Generation X

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in A Magical Universe: The Best of Magical Blend Magazine on 1 January 1996

with Mike Gorman and DNA

Illiterate channel surfers? Couch potatoes? Apathetic video junkies? Socially alienated ciphers? Journalists, college professors, avatars of popular culture, parents, marketing experts and twenty-somethings, themselves, have been trying to define the post-Baby Boomer generation since hippies turned into yuppies and the bloated eighties gave way to the more sedate nineties. GenXers are too young to remember the assassination of Kennedy, and just old enough to remember the embarrassing end of disco. They didn’t profit from the excesses of the eighties, but they are guaranteed to pay for them. For a long time, Generation X was defined more by what it was not than what it was.

Ironically, out of this “vacuum of identity” came a steady stream of hip, smart, insightful words and images that both reflected and formed new attitudes. Emerging form the margins of society, twenty-something voices encroached on mainstream society making Bart Simpson, Ren and Stempy, Cyberspace and MTV part of our common vocabulary.

Douglas Rushkoff, himself a GenXer, is among the first mainstream journalists to cover favorite topics like virtual reality, cyberpunks, the psychedelic revival and rave culture for publications as diverse as Vibe magazine, The Whole Earth, Miami Herald, Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and GQ. His books, including Free Rides (Dell), Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (HarperSanFrancisco), The GenX Reader and Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (both by Ballantine), are witty explorations of his generation’s attempt to find a future of their own in the nether regions of the Baby Boomer’s high-tech society. Rushkoff’s intimate portraits reveal a generation of social theorists: kids who dropped out of consensus culture and slid into a subversive subculture wise beyond its years.

In the book Media Virus! you state that “the loudest battle cry against the media comes from the New Age community.” Is this because they are fearful of technology, or do you think they believe that this is the coming of the apocalypse?

Douglas Rushkoff: A lot of New Age people seem suspicious of technology. They see it as somehow unnatural and something that really needs to be reversed in order to return us to a natural state. Personally, I think this is a sixties’ paranoid view. I look at everything as ultimately natural. If we are in a technological morass, then the only way to get through it is to push through it, not to reverse it.

Do you believe that technology is serving to link us with nature and one another?

Douglas Rushkoff: Ultimately, yes. Technology is part of nature. It’s an extension of human consciousness. Ironically the portals that technology opens to us are generally portals that we could open without technology, if we knew how. I think that we are fully capable as human beings of having a global brain and of communicating with each other as parts of a single great organism. But either we really haven’t developed those skills, or else we’ve lost the ability to use them. Back in tribal days, people didn’t see themselves as individuals; they saw themselves as parts of a little organism. Well, being one part of an eight-billion-part organism is much harder to come to grips with. In a way, technology is a test run.

So the Internet is the first test run of a process that will eventually hardwire us together as a single great organism?

Douglas Rushkoff: It is a hardwiring, but I think if, and when, it succeeds in linking up planetary consciousness, we’ll realize we had that ability all along.

The hype word of today is “interactivity,” which generally suggests a person interacting with machines. But I was talking to Timothy Leary a couple of weeks ago, and he told me about a conversation he had with Albert Einstein, about the coming age of computers. Timothy Leary was talking about interconnectivity and interactivity, and Einstein said, “No, the real significance and the real word to use for what’s going to happen isn’t just interactivity, it’s interpersonal connections.” Einstein looked at everything in terms of relativity. And he’s right. It’s not a matter of individuals relating to a machine, it’s individuals relating to each other. It’s truly an interpersonal technology rather than an interactive technology.

You talk about computer viruses and media viruses. Is there a real scare that the whole Internet will be infiltrated by these viruses?

Doug Rushkoff: Well, I think the threat and efficacy of media viruses to destabilize or screw up is vastly overrated. The truth is, when you hear a news report about a computer virus, nine times out of ten you’ll hear in the same newscast an advertisement about a seminar that will help rid your company’s computers of viruses. In other words, the press release originated from the computer-virus-extinguishing panies. And why? To get people to spend money on unnecessary computer security.

