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.