Amazon is Just Walmart on Digital Drugs: Douglas Rushkoff on a Sustainable Economy

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In December 2013, a group of protestors in Oakland, California attacked a private Google shuttle bus that was taking Google employees from their Bay Area homes to their offices at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, 40 miles south. The protestors smashed one of the bus’s windows and blocked the bus from moving forward, holding up a banner that read “FUCK OFF GOOGLE.”

The protestors also handed out flyers to the frightened Google employees that read, in part:

“While you guys live fat as hogs with your free 24/7 buffets, everyone else is scraping the bottom of their wallets, barely existing in this expensive world that you and your chums have helped create.”

The protestors were upset that their neighborhood was being gentrified by the affluent tech workers, forcing longtime residents to leave their homes and apartments because rents were becoming unaffordable.

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Image: Craig Frost/Twitter

Author Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book draws its title from this incident, which was one of many turf clashes between Silicon Valley commuters and working class residents throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in the last few years. In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Rushkoff examines the reasons why the digital economy – which was touted as a great democratizer – has left so many people behind, including even those within the tech industry.

It’s not that digital technology failed us, says Rushkoff.  Instead, the problem is that technology has been deployed in a such a way that a precious few people at the top of the food chain profit immensely, leaving the other 99 percent “scraping the bottom of their wallets.” In fact, argues Rushkoff, digital technology can actually be part of the solution to equalize the kind of disparity that makes people mad enough to throw rocks at buses. In his book, Rushkoff lays out a  vision for a sustainable prosperity system he calls “digital distributism,” which makes use of the kind of peer-to-peer mechanisms that power Uber and Airbnb in a way that “optimizes the economy for the velocity of transactions between people rather than the accumulation of capital from people.” The role of blockchain technology to enable peer-to-peer  transactional networks figures heavily in the brave new digital distributism world, says Rushkoff, because it allows individuals and small groups to route around the rent-seeking gatekeepers who corrupted the eco-system in the first place.

I interviewed Rushkoff by phone in March 2016. You can read the entire interview at IFTF’s Urgent Futures.

How can blockchain technology help people have more of an ownership stake in what they do for living?
The beauty of a blockchain is really, it’s so much more profound than bitcoin itself. The underlying technology which is really … I studied it and studied it because , I really wanted to understand what it was. Do you remember [the encryption application] Pretty Good Privacy [PGP], and the way you can verify where email’s coming from with a token? It sort of works like that, only it kind of stacks them up. It’s really just like PGP authentication of yes, we really did this and then the world witnessing it to make this ledger. Once you have that ability, you can authenticate almost anything. The drivers of an alternative Uber could authenticate how much they’ve driven their cars in order to divvy out how much of the shares should they own.

There are now corporations that are basing themselves on the blockchain principle because you can pretty much write in whatever rules you want into the block chain and then establish who’s done what, if you’re going to create a big collective project or something. The trick with the blockchain, though, is to remember that the blockchain does not create trust between people. The blockchain substitutes for trust between people. If I were working on a collaborative enterprise with twelve of my friends, I would hope that we wouldn’t need to use the block chain to verify what we’ve all done. Can you imagine if the writers and people on Boing Boing, if it’s like how much do you get of this? How much do I get of it? We’re going to authenticate this on the block chain to make sure that we’re all being honest here. That would be kind of sad.

I do think it’s a great way for giant community projects. If we were going to do some for-profit or even just … It doesn’t have to be a for-profit, but a company where we’re going to make money even as wages, but it’s like on the scale of Wikipedia that’s going to be some big project. Or we’re going to make I’ve got this great idea for software and I’ve got a hundred partners from a hundred countries, then yeah, we could use a blockchain to create our contractual agreement and to verify the work that everybody’s done. Then, it’s this beautiful thing. I could see the Mondragon cooperatives using a blockchain, because they have tens of thousands of employees who are a part of this thing.

For most of us, we don’t need these high tech solutions to our business problems. For most of us, it’s really a matter of just working on something that we want to stay alive. The model that I’m really promoting is the model of the family business. Corporations hate to hear this, but family businesses do much better on pretty much every metric in the long term than shareholder owned businesses. Shareholder owned businesses always mock family businesses that it’s small, it’s nothing, it’s stupid, but family businesses are optimized for the long term. They’re optimized to be sustainable. The only time they don’t do as well as shareholder owned corporations is during boom cycles, during bubbles. If it’s not a bubble and, frankly, you don’t want to grow during a bubble because then you’re part of what pops. Family businesses do much, much better in downturns, because they’re geared for the long term.

As you approach whatever it is you’re doing, you have to think “do I want to be like a traditional corporation, a shareholder owned corporation, where the object of the game is to earn and extract enough money from this business, so my grandchildren can inherit enough cash to live their lives? Or do I want to create a business that’s healthy and sustainable enough that it can generate revenue and opportunities for my grandchildren who hopefully will want to join that business?” The latter is the sort of approach that creates a business that wants to befriend communities. It’s your name on the thing. You don’t want people to hate you the way they hate Uber because that’s you, that’s your kids, that’s your family name, that’s your legacy. You have such a different relationship to it that you start to think of your neighborhood as a legacy and the planet as a legacy and your grandchildren as a legacy and your workers as a legacy. That is who you are. It’s so much more integral than this fractious and abstracted business landscape that we’re seeing die today.

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