First it giveth: Rushkoff and the ethics of the digital economy

My favorite defi­n­i­tion of an addic­tive substance comes from “E Unibus Pluram” by David Foster Wallace: some­thing that “offers itself as relief for the very prob­lems it causes.”

Beyond the tradi­tional chem­ical variety, plenty of “substances” meet this crite­rion. Wallace was writing about tele­vi­sion. For our central banks, it might be low interest rates. For certain members of my house­hold, it might be the Container Store.

Digital tech­nology also has this quality. Now that we’re 25 years into the commer­cial internet, we have a riper sense of the down­sides of online life. But too often, the proposed anti­dote seems to be—let’s make more tech­nology. (A prin­ciple aptly critiqued by Evgeny Morozov as “solu­tionism”.)

I’m no Luddite, of course. I make my living from strangers sending me money over the internet. (Including most of you, so thank you.) In my case, the web delivers on its orig­inal promise of creating direct links between creators and customers.

But in most cases, the promise of distrib­uted market­places—in music, in books, in crowd­funding—has been subsumed by inter­me­di­aries like Spotify, Amazon, and Kick­starter.

Though I’ve enjoyed Douglas Rushkoff’s previous books—espe­cially Program or Be Programmed—his new book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus runs into this ditch. He crit­i­cizes today’s internet commerce as being top-heavy with corpo­rate influ­ence. True. But his proposal is to create a new set of tech compa­nies based around a prin­ciple he calls “distrib­utism”.

What Rushkoff omits is that his point was made repeat­edly about internet commerce 25 years ago—but back then, it was called “democ­ra­ti­za­tion”. It hasn’t worked! We weren’t aiming for an internet domi­nated by a handful of corpo­ra­tions. But that’s what we got.

So 25 years later, a modest proposal: maybe we shouldn’t be doing the same thing and expecting different results. Compa­nies like Amazon have always wanted us to believe that there’s no differ­ence between buying an item from them rather than a local merchant. That’s obvi­ously false: buying through Amazon deprives the local economy of money. It’s entirely anal­o­gous to the hollowing out of down­town areas bemoaned by oppo­nents of big-box stores.

The digital economy makes it easy to abandon the good ethics that come natu­rally in the phys­ical world. As much as possible, I buy things locally, even though it’s usually slower and costs more. I don’t see it as resisting the march of tech­nology. It’s more akin to pushing back from the computer and taking a walk outdoors. Not every­thing worth­while can be accom­plished online.