Bio-Media Theory

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse on 6 June 2005

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and social commentator. His books, articles, newspaper columns, talks, and NPR commentaries thoughtfully explore the psychological and sociological consequences of technology, mass media, advertising, and youth culture. He is one of the most widely read media critics in America and is considered one of the world’s experts on youth culture and advertising. Some of his books include Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the Future, and Coercion_. Rushkoff was the correspondent for PBS’s award-winning_ Frontline documentary on teenage culture, The Merchants of Cool_. His weekly commentaries air on CBS’s_ Sunday Morning_, National Public Radio’s_ All Things Considered_, and appear on the back page of_ Time magazine. He lectures regularly at conferences and universities around the world and has served as an adjunct professor of communication at New York University. He also served as an advisor to the United Nations Commission on World Culture and on the advisory boards of the Media Ecology Association and the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

DAVID: What do you think adults can learn from youth culture?

DOUGLAS: Why, they can learn about the future. Everybody tries to forecast the future using all sorts of strange methodologies about what’s going to happen. So much effort has been expended exploring the question Where’s the human race going? When all that you have to do is look at a kid. A kid is basically the next model of human being. So, if you want to know where evolution is taking us–whether it’s physical evolution or cultural evolution–you look at kids, because they are quite literally the future.

The other thing we can learn from kids is the trending of our cognitive and neural habits. You can see most readily the different ways that kids draw connections between things than we do–the different ways of processing information–if you can hold back from being judgmental about it, for just a moment, to look at what it is that’s going on for them and inside them. I mean, yeah, there are many tendencies that are very upsetting–a shortened attention span, less memory, less reading, and less consideration, okay, okay, okay. But if you look beyond those surface observations and focus instead on children’s cognitive functioning and pattern recognition, it becomes a lot more interesting.

You can start to see the differences between the way kids process information and the way we do as being almost as profound as the differences between the way literate culture looked at things from the way oral culture did before it. There are some extraordinary shifts taking place. Certain things were lost when we learned to write things down. Memory, for one. But other things were gained.

DAVID: Could you define what you mean by a media virus? How is the concept related to Richard Dawkins’s concept of memes, and how can media viruses be used to help prevent what Noam Chomsky calls “the manufacture of consent”?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, well, in the hopeful vision I guess it could prevent that. A media virus is really just an idea that’s wrapped in a shell of media. If a real virus, a biological virus, is DNA’s code wrapped in protein, a media virus is ideological or conceptual code–what Richard Dawkins calls memes–wrapped in a media shell. And the point of a virel shell is to allow it to pass unrecognized through the body, or from body to body. So it’s got to really have a way of transmitting, a reason for it to move from person to person.

So a media virus, say the Rodney King tape, is first and foremost a media story, not about Rodney King, but about the tape itself. The reason why that homemade, camcorder video of a black guy getting beaten by white cops spread around the world overnight was not really so much because a black guy was getting by white cops. That happened all the time. The reason that it spread around the country was because the real story was someone caught this on camcorder. So this was a story about media. The shell of the Rodney King media virus is the tape itself. It’s not the carrier, that it’s on videotape. But rather, it’s the story of media being used in a new way.

Media wants to grow. Media is a living thing. So media passes stories about media more than it passes anything else. But once that virus is spread, it releases its code, and that decides whether or not it’s going to replicate and survive. And the code of this virus really did challenge our cultural code. Just as a biological virus, the genes inside it, the DNA inside it, literally interperlates itself into our own genetic code. It turns our cells into virus factories. The media virus uses its ideological code, its memes, to interperlate itself into our cultural code. So if we have cultural weaknesses, if there are gaps, conflicts, or contradictions in our cultural code, then the meme will find a place to nest, and the virus will end up replicating.

So, whether it’s Madonna talking about sex, or Howard Dean exploiting Friendster or, media viruses are launched when people use a medium in a new way. Then, once they have your attention, if the viruses can release ideas, code, or concepts, even, that challenge the weaknesses of the culture at any given moment, then they’ll succeed and they’ll move on. Unfortunately, the main group that took up the notion of media viruses were marketers, and it quickly became what they’re calling “viral marketing.” It’s all based on Media Virus. So, on the one hand, I launched a terrific virus. But, on the other hand, it mutated into something that I didn’t expect.

I did see media viruses as way to break down the predictability of the media space, and to challenge a lot of the authorities that people like Chomsky are talking about, by creating a bottom-up media, a way for ideas to spread, and a new channel for activists to get their ideas spread faster and better than anyone else. And sometimes it works. There are thousands of terrific blogs out there, and uppity Web sites, from Smoking Gun to Matt Drudge, and there are all sorts of great stories about ideas that have trickled up. But the powers that be tend to imitate the properties of media viruses, the same way that Miller or Budweiser can create a fake microbrewery to make people think that they’re drinking a local beer. Or Starbucks creates fake local coffee houses, that don’t have the Starbucks name on them, just to look like their own competition.

DAVID: What are some of the other ways that major corporations have used media viruses?

DOUGLAS: One campaign, which was based on Media Virus, that I was told about by the creative people responsible for it was a Calvin Klein campaign, where, apparently, they had all these photos of underage kids in their underwear, and it was reminiscent somehow of child porn. All the Christian groups and child protection groups complained, and Calvin Klein took it off the billboards, or out of magazines. But it had been their intent the whole time to do a campaign that they would be forced to take down, because they knew they would get far more secondary media attention than they could ever pay for. So for two or three days every newscaster is carrying the Calvin Klein story. So they get name out there. And they get their name out there as a dangerous company that’s doing cool, weird, sexy, rule-breaking stuff, which then, I suppose, makes their underwear seem sexy and naughty, and cool for people to use.

So that would be a more commercial use of a media virus. I guess the thing that bothers me most about it is not just that it was for commercial culture, or corporate culture, but that it was kind of disingenuous to begin with. It wasn’t really an advertising campaign. It was an advertising campaign created to get taken off the air. In other words, because it was so thought out in a certain way, it just doesn’t feel genuine to me.

DAVID: What do you mean when you refer to corporations as being an empty set of operating commands, or as dead things, with nobody really in charge?

DOUGLAS: When I’m talking about corporations being mindless usually what I’m trying to do is empower the people that are working for them. It’s funny, a lot of times I’ll be invited to speak at a conference, or even at a corporation, to all the workers and people there, and people in the counterculture get all upset. They think, Oh, it’s this horrible sellout thing I’m doing to take money to talk to their employees. But what I’m trying to demonstrate to the employees, what I’m trying to explain to them, is that the corporation doesn’t really exist. The corporation is paperwork. It’s a list of rules, through which people are supposed to interact, or priorities that they’re supposed to follow, but there’s nobody home.

I mean, the worker is listening to the executive, who’s listening to the CEO, who’s listening to the shareholder, who’s just Joe Public finally. It’s the same person walking into the store. So it’s very easy to say, Oh, corporations are to blame, these horrible entities, but corporations are not conscious. Corporations are groups of people acting in concert, following a set of rules. And what people forget is that those rules can be changed. We’re not here to be at the mercy of a piece of paper. A corporation is like a computer program. What I’m saying, most simply, is that this means the people who think that they are the victims of the corporations they are working for–or that they have shares of, or that are in their communities–have access to the codes through which those corporations exist.

DAVID: How does this type of corporate structure allow for underground artists, psychedelic tricksters, and political activists to “sneak” their unconventional ideas into the public domain?

DOUGLAS: There’s a lot of different ways that activists, and wonderful strange people, can get involved in changing the reality in which they live. Sometimes I think the most valuable thing is just to do things that change people’s conception of stuff. In other words, rather than actually taking down a corporation, just demonstrating to everyone in a community that they don’t have to buy their stuff at Wal-Mart. I mean, that, in and of itself, is kind of an eye-opener. Or that there are maybe laws protecting them. Or just that they have a say in what goes on. That they can choose how they think. That they don’t have to work seven days a week. That they might have enough stuff. That there are ways to have fun without buying products. That they can get laid without having those jeans. Those are the things. That’s the area that’s most interesting to me.

