Technologies Used to Be Tools; Now They’re Our Environment

Our tech no longer has a real-world analog

Douglas Rushkoff
Team Human
Published in
4 min readApr 2, 2020

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Image: Artur Debat/Getty Images

In a digital media environment, it’s particularly easy for figure and ground — people and their inventions — to flip roles. Because so much of this landscape is programmed to do one thing or another, human beings often become the more passive, automatic players compared with the code that actively defines the terrain and influences our behaviors.

If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.

For example, memetic warfare treats the figure — the human — as ground. In a digital media environment, memes become more than catchy slogans or ideas; they are a form of code, engineered to infect a human mind and then to turn that person into a replicator of the virus. The meme is software, and the person is the machine.

The meme has one goal: to be reproduced. It enters the human, inciting confusion, excitement, panic, or rage and stimulating the host to pass it on. The meme is issuing one command: Make me. And whether by word of mouth, social media, or viral video link, whether in agreement with the meme or in outraged rejection, the infected human obeys.

This automation tends to reinforce itself. The more we experience people as dehumanized replicators of memes, the more likely we are to treat one another as machines to be operated rather than as peers with whom to collaborate. Combined with other styles of manipulation and triggering, we end up in a world where success in business, politics, or even dating appears to depend on our ability to control others. Our essentially social activities become entirely instrumentalized, losing connection to their greater purpose. Under the pretense of optimizing probabilities or gaining broader choice, we surrender real connection and meaning. We become mere instruments.

The big reversal here is that our technologies used to be the instruments. They were extensions of our will — expressions of our autonomy as human beings. They gave us more choices. Of course, each new choice our technologies opened up to us also risked alienating us from our primal connections with nature and one another. Fire…

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Douglas Rushkoff
Team Human

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm