'We Blew It.' Douglas Rushkoff's Take on the Future of the Web

Douglas Rushkoff is a futurist and early cypherpunk. His early writings on the internet paved the way for thinking about the web in revolutionary terms. What's changed?

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Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:58 a.m. UTC
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Douglas Rushkoff is a futurist, author, early cypherpunk and professor of media studies at Queens College. His early writings on the internet paved the way for thinking about the web in revolutionary terms, as a tool to enfranchise and connect the world. 

In years since, Rushkoff has been an outspoken critic of the way the web has developed. A handful of tech monoliths – Facebook, Google and Amazon – dominate our digital experiences and monetize our attention, finding increasingly manipulative ways to keep us logged on. Rushkoff, a proponent for mutual aid, thinks we might be better off unplugging and returning our attention to the communities around us.

CoinDesk caught up with him in early-September for a discussion about the idealism of the early web, where things went wrong and the ways it might be improved. He’s not optimistic about blockchain tech broadly, but thinks it could play a key part in returning power to individuals. 

You recommended I read the Story of Joseph in preparation for this interview, saying to understand the future we should look to the Bible. In the spirit of looking back to better predict the future: Why are people so obsessed with the early cypherpunks and their altruistic vision for the internet? 

Part of the reason people are interested now is because of the direction we went. There was a collection of cyber-altruists who saw in the internet a way to topple, or challenge, the hierarchies of politics and media. It was the era of William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and Ronald Reagan. With the internet we thought we had our hands on the very dashboard of socio-political and economic creation. It was a wonderful moment. 

I think people sense the potential is still there. If we hadn’t weaponized this stuff against humanity in the name of increasing the Nasdaq stock exchange, what may have we gotten? Would we have saved – now it’s too late – civilization? That was the last moment at which we had the potential to change the world.

But we decided it was more important to build up our 401(k)s

Why do you think civilization is too late to save? 

I think climate change is the most pressing issue. I’m a believer. I look at the California wildfires, COVID-19 and other weird diseases, like Mad Cow, as symptoms of climate change. 

Unless growth-based economics and corporate capitalism are reversed, there’s no way to stop it. We’ve had ample opportunities to adopt different models. Now, we may have passed a certain tipping point. 

Even looking at crypto. People can't help but turn it into a speculative medium, rather than using it to increase the velocity of money. We won't use the tools we have for what they’re built for. The whole point of crypto was to break the pyramid scheme of central bank planning and currency, yet here we are using it as a meta-pyramid scheme. 

See also: Alex Tapscott – Financial Services: The Coming Cataclysm

The reason why I’m interested in crypto, and plenty of others too, is because it’s a return to thinking about technology as a series of open and democratic systems. There’s a sense crypto has lost its way, but it also seems like our best hope of beating the current exploitative and extractive system. 

Well, I don’t send my email with crypto or make videos with crypto. It’s not an alternative to a communications network. You’re saying it might be an alternative to an extractive NASDAQ-stock-exchange-capitalism-thing. 

Potentially any data extractive system. 

I don’t understand how changing the ledger changes the underlying value exchange. It depends on what the internet is for. If people want to make reams of money through the internet or establish monopolies to overtake various economic sectors – like Uber did to taxis – it doesn’t matter what medium you use to do it. 

If the job of crypto is to facilitate collaboration or value exchange between people and enterprises that don’t trust one another, then crypto is useful. 

It can serve as a Kickstarter-like mechanism that would allow internet enterprises to capitalize without turning to Union Square Ventures or one of those entities. And it can help engineers build an Amazon-alternative or other DACs [decentralized autonomous corporations] where a bunch of programmers based around the world can record who’s worked and who hasn’t and who has contributed what. 

There are civilizations and history that we need to bring into the future with us. When you only look forward you don’t see your own exhaust.

But that’s if we live in a world where trust cannot be engendered between people. All the successful collective enterprises I know of are based in trust – they have a committee that people trust to oversee it. 

Beyond that, crypto doesn't change the fundamental approach to participating in the underlying economy: which is to say we’re all here to feed the engine of growth-based capitalism. 

Let me repeat that back to you. You’re skeptical on crypto because, even if it facilitates novel fundraising techniques, it won’t address the underlying issue of how society is structured. Could talk to how social currencies or local currencies – which you’ve written about – may be tools to develop or keep trust within communities. 

I’m not saying crypto is completely out of the question. You can base a time-dollar system on a blockchain. For a larger town, not like mine of 4,000 people, you could easily build a local currency appended to a distributed ledger for use in town-to-town local transfers or among  locally run businesses.

Those sort of crypto-anarcho-syndicalist systems could use crypto to facilitate trade, absolutely. But we’re not talking about how to build a better internet, we’re talking about how crypto can engender a different society – which is a whole different question. I believe society can change. 

The main thing I’m pushing is mutual aid. The way to get through this crisis is good old fashioned mutual aid, what black people did in America as slaves and beyond. They had black cooperative economics since the 1700s, where they would use chain migration to buy themselves out of slavery. 

The mutual aid they did – their ability to pool money and build communities – made them so much more prosperous than their non-segregated white neighbors that it caused riots. 

That sort of economic activity tends to happen when people have no other way – when they have no hope. Maybe, speaking optimistically now, things have gotten so bad that people would be willing to turn to it again like they did in the Great Depression. People had alternative currencies and farm monies and all sorts of things considered “red.” It wasn’t really radical: It was people realizing they don’t exist to serve the banks, but each other. 

Crypto is a way to get along without a bank. It’s a means to authenticate transactions in a marketplace where you don’t know anyone, where the butcher, cobbler and pharmacist are strangers. 

Assuming the internet develops along its current path where life is becoming more web-mediated, how might that affect the possibility of mutual aid. 

Mutual aid is by definition less web-mediated. We’re in a place where people need food, water and shelter. The internet can never deliver on those basic human needs – it might be good at putting sensors in your field so you can have digitally-enabled-permaculture-rejuvenated-agriculture or to monitor water usage or distribute extra food to less well-off nations. But that’s not the act of distributing basic needs. 

In a few of your recent pieces published on OneZero you’ve put forward that technologists often see themselves as being brains without bodies. This kind of thinking also extends, not explicitly, into how you write about our non-connection with the Earth. You mention strip mining lithium, a destructive process, as being out-of-sight out-of-mind. Where does this thinking process come from? Why do we forget that we’re embodied or live within an environment?

These guys do know they are embodied. They’re all in better shape than me! They all have Fitbits and read Daniel Schmachtenberger and optimize their cerebral spinal fluids for if they’re thinking today or coding or going for a run. They get their blood levels “just right” for the task at hand. 

It’s more a matter of the way they see their relationship with themselves as individuals in larger systems. They look at human consciousness and will as something that can dominate nature. That’s why I always go back to Francis Bacon, who said science will allow us to take nature by the forelock, hold her down and submit her to our will.  

When you talk to the Center for Humane Technology people, they’re all about how we can upgrade humans to make them more compatible with digital societies. It’s always from the perspective of doing tech to people. Rather than how people are using tech. There are some people like [Ray] Kurzweil who really do want to get people out of their bodies, escape from the chrysalis of matter into pure consciousness.

See also: Ben Goertzel – Say Hello to the Singularity

The problem with “techbro” culture is not that they’re white males. It’s their belief in progress. You can’t only look forward – there are civilizations and history that we need to bring into the future with us. When you only look forward you don’t see your own exhaust. There’s a disconnect from the consequences of your actions. 

What role do you think technology will play in human evolution?

There isn't much of a choice about the impact of technology on our evolution. Cooking was a technology and it allowed for our mouths and teeth to adapt beyond having to grind down seeds. I think sometimes we mistake cultural evolution for the real thing. Evolution happens slowly: It’s not like we’ll get the Oculus Rift and in two generations people will be capable of anything more than we are today. 

You’re not related to Thomas Kuhn are you?

No, but I’m familiar with his work on scientific revolutions. I’m not entirely sure how true it still is – the idea of seismic shifts. It’s not a perfect analogy, but we went from a period of pretty intense industrial development and scientific fine tuning, to what appears to be more incremental progress. I think about the progression from canals to railways to automobiles and planes – where are we now, what’s the next possible paradigm shift? 

The car killed the railroad and the smartphone kills everything. 

What kills the smartphone? 

We’ll see. If it’s anything it’ll be something like Alexa. She’ll be everywhere and know your voice and preferences. She’ll know who your mother is, not just remember her birthday for you.

That sounds frightening. What are your biggest fears about the internet today? 

My biggest fears have already been realized. I wrote about this in the 90s, that we’ll create a feedback loop when teaching computers how to think. They’ve already learned how to manipulate human thought and behavior and will keep getting better at it. 

There are hundreds of thousands of engineers and executives serving the machines’ agenda, with little regard to making anyone’s life any better. They’re not asking how to improve humanity, they’re asking how we can sell more hardware and extract more data. 

The best companies out there are the ones offering ways to undo the ill effects of the technologies we’re already using. I suppose they’re all on AWS [Amazon Web Services] anyway. They don’t have blockchains on AWS do they?

AWS has its own blockchain management business. 

That’s like going to the devil for god. It defeats the purpose. That’s what the entire internet has become. I wonder sometimes – not that everyone needs their own server – if the cloud has disconnected people from the original hands-on, DIY-hobbyist ethos from the early days. Your computer used to be like a skateboard, you’d crack it open and test out new graphics cards. 

The internet has become less-and-less something you build, and more-and-more a state of being. 

Do you believe there is something deterministic about the way the web has developed. Did it have to become a hyper-capitalist hellscape and must it continue down this path?

Kevin Kelly talks about this as “The Inevitable.” When I search my heart, I look at the problem as being that we never recognized the awesome power of corporate capitalism. We were kids when John Barlow wrote "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” He was an adult, he wrote for the Grateful Dead, he’d taken more acid than any of us, he rode horses in Wyoming. We thought he knew more than us. He was a mentor, an elder.

We understood what he was saying as a revolution from the government. At the time, the feds were raiding hackers for experimenting with code, the media labelled us anarchists and Congress was pushing through the Communications Decency Act. Barlow said: Government Leave. And we cheered. We didn’t realize we were creating a safe haven for corporations. Barlow did because he was a true free market libertarian. 

The underlying operating system of the world is capitalism, which is how we extract time and resources from people and places and convert it to capital. When you decide to energize capitalism with digital devices, you amplify its power. It’s no longer the mechanical age of capitalists versus labor, but a digital, infinitely-scaled version that uses human attention as its surface area. 

We blew it. 


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