Individual Liberty is No Longer the Goal
Re-Socializing (the) People

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 11 April 2023

the main article image

This is the fourth in a series of pieces on instigating social change by focusing less on changing or manipulating people than changing the “register.” I got the word “register” from business ethicist Jerry Davis, with whom I’m working on an initiative called Equitable Enterprise at Institute for the Future. He doesn’t mean changing the cash register, or moving to a blockchain ledger. Rather, he means moving from industrial, growth-based values to ones of mutuality and collaborative commerce.

We have the math and economics to show how a circular economy distributes greater prosperity to more people, more sustainably than extractive competitive one. But shifting from one to the other would require a substantial shift in values. We’re talking about a change of mindset, paradigm, social norms, collective narrative, or “register” from personal profit (and individual survival) to one of mutual prosperity (and collective flourishing).

This, then got me thinking about any effort at social change, and how we may be able to shift from an industrial age model of initiating change by manipulating people, to a model where we work on changing the environment in order to make new attitudes and approaches easier to adopt. Rather than changing people or “getting people” to do x or y, we create the conditions that engender the attitudes and behaviors more conducive to the kind of society we want to live in.

And yes, these are actually also the same sorts of conditions we need in order to train our emerging AIs to serve the long-term interests of humans and other life. If AI’s continue to train on our current social norms, they’re only going to exacerbate our penchant for growth and individualism at the expense of everything else. So the four interventions I’m proposing are as much a way of offering them some alternative pathways as it is for us.

The first two were to denaturalize power (which means helping people recognize the underlying assumptions embedded in our world are inventions and social constructions that we mistake for the conditions of nature) and to trigger agency (giving people the confidence to remake those social constructions in ways that better serve us).

Inorder to do any of this, we must learn to work together and recognize that — contrary to our current social maps — being human is a team sport. The third intervention I’m calling for is to Re-socialize the People. This was the message of my Team Human manifesto. We were taught in school that nature is an entirely competitive affair. Radical libertarians, in particular, like to point out that we are living in a Darwin battle for survival of the fittest individual.

If we actually read Darwin, however, we find that he was not depicting a competitive world at all. Rather, on page after page he was marveling at the ways that species cooperate and collaborate among themselves and each other to ensure mutual survival. As more recent science has revealed, trees in the forest don’t compete with each other for sunlight. The larger tree doesn’t shade and steal light from its smaller counterparts, but shares its energy with them through an underground network of roots and mycellium. Then, when it loses its leaves in the winter, the smaller evergreen trees return energy back to them.

Likewise, under the assumptions of a digital media environment, Marx is understood as a top down systems theorist looking to impose big solutions, at scale, on whole nations or continents. Socialism sounds like a totalizing operating system on the order of capitalism or globalism. But social-ism was actually meant to retrieve the pre-industrial social reality that allowed for the creation and exchange of value between real people. Not everything goes on the ledger. Many of our exchanges are purely social, even if real value like food or services are offered.

Resocializing people simply means making it easier for people to ask each other for favors, to establish rapport, and to build solidarity. Why are so many of us reluctant to borrow a tool from a neighbor instead of buying a new one from the store? Are we afraid to owe them a favor? Are we worried about the tool company having to lay off workers? Is there really no way for us to work less as we share more of what we have in abundance? Once we are socialized, “economics” becomes a last resort — not the default operating system but a fallback mechanism for when the social fabric has torn. It’s for when we lose our ability to work together as “the people,” and devolve back to individualism.

Being human is a team sport. The extent to which we may represent the most evolved species is only a reflection of how well we have learned to communicate and collaborate. While digital technology often undermines these social mechanisms, real world face-to-face contact recalibrates our nervous systems, and establishes the rapport required to achieve solidarity. We cannot denaturalize power or trigger agency, alone.