Friday, October 15, 2010

Community Conversation with Douglas Rushkoff

By Paul M. Davis

Following last week's excerpt of Douglas Rushkoff's new book Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for the Digital Age, we follow with a Q&A with the author, featuring questions from Shareable's community of contributors and advisors. On Wednesday, October 13 and Thursday, October 14, we invite our wider community of readers to engage with Rushkoff in the comments, as he responds to your questions and thoughts.

Michel Bauwens: If we indeed take control of our technology, how do you see the balance between individual control, relationships between peers, and the power of any new collectives that may arise in this networked world? Do you see the balance between individuality and collectivity changing?

Rushkoff: Well, if we take control of our tech, as you put it, then we get to decide how that dynamic changes. I don't think we get to fully take charge of it, though. I think we get to partner with it, and with our various biological and evolutionary imperatives. I feel like the best we can hope for is conscious participation in all this.

There is almost certainly an evolutionary drive toward increasing complexity in the face of entropy. That's practically a definition of life. Technology is so powerful and attractive to us because it holds the promise of greater complexity and greater connectedness. Atoms to molecules to cells to organelles to organisms. What's next? No one knows for sure, but it sure ain't Facebook.

I have been saying from the beginning—the early '90s anyway—that we are looking at collective organism. But unlike some kind of fascist Borg, we don't have to lose our individuality. It is actually enhanced as more people become aware of everyone else. Not a hive, but more of a coral reef.

Some of these rather invasive technologies are really just preparation for a world where everyone will know what you are thinking anyway.

Yelizavetta Kofman: On the one hand, being a Gen Y:er I like to think that I'm more on the programming than programmed side of the Digital Age. And I believe in the spontaneous, magical, democratic power of the Internet. On the other hand, as someone who one day hopes to make a living, I wonder if the Internet has to 'go corporate' for my generation to be able to build careers from all the creative 'programming' things we do? Can we really keep providing resources, ideas, writing, and art for free online without devaluing these things?

Rushkoff: Well, I think you have it backwards. The reason you have to work for free is because this stuff IS corporate. The way to make a living in this space for real would be to establish a genuine means for peer to peer exchange. YouTube and Facebook and Google are making plenty of money off your labor.

Making money, or earning a living, is not anathema to freedom and democracy. They are the same thing. That's what democracy came out of:people fighting for the right to make a living instead of having to work for the feudal lords.

Mira Luna: Online media facilitates an abundance of superficial relationships and broad, but again superficial, depth of collective wisdom. If the new economy is one based on closer relationships and deeper knowledge of context and place, instead of abstract numbers in accounts, then how do we get to a deep economy through a primarily superficial form of communication? Is a local economy desirable or possible as the web of consciousness spreads around the world? Is real accountability, transparency, and responsibility still possible while creating a more a sustainable and just global economy?

Rushkoff: Well, I'm not sure that any economy goes deep. Economics may be essentially superficial. After all, what is it really but a way for people to keep track of the value others have created, in order to make sure some people don't exploit the work of a few. (Well, actually, the economic system we know and love today was created explicitly for the purposes of monarchs and their cohorts extracting value from laborers—but that's beside the point.)

If any economy is really just a ledger to prevent freeloading, then we can't expect it to reflect the deeper values and relationships and place. You're talking about an ecology of interactions and transmissions. That ecology—at least right now—is much more complex and multifaceted when it occurs in real life, among people who know each other as creatures and not just usernames. But there are ways in which we need to interact as a species on greater scales, and the net allows for a lot of this. We simply can't forget that such engagements are necessarily simplified. They aren't bad, they're just limited.

I think that transparency and accountability are possible, sure. I'm not as sure that people really care about them as much as they should, though. I feel as if most people would rather be lied to, so long as they don't have to think too much. I don't see new media changing this, yet. It may in many cases be making it worse—especially as people so steadfastly refuse to accept responsibility for what they're doing with these tools.

Rachel Botsman: How do you think the concept of 'money' will have changed by say 2030? How do you think will we trade and exchange?

Rushkoff: The money we use now is basically a thirteenth century operating system trying to serve as a platform for a twenty-first century digital economy. That's why banks are under such stress. Centralized moneylending was invented to keep monarchs wealthy, and it depended on chartered monopolies and other strict topdown control.

I think we will see the emergence of a number of digital alternatives to centralized money. They may look something like time dollars or lets systems, in that people will maintain a balance closer to zero rather than trying to accumulate savings. But they won't have to be local, because identity and history can be verified online.

The next step, of course, will be for us to contend with the fact that we have enough stuff to go around even if people don't work that much. Then, currency will look very different.

Paul M. Davis: As the online world enables many more opportunities for collaboration, how do we ensure that the contributions and benefits are distributed in an equitable way? How do we avoid the inequities between the haves and have-nots that are inherent within the current media labor market? And how do we make sure that the benefits are as freely-accessible to all, as the process and means of production are?

Rushkoff: Well, first we have to make sure that any benefits at all are available to those who actually create value. So far, it looks like the net is being used by the largest of corporations to extract value from creators for no compensation at all. YouTube and blogs and everything else are supposed to serving as publicity for some other aspect of our careers, but what other aspects are there?

So it doesn't look simply inequitable to me; it looks like exploitation.

The way out, and the way to guarantee that the benefits, once generated, are equitably distributed is to develop peer to peer models of value exchange. Disintermediate the corporations, really. That's what I've done with this book. People get my book for close to half of what it would cost through a traditional big publisher, yet I still get more profit per book. They have more money left to buy a book someone other than me. I have more to donate to Wikimedia and, which is where I'm putting the 20% I don't have to share with Bertelsmann.

Neal Gorenflo: Life, Inc. and Program or Be Programmed seem to be much more strident calls to action than prior work. And while Life, Inc. is about corporate capitalism and your new book is on media, I sense they may have more in common than what’s on the surface. What are the parallels between your last two books, and what kind of change do they mark for you personally and intellectually?

Rushkoff: Both of them are about people coming to recognize the way their world works. In Life Inc, I wanted people to see that the economy isn't just this way because of nature; it was designed by people at a particular moment in history to do a very particular thing. It's not commerce; it's a scheme to prevent peer to peer commerce and extract value from colonies. We still use it today because we forgot that there were many different ways for an economy to be run (or allowed to operate). They were all outlawed by kings in the 1200's, is all.

The new book removes the metaphor. I realized that telling people money was an obsolete operating system made no sense because people don't know what an operating system is. We are painfully illiterate in all things digital. We accept each Steve Jobs device and each Facebook iteration as if they were created to make our lives better. We don't know what this stuff is really for, because we can't even imagine that digital devices have agendas.

Jonah Sachs: We assumed that taking power away from the gatekeepers of information by ushering in the viral age would make us instantly smarter and more authentic. A decade later, is it happening? Or the opposite?

Rushkoff: It's not happening because we didn't take the power away. We gave it away. The only people who cared deeply about the new memetic potentials of this stuff were marketers.

But the technology itself has impacted those gatekeepers. They can't lie without being discovered, they can't hide behind their brands, and whatever they do eventually comes to our attention. The problem is that most of us simply don't care. Along with the increase in our potential to know has come an abhorrence for knowledge. As if using your head means denying your gut.

And those of us who *do* know rarely take action. All the knowledge is paralyzing. That's part of why I am advising people to set more local goals.

Paul M. Davis: If the traditional publishing industry is dead, as you stated in your Arthur Magazine piece, does this not only upend the production and distribution model, but also the entire notion of what the form of the “book” can and should be? How do you see the form evolving in the years to come?

Rushkoff: I don't think I said it's dead. It just doesn't serve all of our needs. It needs to change. It is currently keeping too many people employed at jobs that don't create value or increase the quality of the literature. And those jobs are there to cater to other corporations in the obsolete distribution scheme. As we move to more peer-to-peer models of distribution, we can pass more value directly from the consumer to the writers and editors.

People just have to be willing to buy directly from publishers, rather than to use the current aggregators (Amazon and Barnes & Noble). All we need to do is aggregate on a higher level. Someone (maybe I'll just try to do it, actually) needs to create a big searchable index of all the books for sale. And it just links directly to the publishers, who can use any fulfillment scheme they like. The site can make its money with ads and book reviews, but not take any money from the publishers to connect readers to consumers. Of course, Google Books is more than willing to do this right now. People would simply have to change their habits.

Neal Gorenflo: You've played keyboard with Psychic TV, taught college, produced acclaimed books and TV, made an impassioned critique of corporate capitalism in Life, Inc., and have gone against techno-utopian grain with your new book Program or Be Programed. What connects these projects? What is driving you? And what is the most important thing you've learned in all of this?

Rushkoff: Everything I've done is about helping people differentiate between the map and the territory. What is really here, and what has put here? What are the true given circumstances, and what are arbitrary products of our own creation? I want people to see the programs - social and otherwise - that are running our world. We participate in them as if they were accepted operating principles of reality, when they are just social constructions.

What I've learned in all of this is that—for the most part—people are happier not knowing. They would rather have a guiding mythology and believe it to be the truth, rather than to know the people who came up with that myth, or what those people may have intended to do with it.

Over the next two days, we invite our readers to engage with Rushkoff in the comments below. If you're new to Shareable, please take a look at our community guidelines to learn more about what's expected in comments. In general, be excellent to each other!

1 comment:

  1. Second attempt. I strong agree with most of what D. Rushkoff has stated, including his observation of the tendency to preserve comfort by dis-engagement. I also agree with the calls for a more intentional and deeper economics. We think that we have developed a model based upon the monetary and economic model that establishes the virtual and open sort of economic space and capacities that people say they want. We have gone beyond the critique of the default model by way of reaction, which thus far seems to largely re-create the default model. We would appreciate any and all comments on our overview found at

    Tadit Anderson