Doug Rushkoff Is Ready to Renounce the Digital Revolution

The former techno-optimist has taken a decisive political left turn. He says it’s the only human option.
Doug Rushkoff writer podcast
Photograph: Clark Hodgin

The media studies building at Queens College is small and dark, with low ceilings and narrow corridors. It was built more than a century ago as a residential school for incorrigible boys, and a certain atmosphere of neglect remains. When I visit on a January weekday to see Douglas Rushkoff, who teaches here, he guides me around a stack of fallen ceiling tiles to his office in a back corner of the first floor. The Wi-Fi in the room is spotty, so he uses an Ethernet adapter to plug his laptop into the wall. The only evidence that we haven’t traveled back to the ’90s is that when it’s time for class, no students show up. Instead, Rushkoff opens his laptop and brings up a grid of faceless black boxes.

This is the first course meeting of “Digital Economics: Crypto, NFTs and the Blockchain.” Rushkoff is a good sport about teaching on Zoom, though it’s a shame his class of mostly undergraduates can’t fully appreciate the 62-year-old media-studies-professor look that he’s absolutely nailed: black V-neck, cropped gray hair. He launches into an impassioned half-hour lecture in which he urges his students, only three of whom have their cameras on, to see through the social construction of money—he pulls out a dollar bill and waves it in front of the laptop screen, saying, “This is not money. This is a piece of paper that we use to represent money”—and to probe what he calls the “big question” of his life’s work: how power travels across media landscapes.

Outside of this Queens College classroom, Rushkoff is a widely cited theorist of the internet, known for his prolific and influential writings on culture and economics. He gets the occasional student who recognizes his work—“He’s a famous author,” one writes on Rate My Professor, “just do a Google search”—but most of them are busy people logging in to class from their phones, more interested in fulfilling their degree requirements than in the dense collage of Rushkoff’s book covers taped to the wall behind his desk.

That his class may not be his students’ first priority doesn’t bother Rushkoff much. He’s made a point of landing at City University of New York in Queens after a teaching stint at the far more expensive, prestige-mongering, private New York University. In a portion of his lecture, he hints at the trajectory his intellectual life has taken:

“I was pretty freaking excited in the ’90s about the possibilities for a new kind of peer-to-peer economy. What we would build that would be like a TOR network of economics, the great Napsterization of economics in a digital environment,” he tells his students. But more recently, he continues, he’s turned his attention to something else that this new digital economy has created: “It made a bunch of billionaires and a whole lot of really poor, unhappy people.”

This kind of rhetoric is part of a recent, decisive shift in direction for Rushkoff. For the past 30 years, across more than a dozen nonfiction books, innumerable articles, and various media projects about the state of society in the internet age, Rushkoff had always walked a tightrope between optimism and skepticism. He was one of the original enthusiasts of technology’s prosocial potential, charting a path through the digital landscape for those who shared his renegade, anti-government spirit. As Silicon Valley shed its cyberpunk soul and devolved into an incubator of corporate greed, he continued to advocate for his values from within. Until now. Last fall, with the publication of his latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, Rushkoff all but officially renounced his membership in the guild of spokespeople for the digital revolution. So what happened?

Photograph: Clark Hodgin

It is, generally speaking, a difficult time to maintain a straight face as a diehard advocate of decentralization. A couple of months before I come to see Rushkoff, the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, run by a cabal of tasteless pyramid schemers blathering platitudes about art and community, collapsed, torching billions of dollars in the process. These internet capitalists proved to be worse guardians of the public interest than even the corporate robber barons of yore. (Some weeks after my visit, Silicon Valley Bank failed and nearly dragged the global financial system down along with it—a direct result of the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda.)

Confronted with such irrefutable evidence, Rushkoff isn’t just lying low or changing the subject the way perennial techno-optimists often do. His conversion is deeper. “I find, a lot of times, digital technologies are really good at exacerbating the problem while also camouflaging the problem,” he tells the black boxes that represent his students. “They make things worse while making it look like something’s actually changed.” Still, as he talks, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of Rushkoff reverting into his former persona: the inveterate Gen X techno-optimist, the man who can’t resist the untested promise of ever newer tools. Near the end of class, he starts instructing his students to not use ChatGPT to write their assignments, then halts abruptly, as if unable to go on. “Well, actually,” he says, reconsidering, “we’ll figure it out.”

Rushkoff’s CUNY job is a sort of homecoming. He was born in Queens, and he associates his early years with ’60s communitarian-style neighborhood barbecues. Later, his family moved an hour north to Scarsdale, where he recalls groomed suburban yards and neoliberal values. After graduating from Princeton in 1983 with a degree in English and theater, he took inspiration from Bertolt Brecht and went to CalArts for an MFA in directing. He’d planned for a life on Broadway, but the theatrical world struck him as uptight, traditional, and hostile to his experimental instincts. All the cool people were moving to the Bay Area to mess with computers. There he went too.

Rushkoff got his first star turn as the nation’s guide to Generation X. In 1994, when he was 33, he published his debut book, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. Through detailed and colorful portraits of cyberpunks, ravers, and virtual reality pioneers, the work introduced mainstream readers to the people creating what was then an underground culture. Rushkoff made the media rounds as an outspoken representative of this new youth scene; in the introduction to The GenX Reader, he menaced “Boomers” in the name of “Busters”: Whether you like it or not, we are the thing that will replace you. Writing at the cutting edge of technology and society gave him endless opportunities to come up with buzzwords, for which he evinced a special talent. His second book, Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, helped popularize the concept of “memes” going “viral.”

In Cyberia, Rushkoff tried to conjure an epochal synthesis out of his dispatches from the nascent digital subculture: “Things like virtual reality, Smart Bars, hypertext, the WELL, role-playing games, DMT, Ecstasy, house, fractals, sampling, anti-Muzak, technoshamanism, ecoterrorism, morphogenesis, video cyborgs, Toon Town, and Mondo 2000,” he excitedly prophesied in the book, “are what slowly pull our society—even our world—past the event horizon of the great attractor at the end of time.” This was high-quality, uncut cyber-futurism, and people ate it up. Others in his cohort, such as experimental theorist artists Genesis P-Orridge and R. U. Sirius, dragged out remnants of the counterculture into the ’90s, but Rushkoff gained wider prominence by keeping one foot in the straight world, where he forecast the cultural and social implications of emerging technology for everyday people. Soon, the cyber thesis that people would live much of their 21st-century lives “online” turned into cyber fact.

Few thinkers are as consistently productive as Rushkoff—since the mid-nineties he’s put out a book roughly every other year—and for readers who can keep up, that output serves as a real-time tracking of his ideological trajectory, like a radar screen revealing in regular pulses the arc of a missile. Ping: There he is. Ping: There he is. Ping: There he is. Hanging out with Rushkoff for a day, I found that he is as prolific in conversation as in writing, and that the stream of the discussion moved steadily forward, even when I tried to steer him toward the past.

In the early aughts, Rushkoff was no longer young, but he kept his attention on youth culture. His fidelity to both sides of generational tension made him a uniquely credible narrator. Merchants of Cool, his 2001 Frontline documentary, is a brilliantly executed crash course in critical media analysis. (I watched the movie in my high school’s required “living skills” class, and its smart dissection of the advertising industrial complex had us rapt.) The doc was such a hit that PBS brought Rushkoff back for two more shows: The Persuaders (2004) and Generation Like (2014). Neither condescending nor dull, these movies insist on treating kids like real people.

Rushkoff’s work also contained resolutely feminist ideas at a time of reactionary backlash and open sexual abuse. Harvey Weinstein ran Hollywood; Jeffrey Epstein ran science philanthropy. Rushkoff’s Frontline specials, meanwhile, are virtuosic in the way they expose shifts in capitalist demand for sexualized young teens. In Merchants of Cool, he shows talent agents cooing over a made-up and skimpily clad 13-year-old, asking the girl about her screen age range. “I’ve been told I look 17,” she tells them with mixed pride, and they note it down approvingly. In Generation Like, a mom explains that she posts full-body pictures of her would-be-influencer young daughter because those get more likes. Rushkoff doesn’t place blame on teens or girls; instead, he explains how impersonal corporate forces act on people. This thoughtful orientation is one reason his early work holds up so well.

“Back when I got started in digital,” Rushkoff tells me after his class, using the word in a charmingly antiquated way, “it was like saying you were going to play Dungeons and Dragons for your career.” But as Rushkoff’s area of expertise—the nexus between youth, advertising, and technology—transformed into one of America’s leading industries, he found himself an odd duck in a pond filled with increasingly rich and powerful techno-optimists. Many of Rushkoff’s professional peers, including Clay Shirky, who wrote Here Comes Everybody, and Chris Anderson, former editor of this magazine and author of The Long Tail, have refreshed their commitment to Silicon Valley with each innovation cycle: Shirky is now an administrator at New York University specializing in educational tech, and Anderson founded companies for drones and robotics. Rushkoff has likewise stayed open to new technologies, but unlike his peers, he never stopped asking how each new discovery might be misused. He credits a devotion to spiritual humanism and his related practice of Judaism, as he explains in his 2004 book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, with keeping him one step removed from the would-be-god transhumanists.

With his credentials, Rushkoff could probably have nabbed an industry gig; the dreadlocked computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who has also been outspoken on the antihuman effects of tech platforms, took research roles with Silicon Graphics and then Microsoft. But Rushkoff maintained critical distance, and his writing began to shift focus to the economy and the stultifying power of the corporate form, as with Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back (2009) and Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2010). Rushkoff describes this period as his “first break” with his Silicon Valley contemporaries. “Technology was this great human thing,” he tells me, referencing the creative and open-minded culture of psychedelics and raves. Then, “Wired magazine and capitalism and extraction and behaviorism and finance all killed it.” (Rushkoff clearly has a sore spot about this publication, which he never wrote for.) 

“Money was a great feedback loop and positive reinforcer,” he continues, “because the more dehumanizing you make the tech, the more money you make.” To his horror, Rushkoff saw that the once renegade web was pushing people toward predictability and conformism. His utopian Cyberia had been betrayed by monopolists seeking to recentralize control.

In response to this capitalist takeover of the internet, Rushkoff proposed solutions firmly in line with his longstanding commitment to decentralization. He held at the time that the government should take a step back and allow change to appear at the grassroots level. In a keynote address at the 2008 Personal Democracy Forum, Rushkoff called for presidential candidate Barack Obama to promote solar power not by state fiat but by deregulation. The government needed to move “out of the way of all those people who are ready to implement solar power themselves,” he said. Two months and five days later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, signaling the peak of the 2008 financial crisis and dramatizing the need for a new social code.

In October 2011, when the rapidly spreading Occupy Wall Street protests were under scrutiny from establishment media, Rushkoff published some of the first words of support for the movement in the mainstream press. “Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful,” he wrote in a column for CNN. “Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher.” 

As a decentralized movement, Occupy appealed to Rushkoff, and pulled him, like many other thinkers of the time, into the realm of political struggle. In the years that followed, he would delve further into class analysis. His work became less interested in the progression of society toward the new, and more interested in the conflict between groups of people defined in economic terms.

He hadn’t yet relinquished his belief that the common person could wield tech for their own ends. Program or Be Programmed suggests that readers learn to code; in Life Inc. and Present Shock (2013), he endorses alternative currencies. In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity (2016), he writes approvingly of BitTorrent, Bitcoin, and Wikipedia as platforms that don’t depend on venture capital. Always critical of advertising, he never fell for the flashy promises of Google and Facebook’s Web 2.0, but his soft spot for decentralization never seemed to calcify. Even as he cataloged yesterday’s failures with clear eyes, he couldn’t help holding out hope that tomorrow’s tech would be different, that the web could live up to its potential to create a better and more interesting world.

I first encountered Rushkoff’s writing around this time, in 2010, while I was working for a site called The site’s premise was that connecting everything and everyone to the web would allow people to freely lend the stuff they already owned, creating further abundance for all. Room-sharing platforms would reduce housing costs, and ride-sharing platforms would reduce the number of cars on the road. Rushkoff was a proponent of reorganizing the internet according to peer-to-peer principles, and he became one of the site’s most popular contributors. As platforms like Airbnb and Uber took over, leading the world into a new age of inequality and increased resource consumption, his dream of participatory decentralization died hard. But even amid mounting cognitive dissonance, certain parts of Rushkoff’s faith held out.

On reflection, he says, “I blamed capitalism and held the technology itself innocent.”

Photograph: Clark Hodgin

Rushkoff’s latest book, Survival of the Richest, which was published last fall, marks a subtle but major evolution in his thought. In the opening pages, he refers to himself offhandedly as a “Marxist media theorist.” After a career in service to the idea that a reconciliation between the worlds of Cyberia and Gaia was possible, Rushkoff has finally chosen a side.

The book starts with a personal anecdote. In 2017, Rushkoff accepted an invitation to give a keynote speech at a fancy resort, an easy supplement to his public-sector income. But his audience turned out not to be the typical crowd of white-collar managers; instead, he was confronted with five ultra-wealthy hedge fund guys sitting around a table. And they didn’t want Rushkoff’s standard media theorist spiel; they wanted him to provide solutions for a hypothetical postapocalyptic scenario they called The Event. “Where should we locate our bunker complexes?” they asked, and “How do we secure the loyalty of our private guards once money becomes valueless?” Yikes.

Despite occasionally identifying as a futurist, Rushkoff had not gamed out any Event-style scenarios. He riffed. How to make sure your head of security doesn’t slit your throat tomorrow? “Pay for his daughter’s bat mitzvah today,” he said. His suggestions didn’t go over particularly well, and the conversation turned out to be more consequential for him than for the survivalists. That moment, he tells me, prompted a “second break” with techno-optimism, one that would sever his alliance even to tech itself, and finally bring him home to Queens.

The bulk of Survival of the Richest isn’t about apocalypse escape routes for the super-wealthy. It’s preoccupied with something Rushkoff calls The Mindset, which roughly translates to “the way Silicon Valley technocrats think.” The Mindset is about a strategy of acceleration without a destination. It’s about blowing up humanity’s corpus of existing knowledge in favor of something—anything—new. In this relentless drive, Rushkoff perceives a self-destructive impulse. “Instead of just lording over us forever,” he writes, “the billionaires at the top of these virtual pyramids actively seek the endgame. Like the plot of a Marvel blockbuster, the structure of The Mindset requires an endgame. Everything must resolve to a one or a zero, a winner or loser, the saved or the damned.” This isn’t just Facebook’s old “Move fast and break things” motto; it’s Zuckerberg’s personal mantra: “Domination!” Why are the world’s richest people obsessed with preparing for the apocalypse? Because they’re edging us all toward it. It’s as if, Rushkoff writes, they’re trying to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.

Who is afflicted with The Mindset? The archetypal subject, Rushkoff writes, was Jeffrey Epstein: with a private island, an elite coterie of enablers and protectors, and detailed plans to impregnate 20 women at a time. Rushkoff never met Epstein, but he once wandered into his distant orbit via the celebrity literary agent John Brockman. The book recounts a dinner party Rushkoff attended at Brockman’s home that included the evolutionary biology crank Richard Dawkins. Dawkins proceeded to mock Rushkoff for believing in a “potentially moral universe,” to the chuckles of the assembled dignitaries. (When Epstein’s full crimes came to light, Rushkoff flashed back to this conversation—a rejection of morality, indeed!) Epstein is certainly an extreme example. But when Elon Musk talks about his own nine (?) kids as a solution to underpopulation, one suspects Rushkoff is on to something.

In Survival of the Richest, Rushkoff burns the last bridges linking him to the techno-solutionist crowd. Whole Earth impresario and fellow tech media guru Stewart Brand comes in for particularly harsh criticism. Though a decade earlier Rushkoff had counted Brand among his close intellectual collaborators, now he endorsed Timothy Leary’s excoriation of Brand as a petty leader of “a few smart but psychosexually immature white men who wanted all the benefits of being sealed up in their perfectly controlled and responsive environments—without ever having to face the messy, harsh reality of the real world.” During a time of intensifying wealth polarization, Brand nabbed 42 million dollars from Jeff Bezos to fund a giant clock. Meanwhile, Rushkoff transformed into a middle-aged Marxist. While much of his cohort worked with Netflix to put out the insipid documentary The Social Dilemma, Rushkoff’s perceptive films stream for free on PBS. These days, the direction of his work fits with his thought in a way that the solutionist juggling of his earlier career never could.

A harsh critic might accuse Rushkoff of having played both sides, given that his ideas have found some overlap with the latest—and perhaps worst—generation of techno-capitalists. But this would be unfair. Rushkoff has always played for what he calls “Team Human.” What’s changed is not his loyalties, but his understanding of what can be included in humanism. “Team Human doesn’t reject technology,” he wrote in his 2019 book of the same title. “Artificial intelligence, cloning, genetic engineering, virtual reality, robots, nanotechnology, bio-hacking, space colonization, and autonomous machines are all likely coming, one way or another. But we must take a stand and insist that human values are folded into the development of each and every one of them.” Only a few years later, here he is rejecting not just these technologies, but technology writ large as a solution to our problems. (That is to say, he no longer talks about humanizing space colonies.)

Over noodle soup at a cheap Chinese place off the Queens College campus, I ask Rushkoff how he feels about the industry now. “It’s not just Look what they did to my song,” he says. “It’s that the song itself is corrupt.” He struggles to find a break in his monologuing to slurp before his bowl goes cold. “I’ve come to see these technologies as intrinsically antihuman. How far back do we have to go to find technology that’s not about controlling nature? You have to go back to fucking Indigenous people and permaculture. That’s the future.”

I push Rushkoff to say more about the personal aspects of this second break, what drove him to reject Tech with a capital T. What brought him here, to a public college in Queens, while many of his old peers stayed close to Silicon Valley and its money? He takes an uncharacteristic pause.

“There is that psychosocial component,” he sighs. “There’s a domination mentality, and a fear of women and nature and earthworms.” He pauses again. “I might have had that. I was a little nerd boy and scared of girls and teased and pushed down stairs and all that, and virtual worlds feel safe. As I grew up, I realized, oh, that’s just death.” The dramatic comment is classic Rushkoff, but I understand that his feeling of pioneering excitement in the days of the early web, one strong enough to fuel him for decades, has finally curdled into shame and disgust. 

For as long as I’d followed Rushkoff’s work, I had seen circling within it the twin wolves of criticism and hope, kept apart and alive in a way no other writers in the tech world have managed. Now the lupine duel has finally resolved, and the cyberwolf of techno-optimism registers its final processes as it lies twitching in a pool of its own coolant.

At this moment of near insurmountable crisis, there’s a steady demand in the ideas market for techno-solutionist commentators. Rushkoff has officially reduced the supply by one. You won’t find him advising anyone on how to outsource work to “AI” or dim the sun. “Like the consumer-driven, growth-based capitalism on which The Mindset is premised, these solutions usually involve finding new resources, exploiting them, selling them, and then disposing of them so more can be mined, manufactured, and sold,” he writes in Survival of the Richest. Arguing against both Elon Musk and the Green New Deal, Rushkoff concludes, “Degrowth is the only surefire way to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint.” It’s not a popular position or one you can slap a neologism on and sell. He’s given up waiting for promising technologies to resolve our society’s core contradictions. 

So what answers does Rushkoff offer? His programmatic conclusions in Survival are surprisingly conventional: “Buy local, engage in mutual aid, and support cooperatives. Use monopoly law to break up anticompetitive behemoths, environmental regulation to limit waste, and organized labor to promote the rights of gig workers. Reverse tax policy so that those receiving passive capital gains on their wealth pay higher rates than those actively working for their income.” This is a lot like what you’d hear from certain left-wing corners of the Democratic Party. A bit staid for Rushkoff, maybe, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

For Rushkoff these days, Queens College is the physical representation of an alternative mindset. Back at the media studies building, he guides me down to a room in the basement. Here, in a far corner, he has created a respectable group conference setup by moving a few tables into a U configuration facing a screen. A bank of computers and a salvaged recording booth sit among a chaotic pile of old electronics pieces. It feels like Rushkoff is preparing for some of his students, maybe one of the three who turned their cameras on in class, to show up and DIY a podcast or a video blog. This is his legacy: an inveterate cyberpunk, offering Gen Z under-supervised access to a room full of communications tools. It’s the very opposite of a billionaire’s end-of-the-world bunker. “It’s something, right?” Rushkoff says, looking around at the possibilities. “I think maybe this is where I’m supposed to be.”

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