The latest book by this tech-savvy social philosopher is a manifesto, calling us to “take a stand, regenerate the social bonds that define us and, together, make a positive impact on this earth.”
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Douglas Rushkoff: Gosh, I’ve wanted to come to a Techonomy for so long, and finally, right? I was just looking at the—and that’s not to make fun of anything, but it’s funny—the theme, it’s “Collaborating for Responsible Growth,” which to me, strikes me as—collaborating for responsible growth, I—if I could summarize Team Human in any way, I would say it’s about collaborating for its own sake. In other words, collaborating is just, it’s fine. Even without any responsible growth coming out of it, collaborating is a great thing. And my challenge, I guess, to you today is whether one can collaborate for responsible growth, is growth responsible? Or is growth itself irresponsible?
Certainly collaborating, we can understand, collaborating for its own sake is a beautiful thing. Is growth for its own sake a beautiful thing? I would say no. I think that growth actually is the problem. Growth is the biggest problem that we’re facing, is this mandate, this obligation to grow and to grow exponentially forever, that that’s the whole problem. Exponential growth is intrinsically incompatible with life. Nothing in nature grows exponentially except cancer, and then it kills its host. You can grow exponentially for some tiny little period of time, maybe some little moment of time that happens in nature until the system reasserts its balance.
But no, I like the idea. I love the collaboration, though, and collaborating for its own sake. I mean the—I don’t really want to talk about Team Human the book so much, it’s a thing you have to read, you can’t really talk about it. It’s an experience, kind of a roller coaster or an acid trip or something like that. It’s like it’s this great thing, go do it, but I can’t, like, tell you facts from it. It doesn’t quite work like that.
But what I am arguing in there is that being human is a team sport. You know, that you can’t be human alone. And that most of the technologies and media and institutions and things we develop are for, in one way or another, fostering human collaboration and connection and communication. But then, for reasons that we can get into, they end up being turned against that purpose. You know, so the big example for me is the internet. When it came up we all thought, “Oh, this is going to connect us all in the great global Gaian mind, and we’re going to realize a dancing wooly [IND 0:02:34.8] physics fractal collective, you know, consciousness.” But instead, the internet is now used to alienate and isolate and atomize us from one another because that’s the way the internet can serve the growth mandate of the stock exchange, which is an artificial system, rather than the collaborative mandate of humanity which is a living system, it wants to sustain itself responsibly not grow responsibly.
So I would say growth is the problem. All right, growth is the problem. And exponential growth, which is so compatible with digital technology, works against real society, real culture and real life. And because we’ve gotten addicted to this growth model, because we’ve come to accept growth, exponential growth, as a feature of nature—that’s what our friends at the Singularity University will tell us, that this is just nature, exponential growth, and now we’re in a digital nature and everything’s going to grow exponentially. The only place you can go is out of the system itself. That’s why Ray Kurzweil will tell us, “The future for humanity is extinction. The future of information is digital.” So you humans accept that you are going obsolete in a digital age, you can’t keep up, you can’t grow exponentially. Upload what you can to the chip, to the cloud, Amazon, wherever you want to put it, and then you can be part of information’s inevitable evolution towards higher states of complexity. And for your humanness, accept that that’s obsolete. And obsolesce, go extinct with grace.
And to that is why I say, “No, human beings are special.” We can embrace ambiguity and sustain paradox over time. Human beings can watch a David Lynch movie, not understand what it means, and still experience that as pleasure. Human beings can live in the liminal place between the yes and the no, the one and the zero, the sleep and the wake, the friend and the foe. All that weird, squishy place, all that stuff that the digital realm calls noise, that’s actually the signal. That’s the signal. All the stuff that we auto tune out of the voices of our performers, that’s the signal, that’s the human. That’s literally soul. There it is. It’s coming. That’s the soul, that’s noise, right, to us, now, that’s noise. But oh, to the digital that’s the signal, that’s the call. That’s the only data that was trackable so far, other than what might have been tweeted. That was the only data moment in this room, the stuff that’s happening between us doesn’t exist.
When I make that argument to a singularity person like Kurzweil, he says, “Oh, Rushkoff, you’re just saying that because you’re human.” Right? Like, it’s hubris. And that’s when I said, “All right, fine. I’m on team human, fine. Guilty as charged.” You know, and if that’s a crime to be human, then I’m willing to fight that one. But the only other place for people to go is where the billionaires I spoke to last year, where they want to go. Alaska and New Zealand. All right, the digital billionaires that I’ve spoken to, they want to earn enough money so they can insulate from the world that they’re creating by earning money in that way. But they don’t let their kids play with the things that they’re making, their kids are going to Rudolf Steiner schools out in the woods while they’re making the apps for our kids. Well, not our kids, because we send our kids to the Rudolf Steiner schools in the woods, too.
You know, the original digital ethos was of a deep reclamation of what it means to be humans in a collective way. We had been isolated by television and we thought the internet might provide the baby steps for us to reconnect as a global little nervous system, and it seemed like this beautiful possibility. But the problem was at the time—well, two problems. One it was weird, wonderful psychedelic people who were using this stuff, you know it was Timothy Leary and John Barlow and Grateful Dead–heads doing fractals on the wall and that looked scary and pointless. 1994 we found out that the average internet-connected home was watching nine hours less commercial television a week. So the internet seemed to be the enemy of the market. Then along came Wired magazine and said, “Don’t worry, the internet’s going to be the salvation of the Nasdaq stock exchange. It’s going to be the launch of a new attention economy.” Wired told us, nothing against Wired if you’re still here, Wired now is very good—all good. Greatly, bigly good. Wired at the time told us that we were going to have a long boom, that thanks to digital technology, the economy would grow exponentially, unstopped forever. That was what the long boom was about, the cover of the magazine and a book. And Alan Greenspan agreed, new paradigm. Infinite growth forever.
But what they didn’t realize was this whole growth idea was based on a very old, obsolete economic operating system invented by monarchs in the 12th and 13th century to prevent the rise of the middle class. After the crusades we had the beginnings of a peer-to-peer economy, they had a marketplace, they had local monies that they learned how to use from the Moors. Monies that were issued in the morning but expired by night. Monies that were optimized for the velocity of transactions, the velocity of money not the extraction of capital. But the problem was as the middleclass got wealthy, the aristocracy got poor. So they made local currencies illegal, they made small business illegal. You had to get a charter now to do business, a charter from the king. People became employees rather than small business people.
The problem with the currency they invented, central currency, the great thing about it for them was they could lend it out and get back more than they lent. All right, so anyone who wanted to transact had to borrow central currency from the treasury and pay it back at interest. So it was great for the person lending out money who had a monopoly on money, but what it meant was the economy had to grow. It was a growth-based economic operating system that worked great as long as we had people in other places to take their stuff and enslave their kids. But once you kind of get to the limits of that, it stops. So we need new surface area for the market. And what Wired told us, what the dot.com people told us in the attention economy was that his new surface area would be human attention, human activity, human data. Instead of colonizing Africa and colonizing South America, we decided to colonize ourselves. To colonize the humans. So you get a kid now, you know a kid comes up with a great idea for a piece of technology, say Twitter or Facebook—still great ideas, even if they’re adolescent, they were great ideas. But when Twitter was making $2 billion a year in profit, it was declared an abject failure by Wall Street, why? Because it reached $2 billion but couldn’t quite get past that. It got stuck at $2 billion a year for 140 character messaging app which in a normal human society that would be considered success. But in a growth-based, in a marketplace that only understands growth, that doesn’t understand revenue, that doesn’t understand profit, doesn’t understand business, commerce, that’s considered a problem.