There are some bad trips people get on about the mediaspace. If they’re not afraid of catching computer viruses by spending too much time on the Internet, they’re afraid their children are going to jack themselves into the matrix and get addicted to virtual sex. Let’s face the facts—people are afraid of intimacy, period. AIDS has become the latest excuse for people not to have sex. I mean we should be careful and all that, but it’s one thing to be afraid of AIDS and quite another to be afraid of sex. It’s the same thing with computer viruses. If you’re afraid of computer viruses that’s one thing—you can deal with that by being careful about what you download—but if you’re talking about fear of empowerment and fear of the kind of intimacy that immersion in the Internet creates, that’s another thing entirely.

You cite one example of a media virus being the Salmon Rushdie affair, in which the Ayatollah reacted to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses with an assassination edict. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Douglas Rushkoff: The spread of a global culture through media is most threatening to fundamentalists. That’s because fundamentalism is maintained by isolating your group from the general global wash of imagery. That’s the way fundamentalism works. It tries to remain pure by isolating itself. What the Ayatollah did by launching the “Kill-Salmon-Rushdie-Virus” was to put his foot down and say that threatening ideas would be stomped out. In other words, he declared that memes are real. In his effort to stomp them out, he has admitted their potency and ability to cause damage through infiltration. So the Ayatollah treats the threat as real by declaring an ideological war.

What exactly are memes?

Douglas Rushkoff: I think Dawkin’s coined the term in The Selfish Gene. Memes are the ideological equivalent of genes. A virus in the real world isn’t a living thing; it’s not like bacteria. It’s protein wrapped around genes, wrapped around DNA. A media virus is an event or some sort of media shell wrapped around memes, around ideas.

You had a great example of Virus 23, the zine, and Boing! Boing! being media viruses.

Douglas Rushkoff: Even Mondo 2000. They’re viral shells wrapped around memes. I mean Magical Blend is a virus of sorts. It’s a blend of ideas, memes and techniques. It’s a group of coherent, discreet, units of thought that, when absorbed by readers, is capable of changing the way they function.

Which is why fundamentalists don’t much care for us.

Douglas Rushkoff: What fundamentalists are afraid of is a certain kind of change. In this country there are huge numbers of people who are afraid that their kids are going to disengage from the static moral templates that have traditionally defined and limited our behaviors. And they’re quite right. Generation X doesn’t see moral templates, father figures and all that patriarchal, hierarchical stuff as real. They don’t see the two-party system as real. They realize it’s the vestiges of old static systems that don’t adequately express the modern human experience.

You write that “a generation that has disconnected itself from the propaganda machine can no longer be controlled by it.” I thought that was really a key to the twenty-something perspective. Maybe the GenXers are disconnecting themselves from the media because the content really isn’t there.

Douglas Rushkoff: They are reconnecting to media in other ways. I mean, they’re watching Mystery Science Theater and Beavis and Butthead, because that’s all media commentary. It’s television’s version of Brecht’s alienation, where you are constantly made aware that you are watching television and that viruses are being shot out at you.

Do you find within Generation X a different concept of spiritual beliefs that separate them from the sixties’ model?

Douglas Rushkoff: As a broad categorization, I would say that a unique contribution that Generation X has made to the cultural conversation about religion and spirituality is that they don’t feel the same need to have a religion of tenets or a system of beliefs to go by. Instead, I think they’re moving toward more direct experiential forms of spirituality. The real religious interface is no longer between the individual and God the Father, but between the individual and everything else. I think, for example, that one way to experience the connection to the higher heartbeat, or the great pulse of the universe, is through activities like the rave.

People keep harping about the collapse of the family and the loss of family values, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the loss of community values. We lost our community values. We don’t know our neighbors. We moved into a suburban life-style where each family was a separate unit and was being asked to serve the function of an entire community. No family can do that. The two-parent/1.5-children nuclear family is not enough to create a sense of connection to the world and to the higher power, if you can call it that. The family has collapsed because it’s been asked to do more than it should do. What we do need to do, if we want to restore the sense of family, is to learn how to live as what we are, which is a colonial organism, a huge mass of individuals.

