“Prohuman art and culture question the value of pat narratives. They produce open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. The works don’t answer questions; they raise them.” — Douglas Rushkoff in Team Human
Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human is a quick and compelling read about how our technology, our markets, and our major cultural institutions have become embedded with an anti-human agenda, and how to fix this. The book reads like a manifesto and comes packed with catchy quotes (“Engagement through digital media is just a new way of being alone.” “The very purpose of the capitalist operating system is to prevent widespread prosperity.”).
Earlier, I wrote about what a museum for robots may look like. One possibility was that robots would keep museums around merely as a way to entertain the large groups of humans who they have replaced. Rushkoff may concur. Yet he sees another role for museums. In Rushkoff’s analysis, cultural institutions should be places where we rediscover and strengthen our humanity and ability to work together as humans—against robots and the anti-human values that are embedded in them.
Art and culture, in Rushkoff’s world, are at the frontlines of an uphill battle for the future for humanity.
The anti-human agenda
In Team Human, Rushkoff posits that after an initial wave of optimism about the internet, its “tremendous social and intellectual potential was surrendered to short-term market priorities, turning a human-centred medium into a platform for manipulation, surveillance, and extraction.” This has happened with every medium.
The added problem with digital technologies is that they are so pervasive, that they have already begun to change the world. Instead of having technology serve humans, we now serve technology and the values and interests of a tiny group of people that are embedded in them, which are not at all in the benefit of all of us.
If we do not consciously seize back control, we will continue to be controlled by others (people, products) that do not have our best interest in mind.
Art and culture
Rushkoff doesn’t see cultural institutions as neutral bystanders. They either subscribe to the anti-human agenda and support its interests, or are a powerful antidote. They’re either anti-human—consciously or unconsciously—or pro-human.
How are art and culture an antidote to the anti-human agenda?
The digital world dislikes ambiguity. One of its dominant values is the binary system: zero or one, black or white, on or off. It forces everyone to takes sides. Equally, it favours closure, answers, clarity. This is exemplified by the algorithms that decide our personality profile. Once they’ve assigned a label to you, they’ll do everything they can to make you stick to that label for 100%, even if you only matched the label for 80% in the first place. They force you into your filter bubble, also if it’s not yours to begin with. To an algorithm, humans aren’t dynamic, multi-layered, and unpredictable beings; they’re persistent personality profiles.
Of course, art, and creativity, imagination, and everything worthwhile happens in the 20% of personalities that cannot be fixed in place.
“Art, at its best, mines the paradoxes that make humans human. It celebrates our ability to embrace ambiguity, and to experience this sustained, unresolved state as pleasurable, or at least significant.” “Commercial entertainment, by contrast, has the opposite purpose. Its goal is to validate the status quo values by which we already live, reinforce consumerism, and—most of all—reassure us that there is certainty in this world.”
A cultural institution that decides to take a pro-human approach breaks away from the easy entertainment. A museum for humans tells open-ended stories and asks more questions than it answers. Through art and culture, it helps us “retrieve our lost ideals, actively connect to others, travel in time, communicate beyond words, and practice the hard work of participatory reality creation.”
This changes the role of the institution in society.
According to Rushkoff, the significant challenges humanity faces today do not have simple, straightforward solutions. The challenges are not binary. “Motivating a society to address open-ended challenges requires a more open-ended approach—one that depends less on our drive toward climax than our capacity for unresolved situations.”
Cultural institutions could create a place for people to safely engage in an open-ended approach to participation. Such a place can restore people’s sense of autonomy, their agency over their own decisions, and their ability to deal with the ambiguity of long-term, chronic problems. In turn, this may restore humanity’s preference for collective prosperity over personal gain.
A model and mission for museums
What does such a museum for humans look like? Admittedly, Rushkoff’s book does a great job at sketching the contours of a more pro-human society but gives little recommendations on what to do differently tomorrow.
Yet he does give some pointers as to what a pro-human cultural institution may look like. Rushkoff advocates the model of the co-op. His ideal organisation is composed of genuinely interdependent individuals that are both needed and accountable. Only in such a context are individual contributions amplified. The alternative is to keep tweeting alone, hoping that an algorithm will one day take your side.
He even provides a mission statement for such an organisation: “Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart.”
When I wrote about a museum for robots, I stated that “a museum that will work for robots is excellent for humans too.” Reading Rushkoff, I’m convinced it is, and it shouldn’t be. Rushkoff writes about digital technology: “Like all media, if they’re not consciously seized by the people seeking empowerment, they’ll be seized y someone or something else.” Museums are a medium as well. If we don’t seize them as humans, they will be seized by robots. And these robots will do everything in their might to make us accept their museum as our perfect museum, whether or not it actually is.
Instead, we should come together and create a pro-human museum for everyone.
All quotes from Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff.