Bull Session

Digital Capitalism

August 3, 2018          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about capitalism and the problems that it causes as we’re creating a digital future. Digital capitalism, as it stands, is not only an extension of an unfair and oppressive system, it’s actually making things worse. If indeed technology is leverage, we’re not using it for solving the right problems. We may have Fair Trade coffee, but we certainly don’t have Fair Trade mobile phones, software, or digital services. Join us as we discuss.

Welcome to episode 269 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings listeners.

For our topic this week we are going to chat a little bit about digital capitalism and creating a digital future inspired by the essay written by Douglas Rushkoff on Medium entitled Survival of the Richest. First let me say that you should definitely check out this Medium article by Douglas Rushkoff. He’s writing a book right now, I believe, called Team Human and he has some interesting insights and a fascinating story about how he was consulting with some wealthy individuals about emerging technologies and sort of the sequence of what these individuals thought the technology would be used for sort of ended up with an apocalyptic outcome. So the question was hey, how are emerging technologies going to shape our future and then the assumption underlying those questions was that the future is going to grim as there’s going to be plenty of have nots and only a few haves and how do the haves protect that future. Dirk, you pointed out this article to me and so before we dive into digital capitalism, which is our topic for today, your impressions on Mr. Rushkoff’s essay there?

I thought it was very interesting. It brought a mainstream light something that’s been more in the shadows. I don’t think people are even aware of, much less thinking about, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time. Jon and I designed a game five years ago called Tomorrow, which was about post-apocalyptic population management and management by virtue of destroying people, by depopulating the planet. That came out of my own thought experiments around what must the people in power, what must the wealthy be planning and thinking about and getting ready to do if the worst, most apocalyptic predictions for what is going to happen due to global warming, due to other things going on at a macro level would occur.

This is something I’ve always found fascinating and have thought a lot about. So I was very pleased to read this article where Doug is sort of pulling back the curtain on, A, these things exist and, B, this is what they look like. So that was neat. The sort of set up is it was just a small handful of the richest bankers in the world. Pure money men driven by capitalism and wealth accumulation and the process went from there, asking more general questions, to eventually getting to the real questions that they cared about, which is how are we going to be safe when everything goes to hell. And some of the questions they asked him are questions I’ve asked myself before.

What are going to be the best places to be if global warming gets really bad? I’ve googled that for years and there’s not good information on the internet about it, because every year or so I’m like oh, let’s check now, let’s check now, and it’s not great. They aren’t yet clearly saying “Get the hell out of Miami and New Orleans and these eight other places, and the best places are A, B, C, and D.” So I thought it was interesting to see these sort of wealthy guys asking similar questions and Doug wasn’t forthcoming about if he has insight into that or what his suggestions would be. In my own thinking about what is probably safe, I think about places that right now are cold and places that have a lot of fresh water.

Unfortunately I’m just not wealthy enough, but if I had some more wealth I would be buying land in Alberta, Canada, maybe even the northwest territory if I’m feeling really bearish about the future. Just to but there. Just so if some of this apocalyptic stuff is true, my descendants, my heirs have somewhere to go, have somewhere to be in those situations. So I, myself, have thought about a lot of the things that these super wealthy are thinking about and so it was very interesting to read and of course it was a little funny but also a little chilling to read some of their other considerations.

They were very interested in how to keep control of their security force in the event that all these things happen. So the scenario is these guys have already built extensive underground bunkers, which is probably a surprise to some of you as well, and those bunkers are going to be manned by a security team, by killers basically, who will make sure that anybody who tries to get in can’t get in at the likely cost of their life. So their plugging Doug about how do we keep them loyal? How do we stay in charge in this world where everything’s crazy and maybe the money that gave us the power to build a bunker in the first place doesn’t have a lot of leverage anymore. So it’s a fascinating look into … It’s an underbelly of emerging tech, but it’s also frankly just how the very rich and powerful think. They’re, I think understandably, trying to think about how can I use all of this leverage that I have to make myself safe in a bad circumstance? To make the people I love safe in a bad circumstance.

So as the have nots that you and I are might feel a little bit bad about it, it’s perfectly understandable and frankly, responsibly speaking, what they should do. Now, are the apocalyptic scenarios where you need underground bunkers and machine guns and guards manning it … Is that likely to happen? No. No it’s not. But if you have more money than god, why not make sure that you’re going to be safe in that situation? I thought it was very interesting and it tied into something I’ve thought about for a long time now.

Yeah, so my second book was actually, more or less, on this topic called Suburbaggedon, which was written right around when the Y2K virus was the most popular apocalypse around. So I actually have done a bit of research about doomsday prepping and yeah that’s an interesting cross between what you would think pioneering/living in wilderness combined with a degree of paranoia that I can no longer subscribe to in my current state right now. I just find a lot of it more entertaining than not. I suppose that if you’re willing to consider the, we’ll call it the walking dead scenario, in looking at the world today, I think there are a lot of gradations between where we are now and the walking dead scenario.
But let’s turn right now, because this is sort of the preface to discussing some of the reasons that we have this scenario in the first place, which is that digital technologies and emerging technologies in general have the ability to give massive leverage to the people who can create an advantage out of it. Not only just creating an advantage, but you’re creating a multifold advantage by using digital technology. So I think what I liked most about Doug’s essay was that he was highlighting how we are making all the same mistakes that we made with industrial capitalism, which was sort of the first golden age came about as a result of industrialists.

So we know all the famous family names of the industrialists, whether … They’re now on colleges and libraries and research institutions and that sort of thing. But there isn’t a lot of discussion about how we are at this weird point where I think we’re starting to see people sour on the idea of digital capitalism as having free reign. It’s separating from the digital utopia that we thought it would be or that it could be, and has now just become sort of crappy capitalism in digital form.

Capitalism is crappy Jon. All capitalism is crappy.

Well, let’s say that I’m willing to … I think a balanced, well regulated capitalist economy that has the right checks and balances in it is better than some other systems. But I think that we have let it get away from us already. Not that we’re letting it get away from us, which is where my thought process has been over the past decade or two. Like hey, we better do some things about this soon. I think it’s already gotten there. So a perfect example of this is how all of our mobile devices are really just turning things into a giant toxic waste dump due to the fact that we have all kinds of rare earth metals that are sort of part of this technology and integral to it combined with a supply chain that is just unethical at best.
So you have a supply chain that stretches across oceans and essentially makes it easy to hide how badly the people are being treated at the other end of that chain. So I thought it was notable because like it or not there’re a number of points that are coming to head now when it comes to digital capitalism, whether it’s the trials and tribulations of Facebook, or Uber, where these unsavory and just despicable practices are suddenly becoming part of the vocabulary when discussing these companies, when a few years back Uber was a tech darling and so was Facebook. But now they’ve been tainted in such a way and because of the sort of cutthroat, no holds barred capitalism against substantial digital leverage. So I think there is a question and I don’t think that there’s going to be a decent amount of pushback on the regulation side. It’s just not the environment for that. You don’t have an active unionization or a counter balance like you had with factory workers.

So there’s a problem here. I thought it was interesting that Doug told that anecdote about the apocalyptic scenario to illustrate the excesses and the state of where we are now that these technologies have made their first set billionaires and very fallible billionaires. And then add to that the emerging technologies that are just coming to the fore right now, such as genomics, and you begin to see that we could be in for a pretty wild ride if we’re not careful. Dirk I’ve ranted and raved for a while.

Covered a lot of ground.

Yeah, I covered plenty of ground, so pick a spot.

Okay. So Uber’s a really good example of the moment that we’re in and Uber is a problem on two levels. One is the level that’s specific to Uber where this is the wrong moment in time to be a sexist asshole. Back in the old days … You talked about with Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, being a sexist asshole was quite fine. Stepping on people was quite fine. That was the moment in time that they functioned in. Now being a sexist asshole is going to get you in a lot of trouble. And so Uber as a company has really suffered because of that. Because of the convergence of sort of social justice with technology and applications today.

The second and bigger problem is … Let’s jump from Uber to Lyft. Lyft is the happy cousin of Uber. Same industry, but it’s a woman run company, it doesn’t have all of these naughty stories, one after the other about all this HR crap. However, Lyft and Uber and other companies competing there are engaged in a business practice that is essentially exploiting its workers. The low pay of the drivers and they’re not realizing and being able to put the pieces together that it’s not a good deal. That the money that they’re getting in the short term, in the immediate, for taking that ride as they spend gas, as they wear out their car, as they are doing those other things, which by the way also have environmental impacts that we won’t even unpack right now. It is yet another predatory business model where technology is being used to create efficiency and savings and convenience for the wealthy. And by wealthy I’m not talking about the super rich like before, normal people like you and me Jon, at the expense of the people providing the service, the drivers.

I use Lyft a lot. I don’t use Uber anymore, but I use Lyft quite a bit. I was just at a conference last week. I must have taken eight Lyft rides, let’s say, ish. And all of those drivers were lower class, lower-middle class, trying to hustle, trying to make things go and work in their lives, but they already were behind. I don’t know. I now feel guilty when I’m taking those rides. Liberal guilt is not fun to live with and I feel it a lot and being in these Lyft rides I definitely was feeling it. I feel as though these drivers are unwittingly making their lives worse and in the profit I’m benefiting and it’s a strange and disorienting feeling. I believe capitalism where at large sucks. Capitalism with a lot of oversight can have a role in a bigger system that has some baseline to take care of the citizens, but to me these are all natural fallout’s of technology meeting capitalism.

Yeah I think that the wild west period has gone on far too long and the period where regulation would be helpful is drawing to a close. There’s also just a huge gap between what’s possible given digital technology and what regulators are capable of regulating in a reasonable amount of time. Combine that with the idea that over regulating has equal detriments because then you hide these risks that are, at least right now we can see all the detrimental downsides to any of these services. If you over regulate, of course, then you disguise these risks as something else and they’re hidden away and you can have other problems that way.

So I don’t think there’s a really easy answer, which would be lovely to consider. But I am heartened by the fact that at least these discussion around hey, what is it that we want out of our technology and our systems combined with our humanity and ethics and governance? How do these things intersect? And what are those experiments that we can conduct that would have the best possible outcomes for people? I think those are conversations worth having and think they were had a bit at the beginning of the internet boom, but I feel like there’s another wave of that coming in light of the problems of digital capitalism.

Yeah, when the internet first crested there was a lot of utopianism and optimism about the internet and humanity. And it just hasn’t worked out that way. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised, but to your point, this might be a good moment to reassess, particularly with deep learning and AI and some of the possible ways that that can go along with the fact that frankly now … Look, almost 30 years now I’ve been speaking against capitalism. Now finally anti-capitalist stuff is mainstream. It’s not the majority, but you hear it talked about a lot. Now that people are turning on capitalism it also makes it a really good moment. So maybe something really positive can happen now.

Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player Fm, and Google Play. And if you’d like to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course the whole show is brought to you by Goinvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.

So that’s it for episode 269 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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