How Douglas Rushkoff is reimagining the internet

As part of the 2022 Phil Lind initiative series on “The Future of Media,” the school of public policy and global affairs hosted media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who discussed his new conceptualizations for business in the digital landscape — particularly, the media. In critiquing the winner-take-all game-defining modern business, Rushkoff argued for an economic program that utilizes the unique distributive power of the internet, by reimagining the economy as we see it today.

While it is commonly believed that the internet has led humans into a role of passivity, Rushkoff believes otherwise. He argued that to move forward, humans must be recentred in the internet question. We must contribute and produce ways to improve upon technology rather than being passive spectators of the media, according to Rushkoff. In doing so, “we get our hands back on the machine,” Rushkoff said.

In assuming this active role, technology no longer works over people; humans are placed back in the position of autonomy and are the ones who have agency. Rather than thinking about technology as a means of insulating the self from the world, Rushkoff wants us to use it to bolster cooperation and collaboration. “We end up with a certain population when we think of tech this way,” Rushkoff said. “The tech itself can have that bias.”

Rushkoff wonders why while advocating for more cooperative business models seems obvious, the practice has not taken off. Most services nowadays are either digitized or benefit from some kind of digital assistance. The gig economy — a term used to describe the new subsection of individuals working in temporary, flexible, errand-based jobs — goes hand-in-hand with technological innovation.

Unfortunately, the far-flinging reach of tech giants makes it easy for companies to exploit these temporary contractors. “Uber confuses me — how hard would it be for them to implement a cooperative app? Is the network effect so great that it’s not feasible?” asked Rushkoff. “Individual production in these spaces should be owned and capitalized by the individual themselves.”

“We have got to put more of our reality in service of these numbers. They have nothing to do with the world in which we live, these business models are just a way of getting more numbers,” said Rushkoff.

In building an economy that serves people rather than creating technologies that serve capital, growth is prioritized over profitability. To Rushkoff, this is how economies are programmed not just to favour growth, but to favour flow.

“We are bringing our full selves and our full attention to the constitution of this technological realm,” Rushkoff says. “But all we’re really bringing to it now is . . . [the question] is it profitable?”

This mindset is especially concerning when it affects journalism and the media. “If you think about these big journalism companies, they bought into the model that big tech does well — they absolved all their economic activity and moved it all onto these online platforms,” said Rushkoff.

But, according to Rushkoff, if the incentive is to grow exponentially, and the prime directive is to increase profit by any means necessary, this will only result in insidious schemes that undermine the public’s trust in media — namely, an excessive concern with commoditizing the human, be it data, personal information, labour or artistic efforts, amongst many other things.

Rushkoff closed his presentation by addressing digital literacy. “Digital literacy is a bit of an oxymoron,” he said. “Literacy is what you need in a literal world, which the digital world is not.”

In fact, digital literacy is not about being able to read the media anymore — it is about digital agency, autonomy and intention. The skills in the digital age are not authorship or reading or writing — its programming. “The digital world is different,” said Rushkoff. “You set something in motion and it keeps going, and going and going. It lives on, whether it’s nano, robotic or algorithmic.” Being able to recognize patterns and look at the systemic effects that inform algorithms are crucial in understanding how news is distributed and why.

In his closing statement, Rushkoff emphasized the importance of stepping away from technologies in meaningful ways to regain control over the self.

“We exist in much more complicated systems than ones driven by our own human agency. You can be human pretty much anywhere you are — it’s deciding to prioritize it that matters.”