A Road to Nowhere

Review: 'Team Human' by Douglas Rushkoff

A robotics student interacts with a Dexmart robotic hand / Getty Images

BY:

You have to give media theorist Douglas Rushkoff credit for his strong sense that something has gone wrong with the computer revolution.

That is, you have to give him credit in the way you might acknowledge that Judith Krantz had some insight into the distancing effect of taking a photograph in Dazzle, her famously awful 1990 romance novel in which a photographer dashes through her overwrought life, penciled in for sex on the author's schedule of once every 50 pages. Or in the way that you might praise Dan Brown for noticing the feminine principle in theology, even while populating with albino dwarf assassins from the Vatican the deadening prose of his 2003 mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code. Or in the way you might cheer Dale Carnegie for noticing that our communication skills could use some work, although the price is having to plow through his 1936 self-help burlesque, How to Win Friends & Influence People.

In other words, Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human seems at times a sadly adolescent book—as you could have guessed from just the title, apparently formed when the author joined a squad of high-school cheerleaders: Push 'em back! Push 'em back! Go, team, go! And yet, set somehow in the goop, the reader will find real gemstones, for Team Human correctly discerns some of the problems digital technology has caused for us. Rushkoff merely lacks a clear idea of why computers have caused these problems and what we should do about it.

Team Human poses itself in what it declares the middle ground between fuddy-duddy luddites, fulminating against these damn kids with their damn machines, and transhumanizing futurists, raging against the reactionary forces that want to prevent us from marrying our sex dolls and uploading our consciousness onto the Web. In truth, though, there aren't enough prominent old-fashioned anti-technologists to fill a 1960s Volkswagen microbus these days. Most of Team Human is directed against the more numerous transhumanists. Indeed, Rushkoff explains, he got the idea for his book when one cheerleader for the technological future accused him of understanding only the human perspective—which, he later decided, was actually a compliment: Go, team human, go! (Transhumanism, he writes, isn't a philosophy of human evolution. It's an "evacuation plan." Human beings, he insists against the futurists, "are not a cancer on the planet.")

To look at current trends is, Rushkoff writes, to see "an antihuman agenda embedded in our technology, our markets, and our major cultural institutions." We are rushing into the unconsidered embrace of a computerized future that, deep in the core of its design process, hates us. "Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution," Team Human notes. "When they are not developing interfaces to control us, they are building intelligences to replace us."

Some of this Rushkoff began developing in his well-received 2010 book, Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. The irony he perceives is that we are damaged even by the elements of the computer that were sold to us as means to heal our social discord. From Instagrammed photographs to GPS maps, our experience these days is "composed of more mediated experiences than direct ones." Social media claims to unite us, but "we are more alone and atomized than ever before. Our most advanced technologies are not enhancing our connectivity but thwarting it."

Broken into a hundred sections, Team Human is little too choppy to provide a clear narrative that might help us understand how we reached this point. The pep-squads of the 1990s proclaimed that, from blogs to online shopping and Wiki projects, we were arriving at new forms of genuine human interaction. Instead we got click-bait listicles, cat videos, and the commercializing of our online clicks.

The promoters of digital advances have always been dewy-eyed. In 1983, The Times of London ran an essay explaining "Why the computer will reduce political upheavals." And now we have swaths of the American public convinced that the Russians bought the 2016 presidential election with ads on Facebook. Recent polling about public awareness of artificial intelligence suggests a growing uneasiness about artificial intelligence—but most of it seemed to be silly sci-fi fears of something like Skynet awakening. Almost none of the worried people named the places where artificial intelligences are actually digging into our lives: in calculating the clicks we make on Facebook, commercializing the webpages our eyeballs roll over, and facilitating the kind of social control in which China has taken the lead. "We are embedding some very old and very disparaging notions about human beings and their place in the natural order into our technological infrastructure," Rushkoff writes.

And yet, that insight fits badly in the general feeling that Team Human tries to convey. Much of the time, Rushkoff seems to think the past was better than the present. The old English idea of the commons is, he argues, an example of the idea we failed to build with in the Internet—and the cause of our failure is financial. The market, he believes, ruins everything. Its as though Rushkoff takes the unthinking motto Capitalism bad / Socialism good, and applies it willy-nilly to everything technological. The social promise of television was ruined by powerful corporations, and now with the Web, It’s happening again! Writing started out as a useful invention, but, Team Human bizarrely claims, it was quickly monopolized by kings to control their subjects and dehumanize peasants by reducing them to marks on paper. For that matter, people in the long-ago mythical past had an innate "connection to ideals." And now we don’t!

Ah, well. Rushkoff's proposed solutions aren't wrong exactly, when they manage to avoid mystical socialism. But they are too often without content. "Human beings can intervene in the machine," he writes, and the reader wants to join his cheerleading. We need a new Renaissance that won't "leave anyone behind," and the reader wants to roar in approval.

But how exactly are we supposed to intervene? What would our Renaissance look like? We should . . . do something. Our new age needs us to . . . change things. And so we should. The gems in Team Human are all compelling observations of the truth that we need to find a new way. The goop in the book comes from the vagueness of the proposals for that new way.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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