MLTalks with Douglas Rushkoff

MLTalks with Douglas Rushkoff


– Welcome everyone. First Media Lab talk of the year. I’m Kate Darling, I’m a
researcher here at the lab. I am excited and slightly terrified to be next to Douglas Rushkoff here today. I first heard about Douglas from our lab director Joey Ito, who said, I quote, Douglas
is braver than I am. Which if you know Joey Ito, I mean the guy who invented
the disobedience award at MIT, that’s pretty high praise. So for those of you who don’t know him, Douglas is a fairly
prolific media scholar, I think your website says media theorist, although looking at his work, I feel like media is defined
probably about as broadly as we define it here at the Media Lab. He’s written, how many
books have you written? – Depends if you count graphic novels. – Oh, wow. – If you do then it’s like 20, but otherwise it’s like 15. – That’s, well okay, either way, an inhumane number of books. Including the book that we are talking about today, Team Human. So I have a signed copy of Team Human. It has a snarky inscription. You too can get a signed
copy of Team Human if you like after this talk, we’re selling books back there. And if you’re watching
this on the livestream and you’re in the lab,
please don’t do that, please come here, it’s
much nicer in this room, you can get a book, you can hug Douglas if he’ll let you, ask for consent first. Come join us in the atrium. A few housekeeping notes, if you are watching on the livestream and you can’t join us here today, and you want to participate
on social media, there’s a hashtag, I think it’s up there, #mltalks, and you can
ask questions on Twitter because we will, the way this works is, we’re gonna talk a
little bit about the book and then we’ll open it up
to broader conversation, we’ll take questions from the room and also some questions from Twitter that I’ll sneak in, probably
to Douglas’s chagrin. Because I know you prefer
in person questions. – Yeah, while they’re here.
– But please ask questions on Twitter, I’m a
big fan of Twitter questions. So, Douglas, we go way back. We go way back to last
September when we first met. I met you in New York. You were about to give a talk and I did not know who you were, and my baby crawled up to you and tried to knock over your water, I think that’s how we started talking. And I just, I remember that conversation just being struck by how warm and kind and mild mannered you were. Just really nice. – Aww. – And then I sat down to watch your talk. And this nice guy just launches into this most powerful, passionate, angry speech I had ever heard, and I almost choked on my wine, because I realized who you were, I realized you were Douglas Rushkoff. – Oh, courageous guy. – The brave guy. – Oh, brave, sorry. – So I feel like the reason I didn’t put two and
two together is because it seemed like such a
contrast at the time, this fiery rhetoric and your demeanor. But looking at your work
and reading this book, I actually feel like
it makes a lot of sense that you are both nice and
angry at the same time. And that maybe we should
all be a little bit more of both of those things. And I do want to get, I
am hoping we can kindle some of that fire here today, but I actually wanna start
with the warm and fuzzy side. – Okay. – So, you’re not jaded about people. Your book is called Team Human, don’t you think people
are kind of terrible? What gives you so much
faith in the human race? – Well, what else am I gonna
have faith in, you know? I mean I certainly think
people can be corrupted. I think people can become addicted to systems, to operating systems that they’re not aware of. I think they can sometimes see invented things as given
circumstances of nature and then respond accordingly. If you’re born into a
competitive, angry war game, you’re gonna think that’s the world. But no, I don’t think, I think human beings are
just confused right now. And I can watch almost anybody, I mean, to think of the darkest
people in politics today. I can watch almost any of them and see the human being there. I can have, I don’t know if compassion’s exactly the right word, but I can see the person struggling, trying desperately to establish rapport in a world where they don’t know how to engage
with other people and all. But yeah, when I look at the
story of human civilization, what I see is a story of our efforts to collaborate and
coordinate and work together and forge solidarity and
rapport with each other. And then how fear or capitalism or something kind of turns
those things against us, or against that effort. But yeah, I have to. Unless we believe that some savior’s gonna come down in some deus
ex machina thing and fix it, then I’ve gotta believe
it will come from humans. And I think our, our current lowest, low
sense of self esteem we have as a species is
largely manufactured, is largely a result of living
in a dehumanized landscape. I think our big problem
now is we’re having trouble understanding people in any terms other than our utility value. And I’m a Mr. Rogers kid, I was told that I’m
special just the way I am. And you could say that that’s
a sick boomer illusion, but if you don’t think that there’s some essential merit or worth to humans, and if you don’t have the experience of establishing rapport, or seeing somebody’s pupils get larger and feeling the mirror neurons fire and the oxytocin go through your blood and bonding with another person, then you don’t understand where our power actually comes from as a species, where the whole thing derives. And then yeah, sure, you’re gonna end up being one of the billionaires building a bunker in New Zealand. – Oh, tell this story, that’s a good one. – Yeah, that was the thing
I did that talk about was I had been invited to do a talk for what I thought was gonna
be this group of bankers about the digital future
and it turned out to be five billionaires who they
brought into the green room to pepper me with questions about how they should invest their money. But eventually the whole
conversation turned to where should they put
their doomsday bunkers, you know, for the climate catastrophe or the electromagnetic pulse or the social unrest that was gonna come. And they spent the majority of the time on the single question,
how do we maintain control of our security force after the event? Because they know their
money’s gonna be worthless and then these guys will have
the guns and be more powerful, so should they have a
combination to a lock? That’s what one of them thought, I’ll have the only one who has
the combination to the food. It’s like, that’s really, that’s
a recipe for waterboarding. Or shock collars or other
disciplinary techniques. So I decided to, you know, I mean– – Did they really say shock collars? – Yeah, yeah, it was one of the– – That’s incredible.
– It was half facetious, so what do we do, shock collars? I mean, it was sort of more like that. It’s where you have
collars around the guys that if they wanna serve you, they’ve gotta wear
these things so you can, you know, you’ll be asleep, they’ll change the
controls, it doesn’t work. So what I was trying to tell them is there at the end of a scenario that they’re thinking
about wrong from here. In other words, that rather
than trying to figure out how much money they need to
earn to insulate themselves from the world they’re creating by earning money in this way, they could think about what
about making the world a place that they don’t have to
insulate themselves from. But that’s the antihuman bias that’s so embedded in, really, in our technology culture today, in digital culture, and
that’s because digital culture is built on an unrecognized
operating system of corporate capitalism
which has always been about getting humans out of the equation. It isn’t just digital companies
that wanted fewer workers because they can’t scale
if they have humans. It isn’t just digital companies that think we have to use
all of our technologies to manipulate people
rather than serving people. So it’s much older than that, and that was part of my
trepidation coming here, is I don’t want, particularly
MIT Media Lab people, to think that I’m railing
out against technology. I love technology. If anything, I’m
disappointed in what we did with technology because
I really believed that the internet could have helped us practice collective intelligence, collective awareness, collective activity. It could have helped us not do it, but at least be training wheels for, you know, at the time, in our little psychedelic
world we thought, for the guy in mind, for the global neural pathways to emerge, and we just surrendered
it so fast to the market that we’re using it for the opposite. We are not the users of
the internet anymore, and we’re not even the product, even that would be something, we’re the medium at this point. The net is playing us, we are the medium of our technologies. We don’t use algorithms,
algorithms use us. We don’t use our smartphone, our smartphone, every time
you swipe on your smartphone, it gets smarter about you
and you get dumber about it. And we can’t even learn
about the smartphone because the algorithms in there are protected by proprietary black boxes. So we can’t even know the systems. In an oppressive law, at
least bad laws you can see, they’re on the books,
oh, look at this bad law. Once the laws have migrated into code, they become subterranean, they become part of the operating system, and that’s a little bit different. – Yeah, what I really like about this, so you do talk a lot about technology and digital media in your book, and, you know, I’m a millennial. The cutoff for millennials is 82, so I’m barely millennial, but I’m there, and I’m extremely online, as the kids say. I love social media, I
met my husband on Twitter, we got engaged on Twitter, like I– – Had you met him before? – No, we met on Twitter. – And you got engaged on Twitter, but you met between?
– Three years later, yeah. (audience laughing) Yes. (laughs) But I’m a huge fan of social media and I believe that it
connects people in new ways and in interesting ways,
and not just social media, a lot of stuff that we do here, from social robotics
to affective computing to fluid interfaces, I think
that there are a lot of things we do that connect people in
new ways, in interesting ways. And so, normally when someone, you know, a lot of the popular
tech criticism out there, like what I hear is that
Douglas Adams quote. You know, the anything that gets invented after you’re 30 is against
the natural order of things and the beginning of
the end of civilization. Because their arguments
are usually just like, look at that teenager
absorbed in their cell phone. And that’s their whole argument, and then they sell books, because there’s a whole
generation of people who are like, well, yes, clearly that’s a bad thing. And it’s the same argument we’ve heard about every technology,
like new medium that’s got, people said that about
books when they came about. Oh, the books are gonna destroy the kids, the rock music’s gonna destroy the kids. But your argument is different, your argument is not a
criticism of technology, it’s a criticism of the systems
that co-op the technology. Is that fair? – Yeah, yeah, it is. I mean I’m as annoyed as the next guy by this rampant sort of almost medium
rhetoric that I see now, and I love, I write for
medium, and I love a lot of it, but basically it’s like,
putting two sentences next to each other somehow connects them. So it’s like, writers deserve
to be paid for their work, you know, the Internet Archive
can be clicked on by anyone. Okay. I get you’re upset, and that’s really the only response I can have, I got it. You feel threatened, you’re upset. But it’s like, you’re not making sense. There’s a day that for me
shall remain in infamy, the day that Netscape went public. Netscape was a web browser that was actually based on Mosaic. And Mosaic was done, like champagne, I think it was University
of Illinois, shareware. Netscape went public on the
same day that Jerry Garcia, the guitarist for the Grateful Dead, died. And for me, it put together something. For me, it felt, and I’m saying it felt, and this is another one of those putting two things together
that are actually unrelated. But to me, those two things
happening on the same day made me feel like the 60s communal, common zing, counter
cultural cyberpunk values that I thought were going to
be expressed by the internet were being surrendered to the needs of the sort of IPO stock market. That Wired magazine won
and Mondo 2000 lost. That the internet would be contextualized not as a cultural renaissance, but as an economic revolution. And an economic revolution really means we are not going to disrupt anything. When I read Kevin Kelly’s
book of that period, New Rules of the New Economy, it seemed extraordinarily
reactionary to me, that what that book was saying is, here is how, even though we have this seemingly disruptive digital technology, you all can still make
money the same old way by investing in things,
externalizing your costs, extracting value and moving on. So it’s like, don’t worry, the Walmart model will
still work, and it does. We have Amazon, we have Uber, it’s the same rule book from the British East India Trading Company, on how to go to a place and colonize it and form a beachhead, extract its value, enslave its people and move on. And, my hope, my naive hope,
was that the internet, rather than being a revolution,
it would be a renaissance. That it would retrieve the
values that had been repressed in the original renaissance,
the peer to peer values and local marketplaces,
and all the kind of late medieval mechanisms that got sidetracked or repressed
by centralized currency and chartered monopolies and the replacement of the
city state by the nation state, all these kind of abstracted,
scaled solutions to things. But instead, the digital ended up being more about scale than anything else. And the problem as I see it is that human beings don’t live
at scale, we live locally and the planet turns
out to be local as well. So we’re in conflict, and that’s where you get these sort of throwing rocks at the Google bus situations, where you have a company that is, on an abstract level,
is extremely wealthy, but in its actual physical
world operational level, it ends up being extractive to the humans who are trying to coexist with it. – So when I was reading your book, and it kind of starts out by saying market forces depend on human
predictability to operate. And so the market forces try to separate us for social control. And I was like, I don’t know Douglas, that’s a really dystopian view of things. And then literally just last week, I was at this conference with a bunch of marketing data analytics people, and I had never really talked to people in that world before. They were all super nice,
but I learned so much. I learned that that Gillette ad, they knew exactly what was gonna happen. And it was exactly what
they wanted to happen, they weren’t trying to make a political statement or anything. You know, I’m naive. I learned that I’m part of the 45% that prefers lime Skittles to green apple. It was fascinating. So I met this woman
there and she was great. She had this party
trick that she could do, where she could ask you three
totally unrelated questions and tell you exactly what type
of menstrual product you use. Tampons, pads, she could even tell whether you use pads with wings. And it’s because I found
out, you’re absolutely right, the ad industry, the menstrual
product industry says there are three types of women. There are exactly three buckets and they can sort you into a bucket depending on all these attributes. And I was like, holy,
that’s a fun party trick, but you know, what’s
the bigger picture here? – I mean, it’s funny ’cause I kind of came up with this construction for
that, even for that Ted Talk. The idea that, when the
digital renaissance, whatever it was, was emerging, part of what made us excited about it was we were excited about the novelty. We were excited about the possibilities of an unbridled collective
human imagination and what would that bring forth, you know, that the digital future seemed like open terrain, infinite possibility. And investors don’t want that. Investors want predictability. They hire scenario planners, some from even this very
institution I’m sure, in the global business network, to tell them what’s gonna
happen so they can bet on it. If you’re betting, you want
the most predictable outcome, you wanna bet on a sure thing. So we’ve ended up, I feel
we’ve ended up using data and technology more to figure
out where things are going, than to have some impact on where we might want things to go. And especially those billionaires who saw themselves as so utterly powerless to influence the future
that the best they could do was build bomb shelters to prepare for the inevitable
collapse of civilization. I thought, wow, I feel
more powerful than they do, is that because I’m an idiot, or because they’re so
locked into their betting? So when I look at the primary
use of algorithms today, or of big data today,
when I look at Facebook, what I see is an operating system that uses data from our past to put us in a statistical bucket and then use behavioral
finance and machine learning to get us to behave true
to our statistical bucket. So if they determine,
with say 80% accuracy, that I’m gonna go on a diet
in the next two months, they’re gonna start
filling my newsfeed with, hey, Doug, you’re looking fat, or this is what the veins of someone who’s not taking care
of themselves look like. And they’re not just doing it so that I buy a particular diet product, they’re doing it to make sure I stay true to my statistical profile, to get that 80% up to 85% or 90%. So what they’re actually
doing, and I understand why, because they wanna
increase the predictability and ultimately serve me better if I want the thing that they’ve got. But what they’re doing is taking that 20%, that Pareto principle weird factor, and reducing it to 10% or 5%, or if they can get it down
to nothing, they would. So what are they doing
is reducing our novelty. They’re reducing the one thing that humans have over machines, if anything, is our 20%,
is that anomalous behavior, is that unpredictable thing. If we’re gonna cure cancer
or solve climate change, it’s not gonna be the 80%
doing things the way we do it, it’s gonna be the weird
20% who figure it out. So if we get rid of
that, that’s a problem. What is that 20% basically considered in our current technological
parlance, that’s called noise. But that’s not noise, that’s humanity. That’s what I see as the thing, that’s the quirky weird thing I’m trying to promote and celebrate, and that’s the part that
seems soft and squishy. But I’m arguing that there is a weird, good reason to keep people around, this was the argument I
got into with the famous singularity guy on a panel for CNN, and they cut this part from it. Where he was arguing that
the singularity’s coming and people should accept that computers are our evolutionary successor, and we should be humble enough
to pass the torch to them and then recede and stick around as long as computers need
us to keep the lights on and then accept our inevitable
extinction, it happens. And I was like, no,
but people are special, we should be kept around. A human being, we can sustain paradox, and we can enjoy ambiguity. We can watch a David Lynch movie and not understand what it means and still experience it as pleasurable. What is that? It’s those soft, squishy,
liminal, contradictory places, that ability to experience
awe in confusion, that moment that the dog has. Dinosaur didn’t do it,
but when you confuse a dog and it goes like that for a second, and we go, oh, we
recognize that human, huh? That’s the part I’m trying to celebrate, ’cause I think that’s where
the magic of life happens. And if we intentionally stamp that out, and we have machines that are really good at shaving that off, who we are, at automating our behavior, we will never be as good
machines as our machines, they will never be human,
but we won’t really care. So I’m worried for the, you know, the day that
computers pass the Turing test. But not because computers
will have gotten so smart, but because we will have gotten so dumb that we can’t tell the difference anymore. – So, Larry Lessig, he railed
against copyright legislation for years and years and years and years, and he popularized this whole movement, the copyleft movement with his work. And then after years in this space, he realized he was still just fighting this uphill battle and
just getting nowhere. And he realized, oh, it’s because the problem isn’t
copyright, the problem is our system of government that’s so corrupt that I’m never gonna win this battle. And so he shifted his focus to fighting government corruption. And so in this case, how
much of this problem is technology versus just
unbridled capitalism? – I don’t really blame
the technology at all. Technology does not want anything. I promise you, Kevin’s wrong on that. But it wonts for something, in the sort of Shakespearean sense, W-O-N-T, it wonts for
direction or consciousness, or intention, and that’s
what we would have to instill it with. We were just talking
about dear John Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, and how it was inspired, but
it also inspired a wrong turn. Those of us in the early cyber days, we saw government as the enemy. And I remember fighting with
Larry Lessig about this. Because they had done Operation Sundevil, I don’t know if any of you are
old enough to remember that. Where the government and the FBI went in and they raided the apartments
of these little raver, you know, raver hacker kids who would, you know, someone broke into AT&T or someone broke into a shopping mall, on the computer, just to see if they could change the thermostat. The FBI is coming in there with handcuffs and tear gas and we’re all like, oh, fuck you, fuck the man. And at the same time, it
was like Tipper Gore era, and they were doing the
Computer Decency Act, and they were gonna shut down websites that had dirty words, and
we were just like, okay. So then John Barlow writes the Declaration of
Independence of Cyberspace, saying, governments of the
world, beware, stand away, we will govern ourselves,
we don’t need you. And we got rid of
government off the internet. But stupid little raver kids that we were, we didn’t know that
government and corporations kind of balance each other like fungus and bacteria in the body. You get rid of all the
bacteria with antibiotics and your fungus goes nuts,
that was the same thing. So we got rid of government and we created this free
space for corporations. We didn’t know that they would wanna come. The corporations hated the
internet at that point. The average household that
had an internet connection was watching nine hours less commercial television a week in 1994. AT&T was offered the
internet for like a buck and they turned it down,
because they were like, we don’t wanna have to maintain
this stupid social thing, people are just talking to each other. We’ve gotta get back
into commercial media, they thought it was, I mean, my first book on the
net was canceled in 1992 because they thought the
internet would be over by 1993, when the book was supposed to come out. I mean, that’s how little and stupid they thought this thing was. So the idea that we were wresting it from the hands of government,
it seemed like a good thing. But no, it turned out to be a bad thing. And the problem is, it’s not just the corporate
capitalism on steroids thing, but that the young developers,
they drop out of college before they’ve taken a civics class, or anthropology, or
sociology, these are kids, they’re 19 year olds, they don’t even have the myelin sheaths fully
formed on their frontal lobe. So they have impulse control issues and they’re already computer geek kids. With impulse control, going in, and instead of having their
professors as their mentors, now they’ve got some Silicon
Valley guy in a sweater saying, here’s how it’s done. We’re gonna get you VC,
you’re a company kid, instead of being worth $20,
it’s now worth 20 million. And that sounds so good until they realize they have to pay back 2 billion. The hundred X is the problem. So now kid, we’re gonna take this network for connecting people to people and we’re gonna pivot just over here, just a little bit, it can look like that, but we’re actually doing this. So now your business
plan is to extract value and data and whatever from people. And the great, you know,
and sell this company before the data bubble pops. But they lose what they were doing. So I don’t even, and I gotta read Zucked, I haven’t read it, I
just read the beginning. But it feels like even
that book, McNamee’s book, is kind of presenting Zuckerberg
as a knafe, as an innocent. And sort of like, Sheryl Sandberg and her armies corrupted this adolescent. I mean, Thefacebooks’s original
purpose was pretty dark but at least it was social. It was white male toxic social,
but at least it was social. I feel like it would
have been easier to pivot sick social toward healthy social than pure capitalism to healthy social. – So you mentioned, you know, the young white male aspect of this. And a lot of people, including myself, would argue that more diverse
people building technology or even leading technology companies would lead to better outcomes. Because people’s work is so influenced by their life experience, and you know, if you have a 20-something
dude bro in San Francisco who’s like, I wanna make an app so I can order pizza with one button. And then you look at the
history of technology that can’t recognize dark
skin from photography to the automatic faucets in the bathroom to now facial recognition, you know, it just seems that diversity in tech might lead to better technology, but maybe also to better business models. Do you think that that could
be part of the solution? – Yeah. I mean, we can blame
capitalism for half of it. And the fact that they’re
unconscious of capitalism. But the other half I feel like is this, a kind of an anti-human agenda that seems to just be embedded, particularly in Western culture. So I keep thinking about the
Thomas Jefferson’s dumbwaiter. And yeah, he was a privileged white male and he developed the dumbwaiter, and we’re all taught that
the dumbwaiter was there to save his slaves on the effort of having to carry all
the food up the stairs. But it didn’t, it was just there, they still had to carry
the food up the stairs. And through a whole two mile
tunnel from the real kitchen. The purpose of the dumbwaiter was to hide the slave
from the dinner guests. It was to externalize the
labor, so we don’t have to see. So it was ultimately a dehumanizing device to make it look like slavery wasn’t there. And that’s part of our
problem is, we have in America such a pedal to the metal, blindered, forward-looking understanding
of technological development. Where everything that we’ve
done to get to this point, and everything that we’re doing, that all the externalized
harm is behind us. It’s all back there. And for all the memory in these devices, there’s no sense of memory. So we make movies about robot slaves that have a revolution and kill us. Where do you think that
fear is really coming from? It’s from a nation that
was built on slavery and still hasn’t acknowledged
where the heck it came from. And it still hasn’t
looked even that far back, much less at the exhaust pipe
sticking out of the back of, you know, every one of our lives, as if you can go forward with it. So I feel like capitalism
is a big problem, but there’s also a more
fundamental problem with any technology that we develop, and I would go all the way
back to language and text, that all of these terrific,
potentially unifying or collaborative technologies
and languages and media. If we’re not aware of the affordances of that medium, we end up at the mercy of the medium rather than in control of it. And technology, digital is
just the latest one of them. When we got texts, you could look at the invention of Judaism, say, as a society trying to deal with the potential downsides of a world of text. Of a world where we’re going to have this history and a future. They remake their relationship
with God into a contract, a covenant is what Torah is. They write down laws
because they’re looking and they’re saying, oh, wait a minute. When we start writing things down, now people are using text to
keep track of their slaves, it’s the first thing we did with text. People are lying in text,
they’re writing contracts that they then don’t follow. So what if we tried to develop
laws that are gonna codify, I mean they were really
trying to think about, you can, and I have, you can analyze even the Ten Commandments as, these are the things that we’re
gonna to need to deal with as we move from an oral
culture into a textual culture, it’s kind of interesting. And they understood what was gonna happen. They understood when we
move from an oral culture to a written culture, a lot of the rabbis were so upset that we were
gonna write this stuff down. They said, oh no, people
aren’t going to remember the stories once they’re written down. People aren’t gonna have to, learning the stories
won’t be a communal event. So then they made a rule
and said, okay, okay, we’ll make it so that if you read Torah you’ve gotta have 10
people there, a minion, to try to reinforce the
social fabric of it. So if we had been that conscious developing radio and
television and the internet of, okay, what are the biases of this medium, how are they gonna
change the way we relate? What ethical presumptions about humans might these technologies not recognize and how can we compensate for that? You know, that would be
a very different path, but I feel like we’re
developing this stuff on top of operating systems
that we don’t even understand the biases of them, and
we’re just building on and building on and building on, and we need to disinter some of the biases and embedded values. And I would argue that rather
than rejecting technology, all we need to do is retrieve
essential human values and embed them in the
technologies of tomorrow, rather than forget them utterly. – So when I asked you what you
wanted to talk about today, I know that you mentioned
that artificial intelligence and technology might be
interesting, you know, we’re at the Media Lab after all. But there’s actually another
part of your book that was really fascinating to
me, it’s just a little part, but I thought it was really
relevant to our here institution and that’s the part about education. What is education? – Yeah, I mean, I thought
a lot about that because I’ve been teaching myself
for four or five years, and I have all these kids
coming in and their parents all about what job can I get
when I study media studies? You know, what’s the job? And public education, I
teach in a public university, public education was not
developed for job readiness. Public education was
developed as compensation for people who had to work all day. The idea was that the coal miner was working in the coal mines all day, he should be able to come
home at the end of the day and have enough education to be able to pick up a novel and appreciate it. That even though he’s a coal worker, he should be able to live with the dignity of a thinking, conscious
person with real cognition and thoughts that are valuable. And plus, if we’re gonna
live in a democracy, they need to be able to read the newspaper and be informed enough about the issues to actually exercise the
enlightenment value of voting. And instead now, we’ve turned the classroom into job training. We have CEOs meeting with
high school principals and college presidents who
are anxious to find out what skills do you need
our students to have so they can get a job in your company? Do they need to know Excel spreadsheets, should we teach them that, or do they wanna know Python or Java? What do you need? So the classroom is a way now for corporations to
externalize job training, rather than being these, dare I sound too idealistic, these sacred places where
young people get to, through mimesis, get to practice what it is to learn with a capital L. And that’s where, I mean I got into Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. It’s a great small book
where he’s arguing about, and this is old, from
like the Frankfurt group. Where he’s arguing that
there’s this sort of capital R reasons that we do things, are like the big, almost platonic valley, I don’t wanna talk about, because it’s really more
Aristotelian, it’s a long story. But the real ideals, the
reasons we do something versus being reasonable, the
little R, utilitarian reasons. And that’s, we’ve started
to think of education in a utilitarian way, in
terms of inputs and outputs. How am I making a more, how am I optimizing these people to be workers in the economy of tomorrow, rather than how am I enhancing this human beings ability to experience the essential dignity of being human. And it’s just so funny that even that now is almost considered elitist or a luxury. Oh, you’re not the one
who needs to get a job when you get out of school. It’s kind of this, and there’s
an ass backwards in that. And I use that as sort of
one of the main examples of this reversal of figuring ground, how human beings have become the objects of our reality rather than the subject. And that’s a dangerous place for us to be, and it’s just not an appropriate way for us to teach each other
and be with each other. – Can you just explain the
figuring ground concept for people who aren’t familiar? – I mean, yeah, figuring ground, it started, it was I guess
a Danish psychologist, it was that famous picture
that could look like a goblet or it could look like two
faces looking at each other. And some people see the goblet,
some people see the faces. So it’s sort of a test, in a way, of whether you’re seeing
the figure or the ground, the subject of the picture or
the landscape in the picture. And you know, you want
kind of a healthy balance, where you understand the ground and you understand the figure, but I use it really as a way of describing this kind of profound reversal between people
and their technologies. When I think about the internet of things, I think of the human
beings are the things. We’re the things in the internet of things that are actually being tracked
and ultimately manipulated. – So that’s not the
only, so education is one that you kind of unravel there. There are a bunch of constructions that you talk about in the book that we kind of just
take for granted today, and this might actually lead nicely into the AI discussion, ’cause my favorite part of the AI chapter was talking about automation in jobs. Because you know, all day
I hear people being like, oh, are the robots gonna take all the jobs or are they not gonna take all the jobs. But you peel back an
additional layer of that and you’re like, well, what even are jobs? So you say about jobs today, they’re not a way to guarantee
that necessary work gets done but a way of justifying
one’s share in the abundance. What do you mean by that? – Well, what are jobs for right now? I mean all politicians always talk about let me get people more
jobs, more jobs, more jobs. I mean, who really wants a job? A job? (audience laughing) When were jobs invented,
jobs were invented, we talked about that, in the transition from medievalism to
Renaissance capitalism. People used to have small businesses and then those businesses
were made illegal, so they had to get employment,
they had to get jobs. That was the first time since slavery that people had to sell their time. If you’re talking about
technological determinism, that’s when they put
the clock on the tower in the middle of town,
to make it look fair that you’re selling your hour instead of selling the bread or
the thing that you made. When I hear, and originally it was, I was listening to Obama
and Bush and all those guys talking about jobs, creating
more jobs for people. I was thinking, why do they
wanna create jobs for people? Is it because we need more
stuff, we need more work done? We’re tearing down houses in California because they’re in foreclosure and we don’t want the
market prices to go down. The USDA is burning food every week in order to keep market prices high, and trying to, you know it’s, what? So why can’t we let people
live in those houses or have that food, well they can’t have it or live there
because they don’t have jobs. So then we have to, what,
loan money to a bank to give it to a corporation
to build a factory to create plastic doodads
that nobody wants, so they have to hire an advertising agency to create demand for this crap that people will use and
then throw into the ocean and starve the fish that
we actually wanna eat. All so this person could have a job. You know what I mean? (audience clapping) And if we’re just trying to program a fix, a kluge to the existing system, then digital technology
will come to the rescue and create jobs, oh, TaskRabbit jobs, or these jobs, we’ll make jobs, we’ll create jobs, it’s okay. You know, we’ll pump out jobs if that’s what you’re looking for. So I was like, I don’t want a job, so what if we look instead at, rather than, I mean it
goes to a whole lot of possible economic arguments, but let’s think about what
actually needs to get done. And if we don’t have enough jobs then we’re gonna have to share the jobs so that everybody can have the
experience of contributing. But the fact is we’re not
really near a jobless future. If we were, then we wouldn’t
have to send kids into caves in the Congo to get rare earth metals, we wouldn’t have to leave mercury in landfills in China and Brazil. We wouldn’t have to destroy the topsoil in the next five or six decades. If we had more labor
intensive, careful practices in our production and
agriculture and everything else, we might actually get to
stay alive as a species. So there’s not even a shortage
of tasks for people to do, but we consider jobs
another thing, you know, you wanna limit the number of bodies that are in your company so that you can scale infinitely and sell, you can’t sell a company that has people unless they’re programmers, and even then the acqui-hires,
that’s kinda faded as well. So yeah, there’s just this, that’s another figuring ground problem, it’s this ass backwardsness that happens if we don’t interrogate
the underlying assumptions of the problems that
we’re trying to solve. – So what about AI though, should we, I see people constantly trying
to create AI systems that are a replacement for human intelligence, that can perform human tasks, and we wanna automate human jobs, is that a good thing or a bad thing? – Depends what we want the AIs to do. You know?
– Okay. – I mean seriously, it does. An AI is gonna try to do
whatever you tell it to do. What’s the function of a car salesman? Is it to get someone in the car they need, or is it to get someone
in your company’s car? And those are two different things. I don’t like AIs being told to get people to do something. And that’s language I’ve
been trying to avoid since I talked to
technologists at the beginning. How do we get people to do this? Even well meaning lefty liberal whatever, how do we get people to
care more about the commons, how do we get people to, you know, and that whole construction is, again, it’s objectifying the person. So when AIs are about that, then no. I mean if an AI wants to drive me around or run my subway or something, yeah, if it’s safe, sure, and if
it’s gonna make a calculation whether to kill the rat or the squirrel, you know, because it can steer
and kill one or the other, sure, that’s a problem that– – You don’t have a
preference, rat or squirrel? – I do, but I don’t know where the actual, for me, I think it’s prejudice. I think the rat’s actually, isn’t a rat smarter than a squirrel? Even though squirrel’s
cuter, I mean, I don’t know. (audience and Kate laughing) You know, that’s so the
AI can figure that out. I just wanna ride on the
subway and drink my beer and read the paper, leave
me alone, you figure it out. But yeah, I mean, because that’s a painful choice I don’t wanna make. – Okay, so, we’re at the Media Lab. We were talking a little bit before this about how, I know that
there are a lot of students in this building who do care about what happens to their technology
after they’ve created it, and they do worry about. You know, I told you about a student who was worried that
McDonald’s was gonna get their hands on this educational toy he built for children and
use it to exploit kids. And so, I guess the big question is, what can we do about that? Can we lean into the
positive sides of technology, are there ways to design it in a way that’s it less likely to be co opted? Should we give up and go home? Is it possible to get it right
in today’s capitalist system? Are there examples of
people getting it right? What do we do? – I mean, there’s so many ways to get caught up or to take a weird wrong turn. I mean, one of them is, a lot of times we design technologies before we have a use for them. That’s a tricky one. I mean, it’s not to say we
shouldn’t do pure research, I mean we have to,
sometimes it’s just cool, how do electrons spin and how
does this work and all that. But it’s like, I love watching, nothing against blockchain, but I love watching
blockchain conferences, ’cause so much of it is about, we have this ledger, what task can we retrofit it to that will do social good and not allow this and not allow that? And sometimes I feel like we’ve got these toys
that we don’t know how, we don’t know how to use, even, let’s try some of this, try some of that. It’s almost impossible to, in the current landscape,
it’s almost impossible to develop technology that won’t be used also in some other way. – So do we go higher up,
is it a political thing? Do we have to– – I think we go lower down in some ways. I mean if we keep interrogating the operating systems
beneath what we’re doing, and look, you know, what is it that’s fueling my lab and
letting me to do this, who am I working for, what control am I giving up as I develop this thing
forward, that’s where… I mean it depends, it’s
really a case by case basis. Right now we are developing
digital technologies with an industrial age framework. And that’s not gonna work, this is not the fourth industrial age. It’s something else. The industrial age is about one size fits all scaled
solutions to whatever. And part of the beauty, if you remember the early cyberpunk era, was how distributed this was. Was this homespun, I’ve
got my own computer, I’ve got my own thing here,
I’ve got my own server. And it wasn’t about, I’m gonna… I mean, I know it’s the good old days, we did share, we shared our apps on the back of the school bus. And you wanted six other kids to play your friggin’ maze game. And maybe it would get to
the neighboring high school. And this was on paper tape,
I mean back in the day, and they would play it. And that was the original,
that excitement of, the way you knew if what you
had done was good and worthy was if a lot of people were using it. And that was kind of the point. It doesn’t really translate anymore into, well, the way you know it’s good is if VCs are giving you enough money to force your cab company into this town that really doesn’t want it. You know what I mean, this is no longer a natural uptake of of technologies. But yeah, I think if you start by looking at an actual human need and then think, how can I address
this need with technology, and actually engage with
people on the ground. Because I mean I work a lot
at Civic Hall in New York, which is a very well meaning place where lots of independent people come in and develop these civic technologies, but I’ll talk to a guy, it’s like, oh, I’m making this app for
homeless people on the street to be able to use blockchain to get durable identity over
long periods of time. It’s like if you talk
to anybody about this, and it’s like, finally
they launch this thing and they talk to the homeless people and they’re like, I don’t
want durable identity, I’m hoping that I get out of this and no one remembers who I
am at this stage of my life. Don’t put that to me, or I’m
trying to use the benefits of two different shelters at once, so I got two different IDs,
don’t mess with me, buddy. You know what I mean, so there’s like– – Yeah, so we’re not
connecting with people enough, again, it’s– – Right. And the techno-solutionist urge, even when it’s meant as I’m gonna do something good for
humanity, it still so often comes from the place of
human beings are the problem and technology is the solution, and that’s troubling, really. Right now in most people’s experience, technology is the problem and
human beings are the solution. And that’s the mindset,
as prejudice as it may be, people understand that from the Vannevar, well, they won’t understand
it in these words, but Vannevar Bush went to Eisenhower and said, your colonial expansion
is not gonna work anymore. You can’t grow capitalism on
the backs of the third world. But I have a new territory
for you to colonize, and that territory is gonna be virtual, it’s gonna be this computer territory, this is gonna be the new industry that lets the American economy expand. But what we didn’t realize was that you can’t actually colonize the internet, you colonize human attention, you colonize human data, you
colonize human cognition, and that’s what’s been colonized, and people don’t feel, I don’t anyway, like I
have enough time of the day in my own head or with other people. I feel at the mercy of these algorithms that want to figure out what
kind of menstrual pad I use. And they’re not, if it was
just surveillance capitalism, if they were just watching me, that’d be one thing, but
they’re not just watching me. They’re tilting the very landscape to influence my behaviors,
they’re changing the world. It’s like they’re, it’s
a Truman Show where the internet that I get, which
is everything at this point, is being rendered in
real time by algorithms that are trying to get me to
behave in particular ways. And that is a weird world
to be walking through. And it’s a world where, because
I can’t really see that, I don’t distrust the simulation, I distrust the other people. I distrust the other people because I can’t establish rapport
with them anymore, because they’re not looking at me, because they’re walking down the street staring in their phone, or because I’m only seeing them in Skype where I can’t see their pupils get bigger. I can’t establish report, and
I don’t blame the technology, I blame the other person. And that leads to a
kind of a feedback loop of increasingly dehumanized developments. – Well, we are in a room
with other people right now, we can connect and I do want to open it up to some audience questions. We have this question box, which if you haven’t seen it before, you just throw it to each other. And so if anyone would like the box, it has a microphone in it,
so please speak into the box and let us know who you are. – My name is Ana Hessenbrook, I teach innovation here at MIT. You describe my problems, you
describe my mother’s problems, you describe my children’s problems, you describe my granddaughter’s problems. But at the same time,
half a billion Chinese have been lifted out of poverty
since Jerry Garcia died. Isn’t that more important? – So wait, I just wanna
get the two things. So, but give it back to him, though. (Kate and audience laughing) How are your grandchildren’s problems and the Chinese getting
out of poverty connected? – No, what we’re talking about is our attention being lost, the dehumanization of our world, all the values that we had as
kids are sort of disappearing. That’s something that we in this room can all agree to, because we’re rich. We’re the rich guys, right? But there’s a world of poverty out there, and there’s half a billion
Chinese, just to represent them, and that’s not the only ones. They’ve been lifted out of poverty while we’ve been losing a tiny
bit of our quality of life. So, which one is more important? – And you attribute the Chinese wealth to AI, to Facebook, to Google, to what? – Sure, to electronics and to the electronics that’s been assembled and the globalization of the system where all of a sudden there’s
a lot of work in China where people can get paid,
that wasn’t there 30 years ago. – I mean, it’s an interesting model. Alright, so let’s say, and it’s possible, white Western culture has run its course. We’ve been bad, we
killed Native Americans, we enslaved the Africans, so maybe the appropriate and
ethical step for us to take is to create technologies that make us suffer and maybe end our civilization, but our consumption of these technologies creates wealth for the Chinese who are assembling it. I mean, maybe. It still feels to me a little
bit like a zero sum game that I don’t know if we, it’s sort of like saying, okay, all of America’s addicted to heroin, but we’re buying the heroin from these Arab and Chinese countries
that are growing the poppies and they’re getting out
of poverty as a result. And fuck it, you know, we’re
kind of bastards anyway, so let that happen. I could buy that as kind of
a civilization-wide penance, but I think we’re also in danger, and this is just me and 90% of scientists, I think we’re also in danger of destroying the planet itself. And I don’t know if arresting the American psyche, in an effort to save the Chinese economy through industrialization is the easiest way to fix things. But no, I see it. I mean, the real thing I would say is, for however much I hate
Facebook for Americans, you look at how Facebook or
crypto are being used in Africa, it’s quite exciting. In Africa, they just call
the internet Facebook. That’s how they get on,
and that’s how they do money transfer and find out about jobs, women use crypto, here, crypto
is an investment scheme, in Africa, it’s a way
for women to make money and hide it from their husbands, so they can, rather than having it beat out of them when they get home. So there’s a lot of ways that people who have more genuine needs, or more direct needs, are using technology in ways
that we can’t quite imagine because we’re using
them for entertainment. But at the same time, I feel like our use of technology in this way is paralyzing our ability as kind of a civic guided republic, and potential catalyst for positive global change. I feel like it’s distracted
us from that purpose. I don’t feel like
America, other than maybe through the purchase of
Chinese industrial goods, which that’s still poisoning the planet, I don’t see how we are actively
positively contributing to, you know, some kind of global harmony. I feel like we’re descending into kind of, in some sense, this
digitally induced nationalism and borders and a very binary, polarized, dehumanized way of seeing the rest of the world. But sure, I mean some of
what I’m talking about are white people problems. Some of what I’m talking about, though, are species annihilation problems. – Where’d the box go? – Thank you. I’m Neo Mohsenvand, a PhD student in Pattie Maes’ lab, fluid interfaces. And my question is about cyborgs. Where do you think they
will fit in team human? Imagine in a decade or so
we will integrate with AI, so every individual will
have superhuman abilities. So how do you see that unfolding with the current operating
system of the society? – The who did you call them? – Cyborgs. – Oh, the cyborgs, human cyborgs? I mean I always thought of like a person with glasses as a cyborg, right? It’s sort of the beginning, you know? I think it’s always a matter of balance. Different people can
tolerate different levels of enhancement before they kind of lose their center of cognitive gravity. And that’s sort of what
we’re gonna see is, how much can you do, how quickly, before the person tips
(laughs) into something else? So it’s gonna be interesting. I don’t think that the… Some of it, which is interesting to me. Some of it is about reacquainting people with the physical world,
which is interesting. Like the people who put a little sensor on that buzzes when they’re facing north, and it’s like, and they
experience it as really as this kind of a grounding thing, or people that have a little
shock or something go off when they’re just about to fall asleep so they can sustain the liminal state between waking and sleep. I mean that to me, those
are cyborg enhancements. So I’m more interested
in cyborg enhancements that kind of extend the nervous system and my perceptual apparatus, than I am in ones that extend my supply of fixed data. So having the Spanish language, you know, the Cassell’s Dictionary here, is not as interesting to me as these almost more
humanities, artsy kinds of extensions. But I mean I do think we’re
gonna have some fallout. It’s the same as with pharmaceuticals. And again, I think the guide should be, and again, this might be, you
know, a white Western guide, but it’s a guide, is are we correcting the individual for the values of society? Are we giving the person their drugs so they fit into a sick,
depressed, extractive society? Are we drugging 30% of, what is it, 30% of America’s on
SSRIs now or something? I mean, are we drugging because there’s a systemic problem that
needs to be addressed, or are we actually enhancing in an interesting and fun direction? That sort of, for me, will
always be the litmus test on whether I’m kind of
interested in the thing. If we’re just gonna increase
somebody’s utility value by giving them the claw, you know, so now they can, you know. I mean, sure, if you like that, but that’s the part that starts to make me think of the human is the canvas, rather than the artist. – Actually, I’m gonna take
this Twitter question, because I think it’ll infuriate you. What do you think of the
concept of voluntary obsoletion, where humanity is slowly phased out in favor of a new conception
of what it means to be human? Team Human strikes me as
needlessly adversarial. I think that’s a transhumanist, don’t you? – I guess. I guess I’m adversarial,
needlessly adversarial, in other words, it’s
interesting construction. Why not just accept that
humans are going obsolete? My argument to retain a place for humans is adversarial to those
who would replace us. I get that, it’s sort of
like creative destruction. The robots come, and that’s a creative destruction and the people go. No, I don’t think I’m being adversarial, I think I’m arguing that
we’re not good enough at programming yet to take into account all of the weirdness of humans. I don’t believe that we yet know everything that happens in
a square centimeter of soil. We’re only now getting scientists and everyone to agree that soil is alive, that soil is a matrix, that trees use soil to pass nutrients to one another, and there’s, you know, the mycelia are more adapted and advanced than us and keep us alive. So there’s so much about
us that we don’t yet know, that I’m concerned that the
xerox copy that we envision, even with its improvements,
may leave something out. I still feel, again, controversially, like there’s something about record albums that CDs don’t capture, even at 44,000 whatever they are. Cycles, we’ll call ’em. Oh, the sampling rate. And it may be everything,
it may be all you need, but. And that, when it
finally comes down to it, it sounds almost theist, but I, like Aristotle, I believe
in the human soul. I think that there’s some kind of pre-existing something about us. I think we come in with value, that we don’t have to prove our value. And until we really
resolve a lot of questions about the quantum fields and all, I’m not willing to let us all go. I think that the human project
is still in its adolescence. And I will admit, in the 21st century, it is considered adversarial to argue for a place for
humans in the future. That’s adversarial. And if it is adversarial then I understand my work is important,
because I am arguing for a sustainable role for
humans in our future, at least for the next
couple of hundred years. I think it’s worth keeping us around, more than three or four of us in a zoo. And I think that losing
several billion people to climate change as things move on would be a catastrophe, a bad thing. People on the other side of
the wall in Mexico are humans. They’re not just MI 13s
or whatever they are, they’re human beings. So yeah. But I don’t mean it’s like… Team human is fighting words, I guess. They say, you only say
this because you’re human, it’s like hubris, and I say, yeah, fine, guilty as charged, I’m on team human. And that’s kind of
something fun to fight for. It’s kind of fun. Where I come from, old fashioned, humankind was sort of this
given, that we have this role. I think we have a unique role in nature. I think that we’re the only ones who are self-aware in the way that we are. And I think that we can be
sort of planetary stewards. I think we can make nature less cruel. I think that we can bring
meaning to existence. And I don’t yet have faith that the rapid deployment of digital technology in the name of the next kind of human is being done with the care and precision, with the understanding
of the underlying biases, with any consciousness of
capitalism and the rules and what we’re embedding
the technologies with. I don’t think that we are wise enough to build the next species as worthy as we are. – Well, I’m human, so thank you for fighting for me. (laughs) And for all of us. We’re over time, but, you know, pick up a book, get it signed, I’m sure we can hang out for a little bit more in this room. And please give our guest,
Douglas Rushkoff, a big hand. – Thank you, thanks so much for having me. (audience applauding)

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