Digital Distributism
Part I: A new economic story; a new theory of change

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 6 August 2022

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For the past year, I’ve been serving as a senior advisor to the Institute for the Future’s Equitable Enterprise Initiative, along with great new economics thinkers and practitioners from Jerry Davis and Astra Taylor to Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Cory Doctorow. We talk (and argue) about how to create opportunities, develop practices, and build institutions that distribute assets equitably among those who contribute value to the system.

Given the decades of policies and practices based on the idea that the only social responsibility of a business is to increase share value, it is actually a heavy lift. One of the projects coming out of the initiative will be a book of connected essays on how to get from here to there. I finished mine, a proposal for how we move to what I’m calling “digital distributism”, and didn’t want to wait for the book to share it.

Those of you who read my book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus will recognize the initial premise. But what I’m trying to do here is demonstrate that any vision of a functional, human-centered economy is less about that result than the theory of change, itself. How we get from here to there is the whole point.

So here’s a new narrative for our economic past, present, and future. It’s not a short story, so I’ll be breaking it up into four pieces over the month of August. By the time you’re done, I’ll be out with my new book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, which shares an entirely different “theory of change” from those who have given up on all prospects of a distributed economic future and have chosen instead to accumulate as much money as possible and leave the rest of us behind.

Part I: De-Naturalizing Capitalism

Something’s gone terribly wrong with the way we do business. While digital technology was supposed to augur a new era of distributed prosperity, so far — even with the advent of the much-vaunted Web3 — it has only exacerbated the most extractive features of traditional industrialism. It’s not that the story we were telling ourselves about how digital technology could save the economy was wrong. They did save the economy; it’s just that they did so at the expense of prosperity.

If we’re going to tell ourselves a new story about enterprise (and I think it’s high time we did) we have to go back further than the advent of digital technology to the invention of the legacy economic system it accelerated and amplified. In some ways, digital technology simply sped up economic activity — not just worsening its effects, but also allowing us to observe it in the fashion of a time-lapsed movie like Koyaanisqatsi, where the larger cyclical patterns of traffic, factories, and weather reveal themselves to us.

It is time look clearly and honestly at what happened, where we went wrong, why we doubled down on those problems in the digital age, and how we can do something better.

As a media theorist and sociologist, my skill is de-naturalizing systems and institutions that people have mistakenly come to accept as pre-existing conditions of the world. After all, even our most venerated institutions, from religion and government to marriage and individuality, are just social constructions. They are agreements between people. The fact that some of these agreements are enforced by law only affirms their fungibility.

The beauty of analyzing economic institutions through the lens of the media theorist is that we can come to understand them as technologies, invented by particular people for particular reasons at particular moments in history. By accepting their invented-ness, we necessarily de-naturalize them. They are just things we made up. In addition, we empower ourselves to recognize their underlying agendas: what did they replace, how did they differ from their predecessors, what did their creators intend them to do, how well have they delivered on that promise, and are they still functioning that way in the current social environment?

My work, since the Dotcom boom and bust anyway, has been to assess and describe the interaction between two giant operating systems: the internet and capitalism. As someone who held tremendous hope for the net’s potential to promote collective creativity and distributed prosperity, I was quite disappointed by its turn toward venture capitalism and exponential growth. The very technologies that could have been fostering a new age of decentralized, even local value creation instead became extractive reinforcers of corporate control over human affairs. We all know the story.

But how we understand this history dictates a lot about its power over our ability to change the script. The story we use to understand what happened and why will not only inform our choice of how to respond, but also shape the theory of change we employ to achieve these ends. Our understanding of these economic institutions and the technologies now enabling them really does determine a lot about we understand ourselves as economic actors capable of steering them toward economic justice instead of exploitation. Our theory of change necessarily derives from our narrative, so the story we are telling ourselves had better be as accurate as possible.

Marx understood this. His narrative of the shift from social to market economics is still among the most compelling on record. Like Freud, he managed to write compellingly narrative literature — only in his case it was to engage us with the loss of economic innocence to extractive rentiers. But Marx’s story structure did not function as a successful theory of change because he was arguing for what amounts to a return to the mythic garden.

His model of the ideal economy was based on the ledgers of fictional Robinson Crusoe, who kept track of what he needed and how much work would be involved to produce it. Marx imagined that the ideal economy would operate such a ledger, at scale. It was a dream for a giant, top-down orchestration of human activity, as if recorded on a blockchain. But he misses — abandons, really — his own call for retrieving the social element of value exchange. So he’s great for helping us understand the shift from an economy of social exchanges to one of utility and market exchange — as well as how that engendered a totally different power structure. But he missed how values are embedded in these landscapes, or how to make those values more evident to everyone participating by their rules.

The opportunity of a digital age may be to finally make these values transparent. The exponential acceleration of business cycles, plus the transparency of code, helps render the underlying rule set of capitalism more apparent to us. The coder’s mentality, an almost osmotically internalized sensibility for anyone living in a digital society, comes to the fore as we analyze the way Uber impoverishes drivers, Airbnb disrupts communities, or Amazon undermines competition. We become more capable of seeing the systemic causes of economic inequality, rather than simply blaming the character flaws of the tech billionaires (which, I’ll admit, are real and capable of being codified, as well). And we also, I hope, learn to solve for the depersonalized and intentionally alienated biases of these platforms by re-personalizing and re-localizing our communities of value exchange.

But first we have to understand the steps through which we got here, so that we may retrieve the elements of local value exchange we may be able to activate in today’s digital media environment, before the more extractive norms currently characterizing this environment get locked down.