Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Digital utopia?

Okay, so our digital economy has transformed the lives of many of us, probably all of us whether we quite know it or not. So how do we make this bounty and its disruptions serve most people instead of making us serfs of entrepreneurial innovators? Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff certainly comes with a sympathetic title; I live a block from where several years ago activists blocked the giant white whales of Silicon Valley on their rounds. I see these buses daily and bemoan how the affluent workforce they transport, mostly inadvertently, is reshaping San Francisco to the detriment of our poorer residents and our passionate, quirky culture.

So I'm very open to someone trying to envision how to make something humane of all this invention and profit. Rushkoff is a professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens and media commentator/creator. His project is ambitious; as I read along, I kept thinking of those revolutionary 19th century futurists: Bentham and Mill, Marx and Engels, Kropotkin and Tolstoy -- all big thinkers who tried from their various vantage points to make sense of how industrial capitalism was remaking societies.

Rushkoff wants to influence our understanding of the world on that level. He is propounding a unified theory of the digital economy, situating contemporary innovations in the history of both technology and power relations. According to Rushkoff, Silicon Valley and its progeny including companies, venture capitalists and the technorati have built "digital industrialism" instead of allowing networked peer to peer potential to run to its more humane conclusion. In particular, financial capital has channeled the potential of technologies toward cancerous growth instead of cooperative development at human scale.

And he has concrete prescriptions for a better future (grabbed here from the author's book synopsis):

• Accept that era of extractive growth is over. Rather, businesses must – like eBay and Kickstarter – give people the ability to exchange value and invest in one another.

• Eschew platform monopolies like Uber in favor of distributed, worker-owned co-ops, orchestrated through collective authentication systems like bitcoin and blockchains instead of top-down control.

• Resist the short-term, growth-addicted mindset of publicly traded markets, by delivering dividends instead of share price increases, or opting to stay private or buy back one’s own shares.

• Recognize contributions of land and labor as important as capital, and develop business ecosystems that work more like family companies, investing in the local economies on which they ultimately depend.

Like many futurists, Rushkoff is able to draw a picture of attractive, even plausible, potentialities -- yet never quite gets to that essential step in which we somehow turn a powerful class which holds most of the money away from perpetuating the existing arrangements that have served them so well. I don't have the answer either, but history says this only happens through either social collapse or when the losers in the prevailing economy band together to demand we do things another way.

As I was reading along in this book, I kept having a feeling of deja vu that I couldn't quite place. Where had I encountered thinkers who structured their prescriptions in the way Rushkoff does? Suddenly I realized where: in the Catholic Worker movement whose intellectual leaders, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, promoted the "distributism" advocated by 19th century Pope Leo XIII. This was Catholicism's intellectual and moral response to Marxism. It seemed weak tea, but perhaps it has outlived that more muscular revolutionary tradition which degenerated into Soviet-style "actually existing socialism." Rushkoff credits the seemingly bypassed Catholic tradition and finds hope in Pope Francis' writings.

No, we don't need to convert to Catholicism or even approve of Vatican doctrine in order to appreciate the popes' vision of a more distributed economy and to see how it can contribute to our own. ... A form of networked distributism may just be our last best hope for peace in the digital economy today. The conscious application of more distributist principles into the digital economic program could yield an entirely more prosperous and sustainable operating system. Instead of simply amplifying the most dehumanizing and extractive qualities of industrialism, it pushes ahead to something different -- while also retrieving the truly free-market principles long obsolesced by corporatism.

Well maybe -- though I'm unconvinced, I appreciate anyone trying to see their way into a better society.

But I have to ask (and I don't think Rushkoff answers persuasively either question) 1) how do we get to your vision? and 2) who is "we"? who is included?


Brandon said...

"I don't have the answer either, but history says this only happens through either social collapse or when the losers in the prevailing economy band together to demand we do things another way."

Do you see peak oil as a factor in societal collapse and rebuilding?

janinsanfran said...

Hi Brandon: Peak oil has turned out to be far more remote than we thought a few years ago -- if we are willing to allow the oil companies to destroy the land and poison us. I just saw a report today that the US has more oil under us than Iran and Saudi Arabia, if we go the full scale fracking route. Horrors.

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