Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff.
Published in March of 2016.
The architect Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) once said that we should “make no little plans”. The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (1955 - ) is a big thinking public intellectual.
Not content to analyze the place of technology companies in the new economy, Rushkoff wants us to imagine any entirely different set of social and economic arrangements.
In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Rushkoff posits that our current economic system is analogous to a buggy operating system. What is needed is a new economic OS, one written to benefit consumers (citizens) rather capital holders. In Rushkoff’s view, wage stagnation and unemployment and economic insecurity are not bugs of the current economic system, but features.
The rules of unrestricted market capitalism require continuous growth above all other outcomes. Companies become less vehicles to serve the broad needs of customers, employees and suppliers - and more excuses to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few.
For Rushkoff, companies like Uber personify all that has gone wrong in the 21st century digital economy. Uber drivers subsist barely livable wages - while the owners of Uber (those that control the apps and the data) grow ridiculously wealthy. What if Uber (or Airbnb or Amazon) were owned by its workers and customers - rather than the venture capitalists?
What if the goals of today’s tech companies were not limitless growth (and an exit by IPO or acquisition) but strong enough revenues to compensate employees and pay steady dividends to investors? Rushkoff asks - what if Twitter had never gone the IPO route, taking in $2 billion dollars and initially valuing the company at around $32 billion (today it is worth less around $11 billion). If Twitter had decided to bootstrap growth on current revenues, it would have taken in plenty of money to innovate its technology while well compensating employees and early investors. Today, Twitter is seen as a tech failure because the company has failed to live up to its growth expectations. This “failure” took in $2.2 billion dollars last year.
Is Rushkoff on to something in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus? Is the economy like an operating system, one that can be re-written when it no longer suits the needs of its users?
As I was reading Rushkoff’s book, the irony that I was reading by listening to an audiobook version - purchased through Amazon’s Audible division - did not escape me. We may be worried about the damaging impact of Amazon’s emerging monopoly in digital books. But it is also Amazon that built a market and an ecosystem of digital books. A market and an ecosystem that has made reading books more enjoyable and less expensive, while at the same time benefiting (I assume) authors like Rushkoff.
It seems to me that Rushkoff has well described the symptoms of the digital economy (inequality, insecurity, stagnant wages, high healthcare and education costs, underemployment, etc. etc.), but has failed in has diagnosis of the underlying disease.
The downsides in wages and security for Uber workers are not the causes of our economic problems, but the results.
It is entertaining to read about the failures of large tech and media companies, but social change and economic justice would be better served by advocacy for progressive taxation, worker protections, and public investments.
The problem with our economy is not Twitter or Uber or Amazon, but rather the shortsighted decisions on the state level to cut funding for public postsecondary education.
The need is not for more tech companies to forgo an IPO, but for legislation that ensures a livable minimum wage, access to health insurance, child care, and a quality K-20 public education.
Fighting for progressive taxation, public investment (particularly in education and infrastructure), and labor protections are not nearly as sexy (or as fun) as pointing out the failures of the high-tech economy.
Talking about good governance, fair trade deals (and the advantages of free trade), and economic policies that favor labor over capital might be less interesting than talking about the revolutionary potential of the blockchain.
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is stimulating, entertaining, and edifying. What the book is not, at least in my opinion, is any sort of roadmap for social or economic progress.
You should read the book and let us know if you think Rushkoff’s ideas are deeper (and more actionable) than I am giving him credit.
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