This is a (slightly extended version)of a book review I have just published in Market Leader (the Marketing Society’s quarterly journal :
It all started with such high ideals. The web was created as a kind of commons with the promise of a radical democratisation of power. As Rushkoff puts it – The distributed nature of the web, with its decentralised connectivity and ad hoc social activity seemed to augur an equally distributed marketplace. Markets were no longer going to be dominated by the best sellers and the big distributors. Instead an almost infinite market of makers would be able to find and sell to almost infinite market of buyers
This was the dream of “The Long Tail” set out by Chris Andersen in his book of the same name . The web would be essentially decentralising and empowering.
Rushkoff is vehemently against how it most of it turned out. Power Law dynamics took over. Tech start ups went public, went for growth to satisfy their shareholders, achieved positions of market power and decided to go into the advertising business big time. The Web turned out to be a winner takes all endgame fuelled by greed. Californian Hippy idealism ran up against Madison Avenue and Wall Street. As for the best sellers – well they remained the main sources of revenue on the likes of ITunes.
Rushkoff identifies are some honourable exceptions this trend – like eBay and Etsy. These are examples of the many to many marketplace in action – what you might call genuine “digital bazaars”, which are essentially “anti-industrial”
Web idealism resurfaces in ideas like “the sharing economy” -but Rushkoff is dismissive: It’s not really sharing it’s selling…. encouraging people to engage in freelance versions of previously regulated industries. Technology is reducing the numbers of jobs and is now AI is hollowing out those of middle income folk. Left unchecked it will just make the rich few even richer. There will not be enough income around to buy the products of a consumer society. And that could lead to a big shock.
The solution? Rushkoff sees it as a kind of third way between unregulated markets and socialism. Called Digital Distributionism, it will have the following characteristics: Sustainable prosperity, platform cooperation, P2P and Bitcoin currency, crowdfunding, collaboration, communication via networks, land and resources held in common and value exchange. Government intervention will set wages and redistribute wealth to the underemployed.It sounds like Rushkoff has never really lost his idealism and is looking for get back to first principles and re-present them today.
Rushkoff addresses the increasingly apparent ills of our age-addiction to the mantra of growth, that depletes our resources, and the increasing evidence that Capital is doing much better than Labour. Is he hopeful? Not really. Digital Distributionism sounds at best difficult to implement and at worse very naïve. But, as the American elections show, disaffection produces surprises. When the middle classes are suffering there is trouble ahead and politicians will need to reach for new ideas. This book is packed full of them. Some of them might work.