that the market is somehow a natural expression of that. So they just don't know that Darwin said the opposite that Darwin was saying that evolution is actually the story of how species come blabbering out and cooperate amongst themselves and with other species in order to ensure mutual survival and they don't know that the market ideology that they're so committed to this idea that the economy has to grow in order for everything to be OK that that's just an artifact of a very particular economic operating system that was put in place in the 12th and 13th century by monarchs trying to stem the rise of the middle class and that we've accepted again we've accepted at face value. So no they're not inhuman. They're definitely human beings. They're just human beings who've been as hypnotized by the rules of corporate capitalism as their users are by the interfaces and the all the mean tricks that they put into our newsfeeds and apps to addict us sort of trigger our brain stem into fight or flight. They're still human. It's just human beings acting in the silliest most frightened automatic ways.
When I read team human and I've read all your books I read a critic of capitalism but I don't somehow read Marx what I see in your work is echoes of Rousseau and his idea that in the beginning we were good and that it's the market and capitalism that is somehow corrupted as is not fair. I'm not saying that you read Rousseau and then wrote your books but do you feel part of that idealistic tradition of critiquing capitalism.
The humanistic tradition of seeking capitalism I mean I might be part of a humanistic tradition of critiquing capitalism but I don't think I fall into the trap of saying Oh we were once in this great Eden and we were pure humans expressing ourselves lovingly. I mean it works well as a story. This is what George Monbiot says you know that I've got to tell it that way things were once great and we were also human and wonderful and connected and like little wonderful Bedouin tribes in paradise. And then along came corporate capitalism and corrupted us and did all this terrible stuff. But now there is a new day and we can hold hands and reach forward. I wouldn't go there but I would say that human beings have lived through a succession of Renaissance is over time and each of these renaissance is bring a whole bunch of new things into our society into our world and repress a bunch of other things. And what we need now is what I've been arguing really since the late 80s. What we need now is a new renaissance not a revolution not disruption a new renaissance where we can retrieve some of the mechanisms that we left behind from the Commons and peer to peer trade and local currency is optimized for the velocity of money rather than the extraction of capital a local reality rather than a scaled one handcrafted things rather than everything being industrial. And that all these different models can co-exist. It's just certain ones get repressed. It would be hard for me to really say whether things are getting better or things are getting worse. Things are certainly getting better for a bunch of people but it feels a little steroidal to me. You know it's better in the way that an athlete getting that last shot of whatever they take of some super testosterone formula. I got strong right now. It's a yeah but buddy wait for the crash eventually that's going to catch up with you and I feel like we're in that sort of catch up moment. But it's not like Oh we're gonna go back when I'm feeling optimistic and hopeful it's that we're going to retrieve some of the things we left behind those more circular understandings of the world the more regenerative principles in both economics and agriculture the power of rapport as a precursor to solidarity which is a precursor to power. We're just seeing the IPO of Uber which is in some ways the perfect example of the ways in which our society is better now is it's better for a few people working in a building who now are part owners of a company whose capital worth is now greater than BMW or maybe GM. But who has millions of people working at less than minimum wage and you know 8 percent of Uber drivers lose money working for the company.
You talked about a lot of things needing to change. You talked about block chain you talked about Uber you talked about the economic system but so far in this conversation you haven't used the D word you haven't brought up democracy and the role of democracy in what you call the Renaissance in your mind. Do we live in a democracy is that the problem or the solution.
I wonder sometimes it's funny I had before even the last presidential election cycle back when GW I think was still president and I had lunch with the former secretary of state and his various underlings. We were talking about Fox News and I'm of course a little idealistic little hippie kid and he said Oh are you finally ready to accept the fact that democracy has been proven an utter failure. And my jaw just dropped you know that. How could one believe that. But you know what his point was is that now we live in a world where democracy is anchored in most young people's experience as American Idol. And when we have stations like Fox News that can without a footnote that could just play the videos of political leaders saying that women in New York birth their babies and the doctor wraps it up in a blanket and then they have a conversation to decide whether to kill it. I mean that's what abortion is. Rest her soul. My mom started watching Fox the last decade of her life and would come to me with these totally bizarre things and I would have to say no I mean no. That's not true. It becomes hard to think that we're in a functioning democracy when our propagandistic tools seem to be at such a higher level than our educational tools. And I wonder is. Having the right to vote. Does that make a democracy. No it's really just one element of it.
So Ty in your notion of what it means to be human and what it means to be part of Team human with democracy because when I read your book and when I listened to your speeches and your podcast it seems to me the team human is really all about a kind of ideal form of democracy is that fair.
I would say so yeah. TIM humans written for a society that needs a whole lot of remedial help if I don't talk so much about solidarity it's because I'm talking so much about rapport which is a prerequisite for solidarity.
What do you mean by that word rapport.
You need to be able to look in someone's eyes and connect with another human being. The trick for say Labor and Democracy in the age of Uber and Amazon Turk is that unlike the industrial age you're not standing on the assembly line next to another person. You can't talk to your co-workers at lunch when you eat lunch in the coal mine and say Hey buddy this kind of stinks doesn't it. Yeah. They're not paying us enough. You can't forge solidarity if you don't have the ability to establish basic rapport and rapport is the kinds of stuff and you and I both write about it that it's really hard to forge rapport on digital platforms.
To be fair you brought up Uber and this week in San Francisco but drivers went on strike so there is some rapport in the digital economy isn't that right.
It's tremendous that they've been able to do so because there's no chat function on Uber. You know they're not letting the drivers find one another. There is no community. They have to form it themselves. And yeah. And it tends to happen on a very local level more than a national level. So when I look at the future of democracy at least in that sort of team human way I'm encouraging people to get involved in local politics in politics where the issues are not so ideological and so easily framed by Twitter or Facebook or stories. A lot of people spend a lot of their time worrying about and voting based on issues that they have no connection to whatsoever where if they were voting and participating more locally and thinking about well what is the stream where I live. What about the factory in our town. What about our schools. Democracy to me looks like joining your local school board joining your local land zoning board. I mean there's plenty to do those rooms are empty and there's usually just a couple of kind of crazy people sitting in the back because they've got nothing better to do.
Well I respect what you're saying but isn't the reason Douglas that these rooms are empty is because around the world not just in the United States but in Brazil and the Philippines and Turkey and Hungary and Poland and Italy in these supposed democracies people want a strong leader they don't want to stay in the local school board. They want to know again they want to Trump. They want a bowl scenario. They want to do it and they're voting for them. How do you explain that in your theory of Team human are weak on that wrong is it a sort of a reversion to a dependency on a father figure and they always seem to be male of course.
Yeah I mean partly sure we have a multi trillion dollar industry meaning a technology industry that is focused primarily on putting people into a fight or flight condition. That's what Facebook does that's what Twitter is doing that's what they're all doing now is to get us not just to communicate to our amygdala but to keep us in a state of anxiety and panic to keep us anti-social so that we're depending on technologies for a sense of comfort rather than one another. And when people are in that state in that frightened fight or flight survival they feel that their very survival is at stake that there's brown people coming over the border that Gypsies are going to kidnap their children that Mexicans are going to take their jobs that everybody is a threat whether it's the brown people who are a threat or the Trump people who are a threat everybody feels so threatened that yeah they're going to revert to a childlike state and transfer parental authority onto some leader. This is what I was writing about in nineteen ninety nine a book called coercion. I was saying that if we take the tools of traditional advertising and I even meant what the Toyota salesman does to you in the showroom what the neuro linguistic programming people are doing in sales the way advertising works. Creating a sense of insecurity in the consumer and then bringing them the answer. If we taught those techniques into digital technology we're going to end up with a very frightened disoriented public that's going to be incapable of acting like a body politic and that's kind of where we are today. So if we want to have people voting intelligently then we need to start kind of at very beginning and help people develop basic coherence the ability to observe reality around them accurately and to learn how to engage with other people and not be threatened by other social contact. We're not moving in that direction right now and that's kind of why I had to write that book to say look evolution is the story of cooperation and collaboration. Other people are not your enemies they're your friends. The way to build a strong economy is by everybody mutually getting one another rich not taking stuff from each other in a zero sum game.
And the way to organize is not to see the other as some enemy but to learn to see the human being in the person that you're considering the other so I think your observations as always a brilliant new one of the very first people to see this and I think your analysis of Fox and Twitter and Facebook are right on but on you and myself indeed and we sort of part of the problem after all your books done pretty well but I'm guessing ninety nine point nine percent of people who bought team human or listened to the podcast they're all anti Trump lists. How do we escape these echo chambers. It's not just a technological issue. We can't blame everything on Fox News and Twitter and Facebook. Can we.
