Team Human

I don’t know exactly when I became aware of Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent podcast Team Human, but I’ve been hooked on it since I discovered it earlier this year. The book has been on my to-read list for months, and I finally purchased a copy and I am not disappointed. This is a very important book, and highly recommended.

Rushkoff is a ‘media theorist’, and has been covering technology since the 80’s. He was part of the cyberpunk Mondo2000 movement back in the day, and has spent most of his time since then critiquing the capitalization of the internet by business forces since the dot com boom.

The podcast itself usually starts with one of Douglas’s monologues, which are usually taken from sections of the book, and is followed by an interview with various people who are ‘playing for Team Human’. These are usually technologists and authors like Cory Doctorow, Clive Thompson, or climate activists such as Naomi Klein, David-Wallace Wells, or members of Extinction Rebellion.

You can get a real good sense of the book from the first 30 minutes of this episode, which comes from a speech Rushkoff gave at a recent event hosted by startup accelerator Betaworks.

This is ultimately where Rushkoff excels, bursting the bubble of venture capital and startup culture, who are most often interested in whether they can do something than whether they should. His main premise is that technology, once driven by the promise of connecting and empowering people and communities, is eventually corrupted by capitalism’s growth-driven profit model, and is turned against humans, ultimately exploiting and alienating us. Having run out of territory and other nations to extract value from, we have now turned ourselves into targets, and now we are the fuel for these digital technologies.

Team Human covers a lot of ground in a short two hundred pages, and ultimately makes a lot of simplifications that some people may find cherry-picked, but Rushkoff’s version of history, from the invention of finance, markets and religion, to more recent advents of social media, machine learning, and big data, is very interesting, and are as mind-opening as Zinn’s A People’s History was to me when I first read it years ago. There are also more than twenty pages of footnotes for those that want to follow deeper into subjects.

The book is short enough that it can be read through in a few hours, and Rushkoff tends to repeat certain turns of phrase or statistics enough times in his interviews that I’ve started to assimilate into my own thinking quickly enough. (He coined the term ‘viral media’, and seems to be an expert on memetic propagation, so I’m sure this is no accident.)

The call to action in this book is find the others, which is to say that to survive the challenges that we face in the current age, we need to purposefully foster the human connections with those around us, in our local community. Rushkoff believes that there is no substitute for the full bandwidth experience of face-to-face human interaction, and that by meeting with those that we disagree with can we ‘recognise the humanity’ in those who we may be ideologically opposed to, and come to some sort of agreement.

There is a lot to unpack in this short book. It is very broad, with room for exploration within each of the dozen chapters within. It’s a mind-altering work, and one that is much needed in today’s divided public sphere. Rushkoff has intentionally refused to take the helm of any new organization under the Team Human banner, but instead encourages others to find the organizations that are already doing the work.

I’ve taken that advice, and I encourage others to do the same to work toward that end. This book is ultimately a mind-virus for the future of humanity, not a revolution, but a renaissance of pro-human values, a return away from the extractive corporate tech firms that have transformed the world in the last decades. It’s a cycle that has played out through written language, the printing press, radio, television, and the internet. And Rushkoff’s mission is to make sure that the inventors of the next world-altering app have human values in mind when they are created.

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