Get thee behind me, tech: putting humans before social media

Douglas Rushkoff witnessed the initial promise of the internet ⁠— a ‘social medium’ for thoughtful encounters and the democratizing of knowledge. It’s since become ‘social media’; a system that colonizes our minds and enriches a handful of ethically challenged developers. Rushkoff says we need to reaffirm that we are social beings, and reappropriate technology to support and cultivate what he calls ‘Team Human.'

Digital media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues technology needs to optimize 'human flourishing'

We take social media for granted but it sure isn’t neutral, says Douglas Rushkoff. He argues our lives and our minds have become commodities in an attention-based economy. (Shutterstock)

* Originally published on December 19, 2019.

Digital media theorist Douglas Rushkoff remembers when the military offered the internet — the entire internet — to AT&T for a dollar, and AT&T politely declined. He also remembers believing in its original promise: that it could be a place where human beings would encounter one another authentically. 

He remembers the initial attempt to monetize the web at the dawn of the millennium, and how relieved he and fellow early web denizens were that big business had been rebuffed. All that is ancient history now, and a rather quaint tale at that.

"When the dot-com crash happened, people like me, we all celebrated! The internet fought off another infection," Rushkoff said in his keynote address at the 4th Waterloo Symposium on Technology & Society at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, organized by the Centre for Security Governance — the basis for this IDEAS episode.

"First, it was the military. We got them off there so we could all talk and play. Now, business came and they want to sell things … we got rid of that and it's social again. And then it seemed like social media would be people reclaiming the net. But … social media ended up pivoting over into a business as well."

Now Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their many cousins are the online colonizers. Apps and portals belong to a handful of billionaires, and they're rife with algorithms that deliberately mess with us. 

Digital media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says we need to reaffirm that we are social beings, and reappropriate technology to support and cultivate what he calls ‘Team Human.’ ( Shutterstock)

Rushkoff has witnessed the development of these algorithms first-hand.

"There's an entire division at Stanford [University] called 'captology' … It's a division that teaches developers how to capture human beings in a piece of technology. They learn to take the algorithms from Las Vegas slot machines and port them into our news feeds," he explained.

"These are the folks that know how to go down into your brain stem and trigger your amygdala, by any means necessary."

And why is 'captology' such an integral part of social media? Rushkoff says it's because human beings have now become the commodities that drive the technological economy. 

Computer colonization

In the wake of the Second World War, it became clear to the Western powers that continuing to colonize various countries for cheap resources was no longer paying off. 

At the same time, computers were in their infancy. 

Rushkoff quotes a bit of writing from that period; a 1945 essay in The Atlantic magazine, by Vannevar Bush, called 'As We May Think'. Bush's essay is widely known in Silicon Valley. 

"He theorized about the first computer. This idea for a 'memex' and how it would work and it would store our memory and all that," said Rushkoff.

"But Vannevar Bush was a guy who was in charge of computers during the war, and he wrote this essay for The Atlantic as a way of arguing to Eisenhower that you've got to keep developing computer technology, because even though we don't need it for the war, we need it for the economy, we can't colonize other places anymore. They're pushing back. We can't take more stuff from them … We need a new landscape to colonize. And computers would give that. But the thing that we decided to colonize with them is our own minds."

Douglas Rushkoff was named by MIT in 2013 as one of the world's ten most influential thinkers. He coined terms that are now part of our everyday vocabulary: "digital natives" and "viral media", among them. His book is called 'Team Human.' (Rebecca Ashley, Penguin Random House Canada)

Douglas Rushkoff is a prolific author whose latest book, Team Human, is an urgent manifesto. He calls for a reaffirmation of our social nature, a clear understanding of what social media and artificial intelligence are doing to us, and a recognition that being human is a team sport. 

His Team Human podcast  features conversations with people in a variety of fields who reflect this understanding in their own lives and work. 

Rushkoff's not only sounding the alarm, though. He's encouraging people to see clearly and to imagine a way forward — one that identifies what divides us, and celebrates what unites us. He imagines that we're at the dawn of a digital renaissance.

"What we retrieve in a digital renaissance is the digits. It's not some computer thing. It means we're getting our hands back into things. That means we're not just consumers, we're producers. It means we are makers. It means we're actually participating, not just spectating. That's the digital difference," said Rushkoff.

"So instead of using technology to optimize human beings for the market, which is really what we're doing with digital tech today, we can optimize technology instead for the collective human flourishing."

This episode was produced by Sean Foley.