Why The Future Of Humanity Is All About Team Work
World-leading futurologist Mr Douglas Rushkoff discusses where we’re headed as a species in this new decade
Mr Douglas Rushkoff is the public intellectual we really need right now. In the books and graphic novels he has written, in the plays and films he’s made, in the class he teaches at The City University of New York, and – importantly – in real life, human to human, he is telling vital stories about how we can find solidarity with our fellow humans in the digital age.
“[It’s] all about trying to help people see out of their reality tunnels and to come to grips with the way that we’re participating in the ongoing shaping of reality,” he says of his work. This, certainly, has been something of a preoccupation through much of his output, from the columns he wrote on early cyberpunk culture for The New York Times and The Guardian, to his zeitgeist-y books about, variously, viral media (Media Virus, the mid-1990s), the hegemony of corporations (Life Inc, 2009), and the incessant now-ness of our reality (Present Shock, 2013). However, his new book, podcast and greater outreach programme, all titled Team Human, is something else besides. On the one hand, it is a celebration of real people doing real things (often with one another) to ensure a better future – be they members of Extinction Rebellion or a guy converting disused car parks into organic farms. On the other hand, Team Human is a message, delivered via various media, about where we are now as a species, and where we can go in the years ahead.
Implicit in that message, or in possible readings of it, of course, is the fear and trepidation we all feel about what is to come, by way of climate change or politics – the list is long. So, as we step ever-so gingerly into a new year, a new decade, we called Mr Rushkoff to help us make sense of the future, as it looks now, and as it can be.
How would you characterise the current chapter of history?
If there are chapters, I tend to look at them in terms of the media environments that we’re moving through, from, say, an oral environment to a scribal environment, to a printing press, to a radio and television one, into our digital one today. It’s less the media themselves that I’m concerned about than the way the media changes our inner senses, the way these different media environments change the way we make sense of the world that we live in.
In previous media eras, I feel like we were all exposed to the dominating, single reality view – that of the pharaoh or the king or whoever was in charge. And then, for a century or so, we’ve kind of enjoyed this ability to choose our reality tunnel. You would choose The New York Times or The Post, you would choose Fox or MSNBC and that might’ve been divisive, but at least it was conscious. I understood that I’m going to read The Guardian because this is more consonant with the way that I make sense of things. But now, on the internet, those choices are being made for us by algorithms. Not with the intent of helping us make sense, but the intent of engaging us or addicting us or stimulating us. And I guess that’s what I’m working on now: how do we forge consensus with people who not only have different perspectives than we do, but are seeing different realities to us? That’s going to be tricky.
What are the biggest struggles we face right now?
The coming catastrophes of topsoil erosion and 30 harvests left on the planet, climate change and civilisational collapse, they’re real. But in some ways I feel like we’re migrating from one environment into another. From the television-watching society into a digital one. And we don’t really fully understand where we’re going or what’s happening. None of us do. Not even those of us who are thinking about it all day. And in order to address any of these problems, even a climate change problem, we’ve got to be able to restore or retrieve basic cognitive coherence. I feel like we’re not operating coherently and that’s maybe my biggest fear. But that’s the biggest project.
It’s difficult to fathom what the future will look like. We have plenty of evidence of mass migration spurred by climate change already. How do you picture that on a mass scale?
Well, that’s one of the big problems about being a television generation, we expect everything to happen at industrial scale. And if it’s not happening on an industrial scale, we’re saying that it doesn’t exist. And I get that we have global problems; we need big organisations and climate accords and all that. That’s important.
But another equally or perhaps more important part of that whole picture is local resilience and local coherence. You know, the human being is not a massively-scaled phenomenon. You are not Walmart, I am not the British East India Company. You are not Uber and you are not the government. You are a person in a body that fits in a room or a car or a town and you see the other people around you. And that’s going to be the locus for the kinds of changes and activities that we need to engage in to flip the script.
If everybody wants the thing that they’re saying is the agenda of the nation or of the world, we are doomed. It’s just another monoculture that’s an industrial age, one-size-fits-all solution to the industrial age, one-size-fits-all problem. What we’re really going to see in an appropriately managed climate is hundreds, thousands of different, local-appropriate solutions that end up creating more of a hetero culture.
I mean, nationalism is really only 200 years old. This myth of a nation state and common ethnic origin was perpetuated by monarchs. You were a Venetian, you were not an Italian, you didn’t know anyone from Italy. You knew your town, your city state, not this nation state. And now it’s so funny that people are actually subscribing to these myths of collective origin that nation states were invented for the purposes of social control, that now people are trying to retrieve those as if it’s a form of liberation and self-expression rather than a surrender to an illusion.
What have you discovered from the people around you at Team Human that has made you hopeful for the future?
What was important to me was this idea that being human is a team sport. One thing that is giving me hope now are people picking up some of these ridiculous technologies and using them for genuine social good. There are some people even using blockchain and crypto to create a more distributed prosperity rather than individual wealth through mining. I’m encouraged by a lot of people going into local politics, especially women. I’m encouraged by educators. A lot of them are realising that time in the classroom with these kids is more valuable than whatever subject it is they’re supposed to be teaching them.
They’re starting to take advantage of what it means to be in a room with other people. And to see that education is less the transmission of information than the modelling of a certain kind of behaviour. I’m encouraged that more and more people starting companies realise that there are stakeholders other than themselves and their shareholders. That the employees are shareholders and stakeholders, that the town that they’re operating in is a stakeholder in this activity.
What can we all be doing to prepare ourselves, to participate in making a better future?
Find like-minded others. Find the other people you can get along with and start doing this thing. Forge solidarity with other like-minded people. Once we do that… really, anything is possible.