Maybe a majority but certainly not 90 percent of the people who buy or listen to Team human are pro trumpets. Most of the people who complain to me an email about the show complain that I'm too pro Trump myself that I'm too ready to. And I do this all the time to construct what Trump or people like him are saying to expose the sort of the humanity beneath it. Why does a human being say this well what is the fear that's underlying this position what is the logic. You know so when I talk about why the coal miners hated Hillary. You know they've been living on this land that their fathers their grandfathers their great grandfathers have been digging this coal out of the ground for the last century. And now some Democrat is telling me that I'm not allowed to do that anymore. I have to now depend on some bizarre high tech company from someplace I don't know to train me to build solar panels that I don't understand and make me more dependent on this you know mother state thing when I do that. I get the angry emails saying why are you giving that airtime. And it's because if there is a ninety nine percent that is getting my stuff it's the 99 percent that want to try to re humanize the world that want to connect with the other side. And yes that is preaching to the converted. In that sense is the few that buy the book you know there's the 2 million who hear me on Russell Brand or something but the two thousand turn around and get the book those people are the ones who I think are gonna be the evangelists in their communities in the real world. They're the teachers and doctors and activists who are looking for the arguments and the rationale that they need to have their kids put down the iPad in the classroom and learn to make eye contact learn to do presentations with each other. So no and this has been really conscious on my part certainly for the last 10 years. I don't think I fall into that trap of speaking only to progressive you know anti Trump people my first articles on Obama were before he was elected were very critical of Obama again got me in all this trouble Obama laughed right from the left and I'm not trying to straddle it intentionally but my work is not about the left or the right. My work is about the underlying human agency in any of this. So you know when I complain about Obama being more of a brand than anything else we should watch out whether or not there's a genuine invitation to participate here. That got critique until occupy came along and they're like oh right you were kind of saying what we're saying.
Ian Bremmer who I'm sure you know a political consultant was on the show last week and I asked him about fixing democracy what we need to do specific doable solutions and he said to begin we need to start talking to people who disagree with us. Would you agree with him on that. Or where do we begin to claw back.
And that's one of the first things I say. I mean there's a chapter in team human called organize and it's largely about that it's learning to see the other as a collaborator. I mean a good way rather than some kind of enemy. And it's also you know the willingness to stand up and say Here I am. That's the hard part. It's embarrassing. You know I think for people to stand up. But I think at large I would say the first step almost always happens at the local level. I get so many emails from people who want to restore or retrieve democracy by creating a website that's going to aggregate all of the great apps that help democracy. I'm going to make a wiki. Oh my dear that sort of techno solution ist urge and I get it. It's from a beautiful place right. They feel like they understand the common thread and they want to just put it all together so people then will have the information they need. And that's not really it.
Well you've been there right. That's where you were in 1980 or 1995.
Well I didn't think you would build a tool to do it. You know in 92 93 when I was talking about the Internet as a renaissance I was saying the internet will give people the confidence they need to go and meet people in real life. I always believed it was that you know we had these great conversations on the well and in Usenet and all these places where I could test out ideas and find out that oh I'm not crazy they're smart people who agree with me and have extended these arguments and then I'm going to feel better about bringing that up in my bar or in a seminar or with my parents or with my friends. I've always felt about it that way not that it would be this end in itself which it's kind of turned into but I always tell these folks who do who want to just build that platform make this thing or do that new voting thing or the new. We're gonna put democracy on the block chain. Whatever it is. What we need first is functional coherent grounded social human beings. If you don't have a basic social fabric you don't have a social reality. There's no way to vote or to participate out of something other than fear. And that just exacerbates our problems.
One of the other themes that have come out in this series of interviews is the need to regulate big tech. Is that also essential if not to shut them down or break them up. But what do we need more aggressive regulation of the Facebook and the Googles of the world.
If we're going to save democracy you know I would say yes and no regulation is not my expertise. It sounds good to me. I mean I always think back to the way I kind of blindly accepted John Barlow's Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace which pretty much argued government get off the net. We got this one and I didn't realize at the time if you'd get rid of government you would give corporations free reign and it's like getting rid of fungus the bacteria is going to grow. So. I want government back. My problem with regulation is that my experience of regulation so far are examples like when we got there was led in the red paint on some companies. I think it was Mattel's Dora the Explorer toys back in the 1990s and everyone was up in arms. Oh my God we've got to regulate the toy industry. So the toy industry sends the biggest players you know the top three toy companies meet with the government and come up with these new regulations that every toy that goes on the market needs 40000 dollars of testing. And they establish that as law. And then all the small toy makers say wait a minute I make three toy trains a year I can't do 40000 thousand dollars of testing on this train. So regulation for the most part usually favors the existing players and they use regulation as an excuse to further entrench their own monopolies. That's of concern to me but yeah definitely I believe in regulation done properly with the right people at the table which doesn't feel possible in today's government. But yes in principle the main thing that I'm pushing for if regulation is sort of like the way an allopathic doctor deals with disease let's hurt that disease you know find the drugs to kill that disease. I'm going more on the homeopathic or the naturopathic side saying OK there's this disease there. And sure let the regular medical doctors go and deal with that. But what I'm going to do is strengthen your immune system and that's what I'm trying to do with my work is strengthen our cultural collective cultural immune system so that we're more resistant against this stuff as a people.
Do you think the iPhone should come with a health warning something like cigarette packets. This device might harm democracy or it might harm your humanity. I mean. Would people stop using it. Well people are stopping smoking eventually they stop smoking.
