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DL Seminar | Team Human: Optimizing Technology for Human Beings (instead of the other way around).

Updated: May 13, 2019

Post by Mohit Chawla | MS Student in Connective Media, Cornell Tech

Presentation by Douglas Rushkoff | Bestselling Author, and Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens

Illustration by Gary Zamchick | DLI Chronicler

In today’s talk at the Digital Life Initiative, Douglas Rushkoff, an American media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist, and documentarian, gave an excellent talk on “Optimizing Technology for Human Beings (instead of the other way around)”. Below is a brief summary of the talk.


Rushkoff began by comparing Mayor Bloomberg's competition for tech schools in New York, and its potential to create an alternate to Silicon Valley, to the 1970s emergence of the New York film scene as a counter to the Hollywood Studio system. New York's films had lower budgets and indie hearts, in contrast to Hollywood's crisp images with perfect sets. New York's connections to culture and diversity could make it an alternative to Silicon Valley's anti-social, economy-draining, elitist, extractive, and exploitative tech landscape.


What worries Rushkoff is when hundreds of millions of dollars come into a place and buildings start to going up - instead of creating an alternative to Silicon Valley, we might end up creating another one in New York. He fears that New York could be overwhelmed by the growth-based “Lean Mean Startup Machine” culture. The problem is that the question in New York tech these days is not “How can Silicon Valley/technology/business serve New York?” but “How can New York be the next Silicon Valley?” I believe that, this is not just true for New York but for many other cities in many other countries. This is because tech is the fastest growing sector with very high potential to generate employment.


On the incident of local residents’ response to Amazon’s HQ announcement in Long Island city, he adds that, on an intuitive level, the locals were saying - “Wait a minute, this feels like colonialism by a certain techno-business model, even if we are not able to articulate exactly why!” This was verified when they looked at Silicon valley and saw how people were literally lying in front of Google buses to prevent their movement. They understood Google’s alien invasion, and how San Francisco, which used to be a city, was being used as a Hollywood backdrop for the lives of tech workers, with no investment in the local people. According to Rushkoff, Google became the amplifier for one of the Adam Smith’s three factors of production - land, labour and capital. The only one that scales infinitely is capital, but what happens to the other two? It is interesting to see how the other two factors are negatively impacted in the name of technological development.


Rushkoff notes the negative impact of venture capitalism by showing how mission-driven people who want to solve problems using technology end up pivoting away by taking venture money, forcing themselves to ask “How can we help people and also make a billion dollars scalably?" He further adds how unrealistic expectations of return by venture capitalists mean that companies earning good profits are still declared failures on Wall Street.


To Rushkoff, this shows that “investing” is broken and needs to be disrupted. To this point, he adds that its surprising to see that while technologists understand the technological operating systems that they are using to build their platforms, they are either oblivious to economic operating system beneath their platforms or they accept it as a given condition of nature. They are ready to disrupt traditional industries like taxis and publishing, but they are not willing to disrupt the current model of venture capital investing. He thinks this is because young technologists go to Silicon Valley with their ideas and are convinced that “You either hit a home run or nothing”. Rushkoff recommends that startups should take as little venture money as possible. This can be summarized to say that the current model of investing is flawed as it focuses on growth instead of sustainability.


Finally, Rushkoff talks about the adverse effects of technology: how education has become tech-job training, and how creative and liberal arts are struggling. He adds that we have moved to an attention economy with products based on "eyeball hours". Companies' use of users' past data puts them in statistical buckets for easier modeling, resulting in outcomes that reduce unpredictability and creativity.


It was very interesting to see Rushkoff’s views on technology and venture capitalism and I agree that is it time to step back and rethink the direction we are collectively heading towards, using technology. It is important we question, rather than accepting things as a given condition of nature.

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