Designer Apocalypse

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 1997

Did the Internet lead 39 California cult members who made their living designing World Wide Web pages to commit mass suicide? Of course not. But the way that the Internet and the world view it heralds changes the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world around us might not be entirely unrelated to this tragedy, either.

I, like so many others, have experienced a wealth of extremely empowering realizations since I went online ten years ago. But the impact of these many essentially positive and even revolutionary insights in such rapid succession might just be too much for the average American adult to handle.

That’s right - I said adult. Despite initial reports that all 39 victims were males between 18-24, most of the dead turned out to be men and women in their forties. The mainstream media was anxious to spin this as a story of young people drawn into depravity through unsupervised Internet activity. If only their parents had been watching. One news service even reported how this tragedy was just another example of how the Internet is often used to manipulate children, and another warned of the many dangerous “cult connections to the Internet.”

But this is just the way our mainstream media likes to cover seemingly incomprehensible tragedies. Every time a child is raped or a bomb goes off near a Federal building, people will blame the Internet. Because the Internet is so difficult to censor, regulate, or even fully understand, it has become the symbol of a society out of control. It represents everything that confuses us about modern life. Just as pagan witches with knowledge of herbal remedies - do-it-yourself technologies, really – were burned at the stake in Medieval Europe by those who hoped to control their populations and tame unrest, Internet enthusiasts and promoters are being singled out as the culprits for a host of modern ills. And they tell us our defenseless children could be the next victims.

My guess is that young people would have been less likely to succumb to the temptation of cult fanaticism or group suicide. Unlike us adults, they are used to living in a world with no absolutes - it’s all they’ve ever known - and aren’t as threatened by the freeform nature of an Internet society.

I think the mainstream media’s efforts to spin this tragedy as an Internet story exposes the way they and countless other established institutions are threatened by new media. The Internet empowers us to get our information from anywhere we want, and to evaluate it on its own merits. This newspaper’s exclusive authority over the news is compromised by every Web site telling a different version of the same story. No wonder the television networks rush to judgment against the Internet, and warn us of new media’s power to indoctrinate or sexually molest our children. They mean to scare us away from their competitors.

While it would be naïve to suggest that the mainstream media should actually assist us in our flight from their authoritative coverage, they certainly don’t help us by making us more fearful of stepping out on our own. New media makes us question authorities of all kinds - religious, corporate, media, and even parental. We can compare and contrast information on our own, and are forced to come to our own conclusions.

Often, the only choice is to come to no conclusion at all. This is where the trouble starts. We often hear people talk about how the Internet is “non-linear.” What does this really mean? That, unlike the stories in books, movies, or on the news, the Internet is a place where people click voluntarily from place to place and idea to idea. They can relate any two thoughts they want. Where traditional stories have beginnings, middles, and usually satisfying endings, Internet browsing doesn’t lead to anything final at all. There is no conclusion - no moral to the story. Even if there were, we would be more likely to challenge the person or institution that proposed it.

Thanks to the self-directed style of new media, there seem to be no absolute truths anymore, and this is frightening all on its own - especially to American adults. We live in a Christian culture here, where all of the uncertainty and confusion in our lives is, according to the Bible, supposed to end in one glorious apocalypse. It may not be a pretty ending, but it’s an ending all the same.

Those of us who live on the Internet have had to content ourselves with a more never-ending story. We find solace by recognizing patterns in the seemingly chaotic, and by making connections between things for ourselves.

The weakest of us trying to make sense and find comfort in this non-linear haze might be seeing a few too many patterns, and making a few too many connections. We are still frail creatures, and we crave absolutes, even if they are horrible.

So, on the same week that TV Guide’s cover lamented the fruitless search for God on television, the 39 Internet programmers of Heaven’s Gate exercised total commitment to their own brand of pattern recognition. A comet and a bright blur behind it became “the marker we we’ve been waiting for,” leading this band of high-tech devotees to make the ultimate connection and opt for designer apocalypse.