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SXSW: Douglas Rushkoff warns that algorithms are like demons

Matthew Odam
Douglass Rushkoff appeared at South by Southwest via Skype to discuss his new book, "Team Human." [Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Douglas Rushkoff appeared at South by Southwest (kind of) Monday to sound the alarm. A family illness kept the OG cyberpunk in New York City, so he appeared via a very smooth and clean Skype connection to talk about the crisis point we’ve reached with technology and offer a vague glimmer of hope for the future.

Rushkoff, who has been appearing at SXSW since before tech was cool (think 1996), admitted that if he was speaking on behalf of one of his other projects, he may find himself more compelled to visit Austin but recognized the gross irony that would have occurred if he turned his gaze from his family to visit a tech conference to discuss a book entitled “Team Human.”

The themes of the book, which introductory speaker Luke Robert Mason of Virtual Futures described as “our first line of defense against collective destruction,” served as the backbone for Rushkoff’s talk. Namely, all technologies have become drugs and that “America and the world are having this big, bad trip.” What he means by that is that those who helped create the Internet hoped it would be a place for experimentation and bringing people together, and it has become a corruptive tool of capitalism run amok.

The shift moved people from wondering how they could use technology to work for people to using technology to get people to do X. The Internet has thus become a place less about infinite possibility and more about predicting human behavior and capitalizing on it.

“Every time you swipe on a smart phone, you get dumber about it and it gets smarter about you,” Rushkoff said, adding that “algorithms are the closest thing we have to demons.”

As companies rush to collect as much data as possible about us all, they have also lost site of the future. None of these companies are actually making any money, Rushkoff posited, they are just accumulating data. The catch: advertising and marketing have never made up more than four or five percent of the GDP. Eventually, these companies are going to have to actually sell something instead of just atomising us and frightening us in an attempt to manipulate us.

“Human beings are not the users but the used,” Rushkoff said.

OK, so tech companies, worried only about their own profits and shareholders, are basically trying to build cars so fast that they can’t smell their own exhaust, to paraphrase Rushkoff, while inciting our reptilian brains and driving wedges between us, all the while seeing humans as the problem and technology as either solution or escape. Super chill.

Furthermore, these billionaires seem to see the end of the world and society as more inevitable than the end of capitalism and are worried about accumulating as much as wealth as possible to protect themselves from the apocalypse. Cool, cool, cool.

So, any light on the horizon? You can probably find more details in Rushkoff’s book, but Monday he offered some vague, broad strokes.

“Being human is a team sport,” Rushkoff reminded the audience, weighing the hope with the sentiment that it is “impossible to remember that in competitive capitalism.”

The point is to create that team by “finding the others,” as Rushkoff’s book promotes, and find the humanity that has been lost to technology.

“We’re barreling ahead with no memory,” Rushkoff said. And we need to “retrieve and bring forward things we have left behind.”

Rushkoff didn’t want to get to get too one-size-fits-all in his approach to how we recover our humanity, acknowledging the “multiplicity of solutions” that exist, but said one the keys is not falling into the trap of conclusive narratives, as we restore our inner sensibilities and the way we form our picture of the world. Another? A litmus test as we (specifically those here at SXSW) think about creating technology: Is it an expression of humanity or an attempt to shut it down.