It’s no surprise that this preview for the book Present Shock, called “Why Futurists Suck,” would catch my eye when someone passed along the link: It’s hard not to take it personally when someone goes so far out of their way to denigrate futurists!
But a quick read through the article on Good.is suggests the author, Douglas Rushkoff, is not talking about me specifically. Rather, he appears to be railing against a general mindset of corporatist futurism: the focus on increasing stock value, gathering venture capital, and just generally “injecting steroids” into the “values of the industrial age.”
What’s Rushkoff’s preferred alternative? He argues that the tools we have available to us now, particularly digital networking, should allow us to throw off the shackles of infinite expansion and enforced scarcity:
…the promise of a digital age, as I see it, is: We can retrieve the values and modalities submerged by the birth of the corporation and central currency… We can begin to exchange goods and services with one another in real time. We can even wake up to the fact that—thanks largely to technology—we already have more than enough stuff to go around.
Powerful stuff, though I have some concerns about this argument.
A Mythical Past?
For one, I’m not so sure the values we need today can be retrieved from some pre-capitalist era when everyone practiced sustainability and sufficiency, since I don’t think such a golden age ever existed. Rather, these values have arisen in the very specific globalized context we live in today, and so I think we need to invent and implement them from scratch.
For another, it’s not immediately clear to me what the alternative to capitalism would actually look like in practice. I mean, I definitely agree that we could choose much better goals for our economy. In the long-term, sustainability and sufficiency are much more important ends than profit-making. But even if you accept that there is “more than enough stuff to go around” we still need to explain exactly how that stuff should be distributed, and how it should be produced in the first place. Lots of very smart people have been trying to come up with alternatives to capitalism for as long as capitalism has existed, and so far none of them has stuck.
The Magic of Technology?
Finally, related to the previous point, is Rushkoff’s assertion that technology provides a kind of magic escape hatch from the capitalist structure we’ve built ourselves into. The internet, and other digital advances, can certainly help us create value in new ways, and can help us create decentralized connections with each other that aren’t mediated by mainstream media and big corporations. But how does that replace manufacturing, or manual labor, or the service industry? These all seem like essential elements of any modern economy, whether capitalist or no.
Rushkoff even goes so far as to invoke a post-work society, an intriguing idea I’ve previously written about here. Maybe, as I wrote about in that article, he’s counting on robots and improved automation to take care of mundane physical tasks for us. But if so he’s venturing out on a futurist limb, and a fairly speculative one at that, and not so much talking about the present as he claims to be doing.
Still Going to Read the Book
Of course, all of these arguments are putting the cart before the horse, since I haven’t actually read the book yet. For now, Rushkoff gets the benefit of the doubt. But I’ll be paying very close attention to the way he spells out his argument, and I will report what I learn right here on Cosmic Revolutions.
In your opinion, what should our economic priorities be? And what do you think is the “Promise of the Digital Age”?
I think maybe Rushkoff’s tactic worked: he was trying to get the attention of futurists everywhere! I got a little bit riled when I read this headline. Once I settled down though, I realized he had also piqued my curiosity. I definitely resonate with his dissatisfaction regarding the current economic order, controlled by corporate interests, and characterized by out-of-control commodification, and growth and profits at the expense of everything else. Plus way unequal distribution.
Scott, I agree with your point about Rushkoff’s reference to retrieving values from past; and about coming up with a new set of values for the future. I’m trusting that in his book he goes into some of the other deeper questions you pose about redistribution, capital, manufacturing…
I think this quote by him, posted prominently on his website, says a lot about his style and angle: “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software.”
Interesting quote, and already true, at least partly. One thing’s for sure, Rushkoff certainly is passionate about his values! I look forward to seeing how he goes about building his case.