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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Douglas Rushkoff on How to be 'Team Human'

In a TED Talk last September (2018) media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that in our present digital technological age humans are no longer valued for their creativity but only as 'data'.This tends to suppress or leave entirely behind notions of belonging and respect. , says media theorist Douglas Rushkoff -- in a world dominated by digital technology, we're now just valued for our data. In a passionate talk, Rushkoff urges us to stop using technology to optimize people for the market and start using it to build a future centered on our pre-digital values of connection, creativity and respect.

I tend to agree with Rushkoff’s thesis that our worship of technology has rather blinded us and that we must not allow it to displace human creativity and capacities. I rather wish he had not used the expression 'team human' since this conjures for me images of a world grounded on capitalist competition rather than human solidarity and belonging.

That aside there is a certain human hubris and perhaps idolatry attached to the assumption that human invented technologies can deliver us from all evil or allow us to somehow 'escape' the human condition. I think there are two distinct but related issues here.

The first is the desire to reduce human experience and creativity to digital formats—as if creativity, moral reflection and wisdom are just ‘data’ that can be digitally reproduced. What is ‘lost in the translation’ is the very thing that makes creativity, moral reflection, experience and wisdom distinctly ‘human’: spontaneity, unpredictability, contingency, ambiguity.

The second problem, very much related to the first, is that in attempting to digitize human experience and in our deification of technology, we are actually beginning to see ourselves and the world in much narrower and limiting terms.

In other words, the very plausibility of reducing human intelligence, emotion, creativity or ethical thinking to a sequence of 1s and 0s rests on the assumption that we ourselves have become gradually more and more intellectually compromised, one-dimensional beings – more like programmable robots reducible to an algorithm, than creative, reflectively independent and ethically-oriented human beings.

I agree with Rushkoff that we must strive to retrieve the values we’re in danger of leaving behind and we have to stop using technology to optimize human beings for the market—and perhaps, as he says, it is possible to optimize technology for the human future. But only so long as we understand that human creativity and ethical thinking and decision-making are not something calculative, mathematical or reducible to an algorithm—the latter simply cannot be ‘digitized’. Nor can wisdom – the basis of ethical reflection – be reduced to a series of 0s and 1s.

To create a piece of art, or to strive to make a better world presupposes that we humans have the capacity to reflect upon our experiences, to imagine different possibilities, to grasp the past and the future within the present, and to think from the perspective of another. None of this can be digitized without great loss. It can only be ‘copied’—rather like the way Facebook has tried to copy or represent social interaction in digitized form.

The false assumption is that Facebook is a digitized medium of social interaction that can substitute for face to face human interaction. The reality is that face to face encounters--the living, breathing presence of the other--invites a deeper relation, demands more of us and obliges us at an ethical level to be civil and accommodating to the other who may not share our opinions, allegiances and beliefs. There are some very good things about Facebook—it is a vehicle for sharing the latest information, stating opinions on all kinds of subjects, posting pictures, news stories, inspiring videos, great music and the like.

At a less serious, more personal (and some would claim more prosaic level) FB is a medium for entertainment, humour and content sharing among friends and relatives. To the extent that it is a vehicle for expanding the public sphere—that is, a place where people can come together to freely and critically discuss what’s going on, share ideas, identify issues of concern or even promote political ideas and organize political actions, Facebook can potentially serve as a democratizing discursive space.

The assumption behind all of the above is that the prime directive of FB was always to be a truly PUBLIC space. However, this is an assumption we should seriously question both in light of the disclosures regarding Cambridge Analytica coupled with the fact that we live in an age of ubiquitous neoliberal capitalism and the wide emergence of authoritarian governments.

Under such hegemonic political and economic structures Facebook is gradually becoming a tool of surveillance as well as propaganda delivery system that can be colonized by authoritarian figures seeking to undermine democracy and steered by the financial interests of corporate capitalism. This begins when algorithms are developed based on popularity rather than on innovation, difference or critical possibilities that might challenge the popular story, establishment memes or prevailing pieties.

This is precisely what worries Rushkoff--that we now live in a world dominated by digital technology and are valued for our data, and not because we are unique, creative and irreplaceable human beings.

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