Current State of the Future
Seven Questions, Seven Answers

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Core on 1 January 2015

Core’s Jay Bristow interviews Douglas Rushkoff, author of The Gen-X Reader, Cyberia — Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace and Media Virus — Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture.

As we enter the last half of the last decade of the last century of this millennium, everyone is trying to interpret the wild vortex of our time, and not too many people are making sense.

The future is a topic of anxiety and intrigue, partly because it is an unknown, and partly because it is somewhere we are all headed together. Today, more than ever, fiction and folly walk hand in hand toward the future: gurus on the Internet claim to have found the Grand Wisdom; infomercial psychics are predicting the apocalyptic return of Elvis, both of which inevitably coincide with the demise of mankind. In contrast to the wackos of every denomination that infringe upon our future-drunk psyches, one cultural future-guide offers sensible propositions.

Douglas Rushkoff is an American in his early 30s, currently living in New York City. His voice of uncommon sense rises above the confusing babble of techno-talk gibberish, and is therefore, someone more people could do with listening to.

He has written three books: the Gen X Reader is a fascinating collection of young writers and cultural enthusiasts: Cyberia — Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace is self-explanatory; and Media Virus — Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture explores the living nature of society’s interrelation with its technology.

In print, Rushkoff is on the understandable side of technological visionaries like Marshall McLuhan, and the legal side of cultural desperadoes like Hunter S. Thompson. In January of 1995. he spoke at a University of Manitoba forum on the future and issues surrounding Generation X.

The following interview about television, independent magazines, and the changing cultural landscape was conducted via E-mail.

Bristow: What did people want from television in 1965? In 1995? And what did they get?

Rushkoff: In the 60s people turned to TV for programming — much as we go shopping for music albums today. You pick your programming and then sit back and receive. In the 60s people expected their TV to give them stories — beginnings, middles, and endings — with morals. Tension and relief, with a lesson. In the 90s, TV is about texture and, literally, tele-vision or remote viewing. We turn to TV to see stuff that’s out of physical sight, and to experience motion, texture, and image devoid of any real meaning or moral structure.

Bristow: If television gives us motion, texture, and image — like the nonlinear programming of MTV or Much Music — does this mean we experience this type of programming at a subliminal level or does it impact us more directly?

Rushkoff: I don’t think that the MTV cut-and-paste style is subliminal in any sense. It’s open and direct. It makes subliminal programming less effective, not more, because every edit is an opportunity to break from the trance. The real forefathers of the technique are guys like (Beatnik generation writers) William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It’s not a fluke that post-modern and self-conscious editing would proliferate in the post-modern age.

Bristow: Concerning the VCR, which married movies with the television format, or the remote control, which afforded the viewer a degree of control over the incoming programming — which one has impacted the television-viewer relationship more?

Rushkoff: The remote control changed things more. It ended the era of passive programming. With the remote, the viewer could alienate themselves from the image and the hypnosis (of watching only one continuous stream of images).

Bristow: How will television change in the near future?

Rushkoff: There will be two types of television, piped television and ordered television. One will be increasingly commercial, public networky television, with 10 to 20 big net- works. The second will be catalogues of networks, where a food channel or shopping channel, for example, will sell archives of info and products directly to the viewer.

Bristow: Switching from television to other types of media, it appears there are many more ways for people to get information? Young people, especially, seem to be turning to independent magazines and indie TV for their ‘news’?

Rushkoff: There’s both more indie stuff, and more ways for the info to get disseminated. There are more distribution channels for independent thought.

I’d agree that kids are turning away from paternal-style news shows (like the Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather, traditional evening news shows) and are opting for ones where their own opinions can be expressed, like (Internet) news groups or ‘zines or even MTV.

Bristow: Some people, or groups — especially the Establishment press and media — dismiss indie magazines.

Rushkoff: ‘Zines are cool; however, you can’t trust their facts as facts, because they don’t fact check and sometimes they make-up stuff. But for new thought and propositions, they’re the best. The Underground (or Independents’) agendas and free speech bother the incumbent regimes. The fears of the incumbents are novelty and uncertainty. Unpredictability. More media makes more motion, and more motion yields more chaotic change. Sure, it makes them scared, so they’re trying to get back in front of the cart again.

Bristow: And finally a term that is probably as accurate as it is despised, Generation X. Is it realistic to speak of a distinct group of people who are different from groups — or generations — who went before? And how much is true in the comparison that the 90s will produce as much change as the 60s?

Rushkoff: Generation X? Oy. That’s a ten-thousand word question, Jay. All I can tell you here is that every generation makes a unique contribution to cultural evolution.

GenX’s was to realize that market segmentation artificially and even dangerously oversimplifies the social functioning of a varied group of people.

They were the first generation to understand the language of the media as natives would, which is why it was so ironic to watch the marketers attempt to seduce them using media tools.

There’s no need or reality in trying to separate out what’s unique about the 90s from the 60s. Time is continuous, and renaissance’s take more than a decade to happen. There is something “inherently different” about 1995 from 1993. The rest is just degrees.

Unless you live in a cave or on the lip of a meteorite crater, a sea of information engulfs your world daily. And where charlatans are as common as the advice they give, Douglas Rushkoff navigates the geography of tomorrow with the skill of a finely tuned compass.

Choose your guides wisely.