Douglas Rushkoff is a provocative writer and his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus challenges the most fundamental principles of our economic system by juxtaposing the disruptive potential of the digital economy to distribute value to everyone with the industrial economy designed to extract value for a few.
Rather than simply making my piece of the pie bigger (industrial economy) , I should make efforts to increase the size of the entire pie (distributed economy) .
Success in the industrial economy, argues Rushkoff, is too heavily weighted in favor of growth. CEOs are rewarded for growth in market share, shareholder price and/or company size. To grow they need to extract greater and greater amounts of value from customers (profits) or cut costs (slash expenses). Companies that aren’t growing are thought to be in trouble and lack of growth is seen as the death knell for the company share price. So it becomes a zero-sum situation where companies are forced to grow at any cost – even if it means cannibalizing their own company to lower costs and inflate shareholder value.
Instead Rushkoff proposes companies think beyond the needs of the shareholder and look for avenues to create longer-term value in the lives of everyone (customers, employees and shareholders). It would mean companies would be choose to participate in the human-centric marketplace of a distributed economy.
What would a distributed economy look like? Rushkoff dives into many ideas with numerous examples but the two I find most compelling are money and labour.
Originally, money was invented by merchants in a local market to alleviate the cumbersome nature of bartering. It became a local currency used to expedite transactions between producers and consumers within a local market. Later though, the King recognized the potential for garnering income from the market and introduced the King’s Coin creating a centralized treasury that issued the currency for any transactions in the market. Any merchant opening a new enterprise(creating value) needed to borrow from the King’s treasury to be paid back later with interest(extracting value) – very similar to the system we use today.
Currency in the distributed economy would allow producers to create value outside of the centralized banking system. This would require us to suspend all we think we know about how an economy should function and pursue alternate platforms for organizing transactions. One such platform is called the Blockchain (for a more thorough explanation of the blockchain). Blockchain transactions are conducted using crypto-currency(bitcoins) and verified by the community. Once verified they are posted to the global ledger that everyone in the community can see. Authority in the system is distributed not centralized.
Take a minute and ponder the implications of this type of system. How would it change the way we buy a car? a loaf of bread?
Why do you have a job? To earn money. So you can participate in the economy by buying a house, a car, food, gadgets or eat in restaurants. What happens if you don’t have a job? Debt. Bankruptcy. And eventually you are unable to participate in the economy.
If you are able, I would ask that you suspend the rules for a minute and answer this question for yourself; imagine your participation in the economy is assured and your basic needs are met. Would you change the job you currently occupy? Would you do something completely different? Would you work less and spend time with family?
Eventually we will need to come to terms with the demographics and pace of technological change and how it will impact the workplace. Disruptive digital start-ups employ 1/10th the number people compared to the organizations in the industry it disrupts. Amazon employs 1/10 the people compared to the bookstore industry. Couple that with global population growth and we will have less work for more people. How do we distribute the work we need done?
I have merely plucked a couple of concepts from the book and would encourage you to read it (or listen as Mitch Joel conducts a fantastic interview with Rushkoff on the Twist Image podcast.) Admittedly, I felt uncomfortable reading this book because his ideas challenge commonly held notions of how our economy should work. But his words are inspiring because they create the possibility that things can be different – we just have to be intentional about choosing it.