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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

The Economic Operating System

throwing-rocks-330pxI recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s provocative new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.

Rushkoff is a media theorist, but this book falls comfortably into the area of big think economics. Its premise is that the underlying “operating system” of our economy — capital growth above all else — is not a fundamental law of markets, but was instead something selected four hundred years ago for some less than noble reasons.

(For a more grounded take on the same premise see Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, which, if you’ll excuse a bit of trivia, was also a titular inspiration for my most recent book.)

Its Implications on Distraction

I’m not as interested as Rushkoff in making a moral judgment on the nuances of our market economy — a discussion above my pay grade.

What caught my attention with respect to our conversation here was the conclusion, implicit in his argument, that many of the features that have built the Internet into a weapon of mass distraction are not intrinsic to the medium, but are instead a side-effect of its cooption as a tool for capital growth.

That’s a heavy sentence. Let me attempt to unload it…

  • Rushkoff notes that after the biotech crash of the 1980’s, investors needed a new sector that could continue to fuel capital growth.
  • The Internet filled this role. Among other things, it exposed net users’ attention and personal data as an under-exploited resource that could be extracted and sold, and therefore support growth much in the way colonizing a country and extracting minerals from the ground once did.
  • As in any extractive industry, the more resources you can mine, the better. This led the way to attention engineering and the general/inevitable push to make applications and sites as addictive as possible.
  • This capital-driven push toward maximum addictiveness led to the shiny tangle of apps and infotainment sites that have become the bane of potential deep workers worldwide.

This is an important distinction.

When I take a stand against social media, in other words, I’m not taking a stand against the contents of your feed, but am instead taking a stand against these large companies’ insistence that the intrinsic value of my attention should flow into their coffers instead of being directed by me toward deep work on things I find important.

Rushkoff’s observations, however, do more than fuel righteousness. They also provide hope.

The Internet can and should be a source of peer-to-peer connection, serendipity, interestingness, and even revenue generation. But we shouldn’t necessarily expect the venture-backed corporations sprinting to generate 100x returns to be the best source of these rewards.

12 thoughts on “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus”

  1. Don’t focus exclusively on giant “venture-backed corporations” exploiting the Internet. I get irritated many times daily by email spam. Judging by the content, virtually all of it comes from little jerks engaging in unwanted peer-to-peer connections rather than giant corporate entities doing data mining or whatever.

    In short, the human problem affects people at all levels. It’s not a matter of scale. The person throwing a rock at a Google bus is as likely to be a creep as Google and more so than those riding the bus.

  2. As an employee of a company striving to grow, I know part of the mandate of growth is that certain not-fun things start to happen to companies when they don’t grow. We all expect a nice pay raise each year and that is not possible when a market retrenches or corrects itself. It is somewhat mind blowing to think about the possibility that growth is not necessarily a mandate. Thanks Cal.

  3. Part of the Belloc / Chesterton theory is that tech advances didn’t have to be used the way they were — they rejected the theory that the Industrial Revolution necessitated centralization. They insisted that the centralization happened first (they track it to Henry’s appropriation of massive amounts of property when he tossed out the Catholic Church, property he wasn’t strong enough to hold so it went to the aristocracy). The centralizing powers were then able to use the power of the government and the new technology of industry to centralize and consolidate further.

    So I find it interesting, this idea that a current economic “regime” drives the economy in a certain direction to nail down its gains.

    • Good catch on your part. The law if passed will have unintended consequences that will surprise the French. Thanks for sharing.


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