The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Douglas Rushkoff. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim Rutt: Howdy, this is Jim Rutt and this is The Jim Rutt Show. Our guest today is Douglas Rushkoff. He’s been described as one of the world’s 10 most influential intellectuals by MIT. He’s an author and documentarian who studies human autonomy in the digital age. He is the author of 20 books including the recent, Team Human, which I recently read and which led me to invite Douglas on our show. He’s also the host of The Team Human Podcast. Welcome Douglas.
Douglas Rushkoff: Good to be with ya.
Jim Rutt: How did you get to your current perspective? Give me a little mini bio.
Douglas Rushkoff: Gosh, I guess I was a internet enthusiast in the late 80s and early 90s when I saw this tremendous potential for a renaissance in human communications. Instead of just being fed to content from the top down, they were going to make it and share it with one another and by the late 90s I saw how this dream was really surrendered to Wall Street dream of creating more predictable and manipulable consumers by any means necessary.
I feel that over the last 20 years really a deeply anti-human ethos has been embedded in our society from, certainly from old stuff like monies and corporations and repressive government and now to new technologies and social media and culture. It brought me to a place where instead of just kind of critiquing the companies and the technologies and the ideas that they have, I thought it might be more fun to kind of stimulate the immune response of the human organism and get people to long for real human experiences rather than just criticizing digital ones.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, I like that. That’s in fact what you described as the center of your work, human autonomy in the digital age. Very much resonates with me because it does seem like we’re in a battle between our humanness and institutional forces, which may well not have been created by anybody, may well be emergent, but do seem to be working against our human autonomy.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. I sometimes don’t really care whether it’s intentional or not, as long as we can call it to attention now, but a lot of them really are a whole lot older than technology. They just weren’t quite as pernicious maybe as they are now. I mean, I in my work, I trace it all the way back to really the beginnings of the Industrial Age and the dawn of the printing press and capitalism and the way that we developed institutions and really operating systems that extract value from people and places and deliver them up to these big abstract companies.
And it was one thing, I guess, to have assembly lines and workers and to extract resources and all from the planet, but once this got digital, it kind of turbocharged the whole thing. It’s really a corporation on digital steroids, does corporatism a lot faster than it could have before that and that’s sort of why I’m taking notice. And a lot of the folks in these companies, particularly out in Silicon Valley, really do see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. They are truly hoping we just upload what’s left of humanity to the cloud and get on with evolution without these biological sacks weighing us down.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, it’s interesting, the first two guests on my podcast actually hit on both of those themes, first Simon DeDeo, who’s a data and cognitive scientist at Carnegie Mellon, talked quite eloquently about how the low friction high speed environment brought around by online has massively accelerated social evolution. And that’s one of the things he studies quantitatively and he can tell you how much faster social evolution is going and he’s a humanist at heart and I think he regrets it.
My guest was Robin Hanson who has written the book called Ems about uploading humans. And he takes that very seriously and he talked a lot about that from what I’d call the techno utopian next phase. And while it was interesting, it also makes you wonder is that really the direction we want to go.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. I mean, I guess if you accept extractive exponential growth and capitalism as givens of human society, then that’s the only place we can go. We’re going to run out of air and water and all those kinds of things that support human life really soon unless we change the way we’re going. And for those who believe that history is kind of uni-directional, that the only way you can go is forward and up and out and bigger, then yeah, they need to get off the planet one way or another.
But as I look at nature and other systems, I don’t see things growing forever. I don’t see a forest growing forever. I see it reaching its maturity and then being able to maintain a particular steady state. Even human beings, they grow and you stop growing. That doesn’t mean you’re dying. It means that you’re full grown and you can last there awhile, and I think our biosphere has been able to do that for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s been able to sort of maintain itself in a particular size.
And this notion that it’s really coming out of Silicon Valley that evolution is this battle for survival of the fittest and you got to keep growing and fighting and pushing, that isn’t really supported by evolutionary theory. If you read Darwin, evolution is the story of how species collaborate and cooperate to ensure mutual survival, not the story about how some individual beat up all the others and wins.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, actually evolutionary theory is perhaps a bit more nuanced than that because at the micro level it is about did A survive to pass on their genes or B, and species X or group Y command a greater or lesser component of the energetics and resources in a geography, but you’re right, in the longer term, in natural pre-human evolution and maybe even early human, before humans invented fire or they were finally able to dominate the ecosystem in a decisive way. Before that point nobody in nature was powerful enough to have a final victory, couldn’t even come close.
It was always a co-evolutionary dynamic equilibrium where species came and went. The average half-life of species is somewhere on the order of two or three million years. Species increase their range, decrease their range based on weather, based on other species around them. So I think it’s a little simplistic to say that it’s cooperative, but I think it’s more accurate to say it produced a dynamic equilibrium with nobody ever able to win a decisive victory.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right, and you look at Silicon Valley now and this is if they’re playing a World Series of Poker match, where one person’s supposed to win the whole thing, and that will end up leading, these monopolies, end up being much more brittle than a business ecosystem with more than one player doing more than one thing.
Jim Rutt: That’s been one of the, I think, unpleasant surprises about the online world. I go way back in the online world, long before the internet. I worked for a company called The Source back in 1980. We were the first online consumer service, I like to tell people, when I’m gazing about the old good old days, which I like to do in technology. And we had most of what’s on the web today. We had chat. We had shopping. We had stock prices. We had news. We had bulletin boards. We had some rudimentary things that sort of were a little bit like social media, but it was character mode only, 30 characters a second and 10 bucks an hour.
People say, “Why the hell would anybody do that?” Well, it was the only thing out there like it and they quickly had tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of customers, which actually brings me to another point you made in Team Human, by the way before I go on to that tell our listeners, Team Human’s very interestingly structured book. It’s got 100 short chapters or sections many of which were very sharply and eloquently written and that’s all in 215 pages. So Douglas takes us through his thinking in bite-sized chunks that are very nicely written and I would really recommend to our listeners that if you’re interested in this topic area, this is a great way to come up to speed painlessly and in fact, enjoyably.
But one of the things you talked about a little bit is how television was one of the early crushers of sociability, we retreated to our suburban houses, but then you tell us that at first online seemed like it was, I’ll quote you here, “Breaking the tyranny of top-down broadcast media it seemed to be broken. It seemed by the peer-to-peer connections and free expressions of every human node on the network. The net turned media back into a collective participatory and social landscape.” And again, that was what we thought we were doing at The Source and some of the other things I was involved in afterwards. We thought we were doing the good work. What went wrong?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, it’s interesting. It was the good work though, wasn’t it? I remember the first time I had to save a file from a terminal. Actually, it wasn’t. The very first time was on paper tape, but the first time I used a real … That computer was real hard drives, wherever they were, I remember how to save my file as a read-only file or a read-write file. Remember those days?
Jim Rutt: Oh, absolutely, on the [vexes 00:10:03]. That was one of the things you had get to do. Okay, is this a read only file or not?
Douglas Rushkoff: And then all of a sudden I was like, well, wait a minute, you mean the only difference between a read-write down a read-only file is my choice of whether to let people edit it or not? And I started to look at the world around me and say, “Look at all of these read-only files out there, from television to money. Almost anything that was established as a read-only file in the real world.” It was something that could just as easily be changed or written by someone else. What if we printed our own money? What if we made our own TV? What if we created our own rules? Is the constitution of the US, is it read-only or read-write? Well, I think it’s read-write by certain measures.
So it kind of opened me up to that initial open source understanding of the world and those of us who at least in my era, this was late 80s, early 90s. I mean, I was the guy who showed Timothy Leary the world wide web for the first time, and when he looked at it he said, “Oh my God, this is acid.”
Jim Rutt: That must’ve been turpy as hell.
Douglas Rushkoff: It was, but it was as if we believed that the internet would have this profound effect on culture as LSD did in the 60s, only you didn’t have to take drugs to experience that. And I think part of the problem was that people that were using the internet were spending less money. By the early 90s, the major media companies did a study and they found that the average internet connected home was watching nine hours less television a week. That’s a problem.
So it became a direct competitor for commercial eyeballs, and along came Wired Magazine and Wired said, “Don’t worry. This is not going to be bad for business. It’s going to be good for business, that the internet can grow exponentially the same as a market and that thanks to the internet, now markets would grow exponentially forever.” They called it the long boom and they said that this is a new economic age of eternal expansion. So the internet became less about connecting people in new and strange ways and more about extracting value and growing companies by any means necessary.
And it was highly cynical and I really thought clearest when AOL bought Time Warner. I remember the New York Times asked me to write the op-ed that day because it was still early in computer era and there weren’t really tech business writer so they called a tech culture type person like me to write it. And I wrote this piece saying, “Well, the fact that AOL is spending it’s stock to buy Time Warner means that AOL must have peaked, that they understand this is the moment to cash in their chips because they want to buy something real, and I bet you this means that the dot-com boom is about to become the dot-com bust.”
And the New York Times called me back, this was back before they even used email for this stuff and they said, “You’re crazy. This is insane, all of our business folks say that this is the beginning of the new era of internet growth, that this means there’s going to be synergy between old media new media and AOL is going to be the biggest company in the world.” Of course, I turned out to be right, but it was amazing how difficult it was for people to see what was going on, how kind of cynical the whole dot-com boom was and although they’ve come back now and are basically growing in ways that don’t require them to earn cash.
It’s just, their stock is their product and as long as the government prints money for us to invest, there will be more money invested in these things. But really we’re not looking at the triumph of new technologies over old. We’re looking at the triumph of highly capitalized companies with no employees over traditional business.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, I remember those dot-com days very well. I was actually CEO of one of the dot-com companies, Network Solutions, and we ran the domain name system in those days and we were a very profitable business and I was frankly very happy to have sold the company in March 2000.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, perfect. Right. It was perfect improvement. It’s interesting though. It’s a whole other story but I was always interested in the relationship between Network Solutions and ICANN and how Network Solutions, which really owned, as far as I understood, the entirety of domain name registration at the beginning, how it kind of ceded some control to this kind of international consortium of people kind of led by Esther Dyson to regulate how that whole industry happened. It was a really complicated journey that we went through to figure out how to legislate names and now I guess it’s completely open. I can have Douglas.Rushkoff if I figure that out, right?
Jim Rutt: Not quite. Now, it’s interesting you mentioned that. I was the guy who negotiated the deal that seeded the power of Network Solutions to ICANN and I was the lead negotiator on our side. I had some help from some other folks including a brilliant lawyer named David Johnson, who I like to describe sometimes as the James Madison of the internet.
My history actually on that one was quite interesting. I was not involved with Network Solutions until very late in the game. I did a number of other online companies prior to going to Network Solutions. I was a CTO of what’s now Thomson Reuters, in those days Thompson and I was actually very happy there, it was a great company good people and I got basically an offer that I chose not to refuse from Network Solutions and it was frankly a bit of a turnaround, even though a very profitable business. It had all kinds of problems, some of the worst customer service you’ve ever seen in your life.
But the biggest problem, which they assured me was not a problem, but soon as I got in I realized it was, was their relations with the government were about at the breaking point. This monopoly power to run the domain name system actually came from a grant of authority from the US government, initially National Science Foundation, then it was transferred to the Department of Commerce and our law team had a reasonable argument that it had transferred to us in perpetuity.
There was however an equally sound and in my view better argument, that the end of the contract in 2000 the Commerce Department could take it away if they wanted to and so there was this huffing and puffing and arm wrestling. Interestingly, I’m convinced that the reason that was never resolved before I got there, which was late in the day, June 1999, was because all the players had vested interest in their reputation in the Washington scene.
Network Solutions majority shareholder at the time was SAIC, this kind of mysterious big ol’ Beltway Bandit. And they couldn’t piss off the government too much and there was all these greasy lobbyists. It was disgusting. Me, I’m tacky, I don’t give two shits about who I pissed off. I fairly famously testified before congress and intentionally put on my Dr. Strangelove act, right and that may have been what broke the log jam because Commerce Department got several phone calls the next days said, “Settle with this dude. No telling what he might do.”
Douglas Rushkoff: He’s gonna low up the internet. Exactly.
Jim Rutt: I had a war room. We’ve had eight strategies of which one of the most extreme was … Again, this was a legal reading of are rights that even if they took away our contract, we still owned all the domain names so they could give the ability to populate to somebody else, but they’d have to start fresh. So we thought about this theory of moving the company to Bermuda, getting a 50-year tax holiday from Bermuda and operating as an independent not associated with the US government domain system.
That was our extreme war fighting strategy number eight, but having been a long-time student of military history and military strategy I said, “Stakes are too big, risks are too large. That would be a bad idea probably.” However, it did provide a credible threat. So we were treated to strategy number six, which was huff and puff and then settle. So make people think you have pocket aces, which we sort of did but they were too risky to actually play, be a bit of an asshole and then enter in good faith negotiations, which we did, and over about six weeks in late August through the end of September we actually negotiated all that stuff and you’re right, it did establish kind of a log the internet in an interesting kind of way, and having been a long-time [neticine 00:18:25] I made sure to put a fair amount of my negotiating at the things I thought were good for the internet.
For instance, deep in the bowels of the documents that set up ICANN there’s language which David Johnson and I insisted go in there that ICANN may not make any decisions about the use of domain names with respect to their content. They can regulate things like domain squatting and things of that sort, but they are explicitly banned from in any way managing anything with respect to content. And I think that’s been an important shield to protect at least that part of the internet from this new storm of censorship, which seems to be up-and-coming anyway.
Let’s get back to the evolution of what the nets have done to our society. I look back to the early days, which I think we both have a sense actually did a lot of good. I mean, I was quite active on CompuServe in the mid-80s, while I was building some entrepreneurial companies that did online stuff for Wall Street and Corporate America. I was also a hobbyist on CompuServe and there was hundreds, soon thousands that were called special interest groups, pre-internet. This was the walled garden world.
People had very obscure hobbies, I’m a Packard enthusiastic. I get together with the bunch of other Packard enthusiastic. I’m interested in data compression and there was a group on CompuServe for data compression. It really allowed thin interest from around the United States and then eventually around the world to find themselves and it was really a great thing and I thought there was nothing bad about it at all. However, here’s an interesting difference. In those days you had to pay and there was little or no advertising.
Douglas Rushkoff: The rules were that there were no advertising. You had a sign a virtual agreement saying you were going to use the internet for research purposes only.
Jim Rutt: So this is an important distinction. I think something you got a little wrong in your book. Before the internet became the big thing, there were a whole series of online services that were not part of the internet, CompuServe, The Source, AOL, and they were not subject to that. They could have had advertising if they wanted and they were obviously commercial and they sold stuff. So that rule against doing business on the internet did not apply to this earlier 80s walled garden version of online, but I think the distinction there is that they were not advertising-supported.
They were paid for typically by the hour by their users and I think the dynamic there is quite interesting. In a paid by the hour service, the operator wants you to stay on, but you don’t want to stay on too long because you have to pay. So the tendency to hijack your eyeballs in perpetuity is not really there, because 10 bucks an hour, I’m only gonna budget maybe 10 hours a month online.
Once we got to this post 2000 era, maybe 2005 where the underlying costs of systems and conductivity got sufficiently low that services could be offered for free and then advertising-supported, I put forth the hypothesis that that’s where things changed, that now the system operators were in an ecosystem where it was to their incentive to hijack your eyeballs for as long as possible and you, the consumer didn’t object because it was free. And that’s what set loose the social virus that took what had been this perhaps very positive phenomenon, the nets, and turned it into what has become today.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. Well the dynamic reverse, I remember when Wired Magazine retrieved that old phrase attention economy, that we were moving from a world where these platforms provided content to users to a world where they provided users to companies, where the human beings became the object, the content, the thing being operated on. And right, the unit of time online was called the eyeball hour and how many eyeball hours could you extract from a user by making your content as sticky as possible.
So now it’s a matter of technology working on people rather than people using technology. And then B.J. Fogg starts his laboratory at Stanford, his captology laboratory, looking at how to take the techniques of behavioral finance and port them over along with Las Vegas slot machine algorithms into your social media feed in order to indict people.
And that’s really the reversal that my whole Team Human thing is about, looking at what wait a minute, we’re doing technology to people. We’re trying to optimize human beings for this techno-economy, for the digital economy rather than optimizing technology for human flourishing. And if we keep going that way, it’s going to be really dark. We’ve already got people voting against their best interests and getting addicted to things and becoming incoherent and trying to ape their machines and dividing their attention between all sorts of things and becoming incapable of making eye contact and having real world social relationships with each other. And that’s all to the advantage of these very short-term business plans of social media platforms, but really bad for the long-term health of our society.
Jim Rutt: It’s trending that way, at least when we look at the measures, but I would also say that at the same time that ability to find people, I mean, that’s one of your themes in Team Human, find your fellow humans, right? I frankly find it still happening on the net.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yep, and particularly for those of us who have, like you were saying, before a thin community. Someone who’s got a rare disease and if they can find the other 100 people with it in America, they’re going to be online, they’re not going to be in your town or the other people who have a 1964 MG and love to talk about that. That’s a great thing, to find the others who aren’t there, but as we all see now, when you see two middle school kids texting to each other as they walk down the street next to each other, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. There’s a problem.”
Jim Rutt: Or the pathological restaurant scene where there’s four people sitting at a dinner table all of them holding their phones up.
Douglas Rushkoff: Exactly. You found the other, so now be with them rather than hiding from them. Every year, I’ve been teaching now at CUNY in New York, City University of New York for four or five years now. Every semester I have kids coming up on the first day of class with a note from their doctor saying, “Please excuse Johnny from class participation because he has a social anxiety disorder.” And I can’t think that that’s coincidental that the number of kids who literally refuse to talk during class now and can’t do presentations, it’s because they haven’t been socialized.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, that’s a very interesting trend and we will be reaping the whirlwind from that one for a while, I’m afraid. I’ll give you another though way that personally I try to use the internet and I encourage others, love to get your thoughts on this. When I think about the net communities and I say, “I’m still building many meaningful relationships from my online connections,” and I’ll get myself a little plug here. One of the better ones is a group on Facebook that I co-founded with Jordan [Greenhalgh 00:25:43] called Rally Point Alpha and it’s for people who understand what the issues are and want to meet other people like themselves and I’ve made many real-world friends that way.
But anyway, this is my trick, is I look at online connections is what I call weak links and they’re not to be a replacement for strong links, strong links meaning mostly person-to-person interactions. So I try to use these weak links to find people I want to have strong links with. So whenever I’m traveling, which I do a moderate amount, I put messages out into the world so that people I have weak links with know that I’m going to be in their town and get together and have dinner or get together for a one-on-one or have breakfast.
And when you combine the two, I think you get better than either because the strong links, especially for people who are physically distributed, are pretty expensive to maintain while weak links are very inexpensive. And if you combine the two together, I think you get a synergistic result, which is better than either by itself.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. The funny thing is though in the digital age for some reason, I guess the bias of these technologies and that sort of yes, no polarizing 1 0 quality of the systems and the architectures we’ve been using make people reluctant to see balance as a possibility. It’s like this oh, so you’re for the internet or you’re against the internet. You’re for real life, against real life. It’s like wait a minute. It’s like oh, you’re for capitalism or you’re for socialism. You’re for profit or you’re for sharing. It’s like, why is it an either/or? Why can’t I …
I love the internet. I still love the internet, even though Mark Zuckerberg and his minions are doing nasty, nasty things with it, I see the possibility of creating new kinds of connections and conversations and collaboration are still so inspiring at the same time that I see the pitfalls of using the internet improperly as a tool for social control or intimidation or election interference.
And likewise, the real world, I get it, it’s scary, it’s strange. People would rather stay inside and not meet any stranger and don’t want their kids outside where they’re going to get lured into automobiles or something, but the real world is a really important, wonderful place too. And I think that the most important thing we’ve gotten to really is just what you’re saying, is that people have to sort of reacquaint themselves, with balance, with holding even opposite opinions at the same time. They might both be appropriate.
It doesn’t even have to be a purple state versus a red state or a blue state. But what about a red-blue state a state where you hold I see both sides, I see both of these conflicting perspectives. And that’s, again that to me is what human beings can do that so far nothing else can, which is really hold onto and sustain these paradoxes and see the underlying dynamics. You want to get spiritual, it’s the old yin-yang that you experience these seeming opposites as a living dynamic and they can work in balance and harmoniously rather than some either/or ultimatum.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. I’ve been pushing that line as well for quite a while. In fact, I wrote a essay, which I published on Medium earlier this year called Reclaiming Our Cognitive Sovereignty, which tells the story of how I realized that my smartphone was a dangerously addictive device for a person like myself and how I decided to get rid of my smartphone, but how I also engineered around not having a smartphone to not give up very much functionality that I thought was critically important to me.
And I in that article encourage other people to think about inventory, how addicted they were to their smartphone and were there workarounds for the things they used it for and could they reclaim their cognitive sovereignty, and I quoted a fair amount of serious academic research on how even if your smartphone is turned off, if you can see it, it’s reducing your attention span, which is an amazing thing. But I’m not the only one writing things like this.
Tristan Harris has been working this, [Vein 00:29:55], Joe Edelman and some others and yet this idea of balance, doing both. We love the internet as I say in my essay. I still spend a lot of time on the internet, but I do it only when I’m in my office for a limited period of time each day, and then I go out and have my real life the rest of the day. So why is that so hard for people? I mean, it’s just like, yes, eating fast food is fun once in a while, but we don’t want to do it every day. Why do we seem to not be able to achieve balance in our use of these things?
Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, there’s so many ways to look at it. Partly it’s because we’re moving into a what they would have called a spectacle society where everything is bigger, louder, faster and there’s a kind of a winner-takes-all logic that’s pervading so many of our cultural institutions. Becoming the American Idol or the president or the so like we were talking about the poker game, the guy who gets all the chips on the table, the Jeff Bezos who establishes the complete monopoly, the Elon Musk who wins and goes to the Moon or Mars or wherever they’re going to go with their trillions of dollars.
There is a winner-takes-all kind of power law dynamic affecting things where you even look on iTunes or something and you’ll see that over time and since the 70s and 80s there are fewer pop stars making now all the money and many, many pop stars who sell one record each or none. So the feedback loops in interactive spaces, the leader boards and other feedback mechanisms end up turning winners into super winners and everybody else into the supposed long tail to maybe someday reap a little bit of benefit.
I feel like that dynamic, it ends up being pervasive in society too, that you’ve got to be the home run billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or nothing. If you get investment from Y Combinator or Union Square Ventures or any of these places, you’re not allowed to just be a sustainable great company. You have to grow exponentially. You’ve got to become their 1,000x return. And if that’s the only choice then you know, then people start looking at the world that way. It’s not enough to have a mom-and-pop shop. I’ve got to have the shop, the generic one-size-fits-all global solution.
Jim Rutt: Of course though, that’s only a tiny number of people. The number of people who actually get funded to build a company with venture capitals, a couple of thousand a year. How does that value become pervasive across our society? How does it impact a 23-year-old who is just graduating from college and is working as a barista at the local coffee shop?
Douglas Rushkoff: It’s the only mythology of success that we’re really pushing anymore, the idea of limited success or having a sustainable career is not the dream. It’s funny, I remember when the movie The Social Network came out and I know the guy that wrote it is Aaron Sorkin, we went to high school together. And when it first came out people thought, “Oh, wow. This is really rough on Zuckerberg. People are going to be … He might sue or people are going to see it as really negative.”
And young people saw him as the hero, and they thought, this is great. I mean, I still see kids on the subway with the T-shirts with Al Pacino in Scarface, which is really funny, because this is tiny guy playing the Cuban drug lord that’s become an urban hero. It’s not really a healthy set of role models. Or people have Donald Trump as a role model now, which is a style of winning and leadership, but not when I would help for my kids to emulate.
Jim Rutt: On the other hand, intentionally flipping the finger to the world got long tradition. I’m a little bit older generation. I remember when people wore Che Guevara and Mao T-shirts just to piss their parents off.
Douglas Rushkoff: I know. I love when I see well-meaning social justice warriors wearing T-shirts of people whose actual histories they haven’t researched. It’s like just read the Wikipedia article before you put on that particular shirt and decide if that’s what you want to be celebrating.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, Mao, probably the number one mass murderer of all times. Che was kind of small time, but he kind of seemed to be in to torture and stuff. Definitely not a good guy. So maybe kids wearing Scarface T-shirts or of that same genre, anything that pisses off your parents when you’re 17 years old is what you pretty much want to do, I think.
Anyway, this has been a very good introduction to kind of the big picture ideas that you presented in Team Human. Let’s drill in a little bit. Let’s talk a little bit about memes. You talk quite about memes. In fact, you mentioned memes 33 times in Team Human, but you use it in the somewhat curious way, at least I thought it was a little bit curious. Dawkins, who invented the term meme, memes are reproducible unit of cultural information. I would suggest that many memes are good. For instance, when your father teaches you how to bait a fish hook, that’s a meme because you’ll probably pass it on to your friends and hopefully your kids.
The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” is a meme. Yet you paint means pretty dark. I’m going to quote a couple little sections here, “That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our interact or compassion or anything to do with our humanity. They compete to trigger our most automatic impulses. Memes work by provoking fight or flight reactions. Those sorts of responses are highly individualistic. They’re not pro-social. They’re antisocial. Not that the technique was ever appropriate, even practiced benevolently, the danger with viruses is that they are constructed to bypass the neocortex.”
Again, that’s what you wrote in Team Human about memes. And how does that compare to my dad teaching me how to put a worm on a fish hook or the Golden Rule?
Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I think they’re a little different. I mean, yeah Dawkins came up with memes and I was interested in them, but what I became interested in was then well, how do memes transmit? Genes move from person to person sexually. How do memes move? How else does genetic material move between organisms? And that’s when I came up with what’s a now kind of famous idea, the idea of viral media, that while genes passed through sex, memes pass through viruses and I got interested in this idea that a media virus would be memes or sort of ideological code wrapped in a protein shell of media.
I used the Rodney King tape, which was a black guy getting beaten by cops in Los Angeles that someone captured on a camcorder tape, which was like digital video, but on little tape. It was such a provocative image that it ended up broadcast all over cable television news channels and then regular TV really overnight. As I thought it, it was the first media virus, the first thing that spread sort of out of anybody’s control and it’s spread for those two reasons.
One, it was a provocative new use of media, which was the camcorder tape capturing something. And second, the idea is inside triggered a kind of a cultural immune response of oh my gosh, white guys are beating a black guy and police brutality and race relations and urban decay and all those sort of unresolved social issues were being stimulated by this virus. And I was very positive about memes. I was positive about viral media as I was about the internet because I saw it as a way for sort of countercultural agendas to trickle up through our society.
Again, the gatekeepers of traditional media weren’t going to be able to control what we see and the important issues from at the time, AIDS and race relations to drug law and prison overcrowding, all these issues that weren’t being discussed in mainstream media would now be passed around thanks to the internet and interactive media and the media transmission and all.
But I wrote this book Media Virus and it ended up being mostly by marketers who looked at me news, as oh, this is a way we can advertise. So they really saw memetics … And I don’t blame them. This is a new form of propaganda, how can we get these ideas to spread? And we’re not talking about the simple menaces of a child learning how to fish from his father, that’s direct. We’re talking about cynically released pictures and slogans on the internet designed to spread by any means necessary. And the way to do that is not to give people information they need or something they care about. It’s not to elicit their sense of connection. Although I guess little cat memes maybe do that a little bit.
But the things that really spread, as we learned in the last election, are the most provocative kind of like you read from the book, that kind of fight-or-flight adrenaline response that [inaudible 00:39:16] oh my gosh, what is that? It’s kind of like the same way a car crash will attract your attention faster than a flower. A car crash like meme will provoke more of a response. It’ll get someone who agrees with it to pass it on and even people who don’t agree with it to pass it on to say, “Oh my God, look at what Trump just said.” In the last election cycle in 2016 it was progressives and liberals who retweeted Trump more than right-wing people.
Jim Rutt: So your argument would then be that the coupling of a meme to give it virality is to some of the darker and more primitive aspects of our unconscious personalities?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, I guess what I’m saying is that the people who are using Facebook memes to promote far right or other extremist things or hate speech and doing it so successfully are manipulating people in the same way that the early sticky internet websites sought to manipulate people. They’re doing that same thing where it’s technology operating people rather than people operating technology, that the kid opens his Instagram account and scrolls through and he is being acted upon by hundreds or even thousands of propagandists attempting to trigger a response in him. They’re treating him like a rat in a maze rather than a creative human being.
Jim Rutt: Of course, not just the right. I mean, I try my hand occasionally at an anti-Trump meme or two, and had one that went pretty viral. So everyone’s able to play the meme game. Why would we think the net effect is bad rather than the idea of the marketplace of ideas, in this case the marketplace of memes, maybe the good memes beat the bad memes. I mean, why would we think that would not be the case?
Douglas Rushkoff: Well, because the [netix 00:41:17] tends to occur, at least when it’s happening in instant little pictures with words on them on an Instagram or Facebook account. They’re trying to speak more to the brainstem than the frontal lobe. The way to get people to click on something is not … It just takes too long to appeal to their real thinking, to their heart, to their bonding emotions. That’s not where people act the fastest.
At least this is what Facebook has learned. If you want to get people to click on something, make it scary, show them a picture of their guts opened up or worms crawling around in the brain or Jewish stars and swastikas, the things that people will click on impulsively and without thinking are going to be those sort of lower-level triggering things. They are going to be more the car crashes than solutions for global warming.
Jim Rutt: That’s actually … Well, I like that insight. If we think about the network as a series of nodes and messages passing across the nodes, if there’s a strong preference for kind of simplistic and visceral material to be replicated, then we will see more such on the network and that will swap more nuanced discussions.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right, and then that ends up feeding back into the real world. I’m scared to think of what it’s like for a kid who was raised exclusively on that and has never sat, listened to even a and evening broadcast of the news, much less an hour of NPR.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. I remember we used to think that the NBC news hour was the most reductionist, simplistic crap imaginable. Now that’s considered high class discourse.
Douglas Rushkoff: I remember, right, when Neil Postman was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Jim Rutt: I love that book. I gave that book and recommended book 100 times at least. We thought that was the bottom, and now that’s our standard of something that’s pretty good.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. I remember the moment when it was kind of shifting, was back when Bill Clinton did that Gennifer Flowers affair or something. National star wrote about it before the mainstream news, and then Jerry Springer came on, was doing all of his kind of trash TV and we were looking at it, and that’s, all of a sudden that’s when Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, they were like the classy guys in a really a strange and devolving news space.
Jim Rutt: That’s actually a little scary when I think about it. So back to your hypothesis about the linkage of memes to the reptilian brain. We appear to be in a ratchet driving discourse towards the reptilian level where even the banality of 1980s TV looks much better. Very interesting conversation. Let’s move on now to perhaps the other end of the discussion, which is subtle and important questions about why we are where we are.
One of the pieces in the book that I found very interesting and it resonated very strongly with me was your section on figuring grounds, particularly the distinction you made between capitalism and commerce, markets versus money. These are really important things that unfortunately have disappeared from the public discourse. Until about 1914, people say why then? That’s when the Federal Reserve was established. The issue of money was a big issue in politics. It was talked about regularly.
Lincoln developed Greenbacks, which was a very innovative variety of money, which threatened the power of the traditional finance sources. Bimetallism, silver and gold together was a big deal. In fact, William Jennings Bryant got the nomination to be President of the United States on the Democratic ticket with his Cross of Gold speech It’s hard to imagine that a discourse about bimetallism would have been the biggest political issue of the day. And as you point out, money matters a lot, the institutional structure of our money. Whatever happened to that discussion?
Douglas Rushkoff: it is interesting, and the thing that’s so interesting to me about money is I feel like money is an operating system. And when you have a bunch of competing operating systems, then you’re aware that you’re picking an OS. If every computer in the world just had Windows on it, then we wouldn’t even know there’s such a thing as an operating system. It would just be oh, that’s a computer. So I think that today, even the bankers and the Federal Reserve participants I’ve spoken to don’t seem to have any memory of the history of money.
I mean, some of them understand what Nixon did taking us off the gold reserve but they don’t really understand that money has always been fungible, that we’ve invented different monies at different periods of history with different biases, to promote different kinds of economic activity. They really just know this one kind of money and the various cullies they have on that kind of money, whether it’s a money supply or interest rates.
What I got interested in was really the way this one ended up being so embedded with its current biases, that it’s a fiat currency that’s loaned out at interest and has to be paid back and you have to pay back more money than you borrowed. So the whole idea that the economy having to grow is not really based on the human need for growth, but the need to pay back more money than you borrowed. It’s part of the OS.
And then what happens is we move into increasing abstraction. So all right, originally we developed money so that people could trade in the marketplace. That was the point so that if you had chickens and I had shoes and you need shoes and I don’t need chickens, we still have a way to trade so we use these almost poker chips, but the poker chips don’t have so much value in themselves, it’s just to keep track of the transaction.
And the problem was that people use these poker chips that at the local markets in late medieval Europe, they were becoming less and less dependent on the aristocracy. So the aristocracy was getting poor, peasants were becoming the middle class and they made all of these transactions illegal. They said, “No, now you have to borrow money from a central treasury at interest in order to transact.” So money became a way of extracting value from all these people who were trading rather than creating a utility for people to be able to trade.
And that’s sort of the essential reversal. So where money started out as a way to help people trade, money became a way to profit off the fact that people are trading. Then you get the stock market, which then wants to make money off those businesses and you end up with today, where we have a derivatives market which makes money off the stock market, which makes money off transactions or businesses. And the derivatives have changed. The abstraction of the stock market has gotten so big that the New York Stock Exchange was actually purchased by its own derivatives exchange.
So what is that? The derivatives have bought the market. So the stock market, which was already an abstraction of a real market has been consumed by its own abstraction. Those are the kinds of reversals that I’m looking at. With money it’s really easy to see. Or say with education where public education was really invented as compensation for the worker. It was so that the coal miner could come home at the end of the day and have enough education to be able to read a great novel and appreciate it or read the newspaper and participate meaningfully in the democracy.
And now education isn’t about dignifying the life of the worker. Education is about preparing someone for work. Principles of our high schools and presidents of our colleges are visiting with CEOs to find out what skills do you need our kids to have when they graduate, as if the purpose of the school is to train people for the corporations, externalization of job training. And again, the figure and the ground reversed so that the very person that education was supposed to be serving is now the person who’s serving education.
And the worst example, the one that I grew up with, the tools that we’ve been talking about, this internet, which was about extending human autonomy and imagination and connection is now used to do the very opposite. We are not the figure of the internet. We are the ground. You don’t use your smartphone. Your smartphone uses you. Every time you swipe on your smartphone it gets smarter about you and you get dumber about it. And if we want to get smart about our smartphone and open it up and find out how these algorithms are working, we can’t. They’re protected in black boxes because they’re proprietary. We’re not even allowed to know what the phone is doing to us or how it’s doing it.
Jim Rutt: Cory Doctorow, who was on an earlier episode has a very interesting idea, which he called adversarial something or-
Douglas Rushkoff: Adversarial interoperability.
Jim Rutt: There we go. Yes. And when we had that conversation, yeah, it reminds me of a lots of hacks I used to do where I’d take a technology and abuse it terribly and use it for something else. And he made a very interesting point in his most recent novella collection about how the increasing wrapping everything, either in physical security or intellectual property, is really a force of tyranny.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, there’s a beautiful story in there about person struggling with their toaster.
Jim Rutt: That was a beautiful, beautiful book. A couple comments here, we talked about the hijacking of education. That goes way back to John Dewey, right? If you read his series Scholarly Writings, which were in many ways the basis for the modern public school system, by the 20s he was arguing that really what public school was about was to build in conformism, obedience, clock-watching, et cetera, to prepare people for jobs on assembly lines.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, it was this philosophy of what they call Taylorism, stopwatch management, which was one thing with the stopwatch on an assembly line floor and it’s another when you’re doing it to Amazon Mechanical Turk, these little human beings getting a penny for a click to do jobs, that it’s just entirely more oppressive even than the worst of what we imagined on the factory floor.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, of course, as the friction disappears, which we thought we were doing the good work as we made the friction disappear, it makes Taylorism go to the nth degree. You mentioned Mechanical Turk. I played with Mechanical Turk for a couple of days few years back. I made $13 for about six hours worth of work, came out the two bucks an hour and probably could got a little better over time, but it seemed to me unlikely I could even get to the minimum wage because this is on a worldwide basis with nobody monitoring, things like the minimum wage don’t apply.
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. You’re an independent contractor. You’re just working for yourself. And as long as there’s no jobs, more and more people are going to be doing that.
Jim Rutt: All right, let’s hop back to one of my favorite topics that you started to talk about and then we got distracted on education, et cetera, which is money. Money is key. I suspected it when I was reading your book, but hearing you talk, it’s clear you’re a money nerd just like me. In our social operating system, it strikes me that money is the colonel and I often say that if you really want to understand what makes our society work today, realize that at the core in the colonel it’s all about short-term, meaning three years or less, money on money return.
That’s what drives people’s behavior. That’s how corporations structure themselves the way they do, why the strategies they pursue happen, why M&A happens, et cetera, but money is something we created, as you point out. The fact that it has been allowed to disappear and we don’t look at these alternatives is really a fundamental loss of design space in developing our social operating system.
And in fact, I put out my own suggestion for an alternative money, which I call dividend money and there’s a YouTube up called Dividend Money: An Alternative To The Central Banker Managed Fractional Reserve Banking Money, which people want to be put to sleep or if they happen to be fascinated by money, I’d recommend, but again, it’s really almost eerie how we share some visions on this stuff convergently.
One of the things I make a big point up that you do as well, is that our current money system is forced to grow by the fact that it’s issued as debt, but needs to be used to pay the interest, but nobody pays any attention to the velocity of money. When in reality one could design a monetary system where the money supply was static or grew relatively slowly and instead we manage the velocity. I lay out a mechanism to do that, and not only does it not then have this death rush for exponential growth, it also ought not have as many ups and downs.
