Asked to deliver some insights on the subject of “the future of technology,” Douglas Rushkoff shuddered at the thought of the latest technology buzzwords — blockchain, 3D printing, CRISPR. He also understood keenly that audiences crave insights into technologies for the purpose of investments, not as pure learning experiences. But his audience was only comprised of a small group of uber-wealthy hedge fund manipulators, and they were concerned that, for all their wealth and power, they wouldn’t be able to affect the future after The Event. “That was their euphemism,” Rushkoff shares in an op-ed piece for The Medium, “for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.”
Rushkoff is a digital theorist and host of the NPR-One podcast “Team Human.” He’s professor of media theory and digital economics at CUNY/Queens and has made the television documentaries Generation Like, Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation.
He had assumed his invitation to a deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech would take place before a hundred or so investment bankers. Instead, it ended up being a really small group who wanted a lengthy discussion about a post-human utopia. As less a vision for the wholesale migration of humanity than a new state of being, this view of the future became “a quest to transcend all that is human: the body, interdependence, compassion, vulnerability, and complexity.”
Rushkoff points out that technology philosophers have been pointing out for years that a transhumanist vision “too easily reduces all of reality to data,” so that humans are little more than information-processing objects. Ultimately, he says, according to a technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary successor.
“Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving them behind, along with our sins and troubles.”
The Event, or Will Future Technology Create a Survival of the Richest?
An “out of sight, out of mind” perspective arises when we cover our eyes with VR goggles and immerse ourselves in an alternate reality that externalizes poverty, Rushkoff argues. “If anything, the longer we ignore the social, economic, and environmental repercussions,” he outlines, “the more of a problem they become. This, in turn, motivates even more withdrawal, more isolationism, and apocalyptic fantasy — and more desperately concocted technologies and business plans.”
In such a worldview, more and more, we come to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The cycle feeds itself. Technologies become declared neutral, and bad behaviors that technologies induce in us are seen as little more than a reflection of our own corrupted core. “It’s as if some innate human savagery is to blame for our troubles,” Rushkoff offers,
Could technology be developed in time to address the needs of The Event?
“That’s when it hit me,” Rushkoff admits. “This was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.”
Rushkoff sees billionaires like these as the presumptive winners of the digital economy — “the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.” He concludes that this is analogous to the reduction of human evolution to a video game “that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg?”
Elon Musk, who leads Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), is one of the tech billionaires whom Rushkoff critiques within the future of technology debate. He asks if launching electric cars into space symbolizes something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion. The unlikely act of sustaining life on Mars aside, Rushkoff questions whether such an existence would be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.
What Came Before: Technology as Playground for the Counterculture
Is there anything really wrong with optimistic appraisals of how technology might benefit human society?
In the early 1990s, when the digital future was open for invention, technology was a playground for the counterculture with opportunities “to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future.” But Rushkoff says that established business interests only saw new technology potentials for the same old extraction. Eventually, “technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs” and the future became “less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.”
As a result, moral implications of technology development moved from a story of collective flourishing to personal survival, breaking the field into a binary of with us or enemy of the market/ anti-technology curmudgeon.
Technology innovation shifted from considering the practical ethics of impoverishing and exploiting the many in the name of the few to a field where academics, journalists, and science-fiction writers asked topic questions, Rushkoff says. Is it fair for a stock trader to use smart drugs? Should children get implants for foreign languages? Do we want autonomous vehicles to prioritize the lives of pedestrians over those of its passengers? Should the first Mars colonies be run as democracies? Does changing my DNA undermine my identity? Should robots have rights?
This type of discussion, Rushkoff states, “while philosophically entertaining, is a poor substitute for wrestling with the real moral quandaries associated with unbridled technological development in the name of corporate capitalism.”
Corporate Capitalism: Effects on the Environment and Global Poor
It’s instructive to step back and examine how, while most of us are aware of the downsides to which Rushkoff refers in the form of automated jobs, the gig economy, and the demise of local retail, there are more devastating impacts of the “pedal-to-the-metal digital capitalism” — the effects on the environment and global poor. He lists several ways that we have neglected the planet and its people in an embrace of All Things Technological.
- Digital platforms have turned an already exploitative and extractive marketplace (think Walmart) into an even more dehumanizing successor (think Amazon).
- The manufacture of some of our computers and smartphones still uses networks of slave labor.
- These practices are so deeply entrenched that a company called Fairphone, founded from the ground up to make and market ethical phones, learned it was impossible. (The company’s founder now sadly refers to their products as “fairer” phones.)
- The mining of rare earth metals and disposal of our highly digital technologies destroys human habitats, replacing them with toxic waste dumps, which are then picked over by peasant children and their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers.
- The inefficiency of a local taxi market can be “solved” with an app that bankrupts human drivers.
In sum, Rushkoff points to how the vision of future technology depends on “vexing inconsistencies of the human psyche (that) can be corrected with a digital or genetic upgrade.”
The Best Technological Security of the Future: Treat Each Other Well Now
As Rushkoff envisioned the future of technology with the 5 hedge funders, he was asked about the best way to maintain authority over their security forces after The Event. He outlined that their best bet would be to treat those people really well — right now.
- Engage with security staff as if they were members of their own family;
- Expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution; and,
- All this technological wizardry could be applied toward less romantic but entirely more collective interests right now.
He went so far as to suggest that, with such an egalitarian approach, the less chance the hedge funders would have to confront The Event in the first place.
Amused by Rushkoff’s optimism, the hedge funders didn’t buy into the idea that their actions today could directly avoid a calamity; they were convinced we are too far gone. “For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can employ to insulate themselves .”
As he reflected, Rushkoff came to the epiphany that those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. “We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways.”
We can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone, that being human is a team sport. “Whatever future humans have, it will be together,” Rushkoff ends.
Douglas Rushkoff is the author of the upcoming book Team Human (W.W. Norton, January 2019) and host of the TeamHuman.fm podcast.
Images copyright free from Pixabay
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