Can Humans Reconnect in an Age of Isolation?

When Facebook marked its 15th birthday recently, founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote a post expressing optimism about the positive role the social media site has played in reshaping society and communication for its 2.7 billion users. Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media theory and digital economics at City University of New York Queens, would disagree. In his new book, Team Human, which is based on his podcast by the same name, Rushkoff says social media is being used to divide people into increasingly atomized groups. Modern technology certainly has made life easier, he says, but it’s also made it easy for people to isolate themselves from opposing views, critical thought and even each other.

But Rushkoff believes there is a way for humans to reconnect. He draws on research from evolution, biology and psychology to show the benefits of working collectively. Rushkoff, who is also founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism, joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM to explain why he is ready to bat for Team Human. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Social media plays a role in the divisiveness that’s occurring right now, but it’s not the only reason. Do you think technology in general has made it easier to facilitate separation?

Douglas Rushkoff: I wouldn’t blame technology for almost anything. I would agree that there are different media environments, and different media environments are biased towards different kinds of attitudes and behaviors. The television media environment was very globalist. In years past, we were all watching the moon landing or the Olympics. The whole world was watching all of these things together. The height of the TV era might be Ronald Reagan going in front of the Brandenburg Gate and saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The digital media environment is definitely more divisive. Everything is a yes, no, here, there. Our social media algorithms divide us into ever more granular differences. We have a president saying, “Let’s build a wall.” It’s us and them. You could argue that those are characteristic of the media environments, but it is not the technology doing it. In this case, it is what are we using the technology for. We are no longer using technology as a tool for humans, but as a way of playing and manipulating humans.

Knowledge@Wharton: What has been the driver? Is it simply human nature for some people to want to do wrong?

Rushkoff: No, I think it is more the business plans of the platforms themselves. Facebook didn’t have to become this nest of manipulative algorithms. It is because Facebook wasn’t allowed to just be a successful, multibillion-dollar company. They had to show 100 times or 1,000 times return to investors who had already put in too much. Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t stay, Twitter couldn’t stay as a $2 billion-a-year company, which is as much as you should expect to be able to make off a 140-character messaging app. But they needed to grow. Because they needed to grow, they needed to find new ways of extracting value from their users, and that is when it became obnoxious. Whether it is Cambridge Analytica or Russian hackers, they are not hacking the technology, they are really just hacking the business plans of these platforms.

“We are no longer using technology as a tool for humans, but as a way of playing and manipulating humans.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How do we turn this around?

Rushkoff: It depends on what aspect of it we want to change around. Part of it is speaking to the people who are designing in these companies already and helping them see the ethical quandary of porting the algorithms from Las Vegas slot machines to people’s newsfeeds on a platform. It’s a little bit of going to the developers now and showing them that if they take less money at a lower valuation, they can actually retain more control of their company rather than less, and not be forced to pivot away from whatever it is that they had originally intended to do.

I think users have to be aware that almost any platform they go on to is a drug. You’re on Facebook or on Twitter or even on email. When you go online, it should be an intentional thing that you actively do, not just a state of constant being. You will have much more resilience in any of those spaces.

Knowledge@Wharton: It is amazing to me how much communication has changed in a few decades, from having to mail a letter to sending someone a text.

Rushkoff: Oh, definitely. This is not to be nostalgic for analog media because it had a lot of problems, too. But when you and I were kids, you would call a girl on the phone through an analog wired phone and have an intimate, long conversation, and boy, it was something. Once we moved all telephones over to digital, we can kind of barely hear each other and bark these commands and text. We have so many more communications channels, but they are not promoting the kind of intimacy, the kind of rapport that we had before.

Gosh, I remember the only time you would be interrupted for anything if you were on the phone with somebody was if the operator came in and interrupted it was because grandma was dying, right? Then it was call waiting, and now we live in a state of perpetual emergency interruption that used to be endured only by 911 operators or air traffic controllers. We pay for the privilege of this constant of disconnection and reconnection, which really prevents us from forging solidarity with other people, from seeing ourselves as a collective. It engenders a suspicion and a paranoia when we do encounter people online.

“I think users have to be aware that almost any platform they go on to is a drug.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there is a will among technology and social media companies to change? This probably does not fit their algorithms or their profit formulas moving forward.

Rushkoff: They are worried about us leaving. Unlike Google or Amazon, Facebook doesn’t really have a real proprietary technology. They’re not developing AI or speech recognition stuff, these true high technologies. They are there but for our choice to be there. They are adopting some of the tenets of what is now called humane technology, where they are trying to be nicer to the humans who are using it. But that seems like a really small step. When I hear humane technology, I think of cage-free chickens being treated humanely on the way to slaughter.

I want to reverse our whole orientation to technology, so it is much less about what are technologies doing to people and [more about] what are people doing with technology. I do think there will be alternative social networks that will come up and be so much lighter on their feet that people may be attracted to them.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also take a look at this from a historical perspective. The wealthy have always had better access to communication technology than the rest of the population.

Rushkoff: I feel the masses, the public, whatever we are, are almost always one step behind the elites in our use of media. We got text, and we thought that would mean everyone could read the Bible and Torah to themselves, and they didn’t. The elites could read and write Bible stories, and the masses gathered in the town square. We got the printing press, and it didn’t give people the ability to publish their ideas. The presses were strictly controlled. People then got the ability to read, and the elites could publish.

Now we get the internet and you would think that people would be developing platforms, but they are not. All people are really doing online is publishing. We’ve got the competency and the capability of the printing press era and a new generation of elites, whether it is Zuckerberg or Sergey [Brin] or whoever is running these companies. They are programing the platforms that dictate the kind of writing that we do and whether it gets seen.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your book is filled with ideas that move us along in the process of this story, and I wanted to touch on a couple of them. One is that people used to believe in circles, then they came to believe in lines. Could you explain that?

“Part of our problem is we have accepted this very distorted understanding of evolution as competition between individuals for survival.”

Rushkoff: That is a pretty in-depth one there, but the main idea there is that before print, before text and before the Judeo-Christian understanding of time and salvation and history and the future, the indigenous people had more circular understandings of their world. All of the pre-Judaic religions had reincarnation, which was a circle. You couldn’t really do something awful to someone in this life because you are going to see them again in the next life. There was a conservationist karmic principle to everything. You didn’t want to screw something up or waste anything because it had a soul of some kind, and it would demand compensation at some point in the future.

The other thing they had was the idea that there was nothing new under the sun. Anything that a human being was doing was recapitulating some action of some god, of some other entity. When you make a baby, you are not really making a baby or doing something new, you are just part of the larger fertility cycle.

Once we got the Judeo-Christian line, which was beautiful for so many reasons, we had texts so that we could kind of write this contract with God. If we do this, then he will do that. We could write our past, our present, and we could write contracts into the future. So, we got this notion of linear time. The great thing about it is we became about progress. We wanted to make the world better next year than it was last year. But the problem is it ended up engendering this understanding of the world that we can just kind of go forward and lay waste to what is behind us — clear cut the forest because you never look back. Just keep your eyes on the prize, keep looking forward. It has led us to treat the world the way we do under modern corporate capitalism, where we just externalize the harm to someone else, somewhere else, or we will deal with it some other time.

In this way of moving through the world, there is an exhaust pipe behind us spewing out something, but we are just keeping our eyes forward so we don’t really have to think about what is back there. I think we are finally at a place now where we realize, “Oh, this is a contained world here.” Our atmosphere is pretty small, and you can’t just externalize because those people are part of your world and those places are part of your world.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say it is time we re-assert the human agenda, not as the individual players we imagine ourselves to be, but as the team we actually are. Team human. Can you explain?

Rushkoff: It’s funny because I came up with the little team human phrase, and I was having an argument with one of the singularity guys. It was on a big public panel, and he was saying that human beings should just pass the evolutionary torch to computers, that they are almost smarter than us, and we should accept our own extinction and let the computers keep going. Climate change doesn’t really matter because we’re not going to need the climate much longer, we can go.

I made this impassioned argument for humans. I said, “No, people matter. We’re weird, we can embrace ambiguity, we do art, and we can understand what is going on. We are conscious, and we deserve a place in the digital future.” He said, “Rushkoff, you’re just saying that because you’re human.” As if it was hubris. That is when I said, “All right I’m on Team Human.”

“Find the people you see as other and learn to see the humanity in them.”

As I used the term, I came to see that part of our problem is we have accepted this very distorted understanding of evolution as competition between individuals for survival. If you read your Darwin, it’s not that at all. It’s how well can species collaborate either amongst themselves or with other species in order to ensure mutual prosperity and mutual flourishing. Once we understand things that way we can say, “Wow, human beings really do better when we work together, and the technologies that we have developed do better by dividing us by one another.” That is an essential problem.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are you optimistic about the future?

Rushkoff: I have to be optimistic. I have a daughter, you know? I have to believe that people will get nauseous enough and fed up enough with being turned against one another in these digital spaces to turn towards each other in real spaces. I talk to my students at CUNY and tell them, just try taking 10 minutes a week where you’re disconnected from this. Take 10 minutes to be with another person.

Once we start to taste that, I feel like people want to reclaim the world. I think we understand that in the real world, human beings have the home field advantage, and when we’re out on the internet, we don’t. There are these non-player characters in this giant video game of reality TV and reality internet, and they are not real. They are just algorithms or bots and they don’t have our best interests at heart. They make us look at a picture of a kid with a “Make America Great Again” hat looking at a Native American, and all of my well-meaning leftist progressive friends tweeted their angry things, not knowing what they were even talking about. I think once people get burned like that enough, they start to get ashamed enough and realize how silly they are being. Yeah, I do think we will turn off it and face our collective challenges.

Knowledge@Wharton: The end of the book is just a couple of words: find the others. What does that mean?

Rushkoff: “Find the others” was a quote from Timothy Leary, the famous 1960s psychedelics guru from Harvard. A young lady, a college student, attended one of his lectures and said, “Oh, I’ve had the psychedelic experience, and I have seen how all of the world is one. Now what do I do?” He said, “Find the others.” Meaning find the others who had that experience, who are in your tribe.

I am arguing to find the others who get this, who want to be human. Then more importantly, find the ones you don’t agree with. Find the people you see as other and learn to see the humanity in them. Understand why they have the posture they do. Understand the fear that might be driving their worldview and try to engage with them.

This is a moment to find and forge connection and solidarity with other real human beings. It changes your physiology. You engage with another person and see their pupils getting larger, yours get larger, the mirror neurons fire, and oxytocin goes through your blood, and you are healthier and more open and more resilient and communicate better. And you feel better. It is really television that first disconnected us, and then the internet that did it even more. If people can re-socialize in real spaces, then they stand a chance of revitalizing their local reality, and then scaling that up.

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