In fact, one of our problems with our fractional reserve banking system is that the most significant pressure is procyclical. So when the economy is growing, banks make more loans, which grows the money supply and essentially adds gasoline to the fire. That’s really what both the dot-com bubble and the real estate bust were about, but then when things are on the way down, they start calling in loans and not giving out loans and the money supply actually contracts. Seems to me a very bad design. We could easily design a monetary system where the money supply itself is not impacted by economic activity or by the level of debt outstanding, but is managed as an entirely separate mechanism. And again, I think this is an area that people really need to think about a lot.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, the problem is, I mean, the financial industry that’s grown around money as it exists wouldn’t have a way to make the kind of money they do with the money system that wasn’t there for them. We have a money system that supports money management more than it does a real economy and it’s going to be a little … Well, we’ll see exactly how a money transition happens. It’s funny, I’m going just now, I’m going to be going up to Bretton Woods where they had the original conference After World War II where they pegged the global currencies to the dollar.
They’re doing a 75th anniversary of Bretton Woods, and I’m going to be speaking about what happens then and maybe how we have to revisit … We have to revisit the policies that they developed at that time and there’s a lot of people doing some interesting Blockchains and other technologies, other money systems, but everyone’s going to be there, head of the IMF, head of the World Bank, Steven Mnuchin, Peter Thiel.
So I’m interested to see what kind of discussions people are capable of having now that I think it’s becoming rather public knowledge that our money system is almost the central problem, both in terms of social unrest, climate change and this growth addicted business landscape that we’re in happening right now.
Jim Rutt: Yep. Now, one good thing, it’s interesting Bitcoin and the similar crypto ledger-based currencies. Unfortunately got everybody focused on that one form of alternative money and frankly, I think Bitcoin is even worse than central banker monitored fractional reserve banking. However, it has had the useful function of alerting people to two facts. One, that a monetary system is a human artifact. And secondly, it is actually legal in most countries and definitely in the United States to build alternative money systems.
So hopefully when people’s obsession with public ledger non-transparent money starts to dissipate, maybe some of that energy will come back into thinking about these questions, as you say, what is it that we really ought to do about money to make it work for our society and not just work for the lords of finance?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, it’s got to be a slow and careful unlined. When I look at previous examples of how alternative money systems entered general use, it tends to be during depressions. It was during the Great Depression in America when we saw in local currencies and firm-based currencies crop up, at least for a while, and the same in Europe. It was after World War I when depressed Germany started to use the Gessle and these other monetary system.
So I’m hoping it doesn’t have to happen just because there’s no regular money for people, but I’m supposing if and when the next recession hits, that instead of simply bailing out Goldman Sachs with more printed money, we could distribute some of the basics for how a community can accomplish a whole lot of what it needs without involving federal currency. If you’ve got people with needs and people with skills, they can begin transacting even if they don’t have a way of borrowing monopoly currency from the central bank.
Jim Rutt: Yep. In fact, here in our little small city of Staunton, Virginia we have a time bank called Hour Economy, hour as an H-O-U-R, and it is a time bank where people can swap their skills for need at a one-for-one basis, where a human hour is the unit of currency. Frankly it’s a relatively small thing right this moment, but we do think that in an emergency, this is something that could come in and step forward and save the day when our financial system blocks up.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, in Greece when the European Union wouldn’t get Greece any more money and they went on super austerity, you started to see all sorts of favored banks and time dollars pop up online so that people can get their basic needs met just with other people.
Jim Rutt: Yep, the other one that’s amazing for people who are interested in this is well worth researching and it’s perhaps the biggest recent appearance of alternative money was in Argentina after the banking crisis around 2000. Hundreds of currencies emerged as like the kind you described, market currencies, local currencies of various sorts, there was even people that set up informal intercurrency exchanges, et cetera. And for a while, it kept Argentina from starving. Now, of course, they all folded as soon as the banking system restarted, but perhaps a severe enough economic dislocation that will be the opportunity for us to really seriously rethink our money system. That’s very interesting.
Let’s switch now to what will probably be our last topic, just an amazing amount of interesting ideas we’ve talked about here and about how the world could be made better, but how do we do it? In one of your previous books, which is Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, you talked about social operating systems and I believe you mentioned it 32 times and you were pretty explicit about hey, well, we own the social operating system, much less about social operating systems in the new book. How is it that we as humans can possibly get together to get our hands on making the social operating system work for humans and not be this self-perpetuating money-on-money return monster, which is consuming all it sees?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, it’s interesting. In the book before this it was way more about the economy and the sort of the business plans of these companies and I was offering a lot of ways that people could do startups or investment or tech development and economic development along different principal. It had policy hints for whoever, Elizabeth Warren or somebody in there and investing ins for the folks in Silicon Valley, ways to develop more sustainable longer-term circulatory business plans that didn’t depend on eventually every tech company becoming a holding company like Google becoming Alphabet and going into finance instead of tech.
So it was really a practical in that way. In Team Human I’m almost going back even further and saying that in order for people to develop solidarity and community and collective power, kind of the prerequisite for all of that is basic human rapport. You need to be able to look at somebody else in the eyes and do basic social bonding. The painstakingly evolved mechanisms we have for social cohesion are being really intentionally thwarted by the internet. You don’t make eye contact, even if you’re on Skype or something, you can’t see if somebody’s pupils are getting larger to take you in or smaller. You can’t see the micro motions of their head. You can’t sync up your breathing with the other person.
And because you can’t do all of those things, your mirror neurons never fire in your brain, the oxytocin doesn’t go through your blood and your body and mind don’t really know whether you’ve bonded, whether that person agrees with you. You don’t get the positive reinforcement you need to really move on in a meaningful way and that relationship. So I’m asking people, I keep saying just find the others, to find other people and connect with them in real life in small places.
Even the word conspire and conspiracy, all that really means is breathe together, spire is breathe [inaudible 01:02:21]. Breathe together with other people as the first step towards forging the solidarity that we’re going to need to really take back the world from tech companies that meaningfully or intentionally are isolating and alienating us from one another in order to control us. That’s what your phone does. That’s what Facebook does, is try to lock your eyeballs onto the screen and get you connecting as much as you can with people through the computer rather than in real life.
Our local reality where your body actually lives in, this world that is scaled to the human rather than scaled to economic growth, is the world that we actually exist in, and if we want to save it, we’re going to have to inhabit it more fully.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, we’ll have to strengthen our strong links, right? That’s what we were evolved for. That’s who we really are.
Douglas Rushkoff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And all the other weak links are really there to support these strong links, not the other way around.
Jim Rutt: I love that. If we could get that one message out alone, that the internet is a powerful and wonderful thing for deciding who and where and when to have strong links, but the real purpose of this is to enriching our life of strong links doing real things with real people. That’s great, I think it would help move us in the right direction. However, you and I both know it’s nowhere near enough. We as humans feel better and are less demented from being manipulated by social media, but that doesn’t provide us any levers to change say the money supply or the rules of the road on social media.
