Media: It’s the Real Thing

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in New Perspectives Quarterly on 1 June 1994



NEW YORK — Most social theorists consider the media a dungheap of cultural waste. They believe that the media, having nothing better to do, keeps chewing on the same predigested matter. There’s so much time to fill on so many stations, and only a few real stories to tell. This is a simplistic view of media only shared by philosophers who grew up before television. They view media and even technology, for that matter, as somehow outside the realm of the natural. To them media can only display or comment on something real. They cannot acknowledge that the media is something real itself. Even forward thinkers like Marshall McLuhan insisted that every media extension of man is akin to a biological amputation. The advent of rock music made musicians deaf, and televisions or virtual reality goggles may damage our optic nerves and make us blind. This generation even objects to the word “media” being used as a singular noun. The media, to these people, are merely the channels through which we communicate: TV, print, bumper stickers, telegraph.

But those who grew up after the datasphere had been put in place see the media as something real, which must be reckoned with on its own terms. It can even be seen as an extension of the human, or even the planetary spirit.

The mediaspace, or “datasphere,” is the new territory for human interaction. It has become our electronic social hall; issues that were formerly reserved for hushed conversations on walks home from church choir practice are now debated openly on afternoon talk shows, in front of live audiences composed of people “just like us.” Good old-fashioned local gossip has been replaced by nationwide coverage of particularly resonant sex scandals. The mediaspace has also developed into our electronic town meeting (to use Ross Perot’s expression). Traditional political debate and decisions have been absorbed by the ever-expanding forums of call-in radio and late-night variety shows. Today’s most media-savvy politicians announce their candidacies on Larry King, and explain their positions on Rush Limbaugh or, better yet, primetime “infomercials.”

It has become fashionable to bemoan the fact that Dana Carvey’s latest impersonation of a political celebrity means as much to the American voter as the candidate’s official platform, or that kids today who may never have watched an evening news broadcast instead get passionate about the styles and attitudes depicted in the latest MTV video. We worry that our media industry has developed a generation of couch potatoes who are incapable of making an intelligent decision, too passive to act on one if they did.

That is not what is going on.

Nielsen “peoplemeters” may indicate which channels we’re watching, but they tell little about our relationship to the media as a whole. Just because a family is “tuned in” doesn’t mean it hasn’t turned on and dropped out, too. No, the media web has neither captured nor paralyzed the American individual. It has provided her with the ability to chart and control the course of her culture. We’ve been empowered, folks.

Getting with the program means realizing that no one takes the mainstream media any more seriously than you do. Having been raised on a diet of media manipulation, we are all perfectly aware of the ingredients that go into these machinations. Children raised hearing and speaking a language always understand it better than adults who attempt to learn its rules. This is why our kids understand computers and their programming languages better than the men who designed them. Likewise, people weaned on media understand its set of symbols better than its creators. And now Americans feel free to talk back with their mouths, their remote controls, their joysticks, their telephones and even their dollars. Television has become an interactive experience.

The event of do-it-yourself (DIY) technology makes direct feedback even more far-reaching. Homemade camcorder cassettes are as likely to find their way onto CNN as professionally produced segments. Tapes ranging from America’s Funniest Home Videos to the world-famous Rodney King beating are more widely distributed through the datasphere than syndicated reruns of I Love Lucy. Alternative media channels like the computer networks or even fax “trees” permit the dissemination of information unacceptable to or censored by mainstream channels, and have been heralded as the new tools of revolution in countries as “un-American” as Romania and communist China. Pirate media, like illegal broadcasts and cable or satellite jumping, are even more blatant assertions of the power of individuals to hack the data network.

