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Each semester I teach my freshman students that theories are simply stories that we tell in order to make sense of observed reality.  And if story X does a better job than does story Y of making sense of reality, then story X is the better theory of the two.  Compared to story Y, better-story X makes those who hear it go “Ah, yes!  That makes sense!  Now I understand reality better than I did before!”

This definition and function of “theory” holds regardless of discipline.  It’s true for physics no less than for biology; it’s true for chemistry no less than for economics.  It’s true for the most formal, purely mathematized story no less than for the most casual, purely verbal story.  A theory that does not cause Jones to sense that she better understands reality is not a theory that Jones accepts.  Put differently, for Jones to accept a story as a valid theory of that aspect of reality that the story is meant to explain, Jones must like (by her own lights) what she perceives to be the correspondence between the story’s logic (and its implications) and reality as Jones understands reality.

So what is Douglas Rushkoff’s theory of the emergence, use, and popularity of “Likes” – as in “liking” something on Facebook?  I’ll quote from pages 30-31 of Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus [2] to share with you his theory of “Likes.”  Do you like it?

So in spite of its interactive patina, the digital economy continues the industrial practice of preventing real people from participating in the growth economy – at least as its beneficiaries.  We still get to work, and we still end up living and socializing in a landscape that feels more like business than pleasure.  There’s just no money.

In fact, the digital landscape so effectively monopolizes economic activity that most people have almost nothing left to be extracted.  That’s why in order to maintain some semblance of growth, Internet companies had to find a way to monetize something other than cash from its users.  Something measurable, countable, and attractive enough to shareholders to justify their real cash investment in the companies’ stock.

That’s right: “likes.” ….

Likes are a new way to stoke that growth furnace.

Rushkoff goes on to ‘explain’ that a firm or a website or a product with lots of ‘likes’ attracts gazillions of dollars from investors.

The above quoted passage is stuffed with error enough for several long blog posts.  But I’ll content myself now only to ask if you find Rushkoff’s theory of “likes” likable.  Does this story he tells make you go “Ah ha!  Now I get it!  Now I better understand why ‘like’ buttons exist and why so many people like (!) to use them”?  Does Rushkoff’s theory of ‘likes’ cause you say to yourself “Until now, I thought that ‘likes’ emerged in order to, or because of [fill in the blank].  But now I see that, as Rushkoff explains, ‘likes’ instead are the last possible crumbs of value that digital monopolists such as Facebook can extract from ordinary people – ordinary people who have been utterly impoverished by the past couple of centuries of industrial capitalism.  Rushkoff’s explanation has torn the blinding curtains from my eyes!  I see now that clever monopolists are raising the market values of their firms to astronomical heights by getting the impoverished masses to ‘like’ in droves the monopolists’ webpages and web-featured products.  I like that explanation!”

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