Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first, shall we? FUCK, but this book is good. If you like brain food, if you like ideas that explode like fireworks in your brain, if you like your basic assumptions rocked on their heels, if you occasionally feel like howling at the injustice of it all, if you want to help but don’t know how, if you think there needs to be dramatic change to society but feel overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to happen – hell, if you ever put your hand in your pocket and wish there was more loose change there, if you ever worry about the future and what it might mean for you or your children, if you work in a corporate environment and despair at the vanilla thinking and venal self-interest – pardon our French but FUCKING READ THIS BOOK. It’s inspiring.
Okay that will do for the hyperbole (for now). Let’s talk about Douglas Rushkoff’s unlucky for some thirteenth nonfiction book. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. The title comes from an incident that took place in San Francisco in 2013 when Mission District residents took their objections to Google’s effect on their local economy into their hands. The incident goes some way to offering in miniature what Rushkoff’s book looks to explore: “Growth is good – at least for those doing the growing.” We live in an age where we are allegedly so overwhelmed with choice that we are paralysed, where everything is available, where we are free to be ourselves and yet,
“On iTunes today, the bottom 94 percent [of all sales] sell fewer than one hundred copies each. Just 0.00001 percent of tracks sold accounted for a sixth of all sales. And these figures are roughly the same for every creative industry, from books to smartphone apps.”
Those 300 words are about half a percent of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. If you read them and (a) felt depressed because every fucker you know is buying Adele and then (b) thought, this might be something I’d be interested in reading, multiply this particular brain worm by 200% and you get the sensation of absorbing the whole. Imagine 200% more brainworms having a massive orgy in your brain. That is what reading Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is like.
If you work for an organisation that is looking to make everything digital, and if you are part of the team looking to accomplish that, you are basically striving to put us all out of work because every digital advance reduces 10 jobs to one – and the one, like the Uber taxi driver, busy striving to put black cabbies out of work, will eventually be replaced by a robot car. In some senses, Rushkoff is busy advancing the argument Naomi Klein rolled out in No Logo, except where Starbucks and Wal-mart opened stores to eradicate local businesses, we are now complicit, striving to do away with ourselves (see Amazon’s Turk).
“”It’s the great paradox of our era,” Brynjolfsson [from MIT] explains. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organisations are not keeping up.””
Does this sound familiar? How about this?:
“When technology increases productivity, a company has a new excuse to eliminate jobs and use the savings to reward its shareholders with dividends and stock buybacks. What would have been lost to wages is instead turned back into capital. So the middle class hollows out and the only ones left are those depending on the passive returns from their investments.”
If you work in a corporate environment, you are a willing participant in the lie that growth can continue with end. “Plants grow, people grow, even whole forests,” Rushkoff writes, “but eventually, they stop.”
“This doesn’t mean they’re dead. They’ve simply reached a level of maturity where health is no longer about getting bigger but about sustaining vitality.”
Sustaining vitality is not what business, however, is about. “Corporations in particular are duty bound to grow by any means necessary.” “For Coke, Pepsi, Exxon and Citibank” – for any brand name business you’d care to mention, more than likely any place you care to work – “there’s no such thing as “big enough”; every aspect of their operation is geared towards new growth targets perpetually” even though “the majority of big corporations are playing a game with diminishing returns”.
We’ve all heard the argument about how money goes to money and how the current set-up only benefits the few, but Rushkoff knows that there will come a point when that which is hollowed out collapses in on itself. Eventually those passive investors will feel the pain too, because
“Extractive economics is a bit like draining an aquifer faster than it can replenish itself. Yes, you end up with all the water – but after a while there’s no more left to take.”
– and the cannier among them, the CEOs and the FDs and the shrewder members of the business community have already been talking to Rushkoff because even they know something needs to give (“The corporate program has reached its limits” and the people in charge are either canny enough to know it or continue to labour under the misapprehension that the reason their business isn’t growing is because they need a different CEO). This is why you’re starting to see more and more stories like this. John Stuart Mill was saying this stuff back in the 1800s – “The increase of wealth is not boundless.” Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus feels like high fashion. Ten years from now, this thinking will hit the high street. Inevitably there’s going to be a lot of pain for us little people between here and wisdom. And yet Rushkoff manages to inspire confidence all the same:
“There’s no algorithm for this. There’s only slow, incremental change, enacted consciously but differently by all sorts of people and institutions. That’s the difference between an industrial society and a digital one: one size fits all solutions that take over the entire planet no longer work. Instead, a broad set of solutions coexist, in many places and on many scales at once.”
There needs to be change. We can all agree about that. And the change Rushkoff urges we try and embrace is not communist (although there will be those who use the C word to try and dismiss what he is saying) but rather distributist. Distributism is the future Rushkoff is working towards.
“Instead of removing humans further from the equation of commerce, distributed digital technologies can reinvest human beings into the fabric of a more sustainable and prosperous economic landscape.”
What’s more – and to refute that use of the C word –
“It’s not calling for the redistribution of earnings or capital through taxes or state action after the fact but for the widest possible distribution of the means of production as the preconditions for a healthy marketplace.”
Whilst, as a person who works in a corporate environment myself, I can’t help but run through the kinds of conversations I’d anticipate having if I was to seek to introduce some of this thinking tomorrow, Rushkoff’s book is still truly compelling and the kind of artefact that serves to give hope when you can’t help but be beaten down by vanilla thinking and venal self-interest. For that alone, it’s worth the price of entry.
Any Cop?: A bold argument for a better future, then, and home to a wealth of ideas as to how things can change for the better.