I just published this piece in the Guardian.
MEA Digest, Vol 194, Issue 12.
We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control.
by Douglas Rushkoff
We may come to remember this decade as the one when human beings finally
realized we are up against something. We?re just not quite sure what it is.
More of us have come to understand that our digital technologies are not
always bringing out our best natures. People woke up to the fact that our
digital platforms are being coded by people who don?t have our
best interests at heart. This is the decade when, finally, the ?tech
But it´s a little late.
Shoshana Zuboff recently published her comprehensive Surveillance
Capitalism to deserved acclaim, but the book is really about some decisions
that Google was making twenty years ago to harvest our data and sell it
to advertisers. The Center for Humane Technology has called attention to
the way that the manipulative techniques of behavioral finance have been
embedded in our apps ? bringing us all up to speed on the science of
captology and addiction, circa 1999.
These are necessary critiques, but they´re too focused on the good old
days, when the business plans of a few bad actors and the designs of some
manipulative technologies could be identified as the ?cause? of our
That´s really only half, or less than half, of the story. It?s blaming the
developers, the CEOs, the shareholders, even individual apps, programs and
platforms for our predicament, when most of these players have either long
since left the building, or are themselves oblivious to their impact on our
collective wellbeing. Just because the public is finally ready to hear
about these tech industry shenanigans doesn´t mean they are still
relevant. We can´t even blame capitalism, anymore. The quest for
exponential returns may have fueled the development of extractive and
addictive technologies, but the cultural phenomena they gave birth to now
have a life of their own.
What this decade?s critiques miss is that over the past 10 years, our tech
has grown from some devices and platforms we use to an entire environment
in which we function. We don?t ?go online? by turning on a computer and
dialing up through a modem; we live online 24/7, creating data as we move
through our lives, accessible to everyone and everything. Our smartphones
are not devices that sit in our pockets; they create new worlds with new
rules about our availability, intimacies, appearance and privacy. Apple,
Twitter and Google are not just technology services we use, but staples in
our retirement portfolios, on whose continued success our financial futures
At this point, the digital environment is no more the result of a series of
choices made by technology developers, as it is the underlying cause of
those choices. What happened to us in the 2010s wasn?t just that we were
being surveilled, but that all that data was being used to customize
everything we saw and did online. We were being shaped into who the data
said we were. The net you see and the one I see are different. Your Google
search results are different than mine, your news feeds are different and
your picture of the world is different.
As the decade began and social media took over society, many people tried
to call attention to digital technology?s more environmental effects. In
‘Programmed or Be Programmed’ , I argued that we have to understand the
platforms on which we?re working and living, or we?re more likely to be
used by technology than to be the users controlling it. But those of us
arguing for new media literacies may have been making our case a bit too
The people and organizations responding to our plea launched the ?learn to
code? movement. Schools initiated STEM curriculums, and kids learned code
in order to prepare themselves for jobs in the digital economy. It was as
if the answer to a world where the most powerful entities speak in code was
to learn code, ourselves, and then look for employment servicing the
machines. If you can´t beat them, join them.
But that wasn?t the point. Or shouldn´t have been. What we really needed
this decade was to learn code as a liberal art ? not so much as software
engineers, but as human beings living in a new sort of environment. It´s
an environment that remembers and records everything we have done online,
every data point we leave in our wake, in order to adapt itself to our
individual predilections ? all in order to generate whatever responses or
behaviors the platforms want from us. The digital media environment uses
what it knows about each of our pasts to direct each one of our futures.
We can no longer come to agreement on what we´re seeing, because we´re
looking at different pictures of the world. It´s not just that we have
different perspectives on the same events and stories; we?re being shown
fundamentally different realities, by algorithms looking to trigger our
engagement by any means necessary. The more conflicting the ideas and
imagery to which are exposed, the more likely we are to fight over whose is
real and whose is fake. We are living in increasingly different and
irreconcilable worlds. We have no chance of making sense together. The
only thing we have in common is our mutual disorientation and alienation.
We?ve spent the last 10 years as participants in a feedback loop between
surveillance technology, predictive algorithms, behavioral manipulation and
human activity. And it has spun out of anyone´s control.
