The best reason for Commonweal readers to go out and purchase Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, is that the heroes at the end of the book turn out to be… the popes! The “new operating system” Rushkoff recommends turns out to be a variation on the fundamental vision of distributism – the wide, dispersed ownership and exchange of productive assets. He is quick to reassure his readers that “we don’t need to convert to Catholicism or even approve of Vatican doctrine” in order to appropriate their insights. Rather, the value in the papal social encyclicals is that “they remember”; that is, they retain “a memory of the wheels of commerce that preceded the engines of the industrial age.” Rushkoff’s book is particularly important for two reasons: first, he does not simply equate distributism with a back-to-the-land agrarianism, and second, he offers a way beyond the disturbing polarities that have emerged with Sanders, Trump, and Brexit.
This is because Rushkoff’s book, while accessible, is not simple. Too often, debates about any topic get forced into a simple pro- and anti- polarity, focused on a single magic bullet (and often enough, a single demon to be expelled). Worse, such debates too often “fight the last war” – and so Sanders’s solutions look like a Scandinavian playbook, while Trump’s yearn for a rebuilt manufacturing economy via protectionism and immigrant exclusion. These solutions are not all wrong, especially in their diagnoses of what has happened – the Sanders/Trump alliance against trade deals evidences this. There is a “tell it like it is” attraction here.
Rushkoff’s book, by contrast, insists on grappling with the present situation, which above all is one of massive technological change – higher minimum wages and barriers to foreign goods won’t create jobs if robots can do them. But this is not an anti-technology book; to borrow Pope Francis’s phrase from Laudato Si’, it’s an anti-technocratic-paradigm book. In his encyclical, Francis insists that technology itself is not bad, but that it becomes problematic when it becomes an end in itself – which, as he goes on to say, means an end for those who stand to profit from it. When Francis claims that “technology is not neutral,” he means that technological choices are in fact choices about “the kind of society we want.”
Rushkoff’s book is invaluable for fleshing out the technocratic paradigm problem, from the place of one who is extremely knowledgeable about technology. In essence, the book’s thesis can be boiled down into two key points. First, digital technologies can either promote wide, dispersed sharing or contribute to even more centralized power. The key is whether they are designed as “platform monopolies” or as peer-to-peer resources. And his second insight is that the digital economy has become more and more oriented to the development of platform monopolies because these are the form of businesses demanded by the returns needed to satisfy the “old operating system” of the existing economic system. Platform monopolies ultimately squeeze out small producers, first by casualizing their labor, and then by dispensing with it altogether. Uber is just a bridge, Rushkoff insists, to Google’s driverless cars. There is a kind of double reinforcing effect here, in narrowing ever more the labor market to those with highly-specialized operating skills, and then in narrowing capital return to fewer and fewer “winners.” In essence, he is summarizing what an economy looks like when labor ultimately serves capital, rather than capital serving labor. The goal is “removing humans from the equation.”
For Rushkoff, the only possible answer is to rework not just technological platforms, but economic ones. And “rework” is key – he quotes Francis at length, saying, “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age” – and explains his proposal as a “leap forward by hearkening back,” or by saying “keep the progress, but recover the lost values.” It is a ressourcement – or a renaissance, in his words.
What’s particularly powerful here is an escape from the relentless forward-backward dichotomy that now dominates our discourse. To my mind, that’s always what Vatican II was trying to do for the Church, though we all know how hard it is not to fall back into that same dichotomy. That’s what Catholic social teaching has done by resisting attempts to co-opt it merely as supportive of free-market capitalism or state socialism.
But perhaps like the great ressourcement theologians of the 20th century, the beautiful imaginativeness of their proposals are tough to translate into the existing people and structures on the ground. Rushkoff’s many examples of peer-to-peer alternative platforms seem either too small-scale or too “creative” – and by “creative,” I mean that for those of us who want their digital technology kind of simple and straightforward, it feels a bit exhausting to participate in them. I do recognize that this is a lack on my part – the same could be said of genuine participation in the liturgy, which requires knowledge, if not always attention.
And so the most challenging takeaway here is something that, as an environmentalist, I already know: we can’t just keep going on the way we are going. Rushkoff’s vision of a more dispersed, steady-state economy facilitated by cheap digitally-enabled direct exchange is hard to imagine as I use the tools of Microsoft to post this review! There are many details here – and many details which can certainly be argued over. But Rushkoff is not wrong in suggesting that as long as so many of us are tied to the economic operating systems of a national currency and global investment markets, we won’t get off the train. Or to put it another way, if we want real change, the real change is really going to have to happen to daily life, not by vilifying the “enemy,” whether the immigrant, the Chinese government, or the 1%.
That’s why reading this book is important in the context of Trump or Sanders or Brexit – because they, too, are saying we can’t keep going on the way things are going. There are cultural anxieties at work here, of course, which would require a different analysis. But conventional wisdom suggests at least a major rationale why people who might even find Trump distasteful would vote for him is that he’s willing to do and say unpopular things to help a forgotten economic class. Trump, Sanders, and Brexit are rightly being seen as a sign that the current economy is not working to sustain at least a secure, if not thriving, middle-class.
Yet, in light of Rushkoff’s analysis, their answers are terrible. For example, there are many worrisome things about a potential Trump presidency, but on the economy, there’s really a pretty stark outcome: either he capitulates to the powers that be or he actually manages to impose quite different trade deals, which would be an enormous disruption to the global economy. Using Rushkoff’s metaphor, Trump’s “code” would crash the current “operating system” for the economy. Who knows what would happen after that.
The most likely course, recent history tells us, is that, even with Trump, we keep plugging along, patching the boat – because we’ve got so much invested in it. At the end of the day, that’s what TARP was – it wasn’t just a bailout for the bankers, it backstopped what would otherwise have been a catastrophic collapse. There was a lot less human suffering in the wake of 2008 than in the wake of the Great Depression… but a lot less has changed, too. It’s hard to get real shifts in economic systems without serious disruption.
Of course, writing wise books that might lead to a long-term transition plan would be much, much better. Essentially what Rushkoff is encouraging is building a new economy in the technological shell of the old. Today’s politics do not provide much hope for those of us committed to Catholic Social Teaching. But it is heartening to see as prominent and incisive a social critic as Rushkoff is recognizing its potential to make a difference in the long run. He may give us something better to do than to expend a lot of energy worrying about the election.