Interview: Douglas Rushkoff

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in PLGRM on 1 December 2012

Douglas Rushkoff is an author (Program Or Be Programmed; Life, Inc.; Nothing Sacred), speaker, and documentary filmmaker (The Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders). Nobody has thought as much or as carefully about the technology we use, its programmed biases, and the effect those biases have on us as we interact with it. The day after he rushed his wife to the hospital with a busted up toe, PLGRM spoke with him about his forthcoming book and his old high school friends (spoiler alert: think The West Wing).

How’s your wife’s toe?

I can’t really tell. I’m not a doctor so it’s hard to tell. It’s getting brown now.

Did she get to a doctor?

Yeah, we got to a doctor and they took off the rest of the toenail when we were there, so then it was just all meaty and bloody. And then, uh, it got drier and it was this nice flesh color. But now it’s just like brown.

You probably begin all your interviews this way, don’t you?

Yeah, well, with people who want to know. You can publish that. You can publish that her nail bed is now brown…

You said something about the next thing you’re going to write is going to deal with living in the present. Presencing, right?

Yeah, it’s a little tricky, because it’s a book that comes out in March, and I haven’t started talking about it yet. But, there’s a lot of ways to look at it. In the context you’re talking about, I feel like the 20th century was very ideologically based and very journey based. You know, everyone was talking about Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Journey” was sort of the peak of understanding this Aristotelian quest model of, you know, of life, of business, of religion. You know, even this sort of messianic myth as a myth of return… it’s a very narrative thing: that God was one thing, then God got broken up into all these little pieces, we each have a little piece of God in us, and we’re moving toward a reconnecting with all the others back into that thing in the future when we’re all together. That is a linear, narrative, time-based mythology, or time-based way of contending with feelings of incompleteness and loss and isolation and all that.

I think that as we move away from this kind of clock-based, linear, analog, narrative society to a more present-based digital environment, we are going to need to understand things less as story and more through these kind of present-based experiences of connectivity or insight or connection. There’s going to be a lot of casualties along the way. You know, the current political response to present shock is the Tea Party movement, this kind of child-like, knee-jerk impatience, and it’s much harder to have the deep patience and present-ism of, say, an Occupy movement, which is literally about occupying. We see a little bit of it in Protestantism in America as kids move from the original fundamentalist protestantism into the sort of What Would Jesus Do, which is now-ness, you know, it’s “what would Jesus do now?” not “what did Jesus do then?”

So people move out of a historical appreciation of religion, which is what I’ve been working on the Jews for a while with, you know, to stop looking at this stuff as history. But it’s hard. For Judaism in particular, Judaism kind of invented time, it invented progress. With the invention of text came the ability to look back and say, “You said this then.” And you could forecast into the future: If you do this, I will do that. If we do this, God will do that. It was a rule set that was really invented as we moved from a present-based, kind of Bedouin shepherd culture to an agrarian farming culture, which again was time-based, you know, it was: you do this, and you wait the seasons, and that happens.

I think that we’re in an equivalent shift. I think the shift we’re undergoing now is as big as the axial age shift, and, I mean, I just accept people like Karen Armstrong at face value. They did more research than I did, so I just believe–she might be wrong–that the axial age happened and people went from this, you know, pre-Theist thing or this poly-Theist to this mono-Theist thing and text and time and progress and all these other notions of western civilization happened.

So we move into this other thing, and I’m really writing about and thinking about the different ways that we react to that, how it changes the way we look at investments, you know, from investing in a company that’s going to do well over time to investing in a derivative that’s going to do well in the moment, you know, in the second. Some of these are very false hopes and some of them are hopes that might work.

This narrative that you began talking about, about a journey and the individual experience, for a long time people in churches have really criticized that and said, “You can’t just do that. You have to be in a particular community that meets at particular times. That’s the Religious aspect of the experience.” Do you think that needs to be recovered in some way?

It’s gonna be hard. I mean, my old high school friend Aaron Sorkin is the last of the great story tellers, but when I look at his latest and greatest newest shows, “Newsroom” or something, it’s nostalgia. It’s nostalgia for an era when those things make sense, where that emotional arc makes sense. Life so does not work like that. So I would say, “No.” If anything, we move into a kind of meta-appreciation of these kinds of stories.

What are the kinds of experiences that you see people reaching out for and trying to have?

It depends on the people. People are mostly flailing around now, looking at everything but one another for a sense of connection. So they’re looking to websites and tweets and all this crap, all this electronic stuff. They’re desperately trying to catch up with what they think is the moment, because they don’t have any sense that they are is where it’s at.

Is that a psychological problem?

It’s a psychological problem. It’s also a problem of living in a culture that’s been based on getting people to feel inadequate so they buy more stuff. What if people actually felt good about themselves? The economy would crash.

I’m wondering if you see particular communities that are better about this “living in the now” than the general population.

I don’t know about communities. I haven’t really thought it about it that way. It’s much easier to find communities who aren’t, right? Like the apocalypse people, buying MREs and digging holes in the ground. Yeah, the new currency people, the people who are developing alternative currencies because those are always based in transaction and not in savings. They don’t have a way to accrue value over time. You try to keep your balance near zero in an alternative trading system. There’s a lot of individuals I could point to: any older person who, rather than spending time saving money for their retirement, they spend their time helping take care of their grandkids, it’s because they understand that they’re going to have a community that takes care of them when their time comes. When you invest your time and energy into other people, rather than into these abstract instruments, whatever they are, you end up being present-focused.

The whole problem for anybody in the church business is that we’ve moved from a kind of centripetal culture to a centrifugal one, a one where central institutions, guiding lights, used to attract us and now they repel us. In the best of cases, your object is to create a series of prime tones that other people would resonate with in their own little groups or for them to feel about what they’re doing with you as a little group in itself.

What if we imagined the local religious community as a platform on which individuals and groups of people who want to do good work and who are already doing good work could do it better? Does that sound like a cop-out?

Well there’s only one way to find out. Just see if they take you up on it. I think that the beauty of church over time has been its willingness to go where people are. I mean, they read Torah on market days. I remember there was a whole debate about that, that it’s some kind of blasphemy, but, you know, guys like Ezra and Nehemiah were out there going, “Fuck this. People are there on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That’s when we’re gonna read this thing. And they don’t know how to read.” You’re going to have to go where they are. The church, then, has to be as selfless as we’re asking people to be.

I was talking to a major Jewish philanthropist, I mean one of the top three, and he was talking about what he wants and what he wants to do with his money, and I said, “Look, if everybody in the world did Judaism, everybody - they all kept sabbath, they did the high holidays, they followed all the 613 mitzvas, but nobody knew it was called ‘Judaism’ - would you be okay with that? Would you feel you had accomplished something?” Well, no! That would be awful. Well, there’s nothing we can talk about then. People have to know this is called “Judaism” or he hasn’t done his job.

Credit is really the operative word here; you can’t take credit for it. It’s just going to happen. The problem is if you’re not getting any credit for it, who’s going to keep you alive for doing it. It gets really tricky.

For a lot of my friends, our relationships with each other are becoming as important for what we believe as what the tradition or the Bible has told us to believe. Is that a good tendency to promote, or is there some value in really maintaining, “This is what the tradition or the Torah says, and you have to stick to that?”

Well the question then becomes: who’s saying what the Torah says? Everybody who reads it is going to get something different. As long as you’ve got 10 people or more together, that’s, in theory, enough to keep any one of them from going totally insane. When you don’t have the group of 10, you know, a minion to engage with in your Torah, you end up sitting up in your attic waiting for the Isaac Lurian Kaballistic savior to come. Once you start studying alone, you’re studying alone. I believe it’s the responsibility of every community to engage with the sacred texts themselves and to negotiate their understanding of halakah or Sharia or whatever it is that they’re going to be following. And you’re going to get some pretty fringe understandings, which is why federations and larger amalgamations matter. Plus, even if a person acts like they belong–“Oh, I’m a member of this 10 person group”–there’s so much movement, and people belong–“Well, I kind of belong 60 percent to this one and 30 percent to that one and I visit that little group”–you end up getting a kind of unification, it’s just not centrally dictated. You do get a kind of emergent organization.

But the concept of belonging seems to be not as important anymore.

Yes and no. I think it’s coming back though.

You do?

Yeah, I think people do want to belong. You know, is still growing, even if it’s not making money like Facebook. I think they do want to gather. I do feel like this in-the-phone kind of time is falling away. I just wrote a piece for CNN–you’d like this one–“iPhone is not your savior.” We’re looking at it like it’s going to save the economy and save our world, and it’s like: “Enough! It’s a fucking phone. Get over it. It’s not the everything.”

It’s interesting because our last savior at least came in human form.

But people seem to be able to navigate multiple groups that they want to belong to. On a religious level, they may even be different religious communities that you feel like you belong to, and that’s totally fine.

It’s also because–especially if you’re like me–you don’t want to belong to any of them because it feels like some diminishment of your personal relationship to reality. It’s, like, theirs. Although I’m a little weird. l’ve started things and then left… I can’t even bring myself to be a member of the thing I started. I don’t know if that’s typical. I think it’s not. There really is more of a sense that if people find a group of people who are very much like them, it doesn’t make them feel conformist. In some ways, only by finding a group of people who are exactly like you can you find people who recognize what makes you special, what makes you different. So only with a group of fellow lapsed progressive cyber-Jews can find others who understand what really distinguishes me from all the other ones like me.

And you can find that group of people, right? There’s lots of tools for you to make those connections.

Right. If I wanted to pursue my Judaism as some kind of organizing matrix. Now I only really want to pursue my Judaism to the extent that I want my daughter to be programmed with some of its ethos.

You do want that is what you’re saying.

Although I have mixed feelings about that too.


So much is wrong.

You know, I have a four year-old daughter as well, and I’m a pastor in a religious community, and I have this critical stance on some of the stuff as well. You know, the Abraham sacrificing Isaac story, do we want to get that one when she’s four? What’s the right age to tell that story?

Right. Or was it written for the four year-old? And if it is, then what’s that for? What’s circumcision for? Is it just so the kid knows your dad could have cut it off? He could have killed you. He could have killed you entirely. And just so you know, what’s the place you would have protected most of all? Right, buddy. You know what I mean? He just left his little mark there. Yeah, it’s dark stuff.

And then because it’s so metaphorical it’s like, “What? We all came from Adam and Eve?” And it’s like, “Well, maybe. I don’t know. Well, kind of. Who knows? I don’t know.” You know?

Yeah. So people will take those stories and they’ll say… in these surveys about religious beliefs, they’re “spiritual” but not “religious.” This is a thing that a lot of people in churches wring their hands over. “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” More people say that now than ever before. Somebody came up with the term the “nones,” people who mark “none” when it comes to religious affiliation, but who still will say they believe in God and have religious beliefs…

Better than Dawkins people. The thing is, I object to Judaism being called a religion. I believe Judaism that was created as an anti-religion. It was for the recovering cult members of the death cults of ancient of ancient Egypt. So you bring them out to the desert and say, “Look, look look: don’t have a religion. You’re going to write you own laws. You’re going to develop your own code of ethics. You’re going to do all this. It’s going to be guided by this sort of unknowable God, but the way you know that God is there is if you gather together for this purpose, then God is there. Period. Get over it. That’s non-religious to me, and it is spiritual…

I understand what people are going for, but at the same time… what they miss out on is the special place of humans in the scheme. The role of religion, if you will, or certainly of appropriate spirituality in human affairs is to help people understand that they are not gods but they were created in God’s image. And what’s the difference between those things? And it’s really tricky in a culture where people are being told, “You’re the one. You have God in you.”

People are not theological by nature, intellectually theological by nature. And very few have really gotten it, you know Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas. Look at the few thinkers over history who kind have gotten it. And then it’s like, what do you do with all these people?

Can you say one thing that somebody who reads this interview, who’s going to go out tomorrow and do one thing that’s going to try to help them be more present and live in the now that they’re not already doing–what’s one thing they can do?

It depends on the person. A really simple one is… when you get home–if you work–when you get home, use no electronic media until you go to sleep. When you get home don’t answer an email, don’t check your Twitter feed, turn off the cell phone. Once. Once. Just as a practice do it once, and just experience that.

So it isn’t just an anti-technology message. It’s just that the technology is so present in our lives that it’s an easy metaphor for it…

Okay. That’s very clear and very simple.

You know, it’s manna. You read the story about the manna from heaven. Spend one day eating food that has no preservatives in it whatsoever. Just as a practice and see where they takes you. Or try to. And see how hard that day is. And then think about “Why is that so hard?” And think of bigger systems that are making that difficult… these are rewards. Imagine getting to eat preservative-free food for a month. You know how healthy you’d feel? God. (P)