Years later, I found myself coming upon references to Doug and his work all over the place. And I have found that even still there are all kinds of meaningful intersections between each of our explorations. It was very exciting and interesting to be able to communicate with someone who's been such an influence on me, and hopefully other people will gain something by seeing the points of convergence (and divergence) between our respective work and the creative potentials opened up by them.
Warm thanks once again to Douglas Rushkoff for taking time out to work on this with me. Without further ado, away we go!
TIM: Philip K. Dick wrote that the two questions he grappled with in his writing were "What is real?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" How would you answer those two questions yourself? And what are the central questions you wrestle with in your work?
DOUG: Well, I guess those aren't the kinds of questions I wrestle with. At least not in the way I imagine Dick wrestling with them, given his work. What is real? Pain and suffering are definitely real. Get a dose of some of that and you'll have no problem distinguishing between the fantasy of painless existence and the reality of a painful one. Honestly - just have a kidney stone or deliver a baby or watch someone in AIDS delirium. Things get real, really fast.
As for what constitutes the authentic human being, well, I guess it's have something to do with the *other* human beings. I don't know if we're fully constituted unless we're in relationship with other ones. Somehow, it seems to me that this whole notion of individuality, born in Ancient Greece but revived during the Renaissance, is a crock. And it leads to a lot of paradoxes that go away once you realize people don't really exist if they're alone. Medically, it's the main reason people get depressed and die - they're cut off from the rest of the human organism. They are no longer constituted.
As for my own central questions, they usually fall into the basket of "are people smart enough to think?" or "are ethics natural?" Sometimes I worry that the fascists were right: that people are just too damned stupid to live out their lives peacefully. That we need a benevolent on whom to transfer parental authority. But I can't go there, so instead I spend my time thinking that we can educate ourselves. And every once in a while there's an election or an organization that gets something done, and I get a bit of hope that we can evolve before it's too late.
Most of my peers seem to believe that people are stupid. All these books on brains and decisions being made in the "blink" of an eye - they're all geared towards seeing human beings as passive, mindless consumers, who use only our reptile brains to make even the most important decisions. And that's a really dark outlook.
T: Why do we even need media theorists? Why can't we just unplug ourselves from mass media and break its power over us once and for all?
D: Who said all media is mass media? As a media theorist, I guess I'd have to ask you what is *not* media? Even the way you choose to do or not do the top button of your shirt is media - it communicates something about you. As for unplugging from the mass media, go for it! Let's see how many people join you.
I don't know that you need media theorists the way you need farmers or doctors, but I don't know that dispensing with our mediating technologies is really the best way to tackle some of the problems they create. Where do you stop? Radio? Print? Writing? Speech? Signs? Are you saying we could live in small groups of hunter-gatherers, again? Perhaps - but we'd have to kill a few billion people to make that sustainable without agriculture.
I do believe there's value in understanding the biases of different media - understanding, for example, that the bias of the money we use today is towards centralization. Money is a medium - and there are many different kinds of money we could be using. But central authorities outlawed the use of local currencies in order to promote the power of central authorities. If we dont' understand the biases of media - in this case, the printing press - then it's hard to understand the reason why so much of our content and our reality works the way it does.
How does improving our understanding of media improve our day to day lives on a mundane non-intellectual level? Where does our struggle realistically get us at the end of the day?
It can make you less obese. It can save a girl from bulimia. It can keep a kid from enlisting in the army. It can prevent you from believing that all black people are criminals on drugs. It can help you understand that presidents of democracies can still be dictators, that people dying in Africa aren't really just animals, or that the image you're looking at while you masturbate is of a grossly distorted image of a person.
In addition to improving our intellectual understanding of media, could you outline some simple techniques or activities which we can put into practice in our lives based on the insights we derive from the process of de-constructing mass media?
There's simple things you can do to keep the media from having quite as strong an impact on you without your consent. You can observe how you feel when watching TV, and try to see what kinds of images or situations make you tense. And when you feel this anxiety, try to figure out why you feel this way, and who wants you to feel this way. And why?
Or try to figure out who is paying for what you're watching. That's almost the easiest one. Who paid for this thing? Why do they want me to see this?
It's also fun to try to pick out which segments on the news are fake. I mean, which are actually tapes sent in by public relations firms or even the government, disguised as news reports. (This isn't conspiracy theory; it's plain common fact.) Every night the news shows slip those in because they don't have the budget to fill out the whole show by themselves. But they're really just corporate or government propaganda.
If everything is media, then what are we?
I guess it depends what we're doing at the time. You could say we're just DNA carriers, in which case we're media, ourselves. Or you could say that DNA is itself a medium, in which case, what is the message? You tell me.
I like to think we are some combination of our consciousness and our volition. Intelligence and agency. We are a moment in the process through which matter strives towards awareness.
In that same interview, you said that "intention" is the only thing which isn't media – equating this also with life or consciousness. Where does intention come from ultimately? Where exactly is the border between intention and the primary "media" through which intention first manifests, ie our thoughts, feelings, and bodies?
I don't know quite what the difference between intention and life is. I've tended to think it's the intentionality of matter that creates the preferences leading to what we consider to be "life." Life is preference in the face of entropy. Where does intention *come* from? Gosh. I'm honored to be asked. I think it's an emergent phenomenon. A result and partner of evolution.
How can we cultivate intention and use it in our lives more effectively? Is it possible to connect directly to the ultimate source of intention, without going through its many mediated manifestations?
I don't know that there's an ultimate "source" of intention. It's a local and disparate phenomenon. I don't know that there's some central intention that you plug into, because you're the intention, too. You can certainly work to coordinate your intention with those of others, though. Become part of something greater than your "self," which is an illusion, anyway.
Usually, people do that by belonging to some kind of clan or group - people they feel they can identify with. But that's usually in opposition to some other group. I keep getting in arguments with various groups and religions that want to maintain their particularity - and I understand why that's more comfortable. It's easier to feel plugged in that way. But the grouping itself is based on a social construction of one sort or another, and doesn't really lead to greater cooperation or collaboration between groups. They have to accept that their groupings are quite arbitrary in order to move on to the "next" level of harmonious agency.
We hear in both the Old and New Testaments that the first commandment is to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." And on your blog earlier this year, you made a bit of a splash by writing: "Like any other public health crisis, the belief in religion must now be treated as a sickness. It is an epidemic, paralyzing our nation's ability to behave in a rational way…" It seems as though you're saying through that and through a lot of your work related to spirituality that the only proper way to "love God" is by way of the rational mind. What about the heart, the soul and those elements of religion which lay beyond the grasp of "Holy Reason?"
Well, it's not the first commandment God makes to people (which is to be fruitful and multiply) or even really the first of the big "ten," if you read the scripture in order. But it's been taken as the first major one.
I'm not saying the only way to love God - or, more importantly, to love everybody - is through the rational mind. But I do believe the rational mind is really good at eliminating the false idols and ideas standing in the way of universal love. The mind created these gods - these demons, really - even though the emotions are what perpetuate them. And while a call to reason rarely works, I felt the need to go on the record and speak to rational beings, everywhere.
Reason may not be a prerequisite to heart and soul love, but it's a good tool to break down the false reasoning that has trapped so many of us.
Could you talk a little bit about your actual experience of reading the Bible? Not so much in terms of what you got out of it intellectually, but how it felt, how it moved you emotionally (or didn't) and any techniques or practical methods you used to get through the actual reading and make it meaningful for your personal life.
Well, the biggie for me is pushing hard on the parts that don't make sense, anymore. There's lots in there that's just horrible - various forms of racism, sexism, and quite seemingly unjust punishments. Lots of rationalization for killing entire races of "others," and even their dogs. I mean, stuff you wouldn't want to think your "God" would want you to do.
So I read the whole thing as emotionally, or as deeply as I can. This way I can feel those bumps. And those bumps are the places that require more study and investigation. That part is an intellectual process, because you have to go into the history, find out who they're talking about. Or where the story really comes from, and how it's been changed to fit the Torah narrative and ethos.
I mean, you can't *get* that the ark of the covenant has no statue of god on top unless you know that all the arcs they built before that did. Nowhere does it say in the Bible that these folks were used to building Egyptian style monuments, and what they looked at. But without this knowledge, you can't get the inside joke that the ark they're building is, in many ways, a commentary on Egyptian death cults. An answer to that.
You also have to remember that reading, itself, is an intellectual activity. It's part of why many didn't want all this stuff written down. The spoken word is very different than the written word. So Torah reading is going to be absorbed differently than sitting and hearing it chanted.
I've read that you don't believe in God, but have you had any transformative personal spiritual experiences which you might be able to share with us? Where did these experiences come from? Where did they bring you?
I have them all the time. I mean, there were certainly biggies. Times when I felt there was *meaning*, or at least a connection between everything. But I never really felt the need to personify it. There were times I believed in something I called God - enough to drop a girlfriend because she said she could never believe in such a thing. I thought that was such a dry way of moving through existence.
But now that I don't believe in a character God, I feel I'm much more open to less predetermined manifestations of order and connection. I can see beauty, deep beauty, in kind acts, coordinated efforts, self-sacrifice, even dogs playing.
As for my own super transformative experiences, well, I suppose I had very typical ones. The psychedelic experience. Poets and writers like Wordsworth, James Joyce, Milton. A few experiences of nature. Sex. Yoga. Doing a particular talk in Croatia.
I've come to regard the more dramatic experiences of spiritual awakening with a great deal of suspicion, however. The more dramatic the experience, the more likely it is or will soon be a manifestation of ego. I've taken the opposite tack: looking for the sublime in the small. Feeling a sense of connection in the littlest things - how my daughter clasps my hand. The way Alex Gray smiled at me in the street the other day. The guy at the Italian restaurant on my block, who thanked me for *letting* him have his restaurant. It's being open to those little moments of connectivity that make one lose an appetite for the nominally "spiritual" experiences.
How would you characterize the challenges we are facing nowadays as compared to those which we will likely face over the next five to ten years or so as technologies converge? How will we retain the essential core of humanity in dynamically-branded overlapping hyper-realities administered by AI systems whose sole purpose is to monitor and predict our every move?
I don't know that the challenge is any different than it's always been. If anything, all the technologies and overlapping media realities and such just help us to see that the same things are happening on every level. And that can feel either liberating or repressive, depending on your ability to access some of the tools of authorship.
I mean, take me this very week. On Christmas Eve, I got mugged in front of my house. I rent an apartment on the top floor, but it's in a neighborhood of Brooklyn with million-dollar townhouses all around. And these townhouses are lived in by rich white folks, and pretty much surrounded by poorer folks of all colors. So this guy from a surrounding area sees me taking out the garbage, pulls out his gun, and takes my money and stuff.
Now, I've got a two-year-old daughter and a wife, and we're crammed into an apartment I can't afford without taking more work than I really should be doing. More work than I can do as well as I think it should be done. More work than I can do and still do interviews like this one, or answer 1000 emails. And the question, then, is do we move away from a neighborhood we can't afford, and don't feel safe in, anyway? I mean, what we're looking at here is the crime of gentrification and the violent reaction.
But is leaving "white flight" (not technically, since white flight means going somewhere that non-whites can't afford. In this case, we'd be moving somewhere cheaper with more colors of people.) But the gentrification/crime/race conflict isn't just about one Brooklyn neighborhood, as this little neighborhood also reflects the reality of America's place in the world order, attempting to maintain its internal "neighborhood" at the expense of others.
Or consider the conversation I had with Steven Johnson at a conference a few months ago. He was trying to explain how great neighborhoods are like emergent systems. First there's an art gallery or something, then a coffee house to serve the people going there, then a few studios, then some artsy people moving in, and pretty soon you have a cool neighborhood where none existed before. It emerged out of nothing.