You know the fact that Uber has been having stock market problems to me represents something really positive. Right? This is some sort of sense making by the market. People say, “Oh, wait a minute. Maybe growth for growth’s sake is not the only thing that a business should do. That maybe if we reread our Adam Smith, we find out there’s actually three factors of production, capital’s not the only one.” There’s this stuff called land, which is the place where something happens, and there’s stuff called labor, which is all the human work. Land, labor and capital all have equal roles in production. If the only one…? that scales is capital, which is the only one that can, it’s the only that can scale exponentially is capital, humans can’t, land can’t—then that’s the only one that gets rewarded in this very short-sighted digital economic insanity. And so what happens when you leave land out of the equation and leave labor out of the equation? You get disenfranchised labor and you get climate change, that’s what happens when you externalize all the problems to those parts of the equation.
And I think the easiest way to counter that, to fight against that, is to retrieve what it means to be human, is to retrieve some of the basic skills of establishing rapport with other people, which happens in real places. That’s why we’re here at an event, this is not a video. I know it is a video for the people watching on video, but this is not a video, right? What happened to TED is the saddest thing to me. This one live, spontaneous event became a video show. You know the one rule that Richard Saul Wurman had for TED talks, in the original TED talks? You had to get up and speak for 11 minutes without any prep, it had to be top of mind. That was the one rule. Now? Oh my God, how much rehearsal do you have to go through to do one of those? Because it’s a video show, right? So they took that away.
But I’m on team human and I’m really asking you, especially the technology industry and the rest of the human race, you know, to join me in looking how to make the technologies we use opportunities to work and play together, you know, instead of continuing to make technologies consciously designed to obsolesce us at the altar of artificial growth. And that’s really—I think is, which is why David should come up—it’s why, I think that’s also the message of Techonomy, right? That technology is potentially—let’s move this—unleashing a—
David Kirkpatrick: That’s what I like. Multi-purpose.
Rushkoff: Oh. Is it a union thing?
Kirkpatrick: Keep going.
Rushkoff: Oh, sorry, that it can—through technology we can unleash—
Kirkpatrick: We like unions, so, go on.
Rushkoff: We can unleash an economy, we can reprogram the economy for human flourishing rather than reprogramming human beings to serve this obsolete market system.
Kirkpatrick: Well I was thinking as I was listening, and you know you say a lot of great things, we ended yesterday with Mark Bertolini who calls himself a radical capitalist, so are you explicitly an anti-capitalist? Is that part of the way to understand your message is there no way capitalism can play a role in the world?
Rushkoff: No. It can. Land, labor and capital can coexist. Right now, because of digital technology, we’re amplifying the one aspect of commerce that can be—that has exponential, that’s a symbol system, right? Only a symbol system can grow exponentially, symbol systems and cancer can grow like that. So digital is great with symbols, you know, if you go—that’s why postmodernism and all these things are ascendant now, because we’re moving into symbol systems and away from reality. We’re in reality TV, but no, no they can all—I’m not against, I’m against capitalism, right, because that’s sort of exclusive, but I’m not against capital.
Kirkpatrick: All right. First of all, responsible growth and exponential growth are not the same thing.
Kirkpatrick: And here’s one way I really will push back on your—you know, I love being challenged for our theme, it’s good, but if you are somebody who lives in, let’s say Guatemala or Honduras just to name two places that right now clearly need a lot of growth, how can you be against growth?
Rushkoff: Let’s do it. Then let’s make this about, let’s do it, let’s help the developing nations of the world, that’s great.
Kirkpatrick: You know, at the global scale—right, but that requires growth.
Rushkoff: Whose company is here—who is here primarily focused on fostering growth in the developing world?
Kirkpatrick: There are quite a few people who’ve been to this event—
Rushkoff: There are a few who’ve done it, if that was what we’re talking about. It’s not, though. When we’re talking about responsible growth, what we’re trying to do is to say, “Well look, we’re not—Facebook, you can still kind of grow, it’s okay, but let’s try to think about how you can do it in this responsible way.” Let’s grow more humanely, like I love that word, how they’re using humane now. You know, as if we’re going to make humane technology, it’s going to treat people more humanely on the way to the slaughter like cage-free chickens or something.
Kirkpatrick: One of the ways that I agree with your anti-growth mindset is there’s no question in my mind, and hasn’t been for many years, that if the world—if justice is really going to purvey the world, we are going to dramatically lose our relative economic advantages in the United States and western Europe and a few other places, which possibly could mean economic stasis by some definitions here. But the net wealth that would be created would be so much greater because, you know, we’d have more markets in addition to all kinds of other things. I lived in Nigeria when I was a kid, so I’ve seen Africa, you know, in the ‘60s, let me tell you it’s not that different now, as much as it should be. It’s way better, but it still hasn’t come nearly far enough to begin to address the inequities that are so grotesque. Okay, that’s just a statement.
Rushkoff: Yeah, and there are forms of economic growth that really, really work. The kind of economic growth we saw at the end of feudalism when people got back from the crusades and they had opened up trade routes with the rest of Europe, we built marketplaces which we stole from the Arabs also. The bazaar became the marketplace in Europe and the former peasants of medieval Europe started bringing their goods to market, trading them, first by barter, then complex barter, then local currencies, and there was economic growth. That’s a very different kind of growth than Dutch East India Trading Company going to the Indies and enslaving the people and extracting the resources.
Kirkpatrick: It could easily be called “Responsible Growth,” but—
Rushkoff: Yeah, it would be, but it’s sustainable growth—
Kirkpatrick: Okay, this is good.
Rushkoff: And, but growth is not the object. But if we said, you know, we’re really not talking about growth, what you’re really talking about is wealth distribution, is prosperity, is flourishing.
Kirkpatrick: Right. Yeah, equality. Equality. That’s one of the sustainable development goals by the way.
Kirkpatrick: So, let’s talk about A.I. for a minute and how it fits into this, because your book has so many amazing passages but one of them—or several of them, really, are about how A.I. is fundamentally misunderstood. And it’s like way overhyped. And this is going to be a session later in the afternoon when we talk about creativity and A.I. with two people who are really thinking about how to really truly use A.I. to enhance human creativity rather than suppress it. Just riff on that for a second and then I really want to hear the audience questions and comments.
Rushkoff: A.I. is basically, is kind of a fixed game. I mean, you think about, if you used to—I don’t know if you ever played video games like Street Fighter and Battle Arena and Toshinden and all of those, when you get to the super strong non-player character at the end, and it beats you, is that because A.I. is better than you? No it’s because—it’s in this game, they made it beat you. I mean—do you know what I mean? You’re in its realm.
So A.I., we see these computer things beating humans in various closed-system situations and think of them as so great, as somehow, you know, tipping something over. And when I think about the Turing test I think that, yeah, the day that computers pass the Turing test and are able to—you know, the Turing test is really just can it make you think that it’s human, it’s not an indication of how smart the computer is at that point, it’s an indication of how dumb we are at that point to believe that what it’s doing—it’s very good at tuning to our emotions, at activating our brain stem. I’m sure our phone is going to eventually—when you put it down, it’s going to make sounds that somehow instinctually recall your paternal instinct, you know, it’s going to—you do the sound codes that are saying, like, “Mommy, you’re hurting me,” and you know you’ll quickly pick it up because it knows how to get—I mean, that’s what we’re teaching the machines how to do, right? Get their attention by any means necessary. But the only people who will say that we understand the human brain and human consciousness are computer scientists.
Kirkpatrick: Right. That is such a good point.
Rushkoff: Neuroscientists will say, “We have no idea what the fuck is going on in there. The more we learn, it’s weird, it might be non-local, it might be that the brain is a receiver.” A lot of neuroscientists—we don’t know.
Kirkpatrick: Well, the best case for that is our brains cannot be separated from our bodies. We have senses that are part of the way we think and computers are never going to have that. Never, ever, ever, ever. But in Silicon Valley where a number of people in this room emanate from, is—there are people, even those who are worried about A.I. seem to have in many ways accepted the idea that it will potentially disintermediate us, and that that’s something really to worry about. And I think that creates a psychology that is sort of a self-reinforcing thing, and you actually talk about it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy a little bit if we don’t get away from it, right?
Rushkoff: Right. Well, if we take a multitrillion dollar industry and gear it entirely towards mind control of human beings by any means necessary, what do you think is going to happen? You know, what is one of these algorithms? You know, what are we doing? We’re taking an algorithm and we’re saying, “Find the exploits in human beings and use those exploits to get them to do stuff that’s against their own best interests and that thwarts their own instinctual drive for self-preservation.” And then we launch them out there and say, “Go forth. Learn what you can and keep doing it forever no matter what.” What is that? That’s the definition of a demon. That’s really what it is, to put something out there that looks for your exploits in order to get you to do stuff that’s against your own and everyone else’s self-interests.
So yeah, and if we do that and we spend enough money, I, I think this stuff can work. Maybe not in the long-long term, but in the short term. If we spend 50 or 100 years like that, being utterly hypnotized, you know, by technologies, I don’t think that things will happen.
Kirkpatrick: Well, one of our speakers mentioned the movie “Wall-E” which I often think of in that kind of discussion.
Rushkoff: That’s a utopia compared to what I’m looking at.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Okay, let’s get the house lights up because one of the things that really is different about Techonomy is we’re not like TED, we’re not a broadcast format, we really are a dialogue. So, and—can I just, do me a favor, Doug, and answer as briefly as you can.
Kirkpatrick: And here—I love what you’re saying by the way, and then we’ll go to hear.
Burkowitz: Hi, David Burkowitz, and great to hear the latest. So you talk a lot about the end of feudalism, are there any other bright spots in the past, say, 700 or so years we can point to that we can say, like, “Oh, that’s a great model.”
Rushkoff: Tons. I mean, tons. I would say, you know, the majority of human activity, I mean this—tons. One would be this idea of bootstrapping a business, which we call bootstrapping as if we’re associating it with Baron von Munchausen because it’s insane. But the idea that you take the profits, you start a business, you use the profits and reinvest them back in the company and let it grow according to the ability of your market to sustain it, which is old-fashioned business. That—you know, the way all those small businesses started that way are the model, I think really, for the future. There’s tons, there’s tons. The—I mean, I’m still, I still love a lot of what the hippies did. I think that was a great moment. Throughout history we see, you know we see the saboteurs of the, you know, the original luddites were really interesting. The situationists were interesting, I mean—
Kirkpatrick: The situationists. That’s a much different conversation, I love it, but for another day.
Rushkoff: Another day. But, I mean, there’s movements that I’m—everything that brings people into consciousness and lets people trade with each other.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. She had her hand up and let’s go through, okay, we’ll get to you next but quick, quick questions. Go.
Zuzarte: Yeah, hi. I’m Raquelle Zuzarte, founder of Equity Project For All and I’m an economist as well, so I’m really interested in the way you’re talking about the three factors for production. I think there is hope looking at Larry’s letter, Larry Fink’s letter last year, looking at what Yunus Mohammed is doing with Grameen Bank and, you know, maybe it’s a question of redefinition, of bringing together those factors and calling it humane capital and looking at growth as human growth, our potential to, you know, do the best we can in saving the planet and empowering everyone. So, just want to get your comment on rays of hope.
Rushkoff: Yeah. I mean, I don’t look at Larry Fink’s letter as rays of hope only because I see the same letter every year and the same activity afterwards. So it’s like, just make one decent local investment fund or something, you know, and I’ll believe—because it would take so little at that point.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, there’s progress. Come on. Last year—
Rushkoff: I don’t think so.
Kirkpatrick: —on this stage we had Citibank explaining why they won’t let their credit cards be used to buy guns. I mean, that is some kind of change. It is something that is not happening every year.
