Douglas Rushkoff at Writersfest

Last weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Douglas Rushkoff speak at the spring edition of the Ottawa Writersfest. Rushkoff is one of my favourite thinkers and host of the Team Human podcast, as well as author of the new book Team Human.

Very little prompting was needed by the host to set off intriguing ruminations from Rushkoff about technology, media and society. Rushkoff walked us through the medieval inventions of the corporation and growth-based currency (currency that has to be borrowed and paid back with interest), both of which were introduced for the purpose of suppressing the middle class so that the ruling class could preserve their wealth in an increasingly peer-to-peer marketplace environment. These concepts have continued straight through to today and now form the unquestioned “operating system” upon which our whole economy is built. Rushkoff points to these two as the root cause of many of the strange effects that technology is having on society today, and how tech companies for all their talk of disruption have not considered challenging these basic assumptions.

Rushkoff talks about reversals that happen with technology (in his own terms, the figure vs the ground), whereby over time the users of a technology become themselves used by it (the book goes into this concept much more). Rushkoff draws a parallel between colonization (a term we are familiar with in Canada to describe the structural violence against Indigenous peoples) and the effect that digital technology is having on us today. There is no denying the harm that technology can cause to our wellbeing and to that of society.

Rushkoff points out that the best consumer is an isolated consumer. As such, growth-based technologies act to push us apart. He recalls watching TV together as a family while growing up, and going to the theatres to watch a movie. These days we consume media in individualistic ways designed to make us more susceptible to surveillance and targeted advertising.

Rushkoff warns that we can lose our human souls (or just soul with reference to James Brown, for those who don’t believe in the former concept) by profit-focused algorithms that try to “auto-tune” our behaviour so that we better fit our algorithmically predicted buckets. Weirdness is what makes us human, and should be celebrated. Life is everything that happens in between the “notes”.

We are warned to think of digital technologies as drugs - you’re on Facebook, on Twitter, on-line.. He quotes Timothy Leary:

“Before you take a drug, look into the eye of someone who’s done that drug. Decide if that’s a place you want to be.”

We still have the choice not to do so. Rushkoff suggests we try practicing a Tech Sabbath - consuming no digital technologies on Sundays. Then, level that up further by cutting out cars as well. It’s a simple idea but one can easily imagine how that would foster local communities in a serious way.

Rushkoff peppers the talk with repeated calls to respecting human dignity and human values. He calls on us to make local connections, be a part of Team Human. “Breathe together” he instructs us, explaining how this is literally the etymological basis for the term conspire. And by connecting and interacting offline, face-to-face we are also conspiring against the companies that are trying to make a dollar off our interactions.