Cyber Reconsidered
Douglas Rushkoff in conversation with R.U. Sirius

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Thresher on 1 January 2002

Doug Rushkoff is the author of eight popular books about digital and pop culture, including Media Virus, and Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say. His 1995 book, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace focused on the cyberculture movement of the early 1990s. I was one of the book’s subjects. In this conversation, we looked back, and then discussed the State of the Cyberculture circa 2001. Rushkoff added additional comments after the events of 9/11. -RU

R.U. SIRIUS: Your first major book was Cyberia. Do you feel like you were led down a blind alley by the psychedelic cyberculture of the ’90s?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Not at all. Although I do believe that the psychedelic cyberculture of the early ’90s was led down a blind alley by the market pushers of the late ’90s.

We have to make a clear distinction between three very different elements: the counterculture, the cyber-renaissance, and the e-market pyramid. The counterculture has been around since culture. Pro-mutational forces have always been pushing civilization towards new forms of experience and expression. They certainly found a powerful tool in the personal computer and networking, and saw in these devices a way to develop and extend their mission.

The easiest way to understand the synergy between the psychedelic culture and computers is to remember that, back in the late ’80s, there were very few people equipped to imagine the possibilities of a designer realm such as cyberspace. The people developing software and interfaces were being called upon to construct a hallucinatory landscape that didn’t exist before. They were dreaming up worlds that would then exist. At that time, who already had enough experience in hallucinatory, designer-reality to work there professionally and with purpose? Psychedelics users, of course.

So the tradition of hiring Deadheads and members of other psychedelic subcultures as Silicon Valley programmers has very practical roots. It also had very broad repercussions.

Renaissances are moments when a culture experiences a dramatic shift in perspective. The original renaissance involved perspective painting, circumnavigating a formerly flat globe, the introduction of coffee from Morocco (actually closer to the Enlightenment), calculus, and the printing press. The new renaissance brings us the next set of dimensional leaps in the form of the holograph and fractal, the atomic bomb, the discovery of LSD, chaos math, and the Internet. Each of these innovations allows us to shift our perspective on reality – we shift up a dimensional level, and become more aware of the relationships between dimensions.

It is during these shifts that everything is up for grabs. A shift of this magnitude creates a gap in the ability of our language to describe our reality of our perceptions. During the shift, we negotiate what the next world will look like. In this way, a renaissance leads to a battle between different forces and worldviews to define the next culture. And we do all this quite quickly, because there’s only a brief period when so much of reality is up for grabs– before it gets locked down again.

The cyberdelic culture believed it could use the Internet and other computer technologies to commandeer the renaissance. We were going to make the world in our own image, for a change. It seemed that anyone turning on to the Internet may as well have been turning on to mushrooms. Going online fundamentally changed the user’s experience of the world. People started believing in the Gaia hypothesis and the interconnectedness of all living things.

But in a variety of ways, the deconstructed, demystified, do-it-yourself ethic of the early cyberdelic era was undone. People were just having too much fun, and our online activities were having a powerful impact on our relationship to traditional media programming. We started watching less TV, and became less susceptible to television programming like advertising. (This was what GenX originally referred to.)

These effects of the computer revolution had to be undone. So online specialists from the world of Wired came up with ways to mitigate the liberating potential of new technologies. They invented concepts like stickyness and eyeball hours, in order to regain control over a culture threatening full-scale renaissance. They turned the Internet as best they could into a strip mall or tv dial, and worked to limit our partipation through the keyboard to the entering of a credit card number.

Meanwhile, counterculture programmers who spent years arguing against cynicism about the emergence of a technoculture were finally being rewarded–with jobs and cash. To them, it didn’t seem so terrible at all to create a web site for AT&T or any other corporate conglomerate. It meant that the elders were finally recognizing the inevitably of our interactive culture. And it did.

But it was a case of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” A bad one, that rivals even rock ‘n roll’s co-option by the market. Luckily, the scenario plan devised by the various strategic business networks failed, and the imposition of market ideology over the Internet just didn’t work. But it took down a lot of well-meaning people with it.

That’s what my new novel is about, really. The way people get enslaved by ideas and stories that aren’t real. They are tempting–just as tempting as a house in Redwood Hills–but they are booby prizes, and keep us from touching the genuine power we may have tapped.

So, no. I don’t feel I was led astray by the cyberdelic community. Not in the least. But I do feel sad, having witnessed their temptation, distraction, and enslavement. Like the Bible teaches, people who build pyramids–whether they’re made of stone or investments–are slaves.

(Added after 9/11)
What the cyberculture experienced was a liberation from a certain narrative. It felt something like liberation from narrative itself. Renaissance events allow for people to rise above the story. Sure, they get trapped in a new one, but that moment of shifting realities from story to meta-story, or game to meta-game, is really special. Quite valuable, really, because it permits us to remember that none of the stories are real. They’re templates, superimposed on our reality.

At the very least, we become co-creators of subsequent narratives. I have nothing against narratives, as long as we are all allowed to write them.

The replacement of cyberculture with the pyramid was an attempt to impose a narrative on the choose-your-own-adventure, open-endedness of cyberculture. The Internet, if you remember, was not seen by big business as an opportunity, but as a threat. The object of the game was to neutralize the threat. Sure, a lot of people thought they were going to make a lot of money using the Internet word in their business plans. But the real, lasting function of the speculative economic game was to recontextualize the cyber-renaissance in a business narrative. It didn’t work, because the businesses failed, and not everyone abandoned interactive telecommunications. We’re still writing the story.

The terrorist attacks on the WTC and Pentagon were another attempt to arrest self-determination with a static narrative. That’s why Falwell couldn’t help but justify them. Fundamentalists are people committed to narrative. Instead of changing their narratives to conform to the consensus, they attempt to change the world to fit their obsolete narratives. The narrative is fixed.

Their narrative (Falwell’s and radical so-called Islam) is Armageddon. The world was getting too tolerant, too networked, and too empowered. What the cyber-renaissance taught us is that the story isn’t written. It emerges, just as organization emerges from a system. The imposition of a narrative structure, in most cases, will simply impede the emergence of genuine systemic balance. (No, this is not an argument for libertarianism. It is a call for the conscious co-creation, the crafted evolution of an open-ended human story.)

RU: In terms of cyber-counterculture, didn’t those attitudes spread at the same time as the great NASDAQ/dot-com hype did, as manifested by Linux and Napster and Gnutella and Slashdot and so forth? Perhaps the end of the ’90s was just so much at once, that we couldn’t see our own growth through the haze…

DR: Well, of course, it was all happening simultaneously. In many ways, the corporate attack on Internet culture only strengthened us. People like me naively believed that the cyber-renaissance was quite inevitable. We had successfully wrested the Internet from the government’s hands, and believed we had enacted a kind of power to the people.

Little did we realize that our rejection of government would simply give free reign to corporations. It’s like when you take antibiotics to kill off bacteria–you forget that you create terrific conditions for fungus to grow. Well, corporations were that fungus, that spread unchecked throughout the networks.

Over the past year, however, the Internet–like a living system–rejected the fungal attack. Now, it’s stronger than ever. Like an organism that has fought off a virus, we have come to recognize it. We understand the structure and tactics of corporations, we understand that they are not really alive at all, but pieces of code.

And this sensibility is trickling down to ‘mass’ culture in the form of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, my Coercion or Frontline documentary, Adbusters, and more.

True enough, there was a real Internet culture developing the whole time. It wasn’t really a Dark Ages at all–even though the New York Times couldn’t seem to cover anything about the Internet that didn’t involve the NASDAQ index. It’s really the public perception of the Internet that was changed–from that of a telecommunications infrastructure to a market phenomenon. People began to think of the Internet as a speculative opportunity rather than a cultural or, dare we say, spiritual one.

The crash of the market needs to be distinguished from the life cycle of the Internet. What happened on NASDAQ has very little to do with Internet culture–except for the fact that a lot of the companies suffering now were responsible directly and indirectly for building the bandwidth that we’re using to have all this fun right now. I’m writing to you from a cybercafe in London, in fact. At frighteningly fast T3 speeds. Can’t imagine this would have happened without a huge cash influx from hapless investors.

So now, we’re getting to play on the roads left behind by would-be emperors. Fine with me.

