The Freak's Table

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 January 2001

One of the greatest side-effects of the bust has got to be the revitalized interest in cool, weird, and artsy technologies. Wall Street will always be Wall Street, and devotees of the NASDAQ pyramid will continue to understand technologies in terms of their speculative potential. But real human beings with more human concerns have gotten over the tech-spec narrative, and begun to poke around the datasphere in search of something fun to do.

This is a terrific moment. I feel like I did back in high school, when football season would finally be over and everyone turned to those of us who never got on the team (or even wanted to) for an alternative source of amusement. Yeah, we were the artsy kids. Theatre people and comic book writers. The geeks. The freaks. Well, we’ve been sitting here all along at our own table in a forgotten corner of the high school cafeteria, and have some stuff to show you.

Go to and download iTunes, their new MP3 player. It’ll do everything from stripping CD’s to burning DVD’s. Best of all, it has a graphics engine that turns Pink Floyd (or any music you choose) into a visual acid trip. Without the drugs. These are some of the best and fastest rendered visuals I’ve seen on a home computer. And it’s only the beginning. As an invitation to user collaboration, the program has room for plug-ins made by anybody.

Apple’s stock may be in the cellar, but their new equipment and software is better than ever. Inexpensive flat-panel displays, G4’s with write-able DVD drives and, of course, the new titanium laptop. Even Microsoft has gotten into the act with the best release of Word since 5.1, as part of their Office 2001 package. What’s that? You don’t have a Mac, anymore? Traded it in when the going got rough? Don’t worry, we’ll let you back in the club. This is the freaks’ table, remember? All are welcome.

The quality of Apple products is as good an indication as any of the health of the counter-cyber-culture. True, Apple is just a NASDAQ company like the rest, but so is whatever conglomerate that owns the rights to the Sex Pistols and Baudrillard. It’s our side’s corporation, if for no other reason than we consider it as such. And, these days, we’ll take what we can get.

See, here in the States it’s Bush time again. And while we may weep for the welfare of the nation, George W’s literal and figurative reinstatement of the patriarchy will only stimulate energetic creativity from the unruly freaks. It’s the pressure-cooker effect.

This, coupled with the failure of all those traditional top-down media strategies enacted by e-commerce and other businesspeople, is leading inevitably to a resurgence of do-it-yourself culture, media, and experiences. If really isn’t going to change my life, then what else can I do with this little machine and the network it’s attached to? Take pictures? Make a web site? Create my own movies? (Yet another area where the Mac is ahead.)

And this is exactly what all the artsy freaks were after, in the first place: self expression, a bit of collaboration, a few trippy experiences, and a way to disseminate some alternative points of view.

Computers – networked or not – have never been good at generating mainstream media experiences. That’s not what this medium is about. No, it’s a tool that allows us, at the very least, to customize our media experiences and, at its very best, to create them. Like we say at the freaks table, it allows you to “roll your own.”

Disenchanted with “the big game” and the obsolete, competitive values it espouses, freaks hang out under the bleacher seats or in one another’s playrooms developing their own sets of experiences. These are the kids who were enjoying fantasy role-playing, trying to form a band, shooting home videos, writing weird poetry, arguing about Hegel (without truly understanding him) or planning the perfect party.

These are the same experiences becoming evermore available and popular on computers and web sites today. Ultima Online and other “massively networked” games are now attracting women as much as men, who enjoy creating a universe collaboratively and on the fly. , an online journal tool and website, is the first Internet application that realizes the promise of the original World Wide Web; it’s user-participants self-publish, cross-post, and comment on one another’s work.

And people like my Great Aunt Sophie, who just last year told me she’d never get involved with computers because she wasn’t really interested in “online trading,” is now flooding the family with email containing digital photos of everyone’s new babies. She even used a photo retouching program to paste little angel wings on one of them. Cool, Sophie. Welcome to the freaks table.