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Team Human vs Team Tech

Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist, documentarian and Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at Queens College, CUNY, argues that by unthinkingly embracing disruptive technology, we could lose sight of what makes us human.

10 September 2019 / Technology

As the technological world faces new and unforeseen changes, Douglas Rushkoff believes we could be doing things differently. In Team Human, both a book and a podcast, Rushkoff makes an argument for the organic qualities of the human race against our technological successors – and says that we risk letting them become our oppressors. In an interview with Dolfin Diary, he shared some of his thinking behind the idea, explaining why it is essential to question the speed of technology’s development: “I felt like it was time for somebody to stand up for humans and to write a pro-human manifesto about why we deserve a place.”

Rushkoff highlights some examples of advancing technologies that threaten the autonomy of humans: hypnosis expertise in the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, interfaces that mimic Las Vegas slot machines, machine learning that gets us to act against our best interests, the exploitation of behavioural economics to steer our choices.

“Wake up for a second,” Rushkoff urges. “If you look up from your iPhone for a minute, and look into the eyes of another person, you realise, oh wow I’ve become really de-calibrated and uncentred. And I really like this feeling of establishing rapport with other humans.”

Escaping the algorithm

We see ourselves as users of technology. However, Rushkoff questions the polarity of that idea, arguing that, in fact, technology is using us. “The original way that online algorithms and intelligent agents were described was that if you wanted to find out all the articles on a subject, you could launch something like Google, and would find all those articles over time. And it would keep bringing them back to you and would keep searching the web and looking for things and the AIs would do the work on your behalf,” he explains. “And that’s the opposite of a company using an algorithm to keep poking and prodding you until it can get you to be afraid of something. Until it can get you to revert to a childlike state … That’s the using of people.”

If companies continue to focus exclusively on algorithmic prediction , the role of humans in the workplace is certain to change. Rushkoff alludes to the fashion industry’s growing dependence on artificial intelligence to predict future trends: “You end up commoditising your own industry. You end up deciding that your designers are less valuable than your predictive algorithms. And you lose all your competitive advantage. The companies that succeed in such an environment are the ones that see how some of this prediction is interesting, but mainly for the way it informs creative people to go in new directions, to do unpredictable things, and to actually move the conversation forward, rather than just winding down creativity to this entropic hum of artificial intelligence-derived conclusions; the companies that do that the best will win. Anybody who is simply letting its decisions by made by algorithm will lose to Amazon. They will. The trick is now to be the alternative to Amazon. To be the company that’s actually using human creativity.”

Currency, conglomerates and competency

The financial markets are a prime example of technology that has removed itself from human reality, says Rushkoff. “The New York Stock Exchange was purchased by its derivatives exchange. That means that the stock market, which was already an extraction of the market, which was already an extraction of the human exchange of value, has actually been consumed by its own extraction, by this thing. And what is this thing doing? It’s buying and selling futures on stocks.

“So what is that? It’s actually nothing,” he asserts. “It’s actually nothing but a way of pulling more money out of human markets, making them less accessible to real people and companies trying to exchange goods and services among themselves. So, the more that thing automates, in some sense, the less it has to do with who we are and what we need. I think all they are really going to do is accelerate the process by which a standard currency becomes useless to real people.”

Rushkoff posits that there could be blockchain solutions in the future that deliver real value, which he feels is not the case with Bitcoin or Facebook’s yet-to-launch Libra cryptocurrency. He explains that fundamentally all we need are systems to exchange goods and services. “If you’ve got a city filled with people who have service skills, and you have people who have needs, then you have the basis for an economy. The only reasons these places are not functioning is because the dollar has got too expensive for them. Because all the currency is being hoarded by these conglomerates that aren’t even human,” he says.

For companies, this means deciding what their service skills are and what their competency is. Rushkoff takes the view that many companies don’t have their own purpose; they exist fundamentally as spreadsheets that manage other outsourced competencies, from manufacturing, to marketing, to logistics. “My main advice to these companies is once you pick a competency, and ideally one related to whatever the business that you are supposedly in is, you then start building your human resources around skillful, innovative people in that area.”

Strength in numbers

Globalisation gives people the feeling of apparent interconnectivity, but Rushkoff asserts that technological systems are being developed to separate and isolate us. As a lone gazelle is in more danger of a predator than they are in a herd, so a lone human is to predatory technologies.

Team Human makes the case for collective endeavour – a concept easy to lose sight of when society demands independence and privacy more than ever. Rushkoff stresses the complications of individualism: “We want to think of it as the self. That I, me, am going to survive somehow or I am going to thrive. And I think what we need to remember is there is no such thing as an individual thriving. You can’t. Trees can’t. Bugs can’t, and people can’t either. Evolution is a collective phenomenon.

“The healthier your relationships are, the more resilience you are going to have and the less you’re going to move into that paranoid state and more into that pro-social place. It’s recognising that the more individually you try to address problems, the less luck you are going to have,” he warns, “the more you are going to fall into that ‘go it alone’ trap.”

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