I don't know if it was because of the labels. I mean it's interesting. And now they're starting again of course. So they problem in my daughter's middle school is they're all smoking jewels. So you know that corporations come back around again and re addict us. Sure. And not that I'm any total fan of Steve Jobs but I don't think the iPhone in its original form was going to be addicting.
I don't think he meant for this to happen he didn't let his kids have the iPhone or the iPod in the house so he knew something was wrong. Yeah.
Yeah I mean that's the funny thing. Again that was another motivation to write this book is I feel like an idea just feel like I have evidence. I've spoken with them. The tech billionaires are trying to earn enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they're creating by ending their money in this way. You know they know they're destroying the world. They're building bunkers in New Zealand and Alaska. They're trying to get away from us because they hate the world that they've made. But they feel trapped. So they're also the people I'm trying to help telling you you don't have to do it this way. Maybe a business plan where you earn 10 or 50 million dollars is enough rather than a billion.
And of course ironically enough sort of tragically in some ways they're sending their kids to walled off schools in Silicon Valley where screens are banned for six and seven euros. What's your view on these kinds of alternative education systems. The Waldorf through Montessori. Do you think they are one solution to our crisis.
We certainly would help. I mean certainly for our kids. I mean it doesn't mean that then they won't graduate 12th grade then get a device and become just as addicted as any adult. So it's certainly better for kids. I mean first I'm teaching now I teach a CUNY queens and my first day of class I get notes from the students saying you know please excuse Johnny from class participation because you know he has a social anxiety disorder. And more and more of them every year and I'm convinced that's because they're glued to their phones and they're learning on iPads rather than learning how to be with other people in the classroom. So yes I mean my daughter doesn't go to a Waldorf or a Steiner school and that's partly because I mean maybe it's because of my leftist roots I feel like I want my kids to go to public school. I want to be part of this world. I don't want to teach them from an early age that we need to sequester ourselves in some way from everything else and plus I like the civic reality of a public school to push back on Waldo.
Though I'm ambivalent about my 17 year old daughter goes to a public Waldorf schools and there's no reason why Waldorf has to go. That would be great.
That would be great. We have the best of all worlds. Finally Douglas you are one of the great dreamers in tech and in cultural criticism let's forget practicalities dream a little bit for me. Finally I love that back to my theater day. Shut your eyes and we wake up. I don't know. Let's say 10 years because that's a good time in Silicon Valley it's unimaginable. We shut our eyes. Now everyone's listening. Shut your eyes and then we wake up 10 years later into Douglas Rushkoff world.
What does it look like. Very briefly Douglas and what do we need to do to make this dream a reality. Well those are two different questions.
The world that we wake up in to in no particular order is one where people are sourcing their food from within 50 to 100 miles of where they live. They have a local currency that they use right alongside the centrally issued U.S. dollar. Their kids walk to a public school that they feel safe enough for their kid to go walk there. There's a whole lot less automobiles on the road because we realize that light rail and other things are more efficient and more people are working closer to their homes than they did before. And we've established commons is for many of the things that we currently have markets for. I would say in technologically the biggest change would be that our data is part of a commons that there is no more marketing of our data. So Google and Facebook and Twitter and all these companies that are living off our data won't be able to do that anymore because we have a data commons where we contribute all of the data that we want to to that commons either attributable or not. So that it could be used by anyone to do you know medical research or even consumer research or anything you want. So the data has no value because it's everybody's. It's no longer proprietary. We adapt and adopt the principles of regenerative agriculture to economics and to education and to politics. You know we recall what it is to live really with many more circles than lines. So we have a society that is no longer hell bent on progress by any means necessary sort of linear progress and is looking instead at quality of life. And I don't think that's so outrageous it's just a much more locally scaled existence where the first alternative is to look for a friend to help you with something then to look for a product to accomplish it for you. I feel we should end with a rendition of John Lennon's Imagine.
Yeah except we don't even just have to imagine it.
What I would say is if we are not actively moving toward that we're all going to die. We no longer have the luxury of not engaging with these ancient indigenous practices. What we are realizing even as privileged white males we finally know what it is like to be colonized by the corporation the same way the Native Americans knew what it was like to be colonized by British East India Company or that Africa knew and South America knew what it was like to be colonized by America in Spain. Now we know what it is like to be colonized by apps that are colonizing our awareness our data our money our consciousness. This is it. We either push back and we can push back on some of the ways that you're talking about. They're not the ways I know about but through democratic process regulation government and activism and we can push back by retrieving and restoring our basic human decency our ability to connect with other people and the more social you are the more connected you are with other people the more you can look in other people's eyes and not look away. The more resilience you will have the more resistance you will be able to mount against a multitrillion dollar industry. That means you know good.