Digital Distributism

Douglas Rushkoff
6 min readAug 11, 2022

Part II: From Artisans to Employees

This is the second part of an essay for the Equitable Enterprise Initiative at Institute for the Future. Part I is here.

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era, the business landscape looked something like Burning Man, the famous desert festival for digital artisans. The military campaigns of the Crusades had opened new trade routes throughout Europe and beyond. Soldiers were returning from faraway places after having been exposed to all sorts of new crafts and techniques for building and farming. They even copied a market they had observed in the Middle East — the bazaar — where people could exchange not only their goods but also their ideas, leading to innovations in milling, fabrication, and finance.

The bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of eBay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputations promoted better business. There was no middleman, no central platform through which exchanges were conducted, except for the appointed time and place of the bazaar itself. Since people transacted back and forth, all sorts of interdependencies developed that in turn fostered more and better commerce. This was a bound community of commerce, where transactions were informed by a multiplicity of values.

Transactions were made with local moneys that often had little value if held. Market moneys were generally issued in the morning, denominated in the value of a local commodity (like a loaf of bread) and expired at the end of the market day if they were not redeemed. There was no such as savings; the money was biased entirely toward transaction. Even money that could be saved, such as grain receipts, lost value over time. The grain house needed to be compensated, and some grain was lost to spoilage. But because the money was biased toward velocity rather than accumulation, it helped distribute prosperity throughout the trading community.

The quality of goods and services was maintained by a system of guilds covering each of the major trades. It wasn’t a perfect scheme, as guilds often favored the children of existing members, but it was characterized less by competition among members than by the standardization of prices, the training of apprentices, and the exchange of best practices…

Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast