June 10, 2023

The media research constructing at Queens School is small and darkish, with low ceilings and slim corridors. It was constructed greater than a century in the past as a residential college for incorrigible boys, and a sure ambiance of neglect stays. After I go to on a January weekday to see Douglas Rushkoff, who teaches right here, he guides me round a stack of fallen ceiling tiles to his workplace in a again nook of the primary flooring. The Wi-Fi within the room is spotty, so he makes use of an Ethernet adapter to plug his laptop computer into the wall. The one proof that we haven’t traveled again to the ’90s is that when it’s time for sophistication, no college students present up. As a substitute, Rushkoff opens his laptop computer and brings up a grid of faceless black containers.

That is the primary course assembly of “Digital Economics: Crypto, NFTs and the Blockchain.” Rushkoff is an effective sport about instructing on Zoom, although it’s a disgrace his class of largely undergraduates can’t absolutely respect the 62-year-old media-studies-professor look that he’s completely nailed: black V-neck, cropped grey hair. He launches into an impassioned half-hour lecture by which he urges his college students, solely three of whom have their cameras on, to see by means of the social development of cash—he pulls out a greenback invoice and waves it in entrance of the laptop computer display screen, saying, “This isn’t cash. It is a piece of paper that we use to characterize cash”—and to probe what he calls the “huge query” of his life’s work: how energy travels throughout media landscapes.

Outdoors of this Queens School classroom, Rushkoff is a extensively cited theorist of the web, recognized for his prolific and influential writings on tradition and economics. He will get the occasional pupil who acknowledges his work—“He’s a well-known creator,” one writes on Charge My Professor, “simply do a Google search”—however most of them are busy individuals logging in to class from their telephones, extra occupied with fulfilling their diploma necessities than within the dense collage of Rushkoff’s e book covers taped to the wall behind his desk.

That his class will not be his college students’ first precedence doesn’t hassle Rushkoff a lot. He’s made some extent of touchdown at Metropolis College of New York in Queens after a instructing stint on the far costlier, prestige-mongering, personal New York College. In a portion of his lecture, he hints on the trajectory his mental life has taken:

“I used to be fairly freaking excited within the ’90s concerning the prospects for a brand new sort of peer-to-peer financial system. What we’d construct that may be like a TOR community of economics, the nice Napsterization of economics in a digital setting,” he tells his college students. However extra just lately, he continues, he’s turned his consideration to one thing else that this new digital financial system has created: “It made a bunch of billionaires and an entire lot of actually poor, sad individuals.”

This type of rhetoric is a part of a latest, decisive shift in route for Rushkoff. For the previous 30 years, throughout greater than a dozen nonfiction books, innumerable articles, and numerous media initiatives concerning the state of society within the web age, Rushkoff had at all times walked a tightrope between optimism and skepticism. He was one of many authentic lovers of know-how’s prosocial potential, charting a path by means of the digital panorama for individuals who shared his renegade, anti-government spirit. As Silicon Valley shed its cyberpunk soul and devolved into an incubator of company greed, he continued to advocate for his values from inside. Till now. Final fall, with the publication of his newest e book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, Rushkoff all however formally renounced his membership within the guild of spokespeople for the digital revolution. So what occurred?

{Photograph}: Clark Hodgin

It’s, usually talking, a troublesome time to keep up a straight face as a diehard advocate of decentralization. A few months earlier than I come to see Rushkoff, the cryptocurrency change FTX, run by a cabal of tasteless pyramid schemers blathering platitudes about artwork and neighborhood, collapsed, torching billions of {dollars} within the course of. These web capitalists proved to be worse guardians of the general public curiosity than even the company robber barons of yore. (Some weeks after my go to, Silicon Valley Financial institution failed and practically dragged the worldwide monetary system down together with it—a direct results of the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda.)

Confronted with such irrefutable proof, Rushkoff isn’t simply mendacity low or altering the topic the best way perennial techno-optimists typically do. His conversion is deeper. “I discover, plenty of instances, digital applied sciences are actually good at exacerbating the issue whereas additionally camouflaging the issue,” he tells the black containers that characterize his college students. “They make issues worse whereas making it appear like one thing’s really modified.” Nonetheless, as he talks, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of Rushkoff reverting into his former persona: the inveterate Gen X techno-optimist, the person who can’t resist the untested promise of ever newer instruments. Close to the tip of sophistication, he begins instructing his college students to not use ChatGPT to write down their assignments, then halts abruptly, as if unable to go on. “Properly, really,” he says, reconsidering, “we’ll determine it out.”

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