“So I browsed the Net for three hours. Did I make anyone happier? Did it earn me money? Am I a better person? So why did I do it?”
On Wednesday evening, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff engaged a standing-room-only crowd in a converted movie theater in midtown Manhattan. His quick wit, fearless dystopian warnings, and heartening calls to action have made him a favorite among those questioning the future of our digitally mediated culture; there were a lot of big ideas slung our way.
For one, the commodification of human relationships (“the social graph”), which is the unfortunate business plan of Facebook and many elements of the monetized web, is not in our best interest. At all. Vigilance on this count – and awareness that “we are the product being sold” – will help protect us. While the social web can be an invaluable tool, we must control it, speak its language and learn its tricks, Rushkoff said.
“Your [social] graph is better preserved than if it was chiseled into the Parthenon, owned by a company managed by a**holes!”
He cited the use of social media in the recent Middle East uprisings as an occasion when people exhibited real agency — gathering ever-growing groups around not a TV show or other cool brand, but toward a shared goal. He added that the most interesting moment in the Egyptian uprising was actually after that government’s January 27 decision to “turn off the Internet”; at that point:
• Protesters maintained, and increased, their momentum by connecting with each other in person.
• The world realized the vulnerability and centralized structure of the Internet and started asking some essential questions.
“The way to win this age is to just do something. Grow some vegetables and learn how the code works.”
It’s interesting that these passionate ideals would be shared with technology and media students situated in the whirling wealth of Columbus Circle, home to Time Warner, Armani Exchange and a slate of luxury restaurants. One wise woman commented, on leaving the theater, “When did he become such a leftist?”
But he had just answered that question. “I’m not a communist, just a media theorist.” The 20th century was the age of great “isms,” which only reinforce themselves by insisting that we oversimplify. To this point: the third chapter from his latest book “Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age” is titled “You May Always Choose None of the Above.”
While Rushkoff considers himself neither a communist nor an activist, he readily engaged the question, “What is to be done?” Within an economy where the inflationary tendency of money prevents us from hoarding, and which perches on a global banking system many consider insupportable, we were exhorted to “invest locally.”
“Invest in people who will take care of you when you’re old.”
“Invest in community supported agriculture.”
“Learn to program.”
A few links, if you’d like to act on that: