Chris Yogerst is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has a dark warning about the current state of society. In a world dominated by digital algorithms, he believes, people have lost the ability to think, connect and act constructively. We have become isolated from one another and repressed by technologies and institutions that control us, he fears. And, he argues, the solution requires nothing less than a remaking of modern life. In his book “Team Human,” he offer his manifesto for change. The book outlines how “autonomous technologies, runaway markets, and weaponized media have overturned civil society, paralyzing our ability to connect meaningfully, or act purposefully.” To change the tide, Rushkoff urges us to understand that “we cannot be fully human alone.” He contends that “the first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport.”
As an early proponent of the Internet’s socializing function as a peer-to-peer network, Rushkoff has grown increasingly leery of how the digital world is changing us. His 2010 book, “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age,” encouraged us to consider how technology was using us (as opposed to how we use technology). Rushkoff followed in 2013 with a study of how communication technology creates an unrealistic perception of time titled, “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.” A year later, the author produced a PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Generation Like,” which highlighted how youth culture uses digital likes as social currency.
“Team Human” is broken down into 100 statements, usually just a few sentences or paragraphs, to guide us in a world of digital language, politics and media. Rushkoff encourages a renaissance, a reminder of a pre-digital world and “a rebirth of old ideas in a new context.” He analyzes various tools of human progress that were created with good intentions before being lost to power brokers interested only in profit and control.
Consider the invention of the printing press, which promised to spread literacy across Europe. Although the presses did indeed aid education and broaden the spread of information, rulers and religious leaders sought to control the types of information that were disseminated to the masses. “The printing press reinforced control from the top,” Rushkoff writes. Newspapers, radio and television also have been subjected to efforts of control by the ruling powers.
Today, social media companies exert power and seek riches in a lofty vision of connecting the world. Rushkoff condemns what he calls a “bastardized Darwinian ideal” that amounts to “a battle for survival of the fittest meme.” He criticizes a viral mentality that he believes instigates impulsive clicking by arousing fear, anxiety or rage. In Rushkoff’s view, the more we click, the less we think, and the more neutralized our defenses are against the anti-human bias of our technology. Reducing important messages to catchy slogans or pithy comments does not validate the value or idea one was hoping to spread — it does just the opposite. As Rushkoff puts it, “The ends don’t always justify the memes.”
Rushkoff laments that today’s technology and our interaction with it work against careful and thoughtful appraisal of information. People scroll quickly through social media feeds, read a headline and comment without bothering to digest the article. Instead of understanding the dynamics of a political issue, people read and share memes about it. “Team Human” reminds us that if we can slow down and refocus our intentions, our personal communication will improve, people will become more patient and more important to one another, and our time will be better spent. Rushkoff stresses that people are not the problem. Rather, blame lies with the culture that is forced upon them. “The greatest threats to Team Human,” he writes, “are the beliefs, forces and institutions that separate us from one another.”
Rushkoff is certainly not apocalyptic. He encourages us to find hope in the future. “Team Human” serves as a reminder that we do not have to surrender ourselves to technology. Rushkoff advises that we just take a reasonable step back: use algorithmically driven technologies more sparingly. Far from being a Luddite, Rushkoff is not asking us to do away with technology at all costs. Instead, he urges us to rediscover actual social interaction.This can be as simple as meeting someone for coffee instead of texting or calling them. Skip the YouTube videos and stop yourself from sharing memes. Joining Team Human means prioritizing the social, transcending a digital inclination and connecting as humans.
By Douglas Rushkoff
Norton. 256 pp. $23.95