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<nettime> Edge interviews Douglas Rushkoff [1/2]
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<nettime> Edge interviews Douglas Rushkoff [1/2]


<http://edge.org/documents/archive/edge61.html>

EDGE 61 October 25, 1999

"THE THING THAT I CALL DOUG"

A Talk with Douglas Rushkoff

In the best light, I suppose "Just Do It" is renaissance of a sort, isn't
it? A great credo, reasserting the power of individual will. But I think
"Just Do It" is a reductive and dangerous substitute for a philosophy of
life. As far as Nike is concerned, "Just Do It" means just pressing the
"Buy" button. "No, kid, you don't have to think. For God's sake, don't think
about it. Just do it!"

The most dangerous thing about the immediacy of our terrific new media
communications tools is that the idea of consideration has been taken out of
the equation. We're supposed to be able to have an instantaneous response.
We take polls of public responses to Clinton's speeches before they're even
over - as if we're supposed to know how we feel before we've had time to
think. When we get an e-mail, we tend to feel we are obligated to respond to
its query right away, without having time to think about it.

The most dangerous thing about a "Just Do It "society is that it compels us
to act on reflex - not intention. We are led to believe we are acting from
the gut. That we are somehow connecting with our emotions and bypassing our
neuroses. But this isn't true at all. We are merely moving impulsively. It's
not from the gut. And the more impulsively we act, the more easily we can be
led where we might not truly want to go. People who act automatically are
the easiest to control - by marketers, by anyone. There's less intention and
thus less life involvement.

I used to think, this acceleration of human action was a great thing. I
thought we'd simply bypass our restricting editorial voices, get our
superegos out of the way, and behave in that purely spontaneous, wonderful
fashion that all human beings would behave in if uncorrupted by social and
institutional biases.


Introduction by John Brockman

Until recently, media and technology guru Douglas Rushkoff believed that we
should let technology develop at its own pace and in its own way. "I thought
that this rapid acceleration of culture would allow us to achieve the kind
of turbulence necessary to initiate a dynamical system," he says. "And I saw
everyone who called for us to put on the brakes, or to put new governors on
the development of culture, as the enemy to our evolution forward. Their
vigilance would prevent us from reaching the next level of complexity."

Rushkoff abandonded his view of techno-utopianism when he began thinking
that "when you eliminate fear and simply follow your bliss, you don't always
get the best results. In the worst case, it can even be a recipe for
fascism. Over the past few years we just let the Internet go, and we've got
an electronic strip mall as a result. We thought government was the enemy,
and kept them out of our network. That's what gave market forces free
reign."

"I started to explore whether there is a way to foster growth, new thought,
cultural innovation, and even markets without getting absolutely carried
away and losing all sense of purpose."

 JB

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF,  a Professor of Media Culture at New York University's
Interactive Telecommunications Program, is an author, lecturer, and social
theorist. His books include Free Rides, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of
Hyperspace, The GenX Reader (editor), Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular
Culture, Ecstasy Club (a novel), Playing the Future, and, most recently,
Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say (September 99).

As a journalist, Rushkoff is currently writing a monthly column for The
Guardian of London, The Melbourne Age, Silicon Alley Reporter, The Herald
Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, The New The Fresno Bee, and dozens of other
papers around the world through the New York Times Syndicate. He is also a
commentator for NPR's All Things Considered. He regularly contributes
features about pop-culture, media and technology to magazines including
Time, Esquire, Details, GQ, Paper and Magical Blend, as well as online
publications from The Site to Nerve.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

"THE THING THAT I CALL DOUG"

A Talk with Douglas Rushkoff

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Lately I've been asking myself, what is media? Or, more
exactly, what is not media? I've been writing for quite a while about media
as a conduit, media as a way of creating communities, media as a connection
from one person to another. And it occurred to me that everything is media.
Everything outside my own awareness - whatever it is I call "me" - is some
mediation of me. That is, until it gets to you. Everything between the thing
that I'm calling Doug and the thing that you're calling John is media. Then
I started to wonder, well, what is the thing that I call Doug? The best we
know so far, what we call "Doug" is some distinct DNA pattern - or perhaps
the vessel that's carrying out that pattern. If I'm the vessel, then I'm
just a medium for a set of genes. And if I'm the DNA itself? Well, what's
more media than DNA? It's a medium for a code that goes back into history
and right through to the future. Has there ever been a better broadcaster
than DNA?

So that's why I started wondering about what's not media? And all I've found
so far is intention. Intention is not media; it's what we're using to try to
drive media, what we're trying to express through our various media. As
Hamlet asked, "what is a man" beyond than his bestial, feeding existence?
"Cause and will."

And that pretty well gets us down to the very biggest questions people in
this discussion and discussions like it for centuries have been asking. What
is life? What is consciousness? And I'd answer it's pure intention - and
that studying media helps us distinguish between intentionality and its many
manifestations.