But I challenged him: it wasn't out of nothing at all! There was a neighborhood there *before* the art gallery showed up. And an indigenous population there, doing what it could to get by. It may not have looked like a cool and trendy neighborhood from our hip, college-educated, espresso-drinking counterculture standards, but there were people living here before we got here - just as there were natives in America before the Europeans came.
And no - the market does not take care of these people since they didn't own their houses to begin with. They're renters, and they get priced out, and they get nothing for the neighborhood's "improvement" except eviction.
Now what does this have to do with your overlapping programmatic media realities? It's about being able to see on multiple scales at once. We can be marketed to and programmed on many levels at once - made frightened about our neighbors, more dependent on professionals and intermediaries, and willing to surrender our access to power. We can become part of a system with no head or conscious direction - just a bias towards market pathology.
Or we can see any one of these levels of reality creation - of map-making - as an opportunity to gain insight, share it with others, and arrest its development. Resistance may feel futile, but it's quite available.
Your work deals extensively with the media landscape, but I haven't seen you write too much on the landscapes of nature. What place, if any, does the natural world have in your work, in your life and in the challenges ahead of us? If everything is a kind of media – including nature – then what underlying intent is nature the "media" for? What is it trying to express? How can we use media theory to "decode" it?
Well, I don't know if I'd say nature is media as much as media is nature. I mean, bees make honey, beavers make dams, and people make language, ideas, and media. It's all natural - it's just not all healthy to the entirety of the ecosystem.
I don't write that much about what we usually mean by "nature" because I'm really not as familiar with it as I might like to be. I'm a city kid, and I spend my time engaged in media and human-made artificial environments. So I'm more engaged with cultural production and consumption than, say, rocks and trees and stuff.
As for nature, I don't know that it's expressing anything as much as speculating. That's what Bucky Fuller used to like to say. The way ivy creeps up the tree is speculative; it's hoping there's another place up there for it to reach more sun or whatever.
But, like I said before, I think nature - or, more specifically, life - is the countervailing force to entropy. It's the impulse towards complexity, organization, and consciousness in the face of utter nothingness. And humans, as an extension of nature, are onto the quest for meaning. Whether we get there - whether we can create this meaning out of matter and experience - is still an open question.
You've said that reality is "up for grabs" and elsewhere that "our realities are designed and can be redesigned." But might it be that this relentless search for slicker designs, improved systems and updated source-codes is what makes our current situation so complex, tenuous and sometimes cut off from "real life" in the first place? What I am asking I guess is this: who knows more about a building – the person who designed it or the people who live and work there every day?
Well, I don't know that there should be such a disconnection between the designers and the people who use things. That's really my whole point. It's one thing not to know how your car works, since driving it is not necessarily connected to your intention (of getting somewhere). But media is different. Unless you understand the underlying biases of the media you're using, you're not really using the media - it's using you.
I'm not arguing for updated designs and source codes. I'm arguing that people need to understand that THE REALITY WE ARE LIVING IN DIDN'T JUST TURN OUT THIS WAY. There were real people with real intentions who designed our cities, our education system, our religions, and our money.
Our schools were designed, intentionally, to create docile workers. That's what Carnegie and Rockefeller were paying for. Our money - centralized currency - was designed to increase the power of the central authorities at the expense of the periphery. It was designed to make it hard for individuals to create value for themselves and one another.
I'm not talking about slick cell phones, here. That's just nonsense. I'm pushing people - as a very first baby step towards regaining a bit of agency - to consider whether everything around them really is a pre-existing condition ordained by God, or whether people planned things to be this way. I want people to stop assuming everything around them is fixed, and start realizing that there were many decisions made. That much more of our world is software than hardware. That it can be learned, that it's underlying codes can be changed.
It's not about the codes in your cell phone or your pager. It's about the underlying codes that determine how a neighborhood is valued. The ones that lead to black kids getting shot by cops for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ones that lead to Darfur. The starvation and murder there is not just "the way things are." It's the way we *made* them.
If we want to change things, we've got to look at the underlying structures and learn how to alter them. This doesn't take you away from real life at all. It releases you from the artificial barriers to getting involved in the real work of making the world a less cruel place.
coming from Pop Occulture