Biographical Approaches to Studying Digital Capitalism

In the early pages of Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, he offers a cogent analysis of how initial public offerings lock tech companies into a growth imperative which ultimately proves destructive of the value they create. As he puts it on loc 169, “Having taken in this much new capital, however, Twitter now needs to produce. It must grow.” Problems emerge because what constitutes enough growth is something now defined by the investors who must justify the amount of money that’s been put into the company.

It’s easy to see this in systemic terms but what intrigues me is the biographical element. The problem arises because, as Rushkoff puts it, shareholders “expect to win back one hundred times their initial $20 billion bet” and to do this “Twitter must grow into a corporation bigger than the economy of many entire nations” (loc 184). Who are these investors and how do they come to be in a situation where they’re both able and inclined to make such an investment, with these sets of expectations? What about the founders themselves, how did they come to occupy these positions and what commonalities and differences can we find in their motivations?

My suggestion is that what Rushkoff calls “the growth imperative” can be usefully analysed in terms of the biographical entanglement between two distinct groups: aspiring founders and aspiring investors. The social dynamics can’t be reduced to individual biographies but these lived lives are, in an important way, the most basic social unit through which the dynamics become operative and are therefore key to understanding it. This of course entails that we understand the context within which these aspirations develop and each group sets out on this path, but the capacity of such groups to transform that context is something that is activated through the lives of individuals.

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