Geraldo Rivera’s guests today are experts on and participants in the Amy Fisher Story. They’ve brought a clip from one of the three television movies aired this week about the “Long Island Lolita” scandal–one from Amy’s point of view, one from Joey Buttafuocco’s and one “neutral.” The movie clip is a scene where Hard Copy, a tabloid news show, is conducting a press conference and screening a tape from the episode they hope to air that night. The tape of the evening’s episode rolls, announcing that Hard Copy has come into exclusive possession of a revealing videotape: Amy Fisher speaking with her boyfriend, a worker at a gym, about having sex with him after she is put in jail. This tape, we learn, was secretly recorded by the boyfriend with his camcorder. The TV movie cuts from the actual videotape of Amy and her boyfriend, to another television monitor, this one in the dramatized home of Amy Fisher, played by Drew Barrymore, who is watching the episode of Hard Copy in her living room, shocked.

So on our TV, we watch Geraldo watch a monitor play a TV movie enacting a press conference where a tape is rolled of a TV show which in turn plays a tape— the actual, real-world tapes purchased for the movie—made by a guy cashing in on a media scandal, only to pull out and reveal an actress pretend to react as the real Amy Fisher might have. By this time Geraldo takes a commercial break, during which an evening news special is pitched that promises to air a brand new Amy Fisher tape made by another of her boyfriends. That, and an exclusive interview with Joey and his lawyer, who are upset about the way they were made to appear on the Donahue show earlier that week. Of course all these media events were being discussed concurrently on computer bulletin boards throughout the country, and would eventually turn up in the form of an Amy Fisher comic book.

This house of mirrors within mirrors is the American mediascape. It is more than a mirror of our culture; it is our culture. It is where we spend our time, our money and our thought. But as we examine the nature of the datasphere more closely, we find it is a self-referential cut-and-paste of itself. Most of media is media commenting on media commenting on media. Even if one real event just happens to occur–a black man gets beaten by white cops, or a girl shoots the wife of a man she loves–it soon becomes part of the overall self reflexive pastiche of media.

Something is going on in media all its own that reflects less on the particular events being reported than it does on the nature of our cultural preoccupations and the ways in which we process them. Media is saying something in the way it churns its stories out, redigests them, and spits them out again. This is both a complex picture of the way our world works, and, at the same time, the actual process of cultural catharsis and modification

We may not believe everything we read—“Martian Dolphin Steals Two-headed Baby” banner headlines on tabloid newspapers have changed our relationship to the printed word but what we see on TV in sound and pictures still seems real. Video is convincing. Even fictional images, like the POW camps in the movie Rambo, can appeal to the emotions and affect public opinion.

The Amy Fisher media mishmash demonstrates the hazy line between reality and fiction in today’s media and how mixing the two can lead to public relations backfires. By borrowing real news footage and inserting it into fact-based but fictional movies, the television industry has brought information from the irrefutable world of fact into the ever-relative world of fiction. They even demonstrate how these bits of footage can be manipulated to tell many different stories. The Rodney King tape, for example, has been analyzed and re-analyzed to the point where it both proves the cops’ guilt and their innocence.

IRONIC SPACE The traditional methods of public relations have been undermined by their very implementation in the media. Americans have either stopped believing what their media tells, or stopped caring. If nothing else, irony provides distance. With emotional distance from the material, the audience gains protection from the techniques of mind control. As Bertolt Brecht discovered, alienating devices give audiences room to think. When Amy Fisher is seen through six TV monitors-within-monitors, her story has become distanced enough for us to experience the irony of media’s fixation with her rather than the emotional “reality” of her plight.

So the distancing effects–intentional and un-intentional–of the media have infused the viewing public with aesthetic and emotional distance. Similarly, the fictionalization of world events into caricatured conflicts adds a sense of irony, further removing potential propaganda victims from the realm of passion.

Another of the now-defunct techniques for media domination is control of technology. In World War II, Hitler confounded US intelligence by making himself appear to be in more than one place at a time. Hitler’s technicians, it turns out, had developed magnetic recording tape–an innovation the allied forces could not even imagine. In this very direct way Hitler used exclusive media technology to create an image of the world that was untrue. Now that citizens have access to and a basic understanding of formerly exclusive technology–they cannot be fooled as US intelligence was in World War II. The advances in home video coupled with media’s fixation on itself have fundamentally altered our relationship with the images coming to us through television. We know that an aggressive news show might plant explosives on a GM truck to make sure it explodes on impact, and that witty editing–like the kind done on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News–can make events which never happened appear as real as history. Deconstructionalist media satire, like the mock commercial satires done on Saturday Night Live, expose the “secret” techniques of marketing, disabling some of the most current advertising techniques, sometimes just days after they have been implemented.

Perhaps the real downfall of propaganda can be attributed to the co-option of public relations techniques by big business. Originally brought in by government opinion engineers to pay for media campaigns that marketers were convinced would serve their own interests as well—like union busting—businesses soon saw the tremendous value in using public relations to market their own products. Techniques that were previously reserved for creating the spectator democracy became the province of big business interests, and were used instead for development of a consumer democracy. Television advertisements, programs and even movies came to promote a world view where happiness can be purchased.

IT’S ALIVE! But big business created something even bigger than itself: the datasphere. The media as a “thing” was developed to appeal to and direct human hunger. Its purpose was to whet viewers’ appetites for new products. The world behind the TV screen became a fantasy showroom of cars, appliances, lifestyles and attitudes which fueled the consumerist bonfire. The establishment of this national media universe worked better than the marketers expected. By the 60s, the media had become a world of its own. Kids could grow up spending more time in the media world than the real world. The datasphere became our new natural environment. We projected onto it, or into it, a great intrinsic value. We compared our own lives to those of Marcia Brady or Will Robinson. Television characters filled our discussions, our fantasies, even our dreams. Who we were friends with depended on which shows we watched. Our cultural references had more to do with what cartoons we admired than which sport we played or which church we belonged to. We treated the mediaspace as if it were a real place, and it rose to the occasion.

The datasphere itself began to behave like a living organism. Like any biological being, it sought to grow. With the help of dollars from those who still thought they were hardwiring consumer culture, the media expanded into the tremendous worldwide web we enjoy today. Networks and independents spawned satellite link-ups, cable television, telephone marketing, computer networks, video players and home shopping clubs. More extensive than our endless ribbon of rails, roadways or skyways, our media networks could reach out and touch anyone.

In an otherwise disconnected culture, the television became a surrogate parent for the latchkey child and the radio a bedtime companion for the divorcé. Porn video and 976 phone numbers became the preferred form of sexual activity for the socially disinclined or disease-fearing. Marketers recognized how engaged people were becoming with the media, and began marketing the media itself as their biggest product. The newest and best products were TVs and media tools. This is what led to the moment where the balance of power in media shifted forever.

THE NINTENDO PRESENCE The marketers themselves became pawns of the media’s own purpose. Like any living organism, the media sought to communicate with the rest of the natural world— all those people who were treating it like a companion, parent or lover. A company called Odyssey, as its name suggests, allowed media to circle back and touch its creators for the first time. Odyssey developed a game called Pong, the first video game that could be played on a home television screen. Dr. Timothy Leary, who, if classifiable in any manner, can be considered an expert on the way new technologies impact human consciousness, lauds the invention of Pong as a turning point in modern culture:

“Pong was the first kids’ game that you could move things on a screen yourself. The Pong paddle is almost like a cursor, so, of course, the PC [personal computer] came along after that. The importance of the Nintendo phenomenon is about equal to that of the Guttenberg printing press. Here you had a new generation of kids who grew up knowing that they could change what’s on the screen. Upstairs, Mom and Dad are in the living room— they’re baby boomers passively watching the news or prime time the way they passively watched Disney back when they were kids. And down in the kids room, the kids are changing the screen. ‘What are they doing?’ ‘They’re doing that damn Nintendo! They should be up here watching educational television’ Well there’s no such thing as educational television. That’s the ultimate oxymoron. The ability to change what’s on the screen is the tremendous empowerment.”

It was in catering to the kids’ market that the engineers of consumer culture inadvertently empowered the masses they were attempting to manipulate. The marketers sought only to sell products, and adopted the philosophy of “I give the kids what they want.” By creating a kids’ market, they created a kids’ culture, with its own needs and demands. They created what we now call “Generation X.”

This group of kids born since 1960 have taken their name from a Douglas Coupland novel about kids whose lives did not quite live up to the promises of the Brady Bunch or even the Partridge Family. While they’ve been called many things—stupid, apathetic, shallow, greedy, angry—their most important quality for our discussion is a sense of irony and irreverence. As we have seen, the irony was developed through an emotional distance from the subjects of media. The irreverence for the sanctity of popular cultural ideology came from this generation’s ability to change what was on the screen. They don’t just receive and digest media. They manipulate it. They play with it.

If the Nintendo experience can be condemned as masturbatory, it can also be credited as training and exercise for the real interactivity that will make itself available later on. Nintendo teaches kids how to use their equipment. Computers and video allow them to interact, via the media, with other living human beings.

The other chief critique of Generation X is that they are not creative. Their conversations—in real life and on the computer networks—as well as their own TV shows usually focus on media itself. Rather than coming up with original scenarios or new material, they may instead consider and reconsider the ethical choices made in an episode of The Jetsons or Pee Wee’s Playhouse, as if it is advanced cultural theory. What characterizes the GenX aesthetic and its conceptual preoccupation is a regeneration of imagery already in the media. Taking their cue from postmodern artists like Andy Warhol, GenXers examine and re-examine the images from the media which formed their own world views, and do so with humor. “I wanted to screw Penelope Pitstop,” one computer bulletin board conversation starts, referring to a GenXer’s childhood attraction to a cartoon character.

THE SIMPSON WORLDVIEW The news, comedy and drama produced by GenXer’s, ranging from subversive underground documentaries to mainstream shows like The Simpsons, all share a delight in deconstructing and re-examining media. The documentaries expose the thin logic and obsequious pandering of network newspeople, while cartoons like The Simpsons recreate famous moments in media history–like the “We are the World” video–enacted by the personification of media irony himself, Bart Simpson. GenX poster art uses recognizable imagery from the mainstream press and comments on it with witty slogans that expose the inner meanings or faulty logic in the original images.

Giving in to the strengths of the tools at han–like Xeroxes, Macintoshes and Sonys–which more easily cut and paste audio and visual samples than they generate original ones, GenX engages in the techniques of recycling, juxtaposing and recontextualizing existing imagery, and doing so with ironic distance. GenX has developed a new language and self-references for those who choose to identify media as a real thing, and media history as an actual social history.

This is also what allows GenXers to feedback into the datasphere the images with which they resonate the most, and thus change the overall quality of the mediaspace. The GenX participation in media makes the most sense when it is seen as the influence of chaos in a system which intended to instill order. Today, chaos means a whole lot more than random happenings. Chaos is the way that nature reasserts herself into our attempts at organization, especially when those efforts are intentionally oppressive.

The main principles of chaos, as described by today’s mathematics community, are called feedback and iteration. Feedback is the ability for something to interact with its environmental conditions. A heater’s thermostat is the simplest example of a feedback device. When the room gets too cold, the thermostat turns the heat on, changing the environment in the room. When the room gets too hot, the thermostat shuts the heat off, regulating the temperature in its environment by feeding back information through the heating system. There are also many such feedback loops in nature. When the population of rats in a field gets too high, the population of its predators, say hawks, also increases. The world gets more dangerous for the rats, fewer survive, and then the rat population decreases again. The remaining hawk overpopulation will be corrected by the decrease in available food, and soon this population will decrease back to normal levels.

The principle of iteration can also be understood in terms of feedback. When a microphone is placed too close to the speaker into which it is being amplified, it can make a loud screech. This is called feedback, because the microphone is “listening” to its own amplified sound, and then feeding back into the speaker. But in the case of the microphone, this process repeats again and again. The microphone hears its own sound, feeds it back into the speaker, hears that sound, feeds it back, and so on, thousands of times a second. This feedback reiterates so many times that it develops into a terribly loud sound.

It is easy to see how the datasphere and interactive media provide culture with a way to initiate feedback and iteration. While these media systems were put in place to reduce independent thinking and activity, they have served to give private citizens unparalleled access to the screens and speakers of their fellows. Every wire leading into a home from “central control” is also a wire leading out from a home back into central control or, better, out to the rest of the world. The most obvious channels for feedback are forums such as call-in radio or audience participation talk shows like Donahue (“How many of YOU agree with our guest?” The audience applauds its approval). But this is sanctioned feedback, almost on the order of focus groups or surveys. The unexpected feedback provided by local cable access home video, computer networks and even satellite transmission have proved much more devastating to those who wish to hold the reins of public opinion.

The freedom to iterate has been secured by Xerox and fax machines, computer bulletin boards, electronic mail lists, tape duplication and even successful self-promotion. Feeding a thought or feeling back into the media network is easy. If the idea excites others, it will probably duplicate itself and spread through the datasphere without any further effort on the part of the individual.

MEDIA VIRUS A black man is beaten by white cops in Los Angeles. The event is captured on a home camcorder and within hours the beating is replayed on the televisions of millions. Within days it’s the topic of an afternoon talk show; within weeks it’s a court case on the fictional LA Law; within months it’s a TV movie; before the end of the year it’s the basis of a new video game, a comic book and set of trading cards. Finally, what began as a thirty-second video clip emerges as the battle cry for full-scale urban rioting. This riot, in turn, is amplified on more talk shows, radio call-ins and new episodes of LA Law! A provocative image or idea — like Rodney King getting beaten or even Pee Wee Herman beating off in a porno theater — spreads like wildfire. The event attracts our attention and generates media for several seconds, minutes, or even months—but its influence on us doesn’t stop there.

Within every media sensation are ideas, issues and agendas which influence us less directly. A home video of police beating a black man, for example, initiates a series of responses in the viewer. Questions of racism, police brutality, the First Amendment, Los Angeles politics, drug abuse even the power of consumergrade electronics—to name a few—are all released by the single media image in its media context. Similarly, a media icon like Pee Wee Herman attracts attention because he is bizarre and funny, but hidden in the image and forcing us to respond are questions about homosexuality, consumerism run amok, the supposed innocence of childhood and the farce of “adulthood.”

If we are to understand the datasphere as an extension of a planetary ecosystem or even just the breeding ground for new ideas in our culture, then we must come to terms with the fact that the media events provoking real social change are more than simple Trojan Horses. They are media viruses.

This term is not being used as a metaphor. Events are not like viruses. They are viruses. Most of us are familiar with biological viruses like the ones that cause the flu, the common cold and perhaps even AIDS. Unlike bacteria or germs, viruses are not living things; they are simply protein shells containing genetic material. The attacking virus uses its protective and sticky protein casing to latch onto a healthy cell, and then inject its own genetic code, essentially genes, inside. The virus code mixes and competes for control with the cell’s own genes, and, if victorious, it permanently alters the way the cell functions and reproduces. A particularly virulent strain will transform the host cell into a factory which replicates the virus. It’s really a battle for command of the cell, fought between the cell’s own genetic programming (DNA) and the virus’ invading code. Wherever the cell’s existing codes are weak or confused, the virus will have a better chance of taking over. The protein shell is the Trojan Horse. The genetic codes are the soldiers hidden inside, battling our own biological ones spread through the body. But instead of traveling along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the networks of the mediaspace. The “protein shell” of a media virus might be an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, clothing style or even a pop hero—as long as it can catch our attention. Any one of these media virus shells will search out the receptive nooks and crannies in popular culture and stick on anywhere it is noticed. Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of—ideological code—not genes, but a conceptual equivalent we now call “memes.” Like real genetic material, these memes infiltrate the way we do business, educate ourselves, interact with each other–even the way we perceive reality.

