Strategy+Business – Rocking the Bus

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The publisher of Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent new book,Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus (Portfolio, 2016), compares the author to Thomas Piketty and Erik Brynjolfsson — both of whom are noted economists. But Rushkoff, a media analyst who has become known for his insights on technology, is no economist. What’s more, he explicitly rejects both of these thinkers. He dismisses Piketty’s preferred solution to inequality, redistribution. And Rushkoff is equally sure that there will not be a “second machine age,” as Brynjolfsson projects.

The reason for his disagreement is expressed in the book’s subtitle, How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, which is a theme that builds on Rushkoff’s earlier work, includingLife Inc. (Random House, 2009) and Program or Be Programmed (OR Books, 2010). Rather than focusing on the economic and technological factors driving the future of humanity, however, Rushkoff turns the lens around in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. The title, of course, is a reference to recent incidents in which some San Franciscans have demonstrated their anger at Google’s private transportation system, which ferries well-paid workers from gentrifying neighborhoods to the company’s suburban campus. In the book, Rushkoff unabashedly promotes human values, which, he steadfastly claims, are the same as digital values. As he puts it, “The word digital itself refers todigits — the 10 fingers we humans use to build, to count, and to program computers in the first place.” In this important and useful polemic, Rushkoff puts forth a bold thesis: We need to understand that digital technology allows us to install a new “social” operating system to replace the old industrial one that tried to eliminate the incalculable messiness of human life. It’s about time someone said this and made the argument stick.

Rushkoff starts with the premise that the pure economic analysis promulgated by the digerati has failed to help us understand how the future is unfolding. Rather than wholeheartedly embracing the market logic of unfettered technology, or calling for a regime of regulation that will halt technological progress, he advocates a third way: “digital distributism.” Distributism is an approach to economics based on the principle of “subsidiarity,” which simply means that every entity, whether corporation or government agency, should be as big or small as it needs to be to accomplish its purpose — but not bigger or smaller. This approach is fully committed to private property and sees a strong role for governments in intervening to block entities from becoming “too big to fail.”

By tapping into what may be the only major alternative to the endlessly rotating capitalism-or-socialism hamster cage that has dominated the past century of political–economic punditry, Rushkoff cuts to the radical core of the issues involved. He argues that we should promote prosperity over growth, thus forcing a fundamental reexamination of what has been hidden from our view. No Luddite, Rushkoff calls on us to take advantage of what digital technology gives us: an opportunity to restore human balance to a society that is now racing toward a future in which machines dominate.

Because Rushkoff isn’t an economist, he can’t be expected to produce a detailed description of a new economic system. But he does provide a wealth of examples of entities that are managing to promote prosperity amid growth. He focuses on well-known topics such as “benefit corporations,” “employee-owned businesses,” and “cooperatives,” all of which endeavor to spread wealth more equitably. These well-intentioned efforts, however, are just scratching the surface. And in the majority of countries — most notably in China — approaching economic development without a recognition of the vital importance of growth is a nonstarter. As Rushkoff puts it, we seriously need a new “operating system.”

We need it, Rushkoff argues, because for the first time, automation is fundamentally reshaping our economic prospects. As economist Lawrence Summers recently noted in a conference presentation, in the 1960s the Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Solow could dismiss the effects of automation on employment and industrial structure. Summers, then an impressionable graduate student, believed him. But Summers says he no longer buys the argument that automation is not fundamentally transformational. Furthermore, people may have changed in some fundamental way. More and more people realize that expecting nonstop consumption-driven growth makes little sense going forward. Indeed, those who most carefully monitor consumer behaviors have noticed fundamental changes in attitudes that began to show up in developed countries in the early 2000s, pointing to a persistent slowdown in consumption growth. Rushkoff also believes that technologies change us. Sociologists may disparage that argument as “technological determinism,” but their protests can’t stop us from being shaped by the tools we use.

The previous version of distributism, from which Rushkoff draws some schematic guidance, was an early-20th-century product of what is often called Catholic social teaching. This is the approach launched by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which in English has the subtitle “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” It has taken many forms, including that of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement, which Pope Francis specifically praised on his 2015 trip to the United States.

In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis noted that we are now living in a “technocratic paradigm” — a cultural matrix in which technology “rules” humanity. Pope Francis has been accused of being a socialist (or worse) for his criticism of the market as an inhuman machine. Rushkoff, for his part, is not Catholic. But he is a radical thinker who has tried to understand what technology might accomplish when and if humans actually reclaim control of their own lives.

Many economists have proposed rewriting the rules or have offered schemes for “saving capitalism.” Rushkoff brings a completely different set of observations and insights to this vital and expanding conversation. Because he isn’t constrained by models and isn’t limited by an education that blocks consideration of technological changes, Rushkoff is free to consider how human prosperity can displace a mechanistic growth drive. At the same time, he belongs in the category of techno-realists who squarely avoid both the utopian and dystopian outlooks.

Rushkoff is throwing rocks at more than the Google buses. He has been a hands-on participant as well as an astute observer during the past 20 years as the Internet has taken over our lives. He deserves to be read carefully, and his voice is likely to be an important one as we craft our new “human paradigm.”