TED | Douglas Rushkoff: Team Human

I got invited to an exclusive resort to deliver a talk about the digital future to what I assumed would be a couple of hundred tech executives. And I was there in the green room, waiting to go on, and instead of bringing me to the stage, they brought five men into the green room who sat around this little table with me. They were tech billionaires. And they started peppering me with these really binary questions, like: Bitcoin or Etherium? Virtual reality or augmented reality? I don’t know if they were taking bets or what. And as they got more comfortable with me, they edged towards their real question of concern. Alaska or New Zealand?

That’s right. These tech billionaires were asking a media theorist for advice on where to put their doomsday bunkers. We spent the rest of the hour on the single question: “How do I maintain control of my security staff after the event?” By “the event” they mean the thermonuclear war or climate catastrophe or social unrest that ends the world as we know it, and more importantly, makes their money obsolete. And I couldn’t help but think: these are the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, yet they see themselves as utterly powerless to influence the future. The best they can do is hang on for the inevitable catastrophe and then use their technology and money to get away from the rest of us. And these are the winners of the digital economy.

The digital renaissance was about the unbridled potential of the collective human imagination. It spanned everything from chaos math and quantum physics to fantasy role-playing and the Gaia hypothesis, right? We believed that human beings connected could create any future we could imagine. And then came the dot com boom. And the digital future became stock futures. And we used all that energy of the digital age to pump steroids into the already dying NASDAQ stock exchange. The tech magazines told us a tsunami was coming. And only the investors who hired the best scenario-planners and futurists would be able to survive the wave.

And so the future changed from this thing we create together in the present to something we bet on in some kind of a zero-sum winner-takes-all competition. And when things get that competitive about the future, humans are no longer valued for our creativity. No, now we’re just valued for our data. Because they can use the data to make predictions. Creativity, if anything, that creates noise. That makes it harder to predict.

So we ended up with a digital landscape that really repressed creativity, repressed novelty, it repressed what makes us most human. We ended up with social media. Does social media really connect people in new, interesting ways? No, social media is about using our data to predict our future behavior. Or when necessary, to influence our future behavior so that we act more in accordance with our statistical profiles. The digital economy — does it like people? No, if you have a business plan, what are you supposed to do? Get rid of all the people. Human beings, they want health care, they want money, they want meaning. You can’t scale with people.

Even our digital apps — they don’t help us form any rapport or solidarity. I mean, where’s the button on the ride hailing app for the drivers to talk to one another about their working conditions or to unionize? Even our videoconferencing tools, they don’t allow us to establish real rapport. However good the resolution of the video, you still can’t see if somebody’s irises are opening to really take you in. All of the things that we’ve done to establish rapport that we’ve developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, they don’t work, you can’t see if someone’s breath is syncing up with yours. So the mirror neurons never fire, the oxytocin never goes through your body, you never have that experience of bonding with the other human being. And instead, you’re left like, “Well, they agreed with me, but did they really, did they really get me?” And we don’t blame the technology for that lack of fidelity. We blame the other person.

You know, even the technologies and the digital initiatives that we have to promote humans, are intensely anti-human at the core. Think about the blockchain. The blockchain is here to help us have a great humanized economy? No. The blockchain does not engender trust between users, the blockchain simply substitutes for trust in a new, even less transparent way.

Or the code movement. I mean, education is great, we love education, and it’s a wonderful idea that we want kids to be able to get jobs in the digital future, so we’ll teach them code now. But since when is education about getting jobs? Education wasn’t about getting jobs. Education was compensation for a job well done. The idea of public education was for coal miners, who would work in the coal mines all day, then they’d come home and they should have the dignity to be able to read a novel and understand it. Or the intelligence to be able to participate in democracy. When we make it an extension of the job, what are we really doing? We’re just letting corporations really externalize the cost of training their workers.

And the worst of all really is the humane technology movement. I mean, I love these guys, the former guys who used to take the algorithms from Las Vegas slot machines and put them in our social media feed so that we get addicted. Now they’ve seen the error of their ways and they want to make technology more humane. But when I hear the expression “humane technology,” I think about cage-free chickens or something. We’re going to be as humane as possible to them, until we take them to the slaughter. So now they’re going to let these technologies be as humane as possible, as long as they extract enough data and extract enough money from us to please their shareholders. Meanwhile, the shareholders, for their part, they’re just thinking, “I need to earn enough money now, so I can insulate myself from the world I’m creating by earning money in this way.”

