Douglas Rushkoff is a futurist, author, early cypherpunk and professor of media studies at Queens College. His early writings on the internet paved the way for thinking about the web in revolutionary terms, as a tool to enfranchise and connect the world.
In years since, Rushkoff has been an outspoken critic of the way the web has developed. A handful of tech monoliths – Facebook, Google and Amazon – dominate our digital experiences and monetize our attention, finding increasingly manipulative ways to keep us logged on. Rushkoff, a proponent for mutual aid, thinks we might be better off unplugging and returning our attention to the communities around us.
CoinDesk caught up with him in early-September for a discussion about the idealism of the early web, where things went wrong and the ways it might be improved. He’s not optimistic about blockchain tech broadly, but thinks it could play a key part in returning power to individuals.
You recommended I read the Story of Joseph in preparation for this interview, saying to understand the future we should look to the Bible. In the spirit of looking back to better predict the future: Why are people so obsessed with the early cypherpunks and their altruistic vision for the internet?
Part of the reason people are interested now is because of the direction we went. There was a collection of cyber-altruists who saw in the internet a way to topple, or challenge, the hierarchies of politics and media. It was the era of William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and Ronald Reagan. With the internet we thought we had our hands on the very dashboard of socio-political and economic creation. It was a wonderful moment.
See also: Tim Draper – I’m As Certain As Ever – Bitcoin’s Revolution Is Only Just Beginning
I think people sense the potential is still there. If we hadn’t weaponized this stuff against humanity in the name of increasing the NASDAQ stock exchange, what may have we gotten? Would we have saved – now it’s too late – civilization? That was the last moment at which we had the potential to change the world.
But we decided it was more important to build up our 401(k)s.
Why do you think civilization is too late to save?
Unless growth-based economics and corporate capitalism are reversed, there’s no way to stop it. We’ve had ample opportunities to adopt different models. Now, we may have passed a certain tipping point.
Even looking at crypto. People can’t help but turn it into a speculative medium, rather than using it to increase the velocity of money. We won’t use the tools we have for what they’re built for. The whole point of crypto was to break the pyramid scheme of central bank planning and currency, yet here we are using it as a meta-pyramid scheme.
See also: Alex Tapscott – Financial Services: The Coming Cataclysm
The reason why I’m interested in crypto, and plenty of others too, is because it’s a return to thinking about technology as a series of open and democratic systems. There’s a sense crypto has lost its way, but it also seems like our best hope of beating the current exploitative and extractive system.
Well, I don’t send my email with crypto or make videos with crypto. It’s not an alternative to a communications network. You’re saying it might be an alternative to an extractive NASDAQ-stock-exchange-capitalism-thing.
Potentially any data extractive system.
I don’t understand how changing the ledger changes the underlying value exchange. It depends on what the internet is for. If people want to make reams of money through the internet or establish monopolies to overtake various economic sectors – like Uber did to taxis – it doesn’t matter what medium you use to do it.
If the job of crypto is to…