Rushkoff: That’s nice. Yeah, but it’s—it is something. I don’t see Larry Fink—that’s true, and that’s a beautiful thing, but—capital is not the—even growth, and this is the Judeo-Christian tradition which I’m a part of, was—really came about as a result of text. Once we had text, once we could write things down, we got history and we got contracts into the future. That’s when the notion of progress was born. In its most beautiful it becomes Tikkun Olam, let’s use progress to promote social justice around the world. The danger, though, in an entirely progressive understanding of the world is that there’s the past, there’s the present, and there’s the future. And we’re just going to keep eyes on the prize and keep on going forward. And it leads in America to this very forward-thinking, we never look back at what we’re leaving behind us. And it’s led to this mentality where we want to sort of build a car that we can drive fast enough so we never have to smell our own exhaust. Whereas if we can retrieve some of the more circular, regenerative understandings of the world that we left behind, these ideas of more indigenous peoples and more local sensibility, that everything comes back around. The sense that family businesses have about the impact that they’re having on the communities where they’re operating, it’s a little bit less progress-oriented, it’s a little bit more regenerative. It’s more like permaculture, as opposed to Monsanto-based agriculture, but if we can sort of balance those two imperatives, one towards progress and change and increasing wealth and promoting the flourishing of the human brain and the expansion of our nervous system along with the understanding that we’re in a fixed environment with the necessity to renew and recycle and regenerate, then we end up with the best of both worlds.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, wait—do you have a quick question? Yeah. Standing up worries me because—oh, she—Yeah. Don’t make it long, quickly, yeah.
Salvato: I found my coat.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, good.
Salvato: I’m Maryjane Salvato, I’m a founder of a startup, self-funded, fourth generation automotive dealer then repurposed into tech. Self-funded, did I say that? I’m curious, I believe where there’s hope, there’s a path for action. And I was wondering if you are a member of any service group networks that help you take your words and turn them into actions.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Good question.
Rushkoff: I mean, my main service—I’m a public school teacher, which I experience as a service group, you know? I mean it’s not a national—I guess it is a national network. But yeah, that’s my main personal connection.
Kirkpatrick: What is that, Brooklyn College?
Rushkoff: Queens, yeah.
Kirkpatrick: Queens, oh sorry. They’re both good.
Rushkoff: Yeah, Queens College, yeah.
Salvato: So being a teacher is a big—
Kirkpatrick: We have so many people with their hands up, we’ve got to go to somebody else.
Rushkoff: I mean why is it, like voluntary, like what do I do as a volunteer?
Kirkpatrick: Hey, back here.
Rushkoff: Mostly religious, American Jewish World Service, stuff like that.
Stevenson: I’m Mark Stevenson from Uprising Productions. I’m wondering if you could point to a time in history where a dominant economic system was overturned without, you know, absolute catastrophe that we might look to as a roadmap.
Rushkoff: Well, one was the emergence of the medieval economy after feudalism. You know, they didn’t storm the lords. They built marketplaces, they built bazaars and they had a century or two of growth, of bottom up economic growth that if the aristocracy hadn’t sent in the knights templar to kill people and hadn’t, you know, taken away all their printing presses it could have sustained itself. So I see it happening, and I see it happening now when I look at some of the cooperatives and platform cooperatives and collectives that are emerging on the—both on the digital frontier and the real world frontier. The community supported agriculture movement, there’s a lot a going on. I mean, start reading the stuff that Inspiral’s putting out of New Zealand. Funds, even. I’m looking at funds now where the initial investors, once they make 100 X, their share of the investment goes down. So you set a target, 10 X, 20 X, 100 X and that’s it, and then the entrepreneur owns their company again, the investor’s made 100 times, which is pretty good, and the person gets to run their business at a sustainable level. So I’m seeing lots of that, particularly in the small and natural foods areas and in small-scaled agriculture.
Kirkpatrick: Hey, even Philips on the stage yesterday was talking about their belief in the circular economy, so there’s a lot of progress. We talked yesterday about moving at velocity, we’re going to continue with—this was a very high velocity beginning, so thank you.
Rushkoff: Thank you.
Kirkpatrick: Really good.