The media studies building at Queens College is small and dark, with low ceilings and narrow corridors. It was built more than a century ago as a residential school for incorrigible boys, and a certain atmosphere of neglect remains. When I visit on a January weekday to see Douglas Rushkoff, who teaches here, he guides me around a stack of fallen ceiling tiles to his office in a back corner of the first floor. The Wi-Fi in the room is spotty, so he uses an Ethernet adapter to plug his laptop into the wall. The only evidence that we haven’t traveled back to the ’90s is that when it’s time for class, no students show up. Instead, Rushkoff opens his laptop and brings up a grid of faceless black boxes.
This is the first course meeting of “Digital Economics: Crypto, NFTs and the Blockchain.” Rushkoff is a good sport about teaching on, though it’s a shame his class of mostly undergraduates can’t fully appreciate the 62-year-old media-studies-professor look that he’s absolutely nailed: black V-neck, cropped gray hair. He launches into an impassioned half-hour lecture in which he urges his students, only three of whom have their cameras on, to see through the social construction of money—he pulls out a dollar bill and waves it in front of the laptop screen, saying, “This is not money. This is a piece of paper that we use to represent money”—and to probe what he calls the “big question” of his life’s work: how power travels across media landscapes.
Outside of this Queens College classroom, Rushkoff is a widely cited theorist of the internet, known for his prolific and influential writings on culture and economics. He gets the occasional student who recognizes his work—“He’s a famous author,” one writes on Rate My Professor, “just do a Google search”—but most of them are busy people logging in to class from their phones, more interested in fulfilling their degree requirements than in the dense collage of Rushkoff’s book covers taped to the wall behind his desk.
That his class may not be his students’ first priority doesn’t bother Rushkoff much. He’s made a point of landing at City University of New York in Queens after a teaching stint at the far more expensive, prestige-mongering, private New York University. In a portion of his lecture, he hints at the trajectory his intellectual life has taken:
“I was pretty freaking excited in the ’90s about the possibilities for a new kind of peer-to-peer economy. What we would build that would be like a TOR network of economics, the great Napsterization of economics in a digital environment,” he tells his students. But more recently, he continues, he’s turned his attention to something else that this new digital economy has created: “It made a bunch of billionaires and a whole lot of really poor, unhappy people.”
This kind of rhetoric is part of a recent, decisive shift in direction for Rushkoff. For the past 30 years, across more than a dozen nonfiction books, innumerable articles, and various media projects about the state of society in the internet age, Rushkoff had always walked a tightrope between optimism and skepticism. He was one of the original enthusiasts of technology’s prosocial potential, charting a path through the digital landscape for those who shared his renegade, anti-government spirit. As Silicon Valley shed its cyberpunk soul and devolved into an incubator of corporate greed, he continued to advocate for his values from within. Until now. Last fall, with the publication of his latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, Rushkoff all but officially renounced his membership in the guild of spokespeople for the digital revolution. So what happened?
It is, generally speaking, a difficult time to maintain a straight face as a diehard advocate of decentralization. A couple of months before I come to see Rushkoff, the cryptocurrency exchange, run by a cabal of tasteless pyramid schemers blathering platitudes about art and community, collapsed, torching billions of dollars in the process. These internet capitalists proved to be worse guardians of the public interest than even the corporate robber barons of yore. (Some weeks after my visit, failed and nearly dragged the global financial system down along with it—a direct result of the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda.)
Confronted with such irrefutable evidence, Rushkoff isn’t just lying low or changing the subject the way perennial techno-optimists often do. His conversion is deeper. “I find, a lot of times, digital technologies are really good at exacerbating the problem while also camouflaging the problem,” he tells the black boxes that represent his students. “They make things worse while making it look like something’s actually changed.” Still, as he talks, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of Rushkoff reverting into his former persona: the inveterate Gen X techno-optimist, the man who can’t resist the untested promise of ever newer tools. Near the end of class, he starts instructing his students to not useto write their assignments, then halts abruptly, as if unable to go on. “Well, actually,” he says, reconsidering, “we’ll figure it out.”