Screw growth. It’s time to reprogram the digital economy for people

time to reprogram the digital economy facebook ipo
The digital economy isn’t working out quite like it was supposed to.

The promise was that we were all going to get to work fewer hours, from home, in our pajamas, on creative pursuits, while our computers and networks did the heavy lifting. Instead, however, we find ourselves automated out of gainful employment, less secure in our futures, and glued 24/7 to screens that are extracting value from us — whether or not we’re even on the job.

This is not the Internet’s fault. Technology is not breaking the economy. The real problem is that instead of building a truly digital economy, we’re using digital technology to amplify the values and mechanisms of the growth-based industrial economy we should be leaving behind. Instead of building a peer-to-peer marketplace where prosperity is as distributed as the networks on which it runs, we are jacking up traditional venture capitalism on digital steroids.

That’s why we’re getting such extremes. We are not developing our new technologies for the betterment of humanity or even our businesses, but to maximize the growth of the speculative marketplace. And it turns out that these are not the same thing.

Grow or die

In order to become one of those rare winners that are acquired or go public, digital startups must abandon their original missions and instead demonstrate their ability to achieve an absolute monopoly of one or more sectors. Success is not enough.

Twitter’s earnings of over half a billion dollars a quarter are punished by Wall Street as an abject failure. Half a billion dollars of earnings by an app that broadcasts messages of 140 characters is pretty darn good. It’s just not enough to satisfy investors who want 100 times return on their initial multi-billion-dollar stakes.

We are jacking up traditional venture capitalism on digital steroids.

So now Twitter, like so many other digital companies, must somehow contort itself into something other than it is. It must compromise its functionality in order to play news outlet, advertiser, video-streaming utility, or something else capable of extracting more value from the activities of people and businesses.

This is why Facebook is less about connecting people than mining data, smart phones are programmed less for utility than interruption, and Uber would rather use its massive capital investment to fight regulation instead of appropriately compensating its drivers.

It’s not fair to burden digital companies with perpetuating the dominance of a growth-based, venture-driven economy. Not to the companies themselves, nor to those of us living in the wake of their economic destruction.

Resistance is almost futile. Those businesses that remain in productive enterprises and attempt to resist disruption end up warring against digital adversaries with vastly inflated assets. It’s not that these upstarts are necessarily better or more efficient; they simply have much bigger war chests.

Reprogramming the economy for people

In short, we are trying to run a 21st Century digital economy on an obsolete, printing-press era economic operating system. It worked well enough for a few centuries of industrialism – slavery and environmental devastation notwithstanding – but now it’s time to upgrade.

We must look to the distributive qualities of digital technologies for their ability to promote economic activity rather than usurp it. The beauty of networks – unlike industrial machines – is that they are biased toward distribution and circulation. Everything is moving. Things don’t travel from the top down or even the bottom up, but to and from everywhere at once.


Likewise, instead of optimizing digital companies for simple extraction, we should be optimizing them for transaction over accumulation – for flow over growth, or what economists would call the velocity of money rather than capital appreciation. This is what digital platforms do best.

In the simplest sense, this would mean building more companies like eBay, which let people exchange value with one another, or even YouTube, which cuts in creators on the proceeds their videos create. It means coming up with capital-busting platforms like Kickstarter, which let people pre-order and pre-fund the products they want – sidestepping the need for speculative investment by those outside the value chain, as well as preserving the money they would have eventually extracted.

It means experimenting with new, frictionless forms of exchange such as the interest-free local currencies currently in use from recession-vanquished Lansing, Michigan to Euro-challenged Greece. Thanks to what is known as the “multiplier effect,” local currencies end up circulating among businesses ten times more than interest-bearing central currency. The same money ends up essentially recycled. Instead of earning one dollar and trapping it in static capital, we get to earn the same dollar ten times. Revenue and prosperity go up the more those same dollars are exchanged.

The tools and approaches of a digital age can rebuild our economy from the inside out.

It also means exploring technologies such as bitcoin, not for their value as speculative investments, but as new systems for the authentication of peer-to-peer transactions and contracts. When we don’t need a central platform, bank, or clearinghouse to verify who has done what for whom, people gain the ability to transact directly. When we can do that, neither the banking industry, nor centralized platforms such as Airbnb or Uber, can maintain their monopolies over commerce or continue taking their disproportionate share of every exchange.

We can replace those monopoly platforms with worker-owned applications, or what are called “platform cooperatives.” Imagine an Uber where the drivers owned the platform itself, proportionate to their contribution of labor. This way, instead of merely doing the research and development for the driverless cars that will one day replace them, they would participate in the profits their work and vehicles made possible. Juno, a cab-hailing app launching in New York this spring, is doing just that.

This is the digital economy we deserve. Instead of merely amplifying the worst of a dying, growth-based, industrial paradigm, the tools and approaches of a digital age can rebuild our economy from the inside out.

After all, if we don’t like the digital economy we’re in, it’s up to us to go program a better one.

douglas-rushkoffDouglas Rushkoff is the author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, as well as a dozen other bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including Present Shock, Program or Be Programmed, Media Virus, Life Inc and the novel Ecstasy Club. He is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens. He wrote the graphic novels Testament and A.D.D., and made the television documentaries Generation Like, Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation. He lives in New York, and lectures about media, society, and economics around the world.
Emerging Tech

Google’s radar-sensing tech could make any object smart

Computer scientists have shown how Google’s Soli sensor can be used to make dumb objects smart. Here's why radar-powered computing could finally make the dream of smart homes a reality.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

OpenTable points can now be used to whittle down cost of a hotel stay

Have some OpenTable Dining Points built up? Now those points can also be used to make your own hotel discounts. OpenTable is teaming up with Kayak to use points as discounts on participating hotels.
Smart Home

Thinking of buying an Instant Pot? Here's what you need to know

The Instant Pot is a powerful kitchen appliance that does everything from pressure cook to to slow cook to steam. Heck, you can even make yogurt in it. Here's all you need to know about the magic device.
Social Media

Nearly a million Facebook users followed these fake Russian accounts

Facebook purged two separate groups behind more than 500 fake accounts with Russian ties. One group had ties to Russian news agency Sputnik, while the other had behavior similar to the Internet Research Agency's midterm actions.

Switch up your Reddit routine with these interesting, inspiring, and zany subs

So you've just joined the wonderful world of Reddit and want to explore it. With so many subreddits, however, navigating the "front page of the internet" can be daunting. Here are some of the best subreddits to get you started.
Smart Home

Amazon Prime members number more than 100 million in the U.S., survey says

Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimated there were 101 million U.S. Amazon Prime members as of December 31, 2018. Last April, CEO Jeff Bezos wrote there were more than 100 global million Prime members.

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.

Always have way too many tabs open? Google Chrome might finally help

Google is one step closer to bringing tab groups to its Chrome browser. The feature is now available in Google's Chrome Canady build with an early implementation that can be enabled through its flag system.

Worried about your online privacy? We tested the best VPN services

Browsing the web can be less secure than most users would hope. If that concerns you, a virtual private network — aka a VPN — is a decent solution. Check out a few of the best VPN services on the market.
Emerging Tech

Facebook hasn’t given up on the idea of building an internet drone

Facebook's efforts to provide internet connectivity from the skies using solar-powered drones suffered a blow last year when the company abandoned its "Aquila" drone project. But the company clearly hasn't given up on the idea.

Royal fans bid big money as Prince Philip ‘car crash parts’ hit eBay

A couple of days after a car crash that involved the 97-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II, debris apparently from the scene of the accident showed up on eBay. And people wanted to buy it.

How good are you at spotting phishing scams? Take this quiz to find out

Are you able to discern between a legitimate email and one that's a scam designed to phish for your personal information? Google created an online quiz with tips to help you better understand phishing so you don't become a victim.