Douglas Rushkoff

Winner of the Media Ecology Association's first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other's values. He is technology and media commentator for CNN, and has taught and lectured around the world about media, technology, culture and economics. His new book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, a followup to his Frontline documentary, Digital Nation. His last book, an analysis of the corporate spectacle called Life Inc., was also made into a short, award-winning film.

Life Inc: a book against corporatism, published by a corporation

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(Douglas Rushkoff is a recent Boing Boing guest blogger -- below, a previously-planned excerpt from his new book, the last in a series of excerpts which ran during his guest-blogging period.)

Here's the final excerpts for the BoingBoing serialization of my new book Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back.

I've chosen them in response to concern from readers of the earlier excerpts, who are asking "what should we actually do about all this?" 

I think the first step is to fully comprehend how the financial mess we're in is not some aberration, but the culmination of a debt-based economy. When speculation and lending outweigh innovation and value-creation as drivers of economic activity, addiction to growth and the attendant bubbles are really the only possible long-term outcome. That's why it's important we understand how the ground rules were established, who came up with them, and why. Only then can we begin to look at how arbitrarily they were determined, and how artificially they were upheld.

But once we've done that, we need to look at mechanisms for restoring the functioning of a bottom-up economy that is at least as worthy as its top-down counterpart. Corporate foundations, while well-meaning, end up sitting on giant stores of investment that work against the very causes the foundations are supposedly working to fix. (There's a big section on how this works, using some of the LA Times terrific analysis of how the Gates Foundation invests its assets.)

It's not a matter of getting rid of corporations and centralized currency altogether, but maintaining alternative means of creating value and exchanging it. This is as much about simple participation as it is about active legislation. Finally, I'll argue, it means abandoning "causes" as abstract as the entities for which we mean to develop alternatives.

(for more on the book, movie, and tour, as well as appearances for groups such as A New Way Forward, check out lifeincorporated.net )


From Chapter 8
No Returns


The Fourth Estate is made up almost entirely of large corporations. And, operating almost entirely under the principles of debt, media companies cannot make any distinction between the market value of information and its importance. Britney Spears's latest breakdown and the invasion of Iraq are both treated as major media events deserving of equal time and space. In the face of all this, the hippest way out is to adopt the attitude of amused and quizzical cynicism worn by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Besides, no matter how critical of corporatism some entertainers and journalists might be, the impact of their arguments is undercut by their dependence on corporatized media for dissemination. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart work for Viacom. Naomi Klein writes for a division of the German publisher Verlagsgruppe, and this book is published by a subsidiary of Bertelsmann. We all have mortgages to pay. Even most progressive journalism--just like the kind that emerged in the early 1900s--tends to frighten and isolate the middle classes rather than bring them out of their homes to improve their communities. Populists such as CNN's Lou Dobbs, and others speaking out on behalf of working stiffs, stoke more rage and discontent than thoughtful engagement. In the isolation of our living rooms and surrounded by bills, the menaces of immigrants willing to take our jobs for less pay and affirmative- action candidates offered our jobs with fewer qualifications feel all too real.

Read the rest

Life Inc: Everything's Open Source but Money


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Douglas Rushkoff - author of the book Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back - is a guest blogger.

I'm posting an excerpt from my upcoming book, Life Inc., every Monday morning until the book publishes on June 2. Two weeks ago, I published the introduction. Last week, I published the first half of Chapter One. Today, some excerpts that answer or at least address the questions and comments being raised here at BB. Next week is the final installment. I'll also be keeping the excerpts up as PDFs at LifeIncorporated.net.

from CHAPTER ONE
ONCE REMOVED: THE CORPORATE LIFE- FORM

...As a result, our physical, commercial, spiritual, and personal accomplishments came to be valued only insofar as they could serve the market. And while the market may be as good a model as any for human interaction, the corporate terrain did not represent a level playing field or a "free market" in which value might be created from anywhere. Remember--in spite of its individualistic mythology of open competition, the landscape of corporatism was first cultivated during the Renaissance, when local currencies were outlawed in favor of centralized money.

In the United States, in an assumption of centralized value creation that reached a crescendo under the Nixon administration, the Federal Reserve won the authority to create money by fiat, based on nothing but faith in its own corporate chutzpah.

The massive potential of computers and networking, technologies developed in many cases by engineers hoping to decentralize the very power structures funding their projects, was quickly recontextualized as a market opportunity--the beginning of a "long boom"--and appropriated as NASDAQ's stepchild. New rules for a new economy were invented, in which people's ability to access interactive technology for free or to create value independent of any corporation could be understood as the power of the network to leverage what were formerly "externalities." The dot- com boosters sought to reconcile the incompatibility of an abundant, decentralized media space with the legacy of a scarce, centralized monetary system.

Everything is "open source," except, of course, money itself.

Read the rest

Strange, but Never Strangers

Douglas Rushkoff was a guest blogger.

Thanks for having me aboard these past two weeks, engaging with me so honestly and provocatively, and for quickly scrolling past my posts if they just strayed too far from what it is you know and love about BoingBoing. The beauty of guest bloggers is that we are temporary. And no matter how combative we get in these spaces, sometimes it's good to remember we're all on the same side. 

I do hope I get to meet a lot of the people I engaged with in the comments sections, here. I'll be touring - both for my Life Inc book and, more importantly, to promote ideas for DIY commerce. I really do believe the BoingBoing ethos of open source and cyberpunk (make) culture dovetail perfectly with those of complementary currencies, peer-to-peer lending, and other non-outsourced finance. And I look forward to taking what I've learned into the field and into the media.

There's two more excerpts coming up to finish the serialization on BB, too - this Monday and next. 

For those of you who may want to catch up or meet up, here's where I'll be the next few weeks. You can always find out where I'm going to be via http://rushkoff.com - and I'll be on the MediaSquat via WFMU every week, as well, so call in. Please don't be strangers.

Thanks again. Your humble but happy mutant,
Douglas

Upcoming gigs:
NY: May 26th: Reading in Irvington, 8pm-9pm Chutney Masala 4 West Main Street in Irvington, NY 

NY: May 31st: Comp Currency panel, 1-5PM St. Marks Church 2nd Ave & 10th St 

Boston: June 2. Boston Public Library, book reading, 6pm 700 Boylston St.

NY: June 7th: Life Inc. Book Party, open to public Comfort Restaurant 583 Warburton Ave, Hasting-on-Hudson, NY 10706 

SF: June 9th: Booksmith, reading and signing, 7pm - 8pm PST 1644 Haight St,

Seattle, June 10th: HL2.com, Seattle talk and signing, 7pm PST www.hl2.com/ 

Redmond: June 11th: Lecture at Microsoft, 10:30 am - 11:30 am PST 

NY: June 16th McNally Jackson Books, book reading and signing, 7pm - 8pm 52 Prince Street, 

NY: June 18th: Blue Stockings, book party and talk, 7pm 172 Allen St

NY: June 29th: Personal Democracy Forum www.personaldemocracy.com/

Books about (or at least by) weird but interesting people

Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

I just raced through two novels - not because I had to finish them quickly, but because they moved so quickly.

The first, by my best friend from college Walter Kirn, is an entertaining but (for me, anyway) nightmarish reminiscence on trying to make it through Princeton called Lost in the Meritocracy, based on this essay Kirn wrote for The Atlantic. Not the academics, but the culture itself. What self-conscious public school kids like Walter and me learned at Princeton was that there really super wealthy people who control a heck of a lot of the world, and that they have institutions like Princeton to help their kids find one another and then inherit their daddies' places. Yes, I know most of you already know that - but we didn't. It was a more innocent era, and these kind of things came as big, adolescent, crises of disillusionment that required ample self-medication. And Kirn's writing, if you haven't gotten to experience it before, is the most effortlessly engaging literary literature being written today.

The second is a book by novelist Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the acclaimed Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, then went ahead and won a MacArthur genius grant which made the rest of us really jealous. It's hard to be too jealous, though, because Jonathan is a totally sweet guy and he actually is the sort of genius writer for whom such prizes were created. And, most of all, he used the time and money to create his first true work of genius, Chronic City, which - like Kirn's novel - deconstructs the hyper-competitive social landscape of eastern urbanites in a fair but viciously accurate near-future parody of manners and hermeneutics.

Personal Democracy Forum

Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

Although I begged them (and they agreed at the time) to change their name from Personal Democracy Forum to Participatory Democracy Forum, the name remains the same. But the purpose remains the same, too, so I'm glad I got invited to participate in the Forum's conference again this year in New York City on June 29 and 30.

