books technology

Book review: Team Human, by Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff is a professor of media theory and digital economics, author, podcaster and film-maker. He’s in the tradition of Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan, casting a critical eye over the media technologies of the time and noting how they shape us. For this generation, that’s social media, artificial intelligence, and the digital revolution.

The themes of Team Human are helpfully summarised on the front cover: “Our technologies, markets, and cultural institutions – once forces for human connection and expression – now isolate and repress us. It’s time to remake society together, not as individual players but as the team we actually are: team human.”

Humans are fundamentally social creatures, but capitalism is better served by individuals in competition with each other. Our social structures work against cooperation and altruism, and reward selfish ambition. In the hands of corporations, the internet is no different, Rushkoff argues. While it began as a platform for communication and connection, too much of it is in fact an extractive industry – and what it is extracting is our own personal data.

In some cases, this is to profile us and sell us things. It can nudge us towards certain behaviours, as election strategists have discovered. It can also map our behaviours in order to replace us – machine learning algorithms watch people at work doing ordinary tasks for the specific purpose of eventually making them redundant. In this world, “people are at best an asset to be exploited, and at worst a cost to be endured. Everything is optimized for capital, until it runs out of world to consume.”

In other words, our technologies dehumanise us. When they isolate us and work against our social instincts, they are repressing a key element of what it is to be human.

If that all sounds very serious, that’s not how it reads in the book. Rushkoff deals with heavyweight topics with a light touch, and Team Human is a joy to read – witty, accessible, and highly quotable. The book is written as 100 numbered thoughts, some a couple of pages long, some just a sentence. These cover all kinds of terrain, from media studies, history, economics and even theology, drawing unexpected connections across them all.

Our response doesn’t need to be anti-technology, as long as we “make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us”. We should seek human connection wherever possible, and human ownership. That might include open source approaches, something Rushkoff has written about elsewhere, the commons, or platform coops. We should strive to occupy “that strange, uniquely human place: both a humble part of nature, yet also conscious and capable of leaving the world better than we found it.”


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