As far as weird people being able to get their messages disseminated by media companies, yeah, that happens, too. I mean, because some of them are so big, one right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing–so that Warner Music ends up publishing Cop Killer. Or Paramount-Viacom ends up creating Beavis and Butthead, which ends up really killing the rock video as a revenue stream and as a marketing tool. Because now you’ve got Beavis and Butthead, the creation of a wonderful crazy animator down in Texas, Mike Judge, where they’re deconstructing MTV on television. And fourteen-year-olds are watching that, realizing, Oh, that’s how rock videos are put together. And that’s the way they’re supposed to work on my head. So people wonder why they don’t show rock videos on MTV anymore, and that’s really the reason. It’s because those two little animated creatures deconstructed it, and were there someone in charge, they probably wouldn’t have let that happen.

DAVID: Who are the different audiences that you address in your books, and why do you think it’s important to break down the concept of “us” and “them”?

DOUGLAS: When I wrote Coercion, which was my sixth or seventh book, I wrote that because I realized my other books were too advanced in some ways. Books like Cyberia, Media Virus, and Playing the Future are celebrating interactivity and our ability to become the authors in our own media space–the people who hack through the systems one way or another, spread their messages, and build their own reality. That was exciting to me. And there were thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, of people out there who were excited about this opportunity. But what I realized was that the majority of people in America not only didn’t know that opportunity existed, but didn’t even know why they should. Or that they were not conscious people looking to make a change in the world, but were, pretty much, unconscious people, at the mercy of the media messaging they were receiving.

I realized not everyone had gone through all the stages that my friends and I had gone through, that most people were still in the thrall of the mainstream media and the marketing universe. So what I needed to do was take a few steps back and say, Okay, everybody, you know there’s this media space that we all live in, and certain people tend to dominate the messages that you get. And many of the places where you walk are owned by corporations who have a very vested interest in you buying things, and that you are constantly under some level of assault, of manipulation, by all these various forces.

While you can’t walk around paranoid, constantly deconstructing everything coming at you, or you won’t have a very fun existence, you should at least be able to live on a more level playing field. When you go into a retail or a corporate environment you have to understand that there are a lot of tools being used–from architecture to language and tone of voice, to lighting, to the very paths and surfaces you walk on, that are designed to either intimidate you or lead you to make certain choices and have certain behaviors.

DAVID: What do you mean when you say that your not counterculture, you’re “pro-culture”?

DOUGLAS: What I’m trying to do in most of my work is break open the rhetoric that has allowed us to stagnate. There are certain patterns of language that reinforce notions about ourselves, and our relationship to the world, that may be more destructive than we realize. And that by keeping our language alive, by understanding what we’re saying when we say it, we become a lot more aware of our conditioning. So if we who care about the future, we who care about the environment, if we accept that we are the counterculture, what have we accepted? We have accepted that we are literally against culture. So now we’ve cast ourselves as kind of the bad guys, the underdogs, the ones who are fighting against something. Well, what if we decided no, we are not the counterculture minority fighting against this great overculture. No, we are real people. We are culture. George Bush is the counterculture. I am the culture.

What is a culture? A culture is like yogurt. A culture is a living thing. This is not just a pun, or a metaphor. The culture is the life. It’s the fertilization. It’s the thing that actually propels us into a future. It’s great. It’s fecund, moist, real, growing, and diverse. It’s in constant communication with itself and with other ones. It’s wet, sexy, and real. That is what culture is. That’s the petri dish. That’s the yogurt. That’s the moss on the side of the tree. That’s the culture. Counterculture, to me, would mean, dry and sterile, unloving and unsexy. The counterculture are the people who want to kill culture. They’re the people who want to prevent fertility and diversity, the exchange of ideas, fluids, psyches, and everything else.

So, by looking at words, and being willing to reclaim certain language, we can end up shifting our perspective on things tremendously. If you walk outside thinking of yourself as part of culture, then you start saying Well, what are the obstacles to culture? And you realize marketing is an obstacle to culture–because what do marketers do? Marketers try to make people feel unsexy and uncreative, so that they’re dependent on a product to bestow some kind of sexiness or creativity upon them. Wow, so that’s interesting. So what is Nike? What is Jordache? What are Levi’s? Is that culture, or is that counterculture? Oh, now I’m arguing they’re counter, they’re against culture. So what’s pro-culture? Is pro-culture the thrift store? Is pro-culture the Dead show? Is pro-culture sex with your girlfriend or wife? That’s where culture lives. Pro-culture is nursery school. That’s culture.

DAVID: How have Noam Chomsky and Marshall McLuhan influenced your perspective about the media?

DOUGLAS: I guess Chomsky influenced me in the sense that he certainly seemed to have a very clear vision on the interplay between money, power, media, messaging, and consciousness–and how tightly controlled this public relations-run spectator democracy is, and how that works. But I generally accept his work as a challenge to prove him wrong, to accept it as a gauntlet. In other words, here’s how things are, or here’s how things could be. Or here’s one way of understanding this. So what I think is: Well, what am going to do about that? How am I going to arrest that? How am I going to help people recontextualize that? Where are the unseen triggers? Where are the unknown access points to power that Chomsky doesn’t see?–but I, as I younger and more optimistic soul, can find and then share with others. So that’s really the way he has impacted me most. It’s like, okay, it’s a really bad trip–but what I can I do to flip it?

McLuhan influenced me in that he helped me see that I come from a tradition. The tradition is not really one of media theory as much as a trickster tradition. There are some people around who, in their work, either tickle, cajole, or trick people into seeing things in new ways. The object of the game, for me, is to exist in this kind of liminal space between the way things are and the infinity of the way things could be, and help people open their minds to other possibilities. To help people across this chasm of uncertainty, so that they can live in a space of possibility.

Most people are afraid of possibility because they can’t deal with a shifting reality, and they can’t accept their own responsibility for the way things are. Most people cannot cope with a reality that works like a lucid dream, even though they happen to be living in one. So they would rather shut down, and they would rather agree to the consensus reality where they are victimized and unhappy, than accept a more plastic, open-source conception of reality where anything and everything is possible.

DAVID: How has your experience with psychedelics influenced your writing and your perspective on life?

DOUGLAS: I think it’s very hard for anyone who has had psychedelic experiences to ever know how many of the insights that they might credit to psychedelia might have happened anyway. In other words, sometimes I think, Okay, it’s all the acid. That you have one acid trip and, basically, you never come down from it–just the rest of life kind of comes up to it. (laughter) That there’s a full categorical shift in the way you understand the world, that your perspective is forever changed, and that’s it.

But I talk to a lot of people who’ve never had psychedelic experiences–at least chemical or plant-induced ones, or who have never even smoked pot–and they still seem just as aware of the fact that we’re all living in reality tunnels, and that we chose different tunnels. And they can have moments of a broader perspective, where they see the way all these things are arbitrarily chosen, and that we’ve been living in a certain picture frame, and how you can pull out of that frame and see all these other possibilities. So the only thing I know for sure is that psychedelics provide a very tangible and experiential metaphor for the interchangeable contextual frames that we use to understand the world we live in.

For me, certainly, psychedelics were a valuable medicine–for a kid who, at nineteen, was really trapped in doing premed and becoming a doctor. I was going to do all this stuff I didn’t really want to do. I actually made the decision to go be a theater person before I’d had any kind of drug experience, but it definitely helped. Afterward it helped me see the validity of that decision, and it helped me understand that all this recontextualizing I had been doing, all of the frames within frames. All of the theater that I was so interested in was not for the play, but for the proscenium arch itself, and for the ritual that was going on in the room. All of that had a shamanic history, and it was a bit more universally applicable than I had realized. It wasn’t just something that happened in a theater; it’s something that happens in the world at every moment. We are contextualizing and recontextualizing things based on assumptions.

DAVID: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?

DOUGLAS: I really have no idea. I would guess it goes on for a few minutes. You get to heaven, and you have those great life-after-life experiences, and then… (laughter) nothing! (laughter) I would think the only way for a person to have anything approaching consciousness after death–real death, when the body actually stops metabolizing, or there’s just no metabolic processes and the brain is really dead dead–would be, while that person is alive, to learn to identify so profoundly with something other than his or her own ego so that when the self dies, the identification goes on. But most of us really believe in the illusion of individuality. We believe who we are is us.

So, in a sense, it blows the question out of the water, finally, because you say, Well, what happens to consciousness after death? Well, what happens to your consciousness after someone else’s death? Not a hell of a lot. I mean, you might feel bad that they died, but their consciousness is gone, except for the part of it that’s now in everybody else.

It certainly shouldn’t be anybody’s goal to extend consciousness after death, because that’s still just a person trying to project their ego. But I would think a fringe benefit of developing true compassion for other people is that if you do identify with other people, other things, and other systems–things that are beyond the four walls of your own limited personal consciousness. Then the death of you or me is inconsequential. But I think that for 99.9999 percent of people the chances are that they just die.

DAVID: So you think death may be different for some people than other people?

DOUGLAS: Possibly. I would think that the only way out would be to get out while you’re here. I don’t think you can get out after you’re dead.

DAVID: What is your perspective on the concept of God? Do you see any kind of teleology in evolution, and how has Judaism affected your views on spirituality?

DOUGLAS: I think we are no better than fungus on a rock hurling through cold and meaningless space, and that we were not put here with purpose by a supreme being. But I do believe that God is something that can evolve. I think of God as an emergent phenomenon, rather than a preexisting condition. So I think we can make God. I think we can conceive God. I think we can start to behave in godly ways. But I think God is something we build together. God is something we make. God is the result of love and ethical action, higher states of consciousness and coordinated action–things like that.

Not for many people, but for me, this teleology is absolutely consistent with the intention of Judaism–which was to get people to stop worrying about God, particularly idolatry, and start worrying about one another. What the Jews keep doing is smashing idols. They took idols off the Ark and left empty spaces there–literally empty spaces. And the empty spaces were protected, sometimes protected by cherubs–like on the top of the Ark of the Covenant. These are all empty places. That’s why I wrote this book called Nothing Sacred. The idea is that this “nothing” is sacred, because only when you have an empty space can you create a dynamic or a voltage between people, and that’s what makes God happen–this communing or community between people. These resonant living fields of interaction between loving human beings is what makes God possible. But I don’t believe in God as a separate thing. I guess I’m a bit like Teilhard de Chardin with this idea of evolution groping toward complexity, rather than us being set in motion by a supreme being who wants us to return to him.

DAVID: How do you integrate your psychedelic experiences with your interest in Judaism? I think for a lot of people it’s hard to understand how organized religion could be compatible with a psychedelic experience.

DOUGLAS: Organized religion isn’t really compatible with any experience. I don’t even see it as compatible with Judaism. Organized religion is not something I’m interested in, and it may not be compatible with a psychedelic experience or with the genuine expansion and development of consciousness. I don’t look at Judaism as a religion. I look at Judaism as the process by which we get over religion. Most religions were born that way. Most religions were born as fresh breezes, as ways to lift people from the self-protective crouch of religion–whether it was Taoism lifting people out of Confucius, Judaism lifting people out of child-sacrifice to the god Molech, or Christianity trying to lift people out of the restricting rule sets of Jewish law into a more all-encompassing spontaneous experience of love. Each one of these new religions starts as a way to break the attachment to religion, to just live a good life, and they end up eventually turning into religions themselves. So it’s that moment of liberation that you want to preserve, and that you want to keep reliving every time you get attached to something.

