Manmade Materials

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 October 1998

When I was about eight years old I would lie at my father’s feet as we watched the magic box called television, dad in his big recliner and me on the shag rug. From my vantage point on the floor, I could look up at the bottoms of my father’s bedroom slippers. Molded into the plastic soles were the words: “Man-made Materials.”

I pondered that phrase for years. What, exactly, is a man-made material? Where did “man” get the stuff he “made” it from? And if he got from somewhere and merely melted it down with something else, then this wasn’t a man-made material at all. It was merely man-combined natural materials. I came to the conclusion that nothing is man-made. Everything is natural, in one way or another. Bees make honey, beavers build dams, spiders weave webs, and man makes plastic-soled bedroom slippers, TV’s, computers, and internets.

Human technology should be considered no less natural than animal technology. It simply extends our ability to achieve our goals. A web makes it a lot easier for a spider to catch a fly, and a computer makes it easier for me to submit this column. When technology is understood as simply an extension of our own will, it doesn’t seem so foreign or dangerous, anymore. So why can’t we always see it that way?

Because we didn’t invent technology to promote nature – at least not consciously. We invented it to conquer nature’s inconvenient and sometimes frightening rhythms. We use electric lights to break the tyranny of day and night. We use heating and air conditioning to thwart the cycle of the seasons. We invented airplanes to travel through ten time zones in as many hours, melatonin pills to fall asleep when we get to our destination, and dexedrine to wake up the next morning. Our technology has separated us from the natural rhythms of our world.

Just as technology was developed to control nature, media was developed to control populations. “Mass media” is not the study of how to help people communicate with one another. It is the science of coercion through television, radio, newsprint, and advertising. Public relations means control of a public. A programmer uses media to influence the buying or voting habits of a population the same way a farmer might use fertilizer or stakes to influence the growth of his crop.

Media only works as a programming tool when the medium itself is exclusive or magical. Very few of us understand how the newsreader gets inside that box in the living room. It is practically a miracle. We can’t help but assume that whoever has the power to create the magic broadcast must have something true to tell us.

But, like over-aggressive farmers who erode their own topsoil, these public relations people did their job a bit too well. We fell in love with media itself, and began to value the processes of broadcasting more than any particular message. We bought more TV’s and radios, and eventually VCR’s, faxes, satellite dishes, and, of course, computers, modems, and Internet accounts. We loved the stuff.

Eventually, we had so much media that no one could control it any longer. It was everywhere, and sending messages and information back and forth in every direction. Best of all, we began to use it to communicate to one another rather than just listen to the few people rich and powerful enough to own TV stations or newspapers. The unfettered media allowed for the freeflow of thoughts, ideas, and even feelings across what formerly seemed like boundaries. The mediaspace became so complex and intertwined that it began to look and act like a living organism. It started promoting culture instead of just controlling it.

The more new media technology with which we come in contact, the less mysterious and more natural it all seems. A VCR lets us tape the news and watch it later in our own time. A camcorder let us make our own television. The computer and modem let us upload the images we record for anyone else to see. When technology is more something we do than it is something done to us, it is no longer threatening. It is an extension of who we are, and what we want to be.

For new media to promote humanity and the nature that drives us, it must never be seen as acting on us but rather as acting for us. We must refuse to be intimidated into believing that someone else knows better than we how it should be used. There is no digerati. There are no cybergurus. Just as importantly, we must refuse to be seduced into thinking that we can use it control others. With or without technology, we can never truly conquer a natural system or a even culture of which we, ourselves, are a part.

Media is no longer a magic act. To those of us lucky enough to have experienced media as a form of expression rather than a way of being manipulated, communications technologies like the Internet have been demystified. They are rendered as unthreateningly natural as my father’s slippers and their man-made soles.