In Cyberia you talk about two kids dropping in on the net while taking ecstasy. Is this one way people get connected?

Douglas Rushkoff: Psychedelics, be they natural or synthetic, are a valuable cultural medicine for a society that has lost its connection to itself. In a world of all-too-discrete individuals, it helps to break down the illusion of separateness. That’s why the rave experience is so popular. Kids coming out of our very ego-based culture need a medicine to create that feeling of connection that breaks down walls and allows the animal to rise up. Medicinally or technologically generated communities are valuable, and are an important stage for a society that really needs remedial help, because we seem to have lost the ability to do it in any other way.

I wrote about the drug war in my first book, Free Rides. What I said was that the war is not against drugs, but against the states of consciousness they offer, because they are threatening to those who would keep things the way they are.

If in fact we are moving into different levels of reality, will the future be more user-friendly to those with broader experiences?

Douglas Rushkoff: You know that most of the people in the research and development departments of the computer industry had to have experienced hallucinatory realities. That’s what the computer reality was at the beginning–people charting a totally new region of consciousness. Naturally, the people who felt comfortable doing that were people who had already done it with chemicals.

The Internet is currently multidimensional in its consciousness. What will happen when the government steps in? Will there be toll gates at each node? Will it get swallowed up?

Douglas Rushkoff: It can’t get swallowed up. It was conceived by the Rand Corporation and was brilliantly constructed to avoid that kind of control. The smartest minds figured out that if you created a natural chaotic system, no one will be able to censor it. They’ve created the beehive, ant nest, networked grass-roots subculture. They can’t take it back. This is the best war machine they have ever made.

It’s so ironic in that sense.

Douglas Rushkoff: That’s the thing, everyone considers the cold war and the industrial revolution to be all bad. They weren’t bad, they just got us to a stage. A little kid, when he’s two or three years old, starts saying no to his parents and turns into a little brat. That’s what we did as a baby civilization growing up. We kept crying, No! Like a little baby, we were angry that we weren’t one with the mother any more. But what does a baby do as it grows up? It fights for its individuality. Then, when it becomes an adolescent, it says, “OK, I’m going to drop some of my ego, because I want to get laid.” That’s what we’re doing. We decided it’s more valuable to have intimacy than some notion of this separate self.

It seems that now, more than ever, writers of science fiction like William Gibson, Phillip K. Dick and Terence McKenna should be known as the prophets of the future. Do you think they’re correct in their views?

Douglas Rushkoff: Sometimes I get the feeling that they all lack faith in human nature. McKenna says we’ve gone down a dead end, and we need to back up and go out the way we came in. I say absolutely not! We need to push through. McKenna believes there’s a bottleneck effect, and people who have had the DMT experience and other realizations are going to make it through the attractor at the end of time, while the vast majority will not. The way I see it, either we all make it or none of us will. It’s one organism, one thing. Dick and Gibson say that technology is going to change and get better, but human nature is going to stay the same. In other words, human nature is bad, and we’re just going to use our new technology to do mean things to each other. I just don’t believe that’s true. Human nature changes, and I believe that it’s basically good, not bad. Technology is inherently liberating, ultimately. Renaissances don’t happen overnight.

When we look to the future of cyberspace, what’s the warning sign up ahead?

Douglas Rushkoff: If we are derailed from the optimistic vision of a technologically mediated global organism, it’s going to be because we’re afraid of it. If we start to believe that this kind of intimacy is bad for us, then we will convince ourselves that we need toll booths and policemen, because we can’t be trusted. Or else we’ll get distracted. We might, for example, end up choosing a system that provides Sylvester Stallone movies on demand, over a system that gives us an opportunity to feedback. So we can get derailed. It’s sort of like the bardo thing in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, where you move through layers of distraction. You get distracted by Bardo sex, and you end up being reincarnated. In the same way, we can get distracted by the Pizza button on the remote control. It all depends on how we choose to spend our time with this great gift of technology. If it turns out we want to spend our time absorbing 90210, then we’re going to get derailed, because people just won’t be involved the way they could be.

(Magical Blend issue #46)