And yes, of course, great things like Blogger and Gnutella have been developing all along. Honestly, I feel like the major innovations all occurred in the shareware community before 1995, when Netscape went public. I certainly have a hard time thinking of any real innovation that came through the free market capitalist development paradigm. Explorer, streaming video, Outlook, are all just dolled up versions of programs that came out of University Illinois at Champagne Urbana (Mozilla), or Cornell (CUSeeMe), or MIT.

Slashdot was terrific throughout the dark time, of course. Odd, though, that the culture of programmers became something of a counter-culture online, though, eh? These were the people building the whole thing–and they were relegated to a kind of underground status.

I’ve just written an article for the Guardian encouraging programmers to create a Global Union. Now that’d put some power back where it belongs. And it could allow programmers to act as the final human safety valve between corporations and the technologies they’re using to embody themselves.

RU: We appeared together on a panel discussion at the SF Film Festival a few moons back for Iara Lee’s film, Synthetic Pleasures. We were discussing radical technological developments and you advocated “pedal to the metal.” I was actually ever-so-slightly more conservative about it. Then a few years later, you signed on with the Technorealists, and with the publication of Coercion, you were hyped as the guy who used to be one of the technophiles who has become a nay-saying critic. I know the reality is more ambiguous and complex, and figured that you’ve got to serve it up in simple black and white to the media–particularly in press releases. Could you comment on this?

Relatedly, while I joined the chorus of critics of the whole Wired cyberlibertarian juggernaut, I remained an unreconstructed technophile. I still think that any possibility of improving the human situation for a complicated six billion person strong world lies in using technology to eliminate scarcity and psychological damage. Neither one-by-one spiritual self-development nor political activism is going to make more than the slightest dent. Your thoughts on this one too, please.

DR: Things do change, you know? I probably would have backed the French Revolution, too–right up until about the time they started chopping off heads. My grandmother was a pretty committed communist until she found out what was going on over in Stalin’s Russia. Doesn’t change the validity of Marx’s ideas, though - just their execution.

Honestly, though, the “pedal to the metal” I was advocating was the cyberpunk consciousness, autonomous thinking, cross-cultural networking and designer reality–or what I’m now calling Open Source Reality–that seemed to be the inevitable result of playing with these new technologies. Everyone who went online between ‘88 and, say, ‘95 seemed to have the same response: a full-on reconsideration of the relationship of the individual to the rest of civilization, and a radical reappraisal of the functioning of the collective human organism. It seemed to me as if all the careful consideration and vigilant analysis of the effects of technology on human potential would only slow the renaissance–perhaps to the point where it could be stopped or overturned by those who were threatened by it.

As I experienced it at the time, the cultural renaissance of the mid-‘90s was akin to the creation of a turbulent system. The linear, top-down mediaspace of the past, as well as the highly controlled and unidirectional flow of information and cultural programming, was giving way. The more faxes, cameras, internet connections, and literacy we could muster, the more multi-directional, human-generated, and chaotic the mediaspace would become.

Thanks to turbulence (and I mean the kind we see in wave systems and clouds, not violent riots) the linear culture of the past centuries was finally giving way. But it was fighting back. It seemed to me that anything but a pedal-to-the-metal tactic would give them time to regroup and reorganize a counterattack.

And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. A totally misinformed Time magazine cover story about cyberporn, coupled with shock tactics about “internet bombs” and attention deficit disorder from the rest of mainstream media, kept people at arms-length from a new medium that they feared would hurt them and their children in some unpredictable way. When they did go online, it was through the sanitized portals of AOL or some other commercial service, and by the time they got themselves all the way through to the world wide web (which AOL didn’t offer for a good long time) they were greeted by the e-commerce merchants, who had time to set up shop.

The thing I didn’t realize back in the early ’90s was that our hatred of government intervention online, and our successful elimination of most government influence over cyberspace had the unintended side-effect of giving free reign to business. So pedal-to-the-metal ended up meaning much more than “get rid of all restrictions.” It meant “let the (so-called) free market libertarians run wild.” And, though we don’t have time for a full-on discussion of economics, here, the business practices, alliances, and misrepresentations made by the venture capitalists of silicon alley and valley do not represent a free market at all.

But by the late ’90s, the Internet had been recast as a business plan, and open universal access meant international ‘open’ markets. As the original Long Boom propagandists insisted “open good, closed bad: tattoo it on your forehead.” So pedal-to-the-metal meant running with this lunacy. Too bad.

