"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Digital technologies are often touted for their transformative potential. The Internet has made a massive amount of information easily accessible to its users, social media provides new ways of connecting, rebelling and keeping in touch, while digitization means that you can carry a whole bookshelf worth of books in your pocket. Yet, even as the Internet has changed a great deal, much has remained the same. The vast majority of new wealth goes to those who were already wealthy, powerful corporations continue to get more powerful, ever more groups of workers find their jobs threatened by technological advances, and capitalism’s mantra of “thou shalt grow” continues to play as the societal leitmotiv. In the estimation of many, the Internet and digital technologies had the potential to radically remake society, and the whole world, for the better. So, what went wrong? Perhaps society’s operating system needs an upgrade.
Capitalism has been stubbornly ignoring the pop-ups telling it that “it’s time for an update” for quite some time and as a result what was once a robust system is no longer working quite right. Indeed, it might not really be working at all. With Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that capitalism as it is currently practiced is warping and degrading the promise of digital technologies. However, in Rushkoff’s estimation, the solution is not to discard capitalism but to make it work better – which entails making it so that capitalism works for everybody. Thus far too many people have been able to take part in the “fun” flowing from digital technologies, but not nearly enough people have been able to take part in the “funds” – and this needs to be remedied. For, the potential still exists to harness digital technologies to ensure that the economy is a sustainable one wherein prosperity is more evenly distributed. After all, such “is the true promise of a digital economy” (11).
Douglas Rushkoff has written an engaging account of the mess techno-capitalist societies find themselves in, and his book puts forth a provocative prescription of what needs to be done. It is a book that argues that we can have our high-tech cake, eat it too, and all be happier and healthier in the long run. So long, that is, as we make a few adjustments to the cooking instructions and to the way in which the finished result is served. And yet, ultimately, the recipes found in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus seem to be concocted to appeal to the people riding those buses, not the people choking on the exhaust fumes.
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus begins by recounting protests in Oakland that targeted tech companies for the ways in which they were exacerbating the gentrification of the city. And though these protests may have appeared amusing at first, they took on a much darker tone when the incident occurred from whence the book draws its title. Such protests are treated as representing a growing skepticism regarding the ways in which the benefits of the recent (and still current) tech boom are accruing. The Bay area may be full of newly minted millionaires (and those hoping to join their number) but it is also full of long-time residents who are finding themselves priced out of the areas where they and their families have lived for decades. Digital technologies – and the companies that are synonymous with them – have made a handful of people very wealthy, but they’ve also made the lives of even more people extremely precarious. Rushkoff warns that unless something is done “people throwing rocks at the Google bus will be remembered as the tremor before the quake” (5). Yet, is the problem really Google? Are its bus-riding employees really at fault? Or is it that these tech companies are playing by a capitalist rule book, and thus are putting all of their emphasis on growth, profit, and market dominance?
Though these companies are not perfect, Rushkoff refrains from blaming them – instead, the real problem is capitalism. It is in need of some serious disrupting! As Rushkoff asserts “as members of digital society, we are uniquely positioned to strive toward a more sustainable, steady state of distributed wealth” (11) – and he clearly thinks that it is time to start striving.
The belief that “growth is good” (or “growth is the good”) has been a prominent feature of capitalism for quite some time – and it is a belief that tech companies have bought into as well. When the focus is on the growth of the company, and its market value, the needs of humans are easily forgotten. People are reduced to cogs slotted into a variety of roles – from actually producing the physical devices, to programming, to feeding the platforms by endlessly clicking “like” – yet all of these roles just contribute to the growth of these companies, and the growth of their profits. And grow they have! While early advocates of the Internet may have had high-hopes for the ways the Internet would recreate a “bazaar” like atmosphere of person to person exchange – the Internet has become dominated by a small handful of huge companies. And though Internet users may be selling various things online, they’re mainly just selling themselves – whether they realize it or not. Everyday Internet users are generating a great deal of value online but they aren’t getting a slice of the profits they’re helping to generate. Users “are not Facebook’s customers but its product” (32) – and Facebook is selling that product to its actual customers (advertisers) and making a tidy fortune in the process. At the same time digital technologies are proving capable of disrupting ever more, formerly safe, professions. But here, again, it is unwise to simply blame technology, for “digital technology is expressing the values of the industrial economy” and thus “those who own the platforms, the algorithms, and the robots are the new landlords” (54).
