This is an excerpt from Empower: How to Co-Create the Future. The full 200+ page book is available by donation!

“What happens if a company realizes it’s reached a sustainable but ultimately limited level of revenue?”

-Douglas Rushkoff

excerpt from book

David Passiak: There is a recurring theme throughout your writings to question or reprogram the basic operating systems of society, like corporatism and money, to benefit people instead of extract value. I love this one quote from your latest book:

“We need to make a choice. We can continue to run this growth-driven, extractive, self-defeating program until one corporation is left standing and the impoverished revolt. Or we can seize the opportunity to reprogram our economy—and our businesses—from the inside.”

For people unfamiliar with your work, can you explain what you mean by an operating system and reprogramming from the inside?

Douglas Rushkoff: The operating system is what makes your computer go. There’s the Windows operating system and Macintosh operating system, and all the software that we use runs on top of that. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you are building software for a particular operating system—that the operating system has biases, ways of working, underlying assumptions about the way people interact with machines, what the role is of computers in peoples’ lives, and all that.

If you were to wake up in a world where there was only the Macintosh, you wouldn’t even know that there is such a thing as an operating system; you would look at your computer and say, “Well, that’s just a computer.” You wouldn’t understand that there’s a choice of what underlying system to use for building your software. I think it’s a fitting analogy for business and the economy.

For example, most entrepreneurs and investors look at the VC startup mechanism as the only operating system available. They don’t even see an operating system—it’s just the laws of business, a fixed reality. The natural condition of things is that you take money from these angel guys, you do a Series A, then a Series B, and you go for an IPO and try to return 100 or 1000x to your investors. As if it’s like, when a cell undergoes mitosis, it has four stages, or a woman gets pregnant and then there are these trimesters and the baby comes out. As if that’s just the way things are. And it’s not.

The VC startup mechanism is a very particular way of doing business that was invented at a particular moment in history meant to leverage digital innovation towards very specific ends. What it does is trap potentially innovative, sustainable, breathtaking businesses in a self-destructive pattern. The obvious example is a company like Twitter, which can make $500 million a quarter or $2 billion a year on a 140-character messaging app, and it’s considered an abject failure by Wall Street because the operating system on which they’re running is a growth-based operating system.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is a writer, documentarian, and lecturer whose work focuses on human autonomy in a digital age. He is the author of 15 bestselling books on media, technology, and society, including Program or Be Programmed, Present Shock, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. He has made such award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries as Generation Like, Merchants of Cool, and The Persuaders, and is the author of graphic novels including Testament and Aleister & Adolf.

Rushkoff is the recipient of the Marshall McLuhan Award for his book Coercion, The Jacques Ellul Award for his documentary The Merchants of Cool, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity. Named one of the world’s ten most influential intellectuals by MIT, he is responsible for originating such concepts as “viral media,” “social currency,” and “digital natives.” Today, Dr. Rushkoff serves as Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens, where he recently founded the Laboratory for Digital Humanism and hostsits TeamHuman podcast.