Books

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: Tech Companies Have Fallen Prey to the Myth of Infinite Growth

The winners have, in some fundamental way, been duped.

Scyther5 / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt adapted from the new book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff (Portfolio, 2016): 

We are caught in a growth trap. This is the problem with no name or face, the frustration so many feel. It is the logic driving the jobless recovery, the low-wage gig economy, the ruthlessness of Uber, and the privacy invasions of Facebook. It is the mechanism that undermines both businesses and investors, forcing them to compete against players with digitally inflated poker chips. It’s the pressure rendering CEOs powerless to prioritize the sustainability of their enterprises over the interests of impatient shareholders. It is the unidentified culprit behind the news headlines of economic crises from the Greek default to skyrocketing student debt. It is the force exacerbating wealth disparity, increasing the pay gap between employees and executives, and generating the power-law dynamics separating winners from losers. It is the black box extracting value from the stock market before human traders know what has happened, and the mindless momentum expanding the tech bubble to proportions dangerously too big to burst.

To use the metaphor of our era, we are running an extractive, growth-driven economic operating system that has reached the limits of its ability to serve anyone, rich or poor, human or corporate. Moreover, we’re running it on supercomputers and digital networks that accelerate and amplify all its effects. Growth is the single, uncontested, core command of the digital economy.

Classical economists and business experts have been of little help. This is because they tend to accept the growth-based economy as a preexisting condition of nature. It is not. The rules of our economy were invented by particular human beings, at particular moments in history, with particular goals and agendas. By refusing to acknowledge the existence of this man-made landscape and our complicity in perpetuating it, we render ourselves incapable of getting beneath its surface. We end up transacting and living at the mercy of a system.

We must instead take a good look at the underlying assumptions of the marketplace we’re busy digitizing and ask ourselves if they are still relevant to our situation before we let our computers and networks run with them. Perhaps ironically, only by thinking like programmers can we adapt the economy to serve human beings instead of the quite arbitrary but deeply embedded ideal of growth. We are developing our new technologies not for the betterment of humanity or even our businesses but to maximize the growth of the speculative marketplace. And it turns out that these are not the same thing.

It’s not that making money is so wrong; it’s that the premises of venture capital and the stock market—as well as their real effects—are never even questioned. The winners have, in some fundamental way, been duped.

That’s why when I saw Twitter cofounder Evan Williams on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in a photo taken the morning of his IPO, I felt happy for him yet a bit saddened. Just under his chin they had printed the number $4.3 billion—the amount of money he made that day—making him by far the richest person I’ve ever known personally. This was the kid who started Blogger, struggled to keep it afloat, and then made his very first millions by selling it to Google. Here he was now—like the boy at the county fair getting a ribbon for growing an inconceivably gargantuan pumpkin—one of the wealthiest men in the world. But at what cost?

Evan had disrupted journalism with the blog, and newsgathering with the tweet, but now he was surrendering all that disruption to the biggest, baddest industry of them all. When you’re on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, receiving applause from all those guys in suits, it’s not usually because you’ve done something revolutionary; it’s because you have helped confirm financial capital’s centrality to the whole scheme of human affairs. As the dealer at the casino shouts loudly enough for everyone to hear, “We have a winner!” The growth game is still working, so place your bets.

Evan and his partners successfully turned Twitter into a publicly traded, multibillion-dollar company and in the process sacrificed a potentially world-changing app to the singular pursuit of growth. Here was arguably the most powerful social media tool yet developed—from organizing activists in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements to providing a global platform for citizen journalists and presidential candidates alike. And it wasn’t particularly expensive to create or maintain. It certainly didn’t require a multibillion-dollar cash infusion in order to keep functioning.

Having taken in this much new capital, however, Twitter now needs to produce. It must grow. As of this writing, the $43 million Twitter profited last quarter is considered an abject failure by Wall Street. In 2015, Twitter investors complained* that the company was too far from reaching its “100x” growth potential and forced out the CEO. Shareholders are demanding that Twitter find better ways of monetizing its users’ tweets, whether by injecting advertisements into people’s feeds, mining their data for marketing intelligence, or otherwise degrading the utility of the app or the integrity of its community. Whatever actually may have been disruptive about Twitter will now have to be made less so.

For many of us, the current system, however convoluted, is better than nothing, and changing to one in which we must create real value is frightening. Most people are not cultural creatives capable of launching a business on Etsy, programming a new iPhone app, or growing artisanal organic yams. We work in cubicles managing spreadsheets, calculating sales targets, and budgeting ad spends—or in retail stores, on factory floors, and in warehouses—doing jobs that may have no application or value outside that single corporate setting. We are simply fighting to stay employed, pay our mortgages, save for our kids’ college, and make sure we have something left for retirement. And in spite of the digital boom—or maybe because of it—it’s getting harder to do any of those things. The path to a better tomorrow must first make today a bit easier on us all. We have to take practical, baby steps.

But to begin, we must accept the story of an infinitely expanding market for the myth that it is. Growth may be a requirement of interest-bearing currency and venture capital, but it’s not a requirement of business or commerce. If we are going to do something better than digitize the industrial economy and amplify the worst of its effects, we have to recognize how the expansionist agenda of our colonial forebears operates in today’s more limited environment, and why it is at cross-purposes with our potential goals as a digitally enabled society.

Neither individuals, small businesses, corporations, nor even whole governments need to live and die by their rate of growth. This is not bad news but good news. And the sooner we accept this, the sooner we’ll all be off the hook. Then, and only then, will we be capable of ushering in the sort of economy we deserve. Ongoing, sustainable, and distributed prosperity is simpler than it sounds, and well within our reach. It could be our new normal.

This is the true promise of a digital economy. Uncovering the unacknowledged operating system driving our businesses is just the first step. Mustering the willingness to do business differently or even change that system instead of continuing to feed its growth is next. We won’t do this all at once. We can’t just install an update, as we do on a smartphone, however much we might like to believe in technological fixes for the world’s problems. There’s no algorithm for this. There’s only slow, incremental change, enacted consciously but differently by all sorts of people and institutions. That’s the difference between an industrial society and a digital one: one-size-fits-all solutions that take over the entire planet no longer work. Instead, a broad set of distributed solutions coexist, in many places and on many scales at once.

But they all come down to rejecting the notion that the only healthy career, company, or economy is one that grows at a rate defined arbitrarily by a bank, a group of investors, or the startup ethos now so dominant in Internet culture. As members of a digital society, we are uniquely positioned to strive toward a more sustainable, steady state of distributed wealth.

Excerpted from THROWING ROCKS AT THE GOOGLE BUS: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Douglas Rushkoff, 2016.

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