via The Guardian, Tuesday 16 June 2009:
Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged - held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents' group to warn them about what had happened.
"I got two emails back within the hour," he says. "Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I'd posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place - because it might adversely affect their property values."
That, he says, was more shocking than being mugged. He was spurred into action.
A New Yorker with a short crop of curly hair and dark eyes, Rushkoff made his name in the 1990s as the author of a series of books that examined the intersection of technology and popular culture, including Media Virus - in which he minted the concept of viral marketing, where the internet is infected with contagious advertising - and Cyberia: Life in the Trenches, which documented the weirder corners of online life.
Along the way he also coined the now-popular idea of "digital natives" - youngsters who gained a distinct advantage over their parents because they had grown up in a world of computers and electronics. But after two decades of documenting the hi-tech counterculture, Rushkoff realised he had a new subject: the mess we're in. Life Inc, his new book, tells a story of an economic and social collapse 500 years in the making.
"It isn't just about this crisis, it's about a much bigger process," he says, when we meet in the back room of a San Francisco conference centre (he has just delivered a barnstorming talk on why the stock market is a dangerous beast to a room full of stock-obsessed internet executives). "It's the process through which we internalised values and built a physical landscape where there are towns and roads that support this sort of corporatised, disconnected existence. It's about why the Dow Jones is the metric we choose to measure our health."
His thesis is that centuries of corporate influence have turned us into a world of isolated, individualistic people pitted against each other. It's familiar territory for the followers of Naomi Klein or Joel Bakan, the author of The Corporation, a damning examination of modern business. But Rushkoff's ideas are more complex.
He tracks back our economic system to the Renaissance, when the first corporations were born. Initially created as an attempt by the aristocracy to control - and profit from - the actions of the merchant class, corporations slowly became more powerful, setting up new codes that encouraged people to stop producing things and start buying.
"People exchanging value with one another directly is the thing that got outlawed 500 years ago and then, over the centuries, got turned into a weird, messy thing that we look down on rather than a wonderful thing that we should look up to." Over the course of history, he argues, the notion of local production and trade has been erased in favour of a centralised, globalised culture.
"It's almost that what the church did to sex, government and corporations did to transactions," he says. "We think of money as dirty, but it's corporations that are dirty, the whole notion that we need them is dirty."