Media studies The Queens College building is small and dark, with low ceilings and narrow corridors. It was built more than a century ago as a residential school for unregenerate boys, and a certain state of neglect remains. When I visit on a January weekday to see Douglas Rushkoff, who teaches here, he leads me over a stack of fallen ceiling tiles to his office in the back corner of the first floor. The room’s Wi-Fi 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 opened his laptop and brought up a grid of faceless black boxes.
This is the first meeting of the course on “Digital Economics: Crypto, NFTs and the Blockchain.” Rushkoff is a good sport about teaching on Zoom, although it’s a shame in his class that most undergraduates don’t fully appreciate the 62-year-old media-studies professor’s looks—which he absolutely nails: black V-neck, cropped gray hair. He launched into a passionate half-hour lecture in which he urged his students, only three of whom had their cameras, to look at the social construction of money—he took out a dollar bill and waved it. -hand it in front of the laptop screen, saying, “This is not money. It’s a piece of paper that we use to represent money”—and to explore what he calls the “big question” of his life’s work: how power travels across media landscapes.
Outside of this classroom at Queens College, Rushkoff is a widely cited Internet theorist, known for his extensive and influential writings on culture and economics. He gets the occasional student who recognizes his work—“He’s a popular author,” one wrote on Rate My Professor, “just do a Google search”—but most of them are busy people who log into class from their phones, more interested in fulfilling their degree requirements than 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 made a point of landing at the City University of New York in Queens after an appointment at the more expensive, prestige-mongering, private New York University. In one part of his lecture, he explained the path his intellectual life had taken:
“I was very excited in the ’90s about the possibilities for a new type of peer-to-peer economy. What we’re going to build will be like a TOR network in the economy, the big Napsterization of the economy in a digital environment,” he told his students. But recently, he continued, he turned his attention to something else that this new digital economy has done: “It creates a bunch of billionaires and lots of poor, unhappy people.”
This kind of rhetoric is part of a new, decisive shift in direction for Rushkoff. Over the past 30 years, with more than a dozen non-fiction books, countless articles, and various media projects about the state of society in the internet age, Rushkoff has always walked a tightrope. that tightrope between optimism and skepticism. He was one of the original enthusiasts for the prosocial potential of technology, charting a path through the digital landscape for those who shared his rebellious, anti-government spirit. As Silicon Valley shed its cyberpunk soul and became an incubator of corporate greed, he continued to promote his ideals from within. Until now. Last fall, with the publication of his latest book, Survival of the Super Rich: Escaping the Fantasies of Tech Billionaires, Rushkoff has 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 keep a straight face as a die-hard proponent of decentralization. A couple of months before I came to see Rushkoff, the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, run by a cabal of tasteless pyramid schemers blathering platitudes about art and community, collapsed, burning billions dollars in the process. These internet capitalists have proven to be worse guardians of the public interest than the corporate robber barons of yore. (A few weeks after my visit, Silicon Valley Bank failed and nearly dragged the global financial system down with it—a direct result of the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda.)
Faced with such incontrovertible evidence, Rushkoff doesn’t just lie or change the subject as perennial techno-optimists are wont to do. His conversion was deeper. “I’ve seen, many times, digital technologies are very good at exacerbating the problem while also hiding the problem,” he told the black boxes representing his students. “They make things worse while making it look like something has really changed.” Still, as he speaks, I sometimes find Rushkoff reverting to his former persona: the inveterate Gen X techno-optimist, the man who can’t resist the untested promise of the newest tools. Near the end of the class, he starts instructing his students not to use ChatGPT to write their assignments, then stops abruptly, as if unable to continue. “Well, really,” he said, thinking again, “we’ll find out.”