That’s why the Jewish mythology is still very effective for me, because it’s all about breaking out of slavery, the leaving Egypt, which in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. It’s leaving the narrow place, the idolatrist place, by smashing the idols–which is what the plagues really are, the desecration of the Egyptian gods that we used to worship–and moving into a society that cherishes life. That’s why they say “l ‘chaim! l ‘chaim,” or “to life,” and this is the central Jewish belief. That was an illegal sentiment in ancient Egypt, because that was a culture that worshiped death. You asked me what I thought happens after you die. Well, in Judaism it doesn’t really matter what happens after you die, because you’re here. What matters is what you do here, and if something happens after you die, you’ll worry about it then. The reason to do great things here and now is not because you want to be rewarded after you die. The reason to great things here and now is because that is actually the most fun and meaningful way to live.

DAVID: Do you think that the human species is going to survive the next hundred years?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, a hundred years isn’t so long. It really isn’t. A hundred years is really just like three generations. Yeah, they’ll still be people here. In a thousand years? Who knows? I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not there’s any people around. I think it’s a matter of whether the civilizations that we built will be around. I think it’s a matter of whether we can sustain a level of consciousness and complexity. I think they’ll be people for a long time, even if they go back and live in tribes, and live off the old warehouses of Coke or whatever until they learn to make food again. I think there will be people for a long time, even after the environment gets bad. I mean, humans are fucking up the environment for sure, but Nature fucks up the environment even more sometimes, at least as far as people are concerned.

If Nature threw one good ice age or one good drought on us, we might be finished. We’ve been so lucky over the last few thousand years to have had this very temperate mild environment in which to live. That’s why all us little mammals have been able to run around and do all this. Nature could whack us way harder than fluorocarbons are going to whack us. And, in that sense, it’s almost important that we have a certain amount of AmGem, and Genentech, and other bizarre genetic science going on–where people are figuring out how to grow wheat on rocks, or soy on the ocean, because we just may have to. And we have to, not just because we are fucking things up so badly, but because Nature really can turn on a dime, and the environment can change profoundly in a half century. We’ve seen it happen before. The Sahara desert was fertile at one time. The deserts of Iraq were the most fertile part of the world that we even knew about. So things shift. Things move around.

DAVID: How do you envision the future evolution of the human race?

DOUGLAS: I don’t know. I hope people become more conscious and aware of each other. If there’s any real plot to be followed, then I’d hope for the human race to become a more coordinated being. Right now people don’t want to coordinate because they think it would mean the loss of individuality. But what they don’t realize is that the only way they’re ever going to find their individuality is by coordinating. So it’s not a matter of becoming the superorganism, as defined by the prefascist philosophers, or Hegel or those guys.

It’s not a superorganism. But there is an organizational level that we’re capable of. Rather than a collective unconscious, there’s a way to have a collective consciousness. I think the only reason why people don’t have it is because they are afraid of it. They’re afraid of the loss of privacy. They’re afraid of losing what they think of as their self. But what people are going to have to slowly learn–and it may take thousands of years to do this–is that the self separated from human community doesn’t even exist.

The self only exists in relationship to other people–just like a Web site only exists in its links to other places, or from other places really. So eventually people will see their way through what looks like a paradox to them now, and instead see it as the crucial dynamic through which people can evolve into something greater than the little, isolated, lonely, puny intelligences they are today.

DAVID: What gives you hope?

DOUGLAS: Interactions with happy people. As long as I can have a meaningful interaction with another person and experience the creation of joy from what wasn’t there before, I have hope–because it means that humans are still capable of manufacturing love and joy where there wasn’t any before. Not finding light, but doing light. As long people can do that, then I still have some faith in the relatively infinite capability of people to re-create reality on their own terms.