Douglas Rushkoff Talks Predicting Tech Trends Now and Then

Douglas Rushkoff. Photos by Rachael Gorrie

The Hastings author and documentarian exposes the tech elite’s disconnection while helping us power on through his works.

Douglas Rushkoff spends most of his time raging against the tech elite. We met him in his apartment, accented with hippie relics in Hastings-on-Hudson, where he works and produces his podcast, Team Human.

Rushkoff moved in 2007 with his wife, Barbara Rushkoff, an embroidery artist, and 2-year-old daughter, Mamie, to the Rivertowns from New York’s East Village for its sense of community. When he was a child, his family left Queens for Larchmont and later Scarsdale. Yet, as his family moved upward in society, their experience of neighborhood withered.

“When we were working class in Queens, the barbecue was a weekend-long community project at the end of the block. Your mom could send you down with Hebrew Nationals, and the neighbor would cook them for you. Then, we moved to Westchester, and instead of barbecuing with the Joneses, it was barbecuing against the Joneses. Everyone had their own Weber Grill and Kobe beef,” says Rushkoff.

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douglas rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Although Rushkoff was reluctant to move back to Westchester, Hastings-on-Hudson attracted him for its crunchiness and wealth diversity. He respected the village’s factory-town ethos. “You can interact with people in the street, rather than having to attend an organized, official, top-down activity. You might go to Tony’s for dinner and the next morning talk to one of the waiters on the stoop,” he says.

“Rather than win like Musk or Bezos, rising above everyone else, we need to recognize that being human is a team sport. We are in this together: Either all of us make it, or none of us makes it.”

That sense of community is also what attracted Rushkoff to the internet in the 1980s. He had graduated from Princeton, where he studied theater, along with premed to satisfy his first-generation Jewish parents. But as theater grew increasingly expensive, it began catering too much to elitist sensibilities for him. The internet, on the other hand, “was an open, interactive, people’s medium — less about money than allowing the Bay Area’s cyberpunks and hippies to turn people on to a new connectedness, the same way they turned people on to psychedelics in the ’60s,” he explains.

Rushkoff switched gears, moved to California, and became the first journalist to write about new media for such New York-based magazines as Playboy, GQ, and Esquire. He remembers being laughed at in editorial meetings when he’d suggest that we all might someday use email or socialize online.

Because the online world was still so small and unrecognized, Rushkoff gained access to counterculture and tech celebrities, like Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, and Steve Wozniak. He was offered a senior editor position at a magazine called Fame, which folded the day before his flight to New York. He boarded the plane anyway and used the six hours to write the proposal for a book on a yellow legal pad. The pitch combined his cultural passions into a single movement he called Cyberia: psychedelics, rave culture, fantasy role-playing, hypertext, computers, the internet, chaos math, and new physics.

“The book argued that something was coming involving all these phenomena, that we were moving into a world where we could imagine a new reality together. And it sold,” he says.

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Rushkoff wrote the book in 1991, and it was canceled in ’92 because the publisher feared the internet would be “over” by ’93. He then sold it to HarperCollins, and Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace was a bestseller by ’94. He wrote another book, called Media Virus, which coined the term and concept of “going viral” that same year.

Instead of being the guy laughed out of the room, he became the guy who knew what was coming. Since then, he’s been writing books and giving talks about the internet, digital, society, and culture.

By the late ’90s, Rushkoff began warning readers of the coming tech crash. He was concerned that a cultural movement was being hijacked by the market and that it would end badly. Again, he was ridiculed, and again — with the dot-com bust of 2000 — he was proven right. He wrote more books on the promise and peril of digital tech.

rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

The most successful of them, his 2013 Present Shock, suggested that the onslaught of real-time media and data could lead to conspiracy theory, paranoia, or even fascism — essentially describing the QAnon movement nearly a decade early. Meanwhile, in his talks, columns, and PBS Frontline documentaries, he warned tech entrepreneurs against selling companies to investors.

“It’s like selling your restaurant to the Mob. When you sell, it’s not yours anymore. Once your company is required to deliver exponential growth, it can’t serve people. Nothing in nature grows exponentially for long,” he says, “without killing its host.”

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Rushkoff’s latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, just published by W. W. Norton & Company, critiques a tech culture saturated with selfishness, short-sightedness, and paranoia.

The book opens with Rushkoff about to speak to an audience of tech entrepreneurs, only to learn he would be addressing only five billionaires seeking strategies for their bunkers because they believed the world was ending. “They wanted to know how to get off the planet or maintain a security force. It made me realize, Oh, the billionaires don’t think we will make it,” he says.

Rushkoff decided to identify the mindset that leads these people to believe they can make enough money to escape the repercussions of their own actions and how that mindset trickles down to the rest of society.

Rushkoff shares that he gives the answer to Survival of the Richest in his earlier book and current podcast, Team Human. “Rather than win like Musk or Bezos, rising above everyone else, we need to recognize that being human is a team sport. We are in this together: Either all of us make it, or none of us makes it.”

Rushkoff spends most of his time now working with partners on projects that include a movie based on his latest book, a graphic novel, a cyber-tarot-card community, and theater (again). He’ll also continue tempting people back into a community with his podcast episodes. “It’s hard, because people think they have to give something up,” he laughs before adding, “but really, it’s a win-win. Real community is not a zero-sum game, like banking or even like the blockchain. You get more than the sum of the parts. Anyone who has ever been at a good party should realize that this potential is there for us.”

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