As a child, I wrestled with this distinction by studying theatre and biology
- which are both looking for answers to the same question: what is it to be
alive? For biologists, it's a matter of determining what animates matter
into life. For dramatists, it's the study of how to re-create life. And
Aristotle arrived at the same conclusion: drama is a human will striving
towards a goal. Life is the intention to maintain itself, to carry itself
forward - and it does so through forms of media. Biologists define life as
matter trying to sustain and replicate itself over time in some active
fashion, just as a dramatist sees character as one trying to retain or even
extend his sense of self - playing out his true nature.

What makes my inquiry unique, if anything, is the fact that these sorts of
questions came out of the Twinkies television culture in which I was raised
It's hard for a smart kid to watch television 8, 10, 12 hours a day, without
eventually having to think.

JB: Perhaps you're not DNA . Maybe you're television?

RUSHKOFF: Maybe I am! If anything is expressing itself through me, it's TV.

JB: Who raised you?

RUSHKOFF: I suppose it was June Lockhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and Lucille Ball
who raised me. I took class in Room 222 and Dr. Smith was my pediatrician!
Honestly, I don't believe I was being raised or informed by these programs
quite as they were intended. I wasn't watching television shows as much as
watching The Television. From 4 or 5 years old I remember looking at the
sets of sitcoms and wondering why almost all of them had the door into the
house on the right side of the set  All in the Family, I Love Lucy, Dick
Van Dyke, everyone came in from the right, even the Mary Tyler Moore show.
What did this mean, especially when in the 1970s, it seemed that sitcoms
about broken homes had the door on the left. Maude, One Day at a Time -
shows about divorce, really, had their doors on the left. Even in the last
season of Mary Tyler Moore, as she grew into a more desperate single woman,
she moved to an apartment where the door was on the left instead of the
right.

JB: But you were always looking straight ahead.

RUSHKOFF: No, I was looking at the stage set. I don't know how many other
kids were watching television in this way, but I certainly credit it with
launching my inquiry into how media was put together. Why is it put together
the way it is? You have to take it apart to find out.

JB: Let's talk about the so-called "human communications revolution".

RUSHKOFF: I don't know that I believe in revolution as much as renaissance.
So many people talk about this computer revolution where the individual user
is empowered to express himself, break down obsolete institutions, or topple
the corporate-industrial monoliths. It's an unnecessarily polar and
combative vision. And once it's reduced to the idea of empowering
individuals, all those individuals start looking a lot more like consumers
beating the "system" than autonomous human beings. It devolves quickly into
"one-to-one marketing." I prefer to look at moments like the one we're
living through as renaissances - as rebirths of old ideas in a new context.

JB: Did you say "self" expression? How does a self express itself. Are you
talking about "Just Do It"?

RUSHKOFF: In the best light, I suppose "Just Do It" is renaissance of a
sort, isn't it? A great credo, reasserting the power of individual will. But
I think "Just Do It" is a reductive and dangerous substitute for a
philosophy of life. As far as Nike is concerned, "Just Do It" means just
pressing the "Buy" button. "No, kid, you don't have to think. For God's
sake, don't think about it. Just do it!"

The most dangerous thing about the immediacy of our terrific new media
communications tools is that the idea of consideration has been taken out of
the equation. We're supposed to be able to have an instantaneous response.
We take polls of public responses to Clinton's speeches before they're even
over - as if we're supposed to know how we feel before we've had time to
think. When we get an e-mail, we tend to feel we are obligated to respond to
its query right away, without having time to think about it.

The most dangerous thing about a "Just Do It "society is that it compels us
to act on reflex - not intention. We are led to believe we are acting from
the gut. That we are somehow connecting with our emotions and bypassing our
neuroses. But this isn't true at all. We are merely moving impulsively. It's
not from the gut. And the more impulsively we act, the more easily we can be
led where we might not truly want to go. People who act automatically are
the easiest to control - by marketers, by anyone. There's less intention and
thus less life involvement.

I used to think, this acceleration of human action was a great thing. I
thought we'd simply bypass our restricting editorial voices, get our
superegos out of the way, and behave in that purely spontaneous, wonderful
fashion that all human beings would behave in if uncorrupted by social and
institutional biases.

JB: Remind me...the superego?

RUSHKOFF: The internalized parent, the filter, the part of us that says,
"oh, wait a minute, maybe you really shouldn't do that." When I was younger,
I thought the superego was a restrictive force, amplified by those who
sought control us  our churches, our bosses, our schools, those who want to
keep us in a state of fear and shame. Timothy Leary saw things this way..

JB: You talk about forces trying to control us; in the same breath you use
words like "fun", and "renaissance." Do you see a need to change things, or
is everything just great the way it is?