Media viruses spread rapidly if they provoke our interest, and their success is dependent on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the host organism, popular culture. The more provocative an image or icon, like the videotaped police beating or a new rap lyric, the farther and faster it will travel through the datasphere. The success of the memes within the virus, on the other hand, depend on our legal moral and social resiliency. If our own attitudes about racism, the power of police, drug abuse and free speech are ambiguous, then the invading memes within the media virus will have little trouble infiltrating our own confused command structure.

The Woody Allen/Mia Farrow scandal was–most probably–not created as a publicity stunt. The particularly New York story broke, however, during the Democratic Convention for Bill Clinton. The Republicans, who had already been denouncing New York as an example of morally decadent “cultural elitism,” were quick to capitalize on the Allen/Farrow media virus. Introductions for Bush’s campaign speeches made reference to Woody Allen, hoping to reinterpret the memes which had already spread–child molestation, movie stars not being as they appear, New York confusion–as condemning evidence of Democratic family values.

The beast media virus’ target is not culture as a whole, but the organisms which have taken control of culture, and inhibited the natural chaotic flow of energy and information.

VIRUSES TO THE RESCUE The concept of media viruses developed naturally from the effective use and development of feedback and iteration. They are the promoters of chaos, and uniquely structured to exploit the “organic” qualities of the datasphere. As such they also fight the techniques developed by public relations firms to create a passive, manipulable population.

A media virus may be designed to fight a political party, a religion, an institution, an economy, a business or even a system of thought. Just as scientists use viruses to combat certain diseases within the human body or even to tag dangerous cells for destruction by the person’s own antibodies, media activists use viruses to combat what they see as the enemies of our culture.

Viruses combat oversimplification and distraction. “Just say no” is a public relations effort to simplify and distract us from the real issues involved in drug use. The phrase is designed to ignore the complex reality of life in the ghetto, peer pressure, the legality of certain drugs and the possible benefits of others. Similarly, the war on drugs appeals to the emotions, and couches other issues — racism, fear and class issues — in a blanket statement against an enemy we can agree on. The issue here is not whether or not drug use should be sanctioned, but rather the specific tactics used by the manufacturers of consent to dominate public opinion.

The countercultural groups involved in the drug issue create viruses which explode these simple slogans. The viruses provoke more questions, not pat answers. The smart drugs virus, for one, is a seemingly oxymoronic phrase which makes us go “huh?” We do not raise our fists in anger against a named enemy, but instead are forced to make sense, or at least try. Viruses open up issues for discussion rather than giving us an excuse to ignore our ambivalence. They make our conceptual world a more confusing, chaotic place. Anything is possible. The easy way to tell the difference between a media virus and a public relations ploy is to determine whether it makes an issue simpler and emotional, or dauntingly complex. A virus will always make the system it is attacking appear as confusing and unresolvable as it really is. The technique of oversimplification and distraction is rendered obsolete by the media virus.

Media viruses also disable the technique of marginalization. The first response of public relations to a countercultural idea is to marginalize it. If you are against the war, then you are against our troops. If you are promoting gay rights, then you are against family values or even pro-AIDS and pro-pederasty. The shell of a well constructed virus allows its memes to spread before they can be marginalized away. The shell hides the agenda. What allows media viruses to spread often appears to have little to do with the dangerous ideas within them. Even better, public relations forces often attempt to marginalize the shell of a virus before they understand its inner nature. Their attempts at marginalization only allow the virus to spread further. Ice T’s fiery “Cop Killer” lyrics, for example, became famous only because of efforts to extinguish them. The media virus defied sidelining because the “censorship of rock” issue had logs of its own.

Usually what allows a virus to multiply in our immensely self-referential mediaspace is its ability to comment on the media itself. The shell of a virus can even be considered its “media identity.” The Murphy Brown/Dan Quayle charade gained momentum because it commented on the relationship between real and fictional newsmedia. The issues within it–single parenthood, the cultural elite–were secondary reasons for the iteration of this virus. The viral shell permits the memes to spread before they have a chance to be marginalized. They take advantage of our current media’s tendency to replicate anything which mirrors its own functioning and cut off yet another public relations tactic at the knees.

SELF-SIMILARITY Viruses prevent the manufacturers of consent from exploiting “representation as reality.” Viruses couch themselves in irony, and appeal to the ironic sensibilities of their viewers. Viral shells can be understood as framing devices, and force us to distance ourselves from the issues within them. This objectification of the issues allows us to understand the symbols in our media as symbols and not reality. Again, we are made aware of the complexities beneath apparently simple representations of reality. Viruses exhibit what chaos mathematicians call “self similarity,” a new explanation for many of the forms in nature. A fern plant, for example, has roots whose structure is similar to the branches, which are similar to the veins in the leaves which are similar to the structure of the cells. The shape of the whole plant reflects the pattern of plants on the forest ground, which reflect the pattern of forest terrain on the country side, and so on. The datasphere exhibits this same self similarity, with the structure of television cable networks reflecting the structure of individual TV sets, themselves reflecting the structure of the optic networks in the people who view them.

Countercultural media generally exploits this self similarity, and works in complementary ways on many levels at once. The MTV video for Jesus Jones’ Right Here Right Now is about how our culture is experiencing a moment where it may have an opportunity to break from its historical cycles. “Right here right now,” the lyrics say “there is no place I’d rather be. Right here right now. Watching the world wake up from history.” Behind the band as they perform is a movie screen of rapidly cut news imagery: scenes like the destruction of the Berlin Wall or the fall of communism. The video is a rapidly edited series of discontinuous cuts, disrespectful of the linear, orderly rules of traditional, narrative filmmaking. It appears on MTV, which plays video after video, linked together only by disorienting, discontinuous graphics. Finally, the MTV network is only one of the many channels available now through cable television, which the viewer flips through with his remote, watching CNN images on one channel, music images on another and both pasted together here. As if to recognize their own place in this giant self-similar latticework, the performers in the band allow the news footage to be projected directly onto their bodies. Jesus Jones sings about the discontinuous nature of modern social history, at the same time as its video, the station it is broadcast on, and medium through which it is broadcast, all exhibit this same discontinuity.

MEDIA DEMOCRACY The last of the public relations ploys that viruses obliterate is the maintenance of a sidelined, spectator democracy. Participatory, feedback media prevents dissident individuals from feeling that they are alone. News shows which attempt to demonstrate that America supports a given war are undermined by alternative news coverage of protests and demonstrations. Any individual who watches network news can voice her discontent with the way a story has been presented by calling a talk radio show or posting an opinion on a computer bulletin board. The dissident opinion iterates onto every radio tuned to the same station or computer screen that accesses the same bulletin board. Fax transmission and pirate radio in cultures as repressive as pre-revolutionary Romania permitted the masses of discontents to realize they were not alone. No. They may not have been allowed to assemble in public legally, but their alternative media allowed them to network, organize, and find other people who felt equally marginalized by their leaders. Meanwhile, here in the United States, these technologies have permitted our citizenry to graduate from passive, ignorant spectators to active, informed participants.

Participation can range from simply watching TV to designing global networks. What constitutes activity in the datasphere is only limited by the number of ways a person can be exposed to or iterate viruses. As the datasphere grows, each of us come into contact with more of our viral culture. The media promotes a new kind of intimacy and no one with even a TV set can escape the flood.

For the media is like water. It conducts social electricity. Wherever it spreads, its contents are carried, too. Social theorist Irwