If it Ain’t Real, Don’t Fix It
How Denaturalizing Power Reveals the Constructed Landscape

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 27 March 2023

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While giving a recent television interview about promise and peril AI, I was asked about the inevitable “unemployment problem.” What would we do about all the jobs that would be lost to AI? I paused, then almost jokingly responded, “what if it’s not an unemployment problem but the unemployment solution?” It may sound like a jest, but who wants a job, really, anyway? Jobs are actually a rather recent invention, created after the establishment of “chartered monopolies” that made it illegal for any small business to compete with one of the king’s officially chartered companies. Instead of making shoes and selling them at the market, the cobbler now had to work for His Majesty’s Royal Shoe Company — a favored merchant who offered a kickback to the Crown for the exclusive right to monopolize the sector.

In fact, that’s the moment in European history when the clock went on the highest tower in the town, as if to “naturalize” the human invention of wage labor and the power that embedded in the earliest corporations. Until that moment, the only people who sold their time were indentured servants. Five hundred years later, we accept such employment as a condition of nature. This is the history I chronicled in my book Life Inc, which sought to demonstrate that both central currency and corporations were invented by particular people with particular agendas at a particular moment in history. We need not accept them as fixed features of our world. As the book’s flap copy plainly announces, “This didn’t just happen.”

That’s why the first intervention to change the register that I’m calling for—the one that’s a prerequisite for all the others—is to denaturalize power. This simply means helping people recognize the underlying assumptions embedded in our world: inventions and social constructions that we mistakenly accept as conditions of nature. We are misconstruing the maps for the territory, and must work to reveal their origins, manufacture, biases and agendas.

Sure, as activists and change agents, we can argue over how the maps are being drawn. We can argue about who owns which piece of land. But more importantly, we need to remember that the maps themselves are not real. We must not simply compete or cheat, but rather play “spoilsport” to the accepted game, and reveal it as a human construction.

Denaturalizing power means revealing social constructions as inventions of people, not pre-existing conditions of reality. God didn’t invent jobs, rent, prisons, policing, money, maps, cars, school or social networks. These are human institutions, developed at particular moments in history, by people with particular agendas. Some of them may be relevant and beneficial to people today, but all of them are manufactured and open to our reinvention. Just because we are born into a world that has these things doesn’t mean they are sacred or indisputable fixtures.

I recently argued during a talk that people begin sharing big ticket industrial tools like lawnmowers and snowblowers. Why not have one lawnmower per block, I suggested. Someone raised their hand and asked, “that sounds great, but what about the people working at the lawnmower company?” There it is: the preexisting condition. The seemingly unmovable piece.

Are we really here to serve the economy, or is it here to serve us? Do technology businesses really need to grow exponentially and have an “exit” in order to be successful? Why do we each need to save enough money in our working years to support ourselves in retirement? Why do crypto currencies have to support investors betting on the rising value of a token, rather than people who want to transact in a less expensive way? Does crypto have to reify the values of traditional central currency, or can it reveal and challenge them?

In order to begin asking these important kinds of questions, we need to be able to distinguish between what is really here, and what was put here; what we actually need, and what we’re told we want; what are the pre-existing conditions of the natural world, and what are the synthetic rules and value statements we’ve been led to believe are the laws of nature.