I’m still as impatient as ever for cultural evolution to take place, for human beings to use whatever technologies (from language to love-making) are at their disposal to network politically and develop compassion, and for the demystification of the mass media to change the relationship of the disenfranchised to their cultural programming. I’m still quite enthusiastic about technology and human potential. I simply understand that the market is much more powerful than I had imagined, and that it feeds off fear and unconsciousness.

As for your second part, true. Still, spiritual development and political activism are important stages in an individual and a society’s growth. I mean, I always talk about the remote control allowing for deconstruction, the joystick demystifying the image, and then the keyboard allowing for DIY culture to be born. What this really means is that the remote allows us to deconstruct the story, or content of the mediated reality. The joystick demystifies the technology being used to hypnotize us (or fool us into fear or complacency), And then the keyboard allows us to tell our own stories to one another–it promotes collectivism and political activism.

That’s almost exclusively in the communications sphere. Even the WTO riots, organized online, represent more of a media coup and public relations effort than getting food or the technologies to make food to real people in real places. But it’s the process by which we wake up from within the media sphere and the corporate control of consciousness, and that’s no small feat. And then, and only then, does the real work begin.

Whether or not the Internet will ever be used to administrate the planet more effectively is still a big question. There’s very few signs in that direction, but there are a few. So far, the technology has served more as an idea–waking people up in rich countries to the fact that there are many others in poorer places who don’t have the ability to meet their most basic needs.

The Ancient Greeks said that the largest governable body politic was 10,000 men (and their women and slaves). But that was for a culture that governed itself on a hillside by show of hands. We clearly are in need of a way to govern and administrate a planet of many more people than this. An interactive mediaspace seems to me as good a tool as we’re going to come up with for negotiating a consensus on how to spend our resources, and how to develop new ones.

RU: The glory of the earlier text-based internet was that it was participatory, interactive, and non-commercial. It was raw and rough, but we took the implications of that, of virtual reality, and a few other cultural totems and we evoked a sense of dynamism and hope. But are you really satisfied returning to text-based conversations, or did the novelty wear off? It certainly did for me… you know? Global brain or an awful lotta assholes… You be the judge… The web has been a nice moment, in that sense. It gave us the opportunity to create an online “artifact”, a presentation, a personal communique that could be crafted with more care. In other words, there’s a reason why we have “societies of spectacle.” People like spectacle. So there’s that for you to comment on, and additionally, the question, what next? Do we find some way of combining these elements? Does real sensory VR arrive in time to make meeting other people in the net novel and interesting again for a while, or whaaa?

DR: Yeah, well, the novelty wore off for me, too. But I’m forever changed as a result of my experience with the Internet, and my transformation would not have occurred had I been exposed to a less transparent form of media than the original text-only internet. You ask if I really feel like going back to those early text-based conversations. But, to be honest, both of us are still just as involved in those “early text-based” conversations. They’re simply happening more in email than on chat boards or the Well. Really - look at us right now! And look at Blogger and other basically text-based systems of self-expression. The inherent transparency is more than refreshing or novel; it’s liberating in that the tools of consumption and tools of creation are basically the same.

You know how many of my readers are writers, now, too? I can’t imagine how this would have happened without the text-based internet, and all those mailing lists I’m on. I write online now at least as much as I did back in the “old days.”

Yes, the web did allow for the creation of a collaborative artifact, even if it did become more about selling than saying, for a while. Now it looks like that aspect of the artifact has withered, and we’re back to the collective self-expression. Spectacle is certainly interesting–though I don’t know that WeLiveInPublic really should replace Shakespeare, just yet. Exhibitionism is a cultural artifact, but so is a pooper-scooper. It can’t replace art. There’s room for everything in the spectacle, but so, too, is there room for critical analysis.

I think what’s next, honestly, is a return to the sacred. As people get literate, they tend to deconstruct the sacred truths. Then they learn those sacred truths are based on false assumptions or developed to support very specific and obsolete agendas. So we’re in the middle of this, occasionally disillusioning, process. And what’s next will be a search for a new kind of sanctity. I don’t think this will occur online, though it may be supported by online and other new media. In a more flip way of constructing the same thought, what’s next is not MP3, but vinyl.

The net can allow for a certain kind of emotionally / spiritually relevant communication, but it pales in comparison with “real” communication and experience. It served as remedial help for a society that lost the ability to communicate at all. It became a nice, safe, dry way to touch one another. Now, hopefully, it has whetted our appetite for something a lot more juicy.

The only real advantages to the net are the massive numbers and massive networking. If it’s not intended for a whole lot of people, or for someone far away, I’d keep it in meatspace. Unless you’re creating some kind of virtual art project.

RU: I criticized the long boom, for a variety of reasons, many of them the same as its more prominent critics. I’m sorry it’s over. Having all that bullshit money fertilizer energy optimism around meant that interesting projects could get funding. There were alienating aspects to it, and it certainly caused pain in terms of the housing market and so forth here in San Francisco. But in evolutionary terms, a boom is fertile ground. I guess ultimately, a boom based on stock market illusions is really just a little fart. Perhaps there’s a way of fostering a genuine boom, one that includes the market but evokes a dynamic in which people actually create useful things. Right now, the overall zeitgeist feeling is one of vacancy. The market crashed, Bush was elected (or installed), the content-based websites are going down the tubes, and everybody is just sort of standing around with their mouths open. Err… no question really, just conversation….

DR: I wrote an article along those lines, during the beginning of the crash…here it is:

Those of you who have followed my work for any length of time know I resent the way business has taken over the Internet. Since 1994, when the international research communications infrastructure was officially opened to business, I’ve watched what has appeared to me to be a degradation of the content, spirit, and mission of the interactive space.

Well, I’m done complaining.

Don’t worry–I’m still as anti-corporate as the next guy. If anything, I’ve become so anti-corporate that I don’t mind exploiting them as much as they think they’re exploiting us. They mean to take as much as they can get from us, so what’s so terrible about our taking whatever we can get from them? In other words: Why not let big business build our Internet?

They won’t make any money off it, in the long run. In fact, no one has yet developed a truly profitable business plan for the Internet. Not the online magazine of the mid-‘90s (no revenue), the e-commerce companies of the late ’90s (no margins), or the streaming media sites of the early “broadband” 2000’s (no one cares). The only people who have taken home any profits are the speculators who buy stock in these schemes–and then sell it to less crafty speculators before the schemes crash. The other folks who make money, of course, are the legions of advisors, brokers and consultants, who are busy leading everyone else to their doom, and a couple of monopolies.

In the meantime, at least some portion of the countless investment dollars pouring into the Internet are going towards building the infrastructure itself. Telephone companies are developing faster, cheaper ways of increasing data rates, while cable TV companies work to expand bandwidth. Others are laying fiber-optic, launching satellites, miniaturizing cell phones, and integrating databases.

For the past five years or so, those of us who were aware of how little money could actually be made on truly interactive experiences have attempted to pop the stock market bubble that has formed around it. We know that Internet investing is essentially a pyramid scheme, and that there are not enough eyeball-hours in a day to justify even today’s, slightly deflated, dot-com valuations.

So we whine on about how big business doesn’t belong online, won’t really make any money, and should leave us all alone to play and interact in our publicly owned, civil-minded datasphere. What are we, crazy?

I remember a time, not so long ago, when we were begging for big business to come onboard. In the early ’90s, before the World Wide Web even existed, Internet enthusiasts would get laughed out of conference rooms for suggesting that any real companies might want to get involved in the interactive age. My first book on the Internet was canceled before it hit the press in 1993, because the publisher feared the “fad” would be over before the ink had dried (The book came out a year later).

Once big business came online, most of us early proselytizers changed our tune to gloom and doom. True enough, the Internet was pillaged. It became a strip mall of epic proportions, and many people logging on today get no sense of the opportunity a communications infrastructure might offer for the formation of a global society.

But maybe we should keep our eyes on that prize. Thanks to the short-sighted, profit-driven motives of mindless corporations, the Internet is cheaper to use, more widely available, and spreading faster than ever before. “Developing” regions and former Soviet-bloc nations are the next target market, and we can only imagine the sorts of incentives being formulated to turn folks who have never even made a phone call into Internet users.

One tragic error has been to resent the people who have made money off the Internet so far. Who cares if they get extremely wealthy? So what if the real estate prices in New York, San Francisco and London go up? This is a decentralized society we’re building, anyway. The dot-com investors’ belief in the false scarcity of urban real estate is no different than their allegiance to the finite dot-com naming scheme. It’s competition that dominates their thinking, which is why they’ll never really understand their holy grail of “online community.”

We want to crash the market and pop the bubble because we hate the poor fools who have seemingly taken over the digital landscape and gotten rich off a set of technologies they only mean to misuse. The recent correction in stock values is a clear indication that our message has been heard. Well, aren’t we the kind ones?

I propose we chart a different course. Let’s encourage business to invest in the Internet, and to build an open infrastructure that will someday allow the whole world to play a glorious networked game with itself, or better, find ways to interact other than through money or munitions. Let’s milk every last drop from the corporate cows before they figure out they’ve been nourishing an infant who means to swallow them whole.

Where I’d make an exception, however, is that the whole boom was based in a lie–a dangerous lie that distorted reality. And no one wants to build on a distortion, unless we do it really very consciously. The propaganda of the market maniacs may have done more damage than their money was worth.

A genuine boom will have to be based in productivity and the distribution of real assets, such as knowledge, rather than the pyramid-based Ponzie of a temporary speculative rush. There really are two economies out there–the real one and the speculative one. I’m all for boot-strapping oneself into nirvana, but if we’re going to be working with money–basically just a metaphor for actual real-world survival–then we’ll have to develop an economic reality that respects the laws of physics.

RU: Let’s move on to your PBS special. I enjoyed your analyses of teen culture: the mook and the midriff. Let me trace a crooked line. It starts with punk rock, in the mid-‘70s. Punk is a reaction against the mediocrity of corporate rock. And punk is… well, punk. Young people playfully embrace nihilistic, violent imagery, aggressive music, they start thrashing and moshing. Punks tend to be anti-intellectual, but intellectuals–the movement is promoted by writers and theorists, and even working class drop-outs like Joe Strummer and John Lydon are thinking people. Punk becomes an urban street culture. It also continues the countercultural impulse to dig the non-white “primitive”–so the love of reggae becomes part of the punk gestalt. Reggae begets toasting, which is a mix of the art of dj’ing and the beginnings of rap. This migrates from London and Jamaica to NYC, and becomes part of an early outlaw hip-hop culture that includes rap and graffiti art. Like Reggae, it has a bit of a gangster undertow, which usually comes along with any proud culture hailing from a poor community of outsiders. Public Enemy and others are infected with this virus and make it their own thing. The speed and aggressive energy of punk is part of the mix. Then NWA blows everything away. NWA (read their interview in SPIN back when EFIL4SREGGIN was number one) are total nihilistic punks. Their sense of self, even their sense of humor, as expressed in the SPIN interview, maps pretty closely to the way the Sex Pistols carried on. But there’s a big difference. NWA is from a culture that’s much rougher than even the white working class Brit street culture that begat the Pistols. NWA and other representatives of the new gangsta rap culture are actually mixed up in a real gangster culture, at a time when crack is exploding, shoot-outs are common, etc. So something that starts with a kind of intellectualized pop nihilism with political undertones starts to migrate into worship of the “thug life.” This meme migrates back into the white culture, and you end up with the “mook.” Punk was basically smart, but now it’s hip to be thick.

Something similar is also happening in culture as a whole. In the mid-‘90s, the popular TV shows were kind of smart–X Files and The Simpsons. Now it’s Survivor and Missing Link. Poor and working class people debase themselves and act unbelievably stupid on various daytime TV talk shows. One is tempted to become a snotty elitist, or else to believe that there’s a conscious conspiracy by corporate media to teach us contempt for poor people (of all races). But it seems pretty obvious to me that blaming the media is way simplistic. They are simply… well… media–the way in which this seeming cultural devolution is expressing itself.

So here’s a thought to challenge both of our better, well-intentioned, liberal views. Maybe the conservatives are right. Maybe the unsuccessful gene pools of all races are populating wildly and we’re witnessing its effervescense. It’s a nasty thought, but it becomes almost irresistable as one watches daytime TV, or the Insane Clown Posse…

Your thoughts, Mr. Rushkoff?

DR: Well, “genepools” may be an obsolete way of phrasing it. There are, however, dispossessed and disenfranchised people who tend to express themselves and their plights by any means necessary. If a “trailer trash” person is unhappy for reasons unknown and as a result of forces with which he or she is unfamiliar, we can’t expect her to develop a cogent cultural analysis or social commentary. We may, however, see the expression of anxiety and dissatisfaction coming through whatever channels are available.

The part of the punk-becomes-NWA chain you developed that is left out, as far as I’m concerned, is the translation of British political punk to the Ramones’ more random punk. When I was growing up, we didn’t know from the Queen or Tories. We just knew some stuff sucked, and the Ramones gave us an easy way to relate to a vibe we didn’t quite understand. It felt as though Crass and the Sex Pistols required a knowledge of art and politics that was just too much work for mall rats like us. So with American punk, we got a loud acknowledgement of our own urban, cultural, and intellectual landscape, such as it was.

As far as the movement of this vibe into ghetto culture, I don’t know if it really happened that way. Sugarhill Gang and early rap felt like a different camp, to me. People with a different set of problems, singing about their own culture or lack of one. But the disenfranchisement of so-called black kids in America is very different from Queens whites or British punks. I really got to understand it when I spent some time in South Africa in the early ’90s. The kids there, who were just getting exposed to MTV for the first time, and seeing images of gangsta rappers and all, they were horrified. Mind you, these were township kids in Soweto and the Districts. Kids who had to put up with stuff that would really make your skin crawl. Way beyond South Central LA in terms of living conditions. And these kids told me they felt “sorry” for the gangsta rap kids of L.A. They concluded that American black kids resorted to these angry and self-destructive expressions because they were dispossessed–the children of slaves, taken from their own lands.

I think what you’re witnessing–from Jerry Springer to indie rap–is a dispossessed population expressing itself for the first time, through media that weren’t available to them before. And just as a black kid could once only get out of the ghetto through boxing or drug dealing, a white person can only express his or her rage through the Jerry Springer venue, and this may actually be a form of social control. The programs coax the culturally and economically dispossessed to think of their problems as stemming from some kind of fucked up family dynamic. Montel always finds a family member to call out on the whole group’s problem, as if it’s psychological rather than economic. I mean, you’ve got a father on the show - some kind of drunk who has been laid off a zillion times, has no real skills or education, and feels like an impotent loser. And then you blame him for fucking his wife’s daughter from another marriage–as if it’s a moral or psychologically based problem. The guy has been defeated to the core, and he’s being exposed to inane media about what a man is supposed to be–and now he’s the cause of his whole family’s problem?

No, the lyrics that his kids write–or that the black kids on the other side of the tracks write–will not address the core problems. But by the time these people are given a forum, the very mechanisms for their dissent have been declawed.

We can’t expect kids from South Central to be informed by Marx or Derrida the way that university punks were. And yes, corporate America will find ways to channel their rage into purchases and commodifiable cultural stereotypes. Problem is, these usually exacerbate the problems.

The only answer I can grope towards is education and genuine media literacy.

**(Added after 9/11)
**Again, what genuine or “deep” media literacy means is that everyone, not just the elites or the powerful or the authorized, is invited to collaborate in the writing of the story–the writing of the rules.

There are, most generally speaking, two ways that values and laws get transmitted and implemented. By testament, or by consensus. That’s why they call the books of the Bible “testaments.” 600,000 people stood at Mt. Sinai and watched while God did all those miracles with Moses. The Torah is, quite literally, a testament to those events. Then, you pass on the religion because of the authority of the testament: “my father’s father saw these events.”

The problems with authority through testament were exposed in the early modern era, as science, archeology, and literary criticism forced relativism on the formerly unquestionable passed-down truths. So we got people like Kierkergaard and eventually Buber, demanding a more existential sensibility and finally people like us, who demand direct personal participation in creating the narrative and its sensibility. Sure, we’ll use whatever has been left for us, but we’ve got no hesitation about hacking and retrofitting it. All we have to remember is not to do it alone. Do it with others, so you don’t risk going too far afield. It’s a community endeavor.

Media literacy is the prerequisite to networking, and the anathema of fundamentalists. Most western leaders still only understand global networking in terms of Global Business and Global Economy. What’s actually much more powerful is Global Organism–a true global organism, with feedback and self-regulation, not some fascist robotic populace.