No matter how many VR goggles they slap on their faces and whatever fantasy world they go into, they can’t externalize the slavery and pollution that was caused through the manufacture of the very device.

It reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s dumbwaiter. Now, we like to think that he made the dumbwaiter in order to spare his slaves all that labor of carrying the food up to the dining room for the people to eat.That’s not what it was for, it wasn’t for the slaves, it was for Thomas Jefferson and his dinner guests, so they didn’t have to see the slave bringing the food up. The food just arrived magically, like it was coming out of a “Start Trek” replicator. It’s part of an ethos that says, human beings are the problem and technology is the solution.

We can’t think that way anymore. We have to stop using technology to optimize human beings for the market and start optimizing technology for the human future. But that’s a really hard argument to make these days, because humans are not popular beings. I talked about this in front of an environmentalist just the other day, and she said, “Why are you defending humans? Humans destroyed the planet. They deserve to go extinct.”

Even our popular media hates humans. Watch television, all the sci-fi shows are about how robots are better and nicer than people. Even zombie shows — what is every zombie show about? Some person, looking at the horizon at some zombie going by, and they zoom in on the person and you see the person’s face, and you know what they’re thinking: “What’s really the difference between that zombie and me? He walks, I walk. He eats, I eat. He kills, I kill.” But he’s a zombie. At least you’re aware of it. If we are actually having trouble distinguishing ourselves from zombies, we have a pretty big problem going on.

And don’t even get me started on the transhumanists. I was on a panel with a transhumanist, and he’s going on about the singularity. “Oh, the day is going to come really soon when computers are smarter than people. And the only option for people at that point is to pass the evolutionary torch to our successor and fade into the background. Maybe at best, upload your consciousness to a silicon chip. And accept your extinction.”

And I said, “No, human beings are special. We can embrace ambiguity, we understand paradox, we’re conscious, we’re weird, we’re quirky. There should be a place for humans in the digital future.” And he said, “Oh, Rushkoff, you’re just saying that because you’re a human.”

As if it’s hubris. OK, I’m on “Team Human.” That was the original insight of the digital age. That being human is a team sport, evolution’s a collaborative act.

Even the trees in the forest, they’re not all in competition with each other, they’re connected with the vast network of roots and mushrooms that let them communicate with one another and pass nutrients back and forth. If human beings are the most evolved species, it’s because we have the most evolved ways of collaborating and communicating. We have language. We have technology.

It’s funny, I used to be the guy who talked about the digital future for people who hadn’t yet experienced anything digital. And now I feel like I’m the last guy who remembers what life was like before digital technology. It’s not a matter of rejecting the digital or rejecting the technological. It’s a matter of retrieving the values that we’re in danger of leaving behind and then embedding them in the digital infrastructure for the future.

And that’s not rocket science.

It’s as simple as making a social network that instead of teaching us to see people as adversaries, it teaches us to see our adversaries as people. It means creating an economy that doesn’t favor a platform monopoly that wants to extract all the value out of people and places, but one that promotes the circulation of value through a community and allows us to establish platform cooperatives that distribute ownership as wide as possible. It means building platforms that don’t repress our creativity and novelty in the name of prediction but actually promote creativity and novelty, so that we can come up with some of the solutions to actually get ourselves out of the mess that we’re in.

No, instead of trying to earn enough money to insulate ourselves from the world we’re creating, why don’t we spend that time and energy making the world a place that we don’t feel the need to escape from.

There is no escape, there is only one thing going on here. Please, don’t leave. Join us. We may not be perfect, but whatever happens, at least you won’t be alone. Join “Team Human.” Find the others. Together, let’s make the future that we always wanted. Oh, and those tech billionaires who wanted to know how to maintain control of their security force after the apocalypse, you know what I told them? “Start treating those people with love and respect right now. Maybe you won’t have an apocalypse to worry about.”

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