RUSHKOFF: Until about three years ago, I thought that we should just let 'er
rip. Let technology develop at its own pace and in its own way. I thought
that this rapid acceleration of culture would allow us to achieve the kind
of turbulence necessary to initiate a dynamical system. And I saw everyone
who called for us to put on the brakes, or to put new governors on the
development of culture, as the enemy to our evolution forward. Their
vigilance would prevent us from reaching the next level of complexity.

I was buying the Wired line of techno-utopianism. I would read stuff by John
Barlow and Terrence McKenna and think, let's just evolve. But something kept
nagging at me. I couldn't help thinking that when you eliminate fear and
simply follow your bliss, you don't always get the best results.. In the
worst case, it can even be a recipe for fascism. Over the past few years we
just let the Internet go, and we've got an electronic strip mall as a
result. We thought government was the enemy, and kept them out of our
network. That's what gave market forces free reign.

I started to explore whether there is a way to foster growth, new thought,
cultural innovation, and even markets without getting absolutely carried
away and losing all sense of purpose.

JB: Let's talk about your writing.

RUSHKOFF: Well, I wrote three loud books about the promise of new media. I
honestly believed I was writing them for what I conceived of as the
"counter-culture" - or at least for people who sought to use these
technologies for positive, thoughtful cultural evolution. I told the story
of how our tightly controlled media was giving way to a more organic,
natural mediaspace. Media used to obey only the laws of Newtonian physics.
It was a top-down affair where gravity ruled. People like William Randolph
Hearst or Rupert Murdoch could make decisions from the tops of glass
buildings, and then their messages would trickle down to the rest of us
through one-way media.

But now, thanks to computers and camcorders and the Internet and modems, the
media has been forced to incorporate feedback and iteration. It has become a
truly chaotic space - a dynamical system. Remember the famous example of
chaos, the butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil causing a hurricane in
New York? To me, that butterfly was Rodney King - whose beating by LA cops,
captured on a camcorder tape and iterated throughout the datasphere, led to
riots in a dozen American cities. I wrote Media Virus to announce that the
time had come where we could launch any idea we want  whether it's as a
media virus, or in a usenet group - the power is in our hands again, let's
go for it. I wrote books about how young people understand media better than
adults, and are already using it in new, exciting ways.

JB: And then you found out that all the kids were filing for their IPOs. And
you find out there is no counterculture. And you can't buy a real cotton
shirt in Palo Alto.

RUSHKOFF: Yeah, I learned all those things, and I learned them most
frighteningly when I was invited to a convention sponsored by the American
Association of Advertising Agencies, the 4 A's. They wanted me to talk to
them about media viruses and youth culture. I was thrilled. I prepared a
talk about how advertising is over, and that their tyranny over young people
had come to an end. They should give up their coercive ways. When I arrived,
there were signs and hand outs: How to use Media Viruses to Capture New
Audiences - that sort of thing. People were coming up to me and
congratulating me about my role in launching controversial Calvin Klein ads
that I had nothing to do with. Or so I thought.

I suddenly realized that the people who had put my books on best seller
lists were not those Mondo 2000-era hackers and Internet homesteaders I so
admired, but rather the public relations and advertising industries. I had
been selling "cool" to corporate America. My books were primers, required
texts for young executives on how to take advantage of new media to do the
same old thing they were doing before. That's when I realized that we were
in an arms race, and that I was just as caught up in it as everyone else.

So I decided to write a book about the war. I spent two years taking a look
at many different styles of coercion, their histories, and how these
techniques have been retooled for modern times. I concluded that most of
them are based on a simple phenomenon known as regression and transference.
It's used in a positive way by therapists, and a dangerous way by
salespeople and marketers. Basically, if people can be made to feel
disoriented or helpless, they will seek out someone to act as a parent. When
people are confused, they want parents who can tell them what to do, and
reassure them. Once you create a situation where people feel that they can
trust you, that you understand them, that you'll take care of them, or that
you'll lead them, they will submit.

The other main set of techniques that are being used in coercion today are
taken from neurolinguistic programming. They are really just simple hypnosis
techniques, like Milton Erickson's "pacing and leading." If you're sitting
in a room with someone, what you would do is subtly assume the same position
as your target, and adopt some of the same breathing and speech patterns 
that's pacing. Then, amazingly, you can slowly lead the person by changing
your posture, breathing rate, or speech pattern. You're subject will change
his posture too, to conform to yours. Then you begin to work on his
thinking, as well.

This same technique plays itself out in the sales world through the sciences
of demographics and target marketing. You pace your target market - listen
to the language of it, "target market"  it's a war metaphor. If you're in
the target market you are in the cross hairs of marketer's rifle! To pace
the target demographic, the marketer studies buying motives and propensities
through focus groups, then creates messages that perfectly reflect their
existing emotional states. Marketers pace our behaviors and feelings in
order to lead us where they want us to go.