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus provides an insightful survey of many of the other particular peculiarities of contemporary capitalism and the ways in which it is becoming ever more evident that “digital processes, applied to the same old tactics, simply exacerbate the same old problems” (81). Tech companies become ever more monopolistic as they seek platform dominance, and steadily, they become the defaults. After all, “google” is used as a verb nearly as much (if not more) than it is used to refer to an actual company (and that company is now called Alphabet, anyways). And yet, no matter how large these corporations become they still must grow larger, and they still must earn even more profit for their shareholders. A corollary problem is the way that value is measured within the current economic system – and the ways in which value is actually exchanged between people. But when “money makes money faster than people or companies can create value” (131) corporations seek to horde it, and thus money stops working as a way of facilitating exchange between people. Granted, people are becoming ever more difficult to find in the financial game of “money making money” – as digital algorithms come to play a larger role in financial trading – and here once more it is not about the digital, per se, but about the way that capitalism harnesses the digital to meet its own demands. In such an atmosphere those looking to invest in new tech start-ups see these companies less in terms of their transformative potential and more in terms of their financial potential. Indeed, it does not matter that a company has a good idea, what matters if for it to have an idea that can be scalable so it can have a hugely successful IPO or so that it can be sold to a bigger tech company for billions. Thus, those working in start-ups are encouraged by capitalism’s logic (and by their actual investors) to believe “that absolute market domination is the only possible way forward” (191). Digital technologies may have excellent transformative potential, but by yoking the digital to its chariot, capitalism has ensured that it is in control of this impressive energy.
Yet, as Rushkoff makes clear, things do not have to be this way. There are plenty of solutions. We just have to be brave enough to act on them.
Rushkoff argues that solving the present crisis requires considering the ways in which digital technologies can transform capitalism instead of simply mourning the ways in which capitalism has transformed digital technologies. Rushkoff puts forth a bevy of suggestions to compensate for the numerous challenges he cites. A reduction of the workweek, increased emphasis on companies sharing profits with their employees, payment for doing important but currently undervalued tasks, and even a guaranteed minimum income are all proposed as ways of putting the wealth back into the hands of those whose unpaid labor has helped to create tech companies’ profits. Overcoming the growth mentality, on the other hand, will require a philosophical shift that trades the focus on continual growth for a focus on sustainability (of markets and the planet) – as well as a restructuring of corporations so their focus is on something more than just generating profits for shareholders. Furthermore, an important way to get over the adoration of money is to get away from the current relationship with money. Instead, new forms of currency, from bitcoins to local currencies to time exchanges, can put new types of funds back into people’s hands; new types of money that encourage exchange instead of hording. And, along with all of this, the investor mentality needs to undergo a shift – it needs to be less about cashing out and more about maintaining companies that continually provide value for their users and employees (as well as, albeit smaller, kickbacks to investors). While these proposals may seem faintly utopian the point is that “we just have to be willing to accept widespread, stable prosperity as the purpose of the economy and then program for that” (227).
For the past several decades we have seen what happens when digital technologies are put in service of industrial capitalism – the result is the perpetuation of industrial capitalism with all of its warts, blighted landscapes, exploited workers, and chortling billionaires. But digital technologies with their “distributed architecture may just encourage the sensibility and offer the infrastructure that a distributed economy requires” (230). Digital technologies have provided us with the tools we need to make an economy that works for everybody.
What are we waiting for?
Douglas Rushkoff is always a fascinating thinker. And his new books, PBS specials, and public lectures are genuinely thought provoking challenges which always deserve consideration. Much of this is a result of the interesting place that Rushkoff occupies in terms of contemporary discussions around digital technologies, new media, capitalism and society. Rushkoff is one of the few thinkers who will take the stage at the International Forum on Globalization’s teach-in on “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth” as well as at the Personal Democracy Forum’s annual conference (for which 2016’s theme was “The Tech We Need”). At each conference Rushkoff appeared as a somewhat iconoclastic figure: he looked like a techno-apologist/celebrant in contrast to the fierce skepticism of the other speakers at IFG, while he looked like a fierce skeptic in contrast to the techno-apologist/celebrants at PDF. This is to say, Rushkoff’s opinions are consistently interesting, and refuse to be easily pigeonholed into a single ideological point of view.
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is an optimistic book, and in it Rushkoff is committed to maintaining a hopeful tone. But isn’t placing too much hope in digital technologies’ ability to save the day part of the problem? The way a person answers that question is likely to indicate a great deal about whether or not they will find Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus convincing.