The one thing that has changed, however, was my ability to negotiate a short-term discount of $100 for BoingBoing readers who want to go, by using the discount code "boingboingpdf". That's only going to work for the next 24 hours, but that's better than nothing. (They are pretty good about finding roles for interns, too, so try for that if the entry fee is still too high.)

On the brightest side, this year's confirmed participants include Danah Boyd, Clay Shirky, Frank Rich, Dan Gillmor, Jack Dorsey, Dave Troy, Baratune Thurston, Ana Marie Cox, Vivek Kundra, Amanda Rose, Tara Hunt, Nate Silver, Craig Newmark, Gina Bianchini, Beth Noveck, Jeff Jarvis, Scott Simon, Michael Wesch, Joe Rospars, David Weinberger, and Mark Pesce. And unlike a lot of conferences, these folks actually participate in the whole thing.

(Micah Sifry of PDF informs me that they tried to change the name to Participatory Democracy, but couldn't find an unused url for it.)

Personal Freedom, by State

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

The "Index of Freedom," maintained by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, is the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres. By measuring across a wide variety of policies and activities, the study concluded that New Hampshire, Colorado, and South Dakota are the most free, while my own New York is - by significant margin - the least (due in part, no doubt, to the famously draconian drug laws implemented during the Rockefeller era and still not repealed). (Then again, as we look at the Mercatus Center funding, another picture emerges.)

State Policy Index

Vida Inc: La Pelicula

Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

This is what I love about the Internet. Two days after we posted Janine Saunders' Life Inc: The Movie, Carlos Boyle - author of De Revolutionibus Orbium Argentum - has created a subtitled version on his website for the Spanish speaking (and reading) audience.

Reflexiones Siesteras - Life Inc subtitulada en español

Ben Franklin's DEATH RAY

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

Nate Dimeo, an NPR reporter, has been creating some fascinating audio at a site he called The Memory Palace. These are highly textured historical narratives about stuff we might not know or remember.

My favorite is a piece on a widespread fear among the British that Franklin had invented a lightning-bolt gun - and such rumors led many to shun lightning rods on their homes, in turn leading to countless unnecessary fires.

The Memory Palace

Retrotech: I want my vinyl back, too

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

The New York Times reports that MTA city buses are losing the yellow rubber electronic strip in favor of the good ol' pull string connected to a bell. The electronic strip technology costs more to make and to maintain.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the cord-pull system, it's a welcome return of a technology with more depth, character and dependability than the rubber strip. Perhaps the best thing about the pull wire is that you can really yank on it when you're mad or frustrated - as if to ring the bell louder - even though, for the driver, the bell has the same sound. So you get to express frustration in a fully gestural way, without actually annoying anyone, or spreading the anxiety any further.

The New York Times

The New RAW website

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

Robert Anton Wilson is back! On the web, anyway. Congratulations to his crew for getting the new RAW website together even though Bob is no longer around to give his inimitable positive reinforcement. Maybe that's as much his legacy as anything.

Whiskey Rebellion Anniversary

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton imposed a new tax on Americans - both as a way of paying down the national debt and, in his words, "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue." The taxes led to widespread organizing, protests, and ultimately insurrection. The first shots were fired in the town now known as South park (not Colorado, but Pennsylvania, but it always made me wonder what Trey Parker had in mind).

By May, 1794, Americans in most states were raising liberty poles, the symbol of revolutionary American resistance to tyranny. Although dismissed by Hamilton as a "whiskey rebellion" in order to make it sound like a bunch of drunks dissing government authority, the movement was a widespread challenge to the federalist model that - perhaps ironically - led to the raising of an American army as big as the one raised for the Revolutionary War, and ultimately a vast increase in centralized control over the American economy, and society. (In the form of corporatism.)

May 13 is also the anniversary of the "May 13 Incident," when Sino-Malay race riots in Kuala Lumpur led to a suspension of Parliament and at least a couple of thousand people killed by police and Malaysian Army rangers.

Inventing American History

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Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

William Hogeland, author of The Whiskey Rebellion, is out with a new one from MIT Press called Inventing American History. Given the interest and knowledge of American history revealed by some of the comments sections I've been reading here this week, I thought you might get a kick out of Hogeland's premise and conclusions - as well as some of the gems I've pulled from the text itself.

Hogeland makes the case that our historians tend to get history wrong, and for very specific reasons. He's most annoyed (and intrigued) by our deification of people when they die, or when their historical personae are resurrected.

It's good stuff, and readily applicable whenever a Reagan funeral or something like it comes along.

Neo-Hamiltonians have been chopping up the past to make it conform to their political aims. Alexander Hamilton's national vision and founding economics are far more troubling--so more compelling--than his promoters acknowledge ... Hamilton is routinely credited for favoring a strong executive branch. What he really favored was an executive branch run by him, strong enough to do anything it deemed in the national interest. For Hamilton, personal and military force, unrestrained by the slightest consideration of law, were joined ineluctably to American wealth, American unity, and America modernity. "

or

"William F. Buckley and Pete Seeger share -- along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds -- a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable: Seeger's Stalinism, Buckley's racism. Yet these two men--their careers strangely linked in the hunt for communists, the struggle for equal rights, and the emerging 'culture wars' of the postwar era--are worthy of consideration without air-brushing."

It's All in the Widgets


Douglas Rushkoff - the author of Life Inc. - is a guest blogger.

GM made this short stop-motion animation in 1939 (long before Lego's little people who look like this were ever around), to promote the concept of Free Enterprise. "Round and Round" is a 'what-me-worry?' approach to economics, suitable for anyone who wants to know how it all works without ever finding out why it doesn't all work like that.

This is best visualization of what I imagined to be going through George W's mind when he talked about taxes and business.

See an explanation of this film at archive.org

Greed is an Excuse, Not an Instinct

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Life Inc., is a guest blogger.

I've been getting lots of great (and some angry-but-still-great) email from bb readers contesting and inquiring about a couple of the contentions I made in the Life Inc. movie posted on Monday. The two main areas of concern are:

1. My seemingly romantic, almost "noble savage" argument that human beings have been corrupted by our economic institutions. Why can't I just accept the fact that people are greedy, and that the economy is simply a reflection of this natural human state?

2. The general sense that I'm disagreeing with accepted economic theory, or contradicting what passes these days for Econ 101. Why can't I accept economics and its premise of 'utility maximization' as a science - an explanation of nature - rather than a crudely arbitrary stab at game theory?

So I thought I'd answer those repeating questions right here, with an argument from the book. Right before this section, I explore the work of RAND and Beautiful Mind subject John Nash, whose experiments attempting to prove core human selfishness all failed because the secretaries of the RAND corporation kept making cooperative choices instead of selfish ones.

Read the rest

The End of Money and the Looting of America

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Life Inc., is a guest blogger.

No, not an essay from me about the end of money, but a great new book from Thomas Greco called The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, out last month from Chelsea Green. It's a comprehensive look at the bias of centralized currency, as well as the history of other approaches to money and why some of these other models should be resurrected.

Of the many books approaching this subject matter (I read a ton of them; this one wasn't available yet) this is the most straightforward explanation I've yet seen of everything from usury to inflation, credit clearing to web-based trading, local self-determination to complementary exchanges.

Very few people realize that the nature of money has changed profoundly over the past three centuries, or--as has been clear with the latest global financial crisis--the extent to which it has become a political instrument used to centralize power, concentrate wealth, and subvert popular government. On top of that, the economic growth imperative inherent in the present global monetary system is a main driver of global warming and other environmental crises.

To me - as you can tell from my posts here - most of this should be common knowledge. Unfortunately, it is still considered as questionable by many as, say, the theory of evolution. But instead of "balancing" a description of economic reality with faith-based "facts" from the other side, our job as writers is to tell it like it is, and refuse to pretend that it's all a matter of interpretation. Greco rises to that challenge.

If you're more interested in the recent credit crisis, what really happened, and how we might best respond to the fraud and cynicism that characterized the last few years of banking and policy, check out another Chelsea Green title, Les Leopold's new book, The Looting of America; How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It. Here's Leopold in his introduction, explaining the growth of the finance industry:

The financial sector, up until the 2008 crash, was one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, generating approximately 20 percent of our gross domestic product. It also accounted for 27.4 percent of all corporate profits. Finance grew as manufacturing declined, thereby dominating the real economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1940 there were 7.1 manufacturing jobs for every job in the financial service industries. The ratio increased to 7.7 in 1950. Then the slide started, as you can see in chart 1 . By November 2008, there were only 1.6 manufacturing jobs per financial services job. Until the current meltdown, the financial industry produced almost 10 percent of all the wages and salaries in the country, up from 5 percent in 1975. In a few years, provided that the system doesn't collapse entirely, the finance sector is going to be larger than the manufacturing economy.