Big Think – Nothing Grows Forever. Digital Industrialism and What Comes Next.

Read this piece at The Big Think

Last week I posted a plea on Facebook for an open discussion among friends about Hillary v. Bernie, “One in which nobody is called an idiot or a sheep-erson, or a Commie.” The refreshingly civil discourse that followed made plain that many people I know are treating this election as a kind of referendum on the future of the American Left: New Deal Progressivism that tackles income inequality and political corruption head-on vs. Clintonian Neo-Liberalism-as-usual. Things are further complicated for me by the fact that I don’t fully trust either of them: Hillary because of her political savvy and Bernie because of his lack of it.

In the midst of all this I read Douglas Rushkoff’s new book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus”. It’s a crystalline lens through which to make sense of our present-day economic predicament, how we got here and the various ways we might still save ourselves. The book explains precisely how the structure of our corporations and money itself are “programmed” to pursue a scorched-earth policy, extracting value from employees, customers, and markets until they dry up and new markets must be conquered or created. “Digital industrialism” as he calls it has only accelerated this process, with massive platforms like Uber “disrupting” entire industries, supplanting skilled humans first with expendable amateurs (licensed cabdrivers for anyone with a car, hoteliers for AirBnB hosts) and ultimately, wherever possible, shoving humans aside altogether.

But let me back up a bit. Rushkoff starts with a historical overview of commerce, beginning with the pre-industrial marketplace. It’s a framework reminiscent of Marx’s Capital, without the emphasis on revolution and class warfare. Instead Rushkoff gives us a digitally-fueled vision of companies as apps or programs and money as the operating system. We programmed them in the first place, he continually reminds us, and we can rewrite the code.

In the pre-industrial Middle Ages, as Rushkoff tells it, skilled medieval traders took their wares to market, established personal relationships with their customers, and developed systems of exchange and early forms of money to keep goods flowing. The medieval marketplace definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was built upon what tech folks call “peer to peer networks” in which skills and labor were valued and directly tied to their products, and community and business were organically intertwined.

But as the merchant class grew in power and wealth, the increasingly cash-poor nobility wanted a piece of the action. They established charter companies––business monopolies that enabled them to control the flow of capital and extract value from other people’s labor. Laborers were paid for their time, not their products, and expensive, skilled artisans were passed over for non-guild workers. Quality often went down, as did merchants’ wages, but productivity and profits skyrocketed. As paper money supplanted barter, royalty cornered the market on currency, often lending it out at interest. Money making money for the people who made the money in the first place.*

From then until now, says Rushkoff, money and corporations have been programmed for unlimited growth at all costs, concentrating increasingly fantastical wealth in the hands of investors. And in the age of digital industrialism, we’ve arrived at a point where the value of many companies no longer depends on their profitability, or on whether or not they actually create anything of value. The value of Facebook, for example ($315.68 billion as of this writing), is based not upon how much fun it is to use or how much it improves our lives, but upon the vast troves of user data it sells to advertisers and industry. OUR data, which we give away for free.

Industrial growth, especially when exponentially accelerated by digital technology, has a host of negative externalities most apparent in things like the market crash of 2008 and the growing gulf between (fewer and fewer) haves and (more and more) have-nots. Politically, it gives us Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom promise (in very, very different ways, of course) to fix a rigged and broken system.

The solutions Rushkoff offers (with plenty of real-world examples) often include decentralized currencies like Bitcoin or hybrid systems in which larger currency systems operate alongside local currencies designed to circulate rapidly and stay within their communities. Rushkoff also cites alternative corporate structures that prioritize sustainability over growth, people over profits. Finally (and this will really get the traditional capitalists’ blood boiling) he questions the idea that everybody needs an official job and offers compelling evidence that Guaranteed Minimum Income can have major benefits for society.

Like it or not, says Rushkoff, industry itself is starting to see the value proposition here––corporations are running out of earth to scorch, both literally and metaphorically speaking. Asteroid mining, anyone? The “space economy”?

Rushkoff’s prose is engaging and funny, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is a refreshingly practical progressive voice amid the rhetorical excesses of this election year. It’s a timely, practical manual for building a humane future, as opposed to one in which any humans left are either exploitable or in the way.

The author seems convinced that it isn’t already too late, and I very much want to believe him.

*Given the scope of the book, this is a necessarily simplified overview, and doesn’t address the later Christian attitude toward interest-bearing loans as “usury”, the complicated consequences for the Jewish merchant class who were lending money to those same Christians, etc.