Artificial intelligence is just another way of manipulating people through the internet, says Douglas Rushkoff, 62, writer and professor of media studies and digital economy at the City University of New York.
For Rushkoff, the formation of current on-demand capitalism began with the invention of the cookie, a mechanism for extracting and storing user data from a website. This was the key step to creating personalized advertising, the main source of revenue for Google, Meta and other trillion-dollar brands. AI would be the current development of this business model.
Behind this economy is a world in climate and social crisis. A sign of this are the plans of large shareholders of the internet giants themselves to flee Earth.
Well-known billionaires such as Elon Musk (Tesla and X, ex-Twitter) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) invest in human colonization projects on Mars. One of Facebook’s earliest shareholders and co-founder of payments platform Paypal, Peter Thiel, also puts his money into building a bunker system in New Zealand.
Rushkoff is knowledgeable about the topic, as, due to his fame as a technology writer, he was approached by five anonymous super-rich people with questions about the best way to escape a cataclysm. The author reports the experience in his latest book, “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires”, from 2022, still untranslated in Brazil.
Since then, Rushkoff has given lectures in which he tries to dissuade billionaires from their escape plans, with the argument that there are no alternatives outside of “our planet”. “These mega-entrepreneurs only realize the gravity of the situation when a forest fire reaches their house in Malibu (California) or their daughter has a rare disease due to the abnormal weather”, says the writer.
The technology theorist also works to convince future entrepreneurs that they don’t need to be billionaires. “I go to business schools a lot and I always start by asking who would be satisfied with US$50 million (R$248.8 million). Nobody raises their hand. And nobody needs more than that, there is enough wealth in the world for next few hundred years, the problem is in distribution.”
Rushkoff, who will give a lecture at the Fronteiras do Pensamento event, in São Paulo (capital), next Monday (11), gave an interview to Sheet via videoconference from his car in New York. The writer had missed an event at which he was a speaker, would not arrive home at the scheduled reporting time and stopped in the parking lot of a Shake Shack fast food restaurant.
He says he is highly sought after by companies from developing countries who want to hear tips on how to become the next Google or the next Apple, which would be counterintuitive, as the author has written 20 books and received awards based on his criticism of the current digital economy. “It seems like they don’t know much about me.”
The writer, however, seeks dialogue with the super-rich because he claims to be skeptical about the ability of people and governments to react to the abuses of large technology companies.
For Rushkoff, people want entertainment and it’s difficult to compete with the spectacle of social media and its metrics. “That’s why many still vote for Trump. Trump’s second season on Netflix would be more interesting than the continuation of Joe Biden’s series.”
Governments, in turn, are slow to rein in technology companies, known for disruption. “They spend a lot of time in the debate and it seems like they’re always cleaning up spilled milk.”
Therefore, Rushkoff invests in the plan to persuade those who control these companies. “I viewed Sam Altman’s defense with cynicism [chefe-executivo por trás do ChatGPT] for the regulation of artificial intelligence. It sounded like an attempt to dictate terms over the market itself, but he appears to be a young man asking for help to deal with a big problem.”
“We can’t just fall for people like Altman and risk losing him to people like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel [primeiro grande investidor do Facebook e patrocinador de candidaturas do Partido Republicano]”, he adds.
Musk, in addition to being a billionaire, is an expert in entertainment, which drives the success of the businessman behind Tesla, Startlink and X (formerly Twitter), according to Rushkoff. “This fight with Zuckerberg is just media. It’s a distraction from what’s going on, from the problems they cause.”
Regarding the threat of generating artificial intelligence like ChatGPT to jobs, the writer says he is incredulous. “They’re not trustworthy at that point.”
For him, this technology masks human work. “When you make a request to ChatGPT, you don’t think about slave labor in rare earth mining in Africa or the immensity of water consumed in a data center.”
Part of the answer to these problems lies in education and journalism, which need to show the nature of the technology industry to the population, according to the author. Still, he recognizes that the press fails to compete with “lying bots and friends who believe in these bots and end up spreading fake news on social media.”
Rushkoff still advocates for the circular economy. “It’s about making your customers rich so they spend more money on your business, rather than making them poor so they never spend money again.” The internet’s extractive business model works in the second way, in the opinion of the media studies professor.
The writer states that he also seeks inspiration from other lifestyles outside of developed countries. “I still imagine Brazil through stereotypes, but there are people who understand the value of the rainforest and nature. There are living indigenous people. I hope to gain new hope that there are people who still remember what it means to be human, what it means to be in community.”