Those who pick up a copy of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus expecting that the book will itself be a “rock” thrown at Google will be sorely disappointed. If anything a more fitting title for the book might have been Please Wave Nicely at the Google Bus. For Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is ultimately laudatory of companies like Google, and gives such companies an easy way of escaping responsibility for their actions by allowing them to shrug and say, “it wasn’t me, it was capitalism” or “I didn’t want to do it, but my shareholders made me.” And though Rushkoff clearly is sympathetic to those whose lives have been made precarious (or worse) in the short term by these technology firms, his book still demonstrates a plucky faith that in the end (if we make the changes he suggests) digital technologies can and will save the day. The book reads like a warning to those in the boardrooms “fix capitalism or the peasants will get out their pitchforks” – but the reaction to those protests suggests that the companies are more likely to hire private security, just wait for the protests to die down, or toss some pennies at the municipality rather than do any real changing. Thus, it may be worth bearing in mind that the incident from whence the book gets its title did not involve “rocks” but a single rock – and while this is not meant as a justification– it is worth recognizing that the book’s title is fairly hyperbolic. And it feeds into a story wherein tech companies and their overworked programmers are the real victims – the poor unappreciated geniuses who would hand us a distributed digital utopia if only people would stop saying mean things about them. One of the best ways to take attention off the victims of your actions is to flip the narrative by painting yourselves as the real victims. The tech industry has done this well. Who cares about the people being driven from their homes, the legions under constant corporate surveillance, the armies who have lost their jobs to information technology – the real victims are the tech companies!
In wanting to maintain faith in salvation by digital technology, one of the real riddles that Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus winds up wrestling with is the question of how to talk about ethics without actually talking about ethics – and how to talk about real costs without drawing conclusions that might make tech-loving loyalists squirm. Whereas the historian, and prominent critic, of technology Lewis Mumford often emphasized the difference between “the good life and the ‘goods’ life” – the argument that Rushkoff puts forth seems to suggest that “the goods life” can be “the good life” if we simply sand down the edges. Yet it almost seems like Rushkoff makes himself uncomfortable with the degree to which his book becomes overly adoring towards technology. When Rushkoff notes “a low-cost smartphone that requires workers to dig for rare materials in dangerous mines is not a low-cost smartphone” (67) – it feels like he is trying to tamp down the fires of tech enthusiasm which he has busily been stoking. Though Rushkoff is clearly aware of the workers around the world responsible for supplying (and eventually recycling) the material aspects of digital technologies – the digitally distributed capitalist utopia theorized in the book has more to say about helping those clicking “like” than those mining Coltan, assembling iPhones, or trying to recover precious metal from “recycled” devices. Will the issue of that “low-cost smartphone” be solved by wikis and crowdfunding? Will the environmental cost of digital technologies be solved by more sharing apps and investors who learn to expect a little bit less return on their investment? Again, Ruhskoff supplies his own stumbling block here when he notes the significant amount of power that goes into maintaining the blockchain and all of those servers that make up the cloud…but then jumps right back to emphasizing singing the praises of digital technology. Yet Rushkoff assures his readers that the solution is less capitalism, not less time online. The problem isn’t the technology, it’s the financial system. Though it seems that a more honest assessment would have to admit that capitalism is a problem – but technology bears some responsibility too. After all, improving capitalism does not automatically solve the huge power demands of maintaining the Internet.
Rushkoff goes to great lengths to protect himself from being criticized as an anti-capitalist or as some type of socialist. And though he discusses the ways in which capitalism is using the digital to keep enriching the rich, his goal seems to be not to tear down capitalism but to save capitalism from itself. He repeatedly assures his readers that what he is proposing isn’t communism, and often highlights his friendly relationship with tech millionaires. There may be a faintly accelerationist aspect to Rushkoff’s argument, wherein capitalism is currently on course for collapse after which a new technologically reinvigorated society will emerge – but his argument seems to be about making sure that capitalism doesn’t so much collapse as come in for a soft landing. And thus Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is more of a warning to those who love digital technologies than it is an oppositional text. It focuses on what needs to be done so that we can download the latest apps on our brand new smartphones while busily hitting “like” and “retweet” without having to dwell on the nagging suspicion that we are just participating in making our own lives precarious. Granted, this is probably the type of argument that many will be happy to receive. Rushkoff has not visited the slaughterhouse and told his readers to become vegetarians, he isn’t even telling them to eat less meat, he’s just telling the slaughterhouse to clean up its act a bit so that the blood is less visible, the screams are less audible, and so the meat isn’t as tainted.
Nevertheless, what keeps Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus from being another techno-optimist instruction manual is the extremely curious note on which it ends. For, whether he meant to do it or not, Rushkoff concludes his book on a note that undermines much of what he argues for over the book’s course.
Having mounted an attack of sorts on capitalism – but taking care to site Piketty and not Marx – Rushkoff ends by backing up his ethical claims by referring to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Rushkoff celebrates the manner in which the Pope takes on industrial capitalism – he seems to be saying “if you’re going to call me a radical communist, you have to call the Pope a radical communist too.” The irony, however, is that the Encyclical is not just critical of industrial capitalism, it is also extremely critical of the digital technologies that Rushkoff is celebrating. Indeed, the technologies that Rushkoff is arguing will bring everybody together are the very technologies that Pope Francis warned were helping to isolate and tear people apart. It is true that Rushkoff might retort that Pope Francis is talking about what capitalism has done to technology, but a careful reading of the Encyclical makes it very clear that Pope Francis does not think that technologies can be truly removed from the economic system that helps produce them. As Pope Francis puts it: “Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principle key to the meaning of existence” (Pope Francis, 110). Alas, it seems that Rushkoff’s arguments fit within such “a surrender” wherein technology has become “the meaning of existence.”
In a way that echoes many past critics of technology, Pope Francis emphasizes that technology is not neutral, and that it is not simply a manner of using the same tool in a slightly different economic context. Rather, Pope Francis argues that there may be something problematic about the tools themselves. It is rather unfortunate that Rushkoff emphasizes Pope Francis’s economic critique while passing over the equal ethical force with which Pope Francis takes on the adoration for the latest digital device. Alas, it is quite an odd choice for Rushkoff to cite Pope Francis as the Encyclical casts as skeptical an eye towards digital technologies as it does towards industrial capitalism. Throughout the Encyclical, Pope Francis argues about the dangers of people falling under the sway of a “technocratic paradigm” and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, alas, does not seem to have escaped from that paradigm. Yes, Rushkoff says some harsh things about capitalism and its demand for ever more growth – but Pope Francis is making a much larger, more complicated, and much more demanding ethical move. The Encyclical casts consumerism as a huge part of that problem, and it also emphasizes that we have to be willing to reform our economic system as well as our technology, and that we have to have the moral courage to say that bitcoins and wikis and smartphones are not going to make people happy in an existential sense. A consumerist society fueled by bitcoins is still a consumerist society. A key part of the Encyclical is the acknowledgment that people may have to learn to live with less (especially those living in industrialized nations) – a sentiment that runs counter to the “have our cake and eat it too” spirit of Rushkoff’s book. As Pope Francis puts it “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (Pope Francis, 47). Making some adjustments to capitalism will do little to change that omnipresent digital world. As Pope Francis observes: “many things have to change course, but is we human beings above all who need to change” (Pope Francis, 202) – and that entails more than just tweaking capitalism.
Throughout Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus Rushkoff exhorts his readers that we can reach the solutions “only by thinking like programmers” (5) and hackers – yet what if the problem is that there has already been too much “thinking like programmers”? What if, despite Rushkoff’s clever deployment of technological metaphors, capitalism isn’t just an operating system that can be reprogrammed? What if such technological metaphors help create a mindset that frames every problem as one that is just awaiting a technical solution? What if the problems facing contemporary society are much more complex than something which can just be fixed by a hackathon? What if crowdfunding and bitcoins are not the cure but just the latest mutation of the disease? I suppose that many of those who work for tech companies and who love their tech products might chafe slightly at some of these questions – but Pope Francis certainly seemed to be saying that our problem is not that we haven’t turned the right thing on, but that we need to turn a lot of things off. And he may have a point. Is the problem really that we need to think “like programmers,” or is it that our society seems to only be listening to people who think that way? It is long past time to think less like the people riding the Google bus and more like the people choking on the exhaust fumes.
Or to frame it another way, several years ago Douglas Rushkoff made a public announcement that he was quitting Facebook – he did not use his public notoriety and tech world connections to pressure Mark Zuckerberg to make the platform less panoptic, he did not insist that users be compensated for their digital labor. Rather, in a move for which I applaud him, he just quit. In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglas Rushkoff makes a passionate and strong argument that capitalism needs to be changed – but it is always easier to argue that something else must change than to acknowledge that we need to be willing to change ourselves. In quitting Facebook, Rushkoff seemed to be making the type of bold, well-reasoned decision that there some parts of technological society to which we are better off just saying “no.” It’s a shame that this spirit was not more in evidence in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.
This is not to say that people should throw rocks at Google’s buses, but it is to say that people shouldn’t expect those buses to stop and give them a ride into the gleaming techno-utopian future. After all, Google’s buses helped get us into our present mess, the won’t drive us out.
Placing our hopes in those buses, and the people riding on them, will just ensure that we keep driving around in circles.
Other Works Cited
Pope Francis. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care For Our Common Home. Vatican Press, 2015. [Note – the numbers ins all citations from this document refer to the section number, not the page number]