When you step back, it’s hard not to be blown away by the technological innovation in the world around us. Today, you can order deliveries by drone, take a ride in a self driving car, print physical objects on demand, travel to different worlds with virtual reality, and get schooled at board games by a computer.
Who saw this coming? Predictions about the future often underestimate the actual depth of change, and from some angles our world couldn’t look more different to that of 50, 100, or 500 years ago.
But Douglas Rushkoff thinks that some aspects of our economy haven’t changed. Some pretty fundamental aspects of our economy, at that.
“we are running a 21st century digital economy on a 13th Century printing-press era operating system”
It’s not there there’s a problem with the technology itself, but the framework that still guides most economic activity today. In his 2015 book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Rushkoff makes the case that the model of extractive growth – established long ago in the colonial period – is in dire need of an upgrade. Rushkoff argues that it’s for this reason that many influential business models of the past few years such as AirBnB, Spotify, Uber and Amazon haven’t necessarily delivered long-term benefits for the many, and may have increased inequality and stimulated concerns about privacy, safety and monopolisation.
So what could the new economic operating system be? Rushkoff suggests it’s one based on distributed networks, platform co-ops and the appreciation of land and labour as valued capital. Could the circular economy be the answer? Circulate will be tuning in to the livestream on the 23rd November to find out, and caught up with Douglas to get a preview of the discussion.
What does the term disruptive innovation mean to you?
I think of destructive destruction masquerading as creative destruction. I don’t mind innovations that disrupt existing markets as a byproduct of their superiority or efficiency. But I do mind innovation designed solely to disrupt existing, functioning marketplaces for the sole goal of establishing monopolies, extracting value, and then moving on. In the tech economy today, it’s almost exclusively the latter. Amazon destroys the book industry because it wants to establish a monopoly through which to leverage into new verticals. So it uses its war chest to undercut real booksellers in a scorched earth battle to own the industry. It uses that to leverage itself into retail, then uses that monopoly to pivot into mail services, drones, or anything.
Is the digital revolution really a revolution?
Well, it’s becoming one, which is a sad compromise of its greater potential to be a renaissance. Revolution is just the replacement of one power elite by another. That’s what happening. New super billionaires are replacing the old billionaires. Zero change, except for more poverty and greater ecological destruction. You really have to enslave a lot of people and destroy a lot of the planet to exact these sorts of changes. Renaissance, on the other, would be the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. Old ideas like p2p economics, local currencies, value creation and exchange, the return of land and labor to the factors of production. These repressed, often illegalised economic mechanisms are retrieved, leading to an economic fabulousness that’s hard to imagine.
Which big trend – be it economic, social, technological or otherwise do you feel will be most disruptive in the coming 20 years?
The loss of the natural environment will be big. People need air, water, and food. It’s so hard to do that without oxygen, oceans, and other species. That really is the big one.
A lot is written about what the current disruptive trends mean for businesses and governments, but what do you think the impacts will be on the majority of the population?
Unless there’s substantial change, economic disruption perpetrated solely for the benefit of short term venture capital leads to greater disenfranchisement of labor. Labor is the majority of the population, even if their jobs have been replaced by machines. What we need to remember is that jobs weren’t invented simply because we need to get stuff done. They allow people to participate by creating value.
Tech innovation is seductive and happens quickly. Who is responsible for ensuring that we don’t follow a path to a future we didn’t really want?
Everyone. But for now, it’s the technologists actually developing things. They hold the keys. The kids graduating Stanford don’t have to go work for Goldman Sachs writing extractive algorithms. The developers and engineers need to embrace their power, rather than submit to the operating system of Wall Street. It’s so sad that they see themselves as powerless lackeys of the moneyed elite, rather than the true power players of the century. But I guess they’ve been brainwashed to seek out “unicorns” instead of creating the world they want to see.
What message or main idea would you want this audience to remember from your talk?
We don’t have to accept the rules of a 13th Century, printing press era operating system for our 21st Century economy. Real disruption would mean challenging the underlying OS, not just installing more extractive software on top of it.
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