Douglas Rushkoff in Times Square

‘I don’t want technologies that treat me humanely’: Interview with Douglas Rushkoff

Image credit: Seth Kushner

Media theorist Professor Douglas Rushkoff is calling for us to recover our humanity in a world increasingly dominated by “antihuman” technologies like social media and predictive algorithms. Ahead of the UK launch of his latest book, Team Human, Rushkoff spoke to E&T about breaking up Facebook, the problems with humane technology, and making real life sexy again.

What do you mean when you talk about digital technologies serving an antihuman agenda?

We’re using digital technology in order to try to automate human behaviour. The more people think or the more individual people are, the more anomalous behaviour we have, the harder it is to predict our behaviour and lump us into statistical buckets. We’re currently using digital technology – mainly algorithms and sorting procedures – to limit human choice.

I look at it as maybe starting with direct marketing – they were just trying to save postage on direct mailing so they wanted to figure out who was most likely to respond to an advertisement. And they could do that by knowing the mortgage history or the age of the person; they’d have these in America in the 40s and 50s. Even before the widespread use of computers they had these giant card catalogues and little cards on each person. That was extended by digital technology, first with punchcard sorting and now with algorithms. It used to be just to figure out who should get which appeal and now it’s more behavioural modification; who responds to which type of psychological manipulation? Most of the work I see is focused on the Pareto principle, looking at the 20 per cent of people who are not doing the thing they are supposed to be doing and how to get them there, and the other blanket technique is to just stop appealing to people’s higher faculties. If you can get people afraid or into “fight or flight” you push their buttons.

In Team Human, you criticise proponents of “humane technology”. Why?

The humane technology guys aren’t evil. They developed some of the intentionally addictive interfaces; they took the Las Vegas slot machine algorithms and put them into social media feeds, saw what it did to a generation of humans and what it did to democracy and to our focus, and now they started a Center for Humane Technology to advise big tech companies on how to make less abusive platforms. “Humane technology” to me immediately invoked cage free chickens; the idea that now we create technology that treats humans more humanely has the whole orientation of humans and technology reversed. I don’t want technologies that are treating me humanely, I want technologies that I am using; I want to be the user not the used. It puts humans into the object role.

As an alternative to this, you are calling for a “digital renaissance”. What do you mean by that?

A renaissance is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. So what I’m asking for is retrieval of the ideals that were left behind and rebirth them; we’ve taken one step forward with capitalism but we’ve left behind all the other values. Let’s bring those forward; women and people of colour, holism, bottom-up economics, and peer-to-peer exchange, a ton of stuff. I don’t really get into climate change much in this book but it’s implied that if we want to sustain ourselves as a species we’ve got to retrieve some of the values of the people that we squashed.

How can you get the public excited about retrieving these values when technological solutions offer so much excitement?

I’m using social excitement and sex to try to get people interested. A lot of guys in Silicon Valley really fantasise about finding some Japanese company that’s making a sex toy robot girl, and they like that idea because then there’s not a real woman to deal with. The unpredictability of another human being is actually more interesting than being alone with a toy. I want to get people excited about the “conspiracy”: people conspiring to breathe together, to be in a room together and to be part of this movement to try to make being with other people just feel sexy and alive and strange and even naughty. I want to get people back into their bodies a little bit.

This book I was just reading called the Uninhabitable Earth is arguing that climate change is way worse than we’re acting like. Is that the way to get people to do something about it? Or is it more responsible to try to tell the story of “look at how we’re going to beat climate change, and how fun it is”. Is there a way to tell it in a positive way? Screaming fire is leading to Elon Musk racing to get off the planet. The richest people alive are planning bunkers; all they wanted from me was where to put their bunkers and how to maintain control of their security forces once “the event” was over. If that’s the sort of game they’re involved in, maybe the climate change message triggers the wrong set of impulses – the ones to get off the planet […] I think we have to have positive visions of the future.

The trouble is we are moving into a real-time “presentist” mind set where we can’t use single goals like landing on the Moon by the end of the decade. The problems and challenges we’re dealing with are not ones we win: climate change and social justice and these chronic problems. There isn’t going to be a day where you say “we beat climate change” and the Earth cheers.

What would a more pro-human social network look like?

The easiest example would be the web before social media platforms, where everybody had their own little webpages. People knew you could learn basic HTML and everybody’s website was different because everyone had a different idea of how they wanted to do their “house”. Then we devolved into platforms like MySpace where you could kind of configure to have your own little wallpaper and rooms, then with Facebook it’s “how do you conform yourself to this grid”. It’s somewhat nostalgic I guess, but in the earlier days of computing, using a computer and programming a computer were almost the same thing. Under the guide of making computers easier to use they made them way harder to programme. I want to narrow the gap between the producer and consumer, or user and programmer.

I think as people get more and more disenchanted with Facebook they might start looking for alternatives, and some of those alternatives will be constructed in ways that are much more user friendly. Even something like WordPress or Squarespace: these easy website building tools.

Despite scandal after scandal, it’s proving difficult for us to leave social media platforms. How can we break their control over us?

The more you have a real life, the less toxic these environments are. There are people who that’s almost the whole thing for them… Facebook is their social life and porn is their sex life. When you live like that you’re much more vulnerable to the nastiness of these platforms. People are more aware of the way that these platforms, YouTube even, send you further down the extremist tunnel of what you already were and if you don’t have the mitigating factors of a real world social life to modulate you, you just go deep in there. In some sense it we may have to recognise that there’s a public health crisis; this is the same as cigarettes in the 70s where the companies were not admitting what was going on.

Or you could go from the regulatory side, declare them monopolies and they have to be broken up and become public utilities but that sounds so hard given the current political [situation] when you’ve got a country here that’s trying to hard Brexit! It’s like I’m watching a country cut off its nose to spite its face and it’s made me cynical about turning to government. You look at the US Congress questioning Zuckerberg and they say “how does Facebook affect my email account?” It’s like: “you don’t even know what Facebook IS, how are you going to regulate this thing!?” That’s what I went with the “Team Human” thing. I’m not going to be dependent on government or regulators or corporations or the stock market to save the world, it’s us as people united. Let’s just restore our basic human faculties.

What would you like to say to Mark Zuckerberg?

You took too much. You can’t just give back 90 per cent now and expect that it’s good. You did bad. You did very bad things, Mark, and the best thing you can do is break up the company. Break it up for the good of humankind, create a public utility, and be remembered for that. And if your shareholders sue you, give the 90 per cent back to them instead.

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