How do we go from a feeling better as humans to being able to capture some levers of institutional power to actually make changes in some of these areas? I’ll give you one kind of interesting and curious example, which actually speaks to this idea of strong weak links, which is the Five Star Movement in Italy. Now the largest political party in Italy established literally by a comedian. I did some research on it. How did they do this, right?
And their magic mechanism for forging weak link, strong link combination was meetup.com. There were many, many, many meetups happening on a regular basis in small, medium and larger cities all over Italy where the concept of the Five Star Movement was discussed and people were recruited and the beginnings of work was done to start a party, candidates were recruited, most of them had no experience in politics and we ended up with this very curious new party started by a comedian now being part of the government of Italy.
Frankly, Five Star, I’m not quite sure what they stand for. Read their proposals, they’re a de novo political movement there. Unfortunately, they’re associated with a moderately strong right party in the government of Italy, but nonetheless, they’re an example of from the ground up, from nurturing strong and weak links together, some people were able to actually build a mechanism to get to the levels of power.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, and I was there. I mean, I was part of the founding of Meetup actually. We thought it up after I talk I did where I first quoted the find the others idea where I was saying let the internet … The internet should not be about people meeting online. The internet should be about people figuring out where they can go meet in real life. And Scott Heiferman was there, founder of Meetup and he said, “Doug, let’s do it.” So yeah, I was a one of the original advisors for Meetup.
I think that’s a great example, Meetup, and the modern would be something like Loomio or a lot of the companies being started in New Zealand in a collective called Inspiral or the guy named Trebor Schulz, an East German who’s at the new school in New York who started something called a platform Cooperativism, which is helping a little collective start companies together and doing business and sharing ownership of a company.
So almost all of them really do require some real world association. We really do live locally. We live in real life and we have, I like to say human beings have the home field advantage in the real world and it’s hard to exercise that kind of power online. And I’m not saying that online is bad, but we have to realize it’s a weird place. A lot of our social mechanisms, a lot of our human capabilities don’t exist in cyberspace. So we shouldn’t really be counting on it as a valid substitute for good, local embodied political action.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, I think that’s something that bears much more thought. I mean, does meetup.com still exists? Actually, now I think about it, I still get the occasional email from my Meetup that I set up for the Bernie campaign in 2016. But is Meetup still a viable tool for people to use to do these kinds of things or are there newer things that have supplanted it?
Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, I think it’s still viable. I mean, I don’t know. It got bought by WeWork. I mean, I guess in the end he had to satisfy even his advisors or I think what happened was that Facebook was starting to clone Meetup, they were going to have that application on their platform and that’s when Meetup realized, “Oh my God, we’re not going to be able to survive if we don’t have a bigger bankroll.” So they were absorbed by WeWork. So I don’t know what will happen, but there are plenty of ways to find the others online. And it’s funny, I’m still finding my favorite places online are not the modern social networks. They’re still these old bulletin boards of whatever weird people share my particular interests. It’s strange old voices.
Jim Rutt: In fact, I’ve been a member of one of the strangest of those and one of the oldest of those places, The WELL, for 30 years. Well actually, it will be 30 years in December. And in fact, until two months ago, I was on the board of The WELL. The WELL is completely contrarian. They still charge $10 a month. Absolutely no anonymity allowed. They’ll actually phone call you and check your credit card numbers, make sure it’s not a gift card somebody bought at Walmart. There’s no advertising. There is no tracking of your personal data and your behavior for any business purpose whatsoever.
Frankly, they’re sufficiently incompetent. They couldn’t do it if they wanted to, but it is the antithesis of everything that Facebook is today and I will say that despite being somewhat famous for its flame wars back in the day, it is a place of amazingly high quality discourse to this very day. It’s one of those interesting corners of the internet that still perseveres couple thousand users. Well.com, if you want to look at something curious go check it out.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. WELL., what was it? Sf.ca.us.
Jim Rutt: That was our original domain name way back yonder. I sometimes mock The WELL even though I still love it and refer to it as the Colonial Williamsburg of the internet, because not only does it have a web interface from about 1998 and as you’ll see if you go there, that web interface hasn’t changed much since 1998, but it also still has a command line and about 20% now of the user still use the command line.
I’ve proposed tongue-in-cheek, a possible business model is to have people put a camera on their computer pointing down at their keyboard and the screen and stream on Twitch, old baby boomers doing command line interface stuff on the internet today. Kids today might pay to see something as weird as that. It’s kind of like Colonial Williamsburg, somebody blowing glass or weaving flax and wall together on a loom in Colonial Williamsburg.
Douglas Rushkoff: I know, just to play a modem sound for kids today is, like you had to do what? Yeah, we dialed in. It was another world.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. I think it’s about time for us to wrap up here, but giesing on technology, as I mentioned earlier, something I enjoy doing. Here is the technology gies that most amazes young people, at least in my experience, and that is describing the use of carbon paper. You did what? You took some kind of piece of paper and you put it between another piece of paper, you put in the typewriter and you typed and you set one in, then you say what the hell?
They can understand a lot of other technology, but carbon paper leaves them astounded. But then I’ll turn to them and say, “Hey, the remnant of that idea you’re using every day.” And they go, “What do you mean? What do you mean?” I said, “What do you think CC stands for on email? Carbon copy.” Hardly anybody remembers that.
Douglas Rushkoff: They’re what we call dead metaphors. You say to someone, “Time is running out.” And they don’t realize that that’s talking about an hour glass and that sand’s running through it and running out. There’s a ton of them now from our Industrial Age childhood. It means nothing to young folks today other than it’s just some random metaphor.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, it’s interesting. That’s one within my lifetime and it went from being absolutely real and something everybody knew about, carbon paper, carbon copies to being as you say it, dead metaphor with CC, wonder what the hell that means. Anyway, this has been a wonderful conversation. I only got halfway through my questions list. Maybe we can get you back sometime.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, it’s been great to talk to you. I mean, it’s good to be with someone who was there even before I was. If the ground you had laid for the net had only been the ground that they grew up in, I think we’d be in a better place today.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, unfortunately as we know from complexity science, which has been my third career, you can’t predict the future really, and anyone who thinks they can is suffering from hubris. “We do the best we can with the world that we’re given.” I think Gandalf said that, the Lord of the Rings, and that’s about the best we could ask for ourselves. Production services and audio editing by Stanton Media Lab. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.