When this process gets automated through a technology like the World Wide
Web, watch out. An e-commerce site watches and records each user's
interactions with it. What screens did the user look at and in what order?
Where did he click? When did he buy? Did he buy when the background was red
or blue? Did he buy when the offer was in the top left or the top right? And
the computer can then dynamically reconfigure itself to make a Web site that
identifies and then paces each individual exactly. Meanwhile, the user
thinks he's "just doing it."

Once the customer is properly paced, then you work on leading the person
towards a greater frequency of purchases, greater allegiance. So-called
sticky Web sites are really just trying to create an inexorable pull on the
user towards greater and greater interaction with and loyalty to the
particular brand being offered. The user is a fly, and the branded website
is the flypaper.

JB: Do you feel loyal to brands?

RUSHKOFF: It's funny  I went to the Foot Locker to get sneakers a month or
so ago. There was a wall of sneakers  Nikes and Adidas and Reeboks - the
major brands - and then cool brands like Airwalk and Simple  the so-called
counterculture brands that you're supposed to believe aren't being assembled
by underage Singhalese prostitutes. I looked at that wall and I actually did
have a crisis  a consumer crisis  as I thought, what sneaker is me? Which
one is the thing I call Doug? Which reflects me? How do I want to express
the thing I call Doug with my purchase?

The way kids express who they are today, and the way we are supposed to vote
in a libertarian universe, is with our dollars, right? But we can never
really express who we are through consumption. It's a pity that it's the
main option left to us. It's not empowerment at all. It's the power to be a
consumer.

JB: Do you think self-conscious option is enough? John Cage would say that
in order to change ourselves we need to forget interiority and change the
world  and we'll all change with it. The inter life is over, everything is
an objectification, including the names of the body, "the thing that I call
Doug".

RUSHKOFF: At one time I used to believe something like that. My prescription
for getting more conscious was for everyone to admit that we're all flailing
around in the same dynamical system and everything is arbitrary. What I call
Doug, what you call Doug, what we call a word  everything is arbitrary.
It's that seemingly profound insight you have in your dorm room on a little
too much acid, where you can't hold onto anything. So let it all go, and
realize that the reality templates are up for grabs. It's a consensual
hallucination, as William Gibson would say. But I don't think that's true
anymore.

JB: I think we need a new word for this.

RUSHKOFF: Maybe post-ontological relativism? I haven't turned into an
absolutist, either, though. I don't think there's something called evil, but
I do think there's a force called good. Like heat  heat is a force. Cold is
not a force, cold is just the absence of heat. It doesn't exist.. Ask any
physicist. But there is heat, and I think there is something called good.
And that implies a certain polarity, for sure. Or at least a spectrum or
scale.

My problem with the John Cage's reliance on the external is that it gives
too much room to the libertarians or even the fascists, who will claim that
we live in a downright competitive universe, so anything goes. Anything
doesn't go in my book.

I started to have this realization when I was watching the Clinton/Lewinksy
debacle on TV. Everyone, from Dan Rather to Louis Rukeyser said, "well the
economy is good, and the American public is going to support this president
as long as the economy is good." As far as I'm concerned, a good economy is
not good enough. The bottom line isn't the bottom line.

JB: Then what is?

RUSHKOFF: That's for us to figure out. The Bible gives a few hints. There is
something to be said for a bit of Platonic idealization in all this. Growing
up and saying look, that doesn't go in my house; this will not go. Being an
adult. Originally the Internet made me think the only thing we have to learn
is tolerance. If we can be tolerant of everything and everyone, we'll all be
okay. But I'm not tolerant of everything and everyone. And I certainly see
the value in realizing that we're starting to go in directions that we've
been before. We should learn from those experiences rather than repeat them
with new gadgets that we have even less control over.

The problem with Cage's idea is that if everything is external and there's
no internal life anymore, then this is the only moment that matters. However
I feel is right, and I'm going to go with that. A New Age guru might tell us
this is fine. But I'm beginning to think this is not the only moment that
matters. Part of growing up is realizing that my father and his father and
his father, too, were working on projects that span generations, and I want
to know what those projects are. And when I have children, I'm sure I'll
feel this way even more.

JB: A lot of your writing is concerned with the effects of science and
technology.

RUSHKOFF: I tend to think of technologies as expressions rather than things
that force us into new behaviors. I'm not a technodeterminist. I believe we
are in charge. When we're developing technologies like computers, networks,
or Nano we are designing reality, and doing it at a pace unimagined before.
We are greatly enhancing our ability to exercise our intention.

What I'm asking is what is our intention? What are we going to do with it?
We better figure that out, and fast. When you look some of the people who
have been most successful at expressing their intention through technology,
they aren't the scientists, but the technologists and marketers. A what are
they doing with it? They're getting very rich, and succumbing to what you
would call toxic wealth.



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