Renaissance Now

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Platform Cooperativism: Ours to Hack and to Own on 15 August 2017

What would it take to make the digital economy less like industrial capitalism on steroids, and more consonant with the distributive nature of digital networks themselves? People are trying a lot of strategies, from peer-to-peer value exchanges and the restoration of the commons to crowd-funded debt remediation schemes and local favor-banks. Something big is going on here.

Surprisingly, perhaps, these efforts rarely involve digital technology itself at their core. Rather, they are informed by a digital sensibility. It turns out that we don’t actually need blockchains to reconcile and administrate the contributions that each driver has made to a driverowned version of Uber any more than we need cryptography to stage a debt strike.

Such activities are not so much digital in their implementation as they are in the hands-on, hacker ethos from which they emerge. Digital, after all, refers first and foremost to the fingers—the digits—through which human beings create value. In a sense, the digital hearkens back in time, not just ahead, to a time when people were not disconnected from the value they created, and when the world was not simply a set of resources to be extracted by corporations.

One wouldn’t know that from looking at the dominant players in the digital economy today. Instead of remaking the economy from the ground up, these companies—Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Apple…take your pick—simply practice capitalism with digital tools. Their founders are happy to “disrupt” one industry or another, but they never even consider disrupting the landscape on which they are functioning—the operating system of venture capital beneath all the apps and devices they make.

As soon as a developer comes up with a potentially useful digital technology, he (yes, usually a he) runs to a venture capitalist or investment banker for funds. Those funders then run the show. Satisfied with nothing less than 100x returns on their money, they push the founders to “pivot” the business toward outlandish, “home run” outcomes. The object of the game is not to create a successful business, but to “exit” through an IPO or acquisition before the business fails. In spite of their abuse of the environmentalist’s lexicon, they do not create sustainable “ecosystems” at all, but scorched-earth monopolies through which no one—no one—gets to create or exchange value.

That doesn’t really matter. All they have to do is extract enough value from people and places in order to sell themselves to someone else—or leverage their monopoly in one market (like books or taxis) to another one (like movies or robotic vehicles).

Looked at from a digital perspective, these companies are really just software, optimized to extract as much value as they can from the real world, and convert it into share price for their investors. They take real, working, circulating currency, and turn it into frozen, static, useless capital. That’s the digitally enabled division of wealth, in a nutshell. It’s not truly digital; it’s not hands-on, connective, or a hack of the underlying operating system. It’s the same old industrialism, being practiced with powerful new digital tools. It’s also utterly inconsistent with the underlying biases of digital technology. That’s why such schemes tend to work against the interests of real people or communities, and are bound to fail in the long run.

Industrialism, an outcome of the Renaissance, worked pretty well as long as the economy was growing. Based on the premise of debtbased central currency—interest-bearing bank notes—the object of industrialism was to grow the economy so that more money could be paid back to lenders than was borrowed.

Industrialism replaced the peer-to-peer economy of the late Middle Ages. Skilled workers were shunned in favor of low-cost assembly line laborers. Local currencies that promoted frictionless exchange were replaced by high-cost, interest-bearing money. Human connections between interdependent producers and service providers were overtaken by artificial connections between brands and consumers. Acquisition became a human value more important than pleasure itself, as we all (with a bit of help from marketing psychologists) took on the characteristics of competitive businesses in our daily lives and interactions. America became a Tupperware party.

All this was engineered simply to extract value from the periphery to the middle—from the real and ground-up to the abstract stocks and bonds of the already wealthy. All in accordance with the underlying biases of the Renaissance: the centralization of power, the rise of the individual, the emergence of the chartered monopoly, and the spread of empires to new continents. People and places were just slaves and territories.

The dominant digital economy—the one driven by venture capital, the stock market, and business as usual—expresses these values and exacerbates all the same mechanisms, treating people and places the very same way that Renaissance princes did. Algorithms exacerbate the extractive nature of our markets, while companies like Uber and Airbnb leverage monopolies to disempower labor and neighborhoods. Where territorial expansion once supplied corporations with new room for growth, in the digital age the only new surface area is human time, awareness, and data. People spend an increasing amount of their lives in service of a digital economy that delivers them nothing in return. Meanwhile, the best minds out of MIT and Stanford are hired to optimize every device, app, and operating system to do this more completely.

Of course, those left jobless (or simply incapable of generating income through the same work they’ve always done for pay) are among the first to challenge the underlying assumptions of the first, faux digital economy. To them—to us—the digital age is still the harbinger of something different than business as usual. It offers not a mere amplification of the worst of capitalism, but the possibility for a state change: something as different from corporate industrialism as corporate industrialism was from the artisanal marketplace of the late Middle Ages.

Indeed, just as the Renaissance retrieved the values of empire from ancient Rome, and re-birthed them as capitalism and industrialism, might the digital era constitute a renaissance of its own? And if it does, what values will it retrieve?

Well, if history is any lesson, today’s renaissance will retrieve the values that were submerged and repressed by the last one. The Renaissance obsolesced medieval attention to craft, quality, and personal connections among participants in the marketplace. Not only were peer-to-peer currencies outlawed, but guilds were disbanded, the commons were privatized, and craftspeople used to being paid for the value they created became wage laborers working by the hour, with no ownership stake in their enterprises.

Laugh all you like at the rise of artisanal beers and hand-knitted sweaters, but these seemingly precious throwbacks augur the retrieval of the medieval sensibility as surely as Burning Man, Game of Thrones, and the newly expanded menu of body modifications offered by the piercing place at the mall. We are already retrieving the lost spirit of medievalism in our culture and media.

The migration of this sensibility to our economy is next. And necessary. Through the establishment of guilds, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, technologists are setting their own standards for how they’ll apply their skills—and the price of the NASDAQ is not on their list. Etsy retrieves the spirit of the peer-topeer marketplace, while the Creative Commons begins to compensate for the privatization of shared intellectual resources.

Online favor-banks, time dollars, and local currencies retrieve the possibility for direct, peer-to-peer exchange of value, while the blockchain obsolesces the monopoly of central authorities over accountability and authentication.

Platform cooperatives—as a direct affront to the platform monopolies characterizing digital industrialism—offer a means of both reclaiming the value we create and forging the solidarity we need to work toward our collective good. Instead of extracting value and delivering it up to distant shareholders, we harvest, circulate, and recycle the value again and again. And those are precisely the habits we must retrieve as we move ahead from an extractive and growth-based economy to one as regenerative and sustainable as we’re going to need to survive the great challenges of our time.

As the essays in this book make clear, the renaissance is on. Digital is not simply a new high-tech tool to promote the agenda of the last renaissance. It’s a good old human sensibility for bringing on the next one.