Douglas Rushkoff gave a characteristically provocative talk last week at Techonomy NYC–which provoked me to disagree strongly.
The positive side of Rushkoff’s focus on Team Human, his latest book, is laudable. But as I sat in the conference room in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by some of the world’s best thinkers on technology, business and social progress, it struck me that Rushkoff oversimplifies and misdirects his critique of technology, growth, and capitalism. That distracts from the constructive action needed. It seems he would have us throw out the baby of technology and growth with the bathwater of misdirected incentives. But the only way to survive in our complex modern world is to reform how we apply these vital but double-edged tools.
The real issues aren’t growth and technology per se. The main big issue starts with how poorly-regulated capitalism has allowed businesses to shift toward short-term, narrow definitions of profit. What we need instead are more win-win norms for economic exchange that are responsibly market-driven and create value. In the productive, egalitarian boom after World War II, business leaders understood that the task of business was to benefit all stakeholders, and in large part it did. We saw the rise of a new, prosperous middle class. But in the 1970s, American economist Milton Friedman triggered a single-minded focus on shareholder value that brought back the abuses of laissez faire. Compounding that, the internet was subverted by the “original sin” of the advertising model. That motivated platforms to optimize for the benefit of advertisers, in ways we now see as very harmful to people.
We cannot—and should not—stop growing. Luddites reject growth and innovation. Sensible people know the real task is to channel growth to serve human ends.–Richard Reisman, author
We cannot—and should not—stop growing. Luddites reject growth and innovation. Sensible people know the real task is to channel growth to serve human ends. Our population is growing around the world, and so our productivity must grow to keep pace. Automation, AI, and computer-supported human collaboration—if rightly managed—will set us free, not enslave us. We must ask how technology can augment collaboration – as the printing press and the telephone did.
Rushkoff speaks of tech as amplifying the noise and missing the signal, but it is mostly because “we are the product not the customer” that our tech businesses cause so much harm now. Well-regulated markets are the best engines we have to align incentives and find signals in noise. Adam Smith recognized the genius of the invisible hand to emergently seek the signal of human economic welfare. Given the challenges of population growth and a planet in crisis, we need responsible growth to survive.
Rushkoff ignores the positive vision of tech-augmented human collaboration, as expounded in the 1960s by the people who inspired Tim Berners-Lee: J. C. R. Licklider (whose vision of “Man-Computer Symbiosis” guided the Defense Department funding that led to GUIs and the Internet), Doug Engelbart (who’s “mother of all demos” showed us “The Augmentation of Human Intellect”) and Ted Nelson (who invented “hypertext” and pointed to Computer Lib/Dream Machines, to address the fact that “everything is deeply intertwingled”). The perverse incentives of advertising-funded “free” services have driven our technology toward anti-collaboration that is “de-augmenting human intellect” and splintering society. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” as Yeats put it. But we need just to re-center.
Refocusing tech on augmenting humans, and refocusing capitalism on creating value (properly driven by enlightened self-interest), will direct growth to serve all of us. Building on the fundamental ideas of augmentation, my own work on relationship-value-centered business models (outlined in Techonomy) points to how technology can better focus market capitalism on human values. It boils down to figuring out how the social contract that changed the world in the 1950s and 1960s can be extended with the power of computer-augmented collaboration, not be broken by perverse uses of it. Other work points to ways to make social media a more creative, positive tool for human collaboration, including the “augmented wisdom of crowds,” a step toward the kind of “digital democracy” the world has urgent need of.
Rushkoff delivers a powerful message on the need to re-center on human values. But his message would be more effective if it acknowledged the power of technology and growth instead of indiscriminately railing against it. We need a reawakening of human capitalism — and a Manhattan Project to get tech back on track. That will make us a better team human.
Richard Reisman is the President and founder of Teleshuttle Corporation. His book, FairPay: Adaptively Win–Win Customer Relationships, introduces new value-centered revenue strategies.