Are human beings becoming algorithms?


Timothy Spira | Head of Digital Content | Investecmail me |

As humankind advances, new technologies are supposed to enhance and improve our lives by broadening access to education, financial instruments and other tools, while also improving communication within our globalised society. These were the ideals that the founders of the internet shared, says American futurist, author, professor and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

Rushkoff was addressing attendees at the launch of Investec’s new brand campaign, which stresses the importance of human partnerships in an increasingly complex world. His new book, Team Human is about how technology, ‘once a force for human connection and expression, now isolates and represses us’. In it, he invites us to remake this aspect of society in ways that ‘foster our humanity’.

Are humans facing an existential crisis?


Investec’s Head of Digital Content, Tim Spira discusses this and so much more with world-renowned author and media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff.

“I was around when the net was born. We called it the digital renaissance because it was about the unbridled possibilities of the collective human imagination. The underlying idea was that human beings, connected as never before, could create any future that we wanted.”

Unfortunately, the ambitions that Rushkoff shared with many early adopters of the internet were never fully realised. With the dotcom boom in the late 1990s, commercial objectives supplanted the nobler ideals of greater human connectedness. “We had used all of these digital technologies to create traditional, extractive, corporate capitalism on steroids.”

Thwarting innovation and disruption

Instead of using the internet to co-create a future enriched by enhanced communication and collaboration, warns Rushkoff, digital technologies have instead begun to undermine authentic human interactions. That’s in part because the companies and applications that have come to dominate the online environment are incentivised to regard human interaction as a means to profitable customer action, rather than an end in itself.

According to Rushkoff, most of the internet businesses that are popularly considered disruptive are in fact just perpetuating older modes of commerce. “Most of them are not disruptive at all. They are reactionary businesses looking to prevent the genuine disruption that a digital network would inflict upon existing hierarchies of capital.”

In their quest to deliver steady returns, the creators of businesses with the potential to truly transform society are forced to ‘pivot’ in order to generate growth and revenue for investors. Instead of creating technologies that connect humans and enhance the world in some way, young, innovative entrepreneurs are forced to figure out how to extract money from whoever uses their platform or service, or to exploit their users’ data.

“But the problem with that – the problem with moving from an anything-can-happen landscape into one that was really about providing steady returns – is that humans became valued not for their creativity, not for their ability to disrupt things, or to come up with new creative, novel, destabilising solutions, but for their utility value; for their inputs and outputs, what they could predictably reproduce.”

Digital landscape is anti-human

As Rushkoff sees it, the internet of today is not configured to facilitate or enhance human connections, but rather to reduce interactions into predictable outcomes that can be controlled and monetised: a human manipulation platform that negatively impacts all of us. One result is that people are having to come to terms with the dissonance of feeling isolated in a hyper-connected world.

“We ended up with a landscape that is really anti-human and anti-social. Look what digital’s done to us, and how confused we are, and disoriented.”

To explain how we got here, Rushkoff points not to the technologies themselves, but rather to the

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Read the full article by Timothy Spira, Head of Digital Content, Investec, as well as a host of other topical management articles written by professionals, consultants and academics in the June/July 2019 edition of BusinessBrief.

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