?Russian bots, meme campaigns and Cambridge Analytica?
This is a tough landscape for anyone to navigate coherently. We may be
benefiting from the internet?s ability to help us find others with whom we
share rare diseases, hobbies, or beliefs, but this sorting and grouping is
abstract and over great distances. We are not connecting with people in the
real world, but gathered by our eyeballs in disembodied virtual spaces,
without the benefit of any of our painstakingly evolved social mechanisms
for moderation, rapport, or empathy.
The digital media environment is a space that is configuring itself in real
time based on how the algorithms think we will react. They are sorting us
into caricatured, machine-language oversimplifications of ourselves. This
is why we saw so much extremism emerge over the past decade. We are
increasingly encouraged to identify ourselves by our algorithmically
determined ideological profiles alone, and to accept a
platform?s arbitrary, profit-driven segmentation as a reflection of our
deepest, tribal affiliations.
Since 2016, we have summoned demons to embody and represent
these artificially generated worldviews ? Russian bots and meme
campaigns and Cambridge Analytica. But though these may have amplified and
accelerated the effect of the digital environment, that environment would
have generated standing waves of cultural angst in primary colors no matter
Then, all it takes is an ideologue or ideology to jump in and claim that
standing wave as their own. Trump is not the originator of his demagoguery
so much as the vessel. Ideologically speaking, he?s less a tweeter than
a re-tweeter. Likewise, Brexit is not a policy design for an independent
England so much as a projection of one group?s collective angst. And these
are not even the most monstrous of the phantoms we are generating.
?We?ve surrendered to digital platforms that look at human individuality as
noise to be corrected, rather than signal to be cherished.? Photograph:
Peter Howell/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Incapable of recreating a consensus reality together through digital media,
we are trying to conjure a television-style hallucination. Television was a
global medium, broadcasting universally shared realities to a world
of spectators. The Olympics, moon landings and the felling of the Berlin
Wall were all globally broadcast, collective spectacles. We all
occupied the same dream space, which is why globalism characterized that
But now we are resurrecting obsolete visions of nationalism, false
memories of a glorious past, and the anything-goes values of reality TV. We
are promoting a spectator democracy on digital platforms, and, in
the process, we are giving life to paranoid nightmares of doom and gloom,
invasion and catastrophe, replacement and extinction.
And artificial intelligence hasn´t even arrived yet.
There is a way out, but it will mean abandoning our fear and contempt for
those we have become convinced are our enemies. No one is in charge of
this, and no amount of social science or monetary policy can correct for
what is ultimately a spiritual deficit. We have surrendered to digital
platforms that look at human individuality and variance as ?noise? to be
corrected, rather than signal to be cherished.
Our leading technologists increasingly see human beings as a problem, and
technology as the solution ? and they use our behavior on their platforms
as evidence of our essentially flawed nature.
But the digital media environment could be helping us reconnect to local
reality and terra firma. This is one of its potential breaks from media
environments of the past. In the digital environment, we have the
opportunity to remember who we really are and how to take responsibility
for our world. Here, we are not just passive consumers; we are
active citizens and more. That´s the real power of a distributed network:
it is not centrally controlled, but locally generated.
The digital environment is also built, quite literally, on memory.
Everything a computer does happens in one form of RAM or another ? just
moving things from one section of its memory to another. The digital media
environment functions like a big blockchain, recording and storing
everything we say or do for later retrieval. It could be helping us
retrieve real facts, track real metrics and recall something about the
essence of who we were and how we related before we were untethered from
ourselves and alienated from one another.
The next decade will determine whether we human beings have what it takes
to rise to the occasion of our own, imposed obsolescence. We must stop
looking to our screens and their memes for a sense of connection to
something greater than ourselves.
We must stop building digital technologies that optimize us for atomization
and impulsiveness, and create ones aimed at promoting sense-making and
recall instead. We must seize the more truly digital, distributed
opportunity to remember the values that we share, and reacquaint ourselves
with the local worlds in which we actually live. For there, unlike the
partitioned servers of cyberspace, we have a whole lot more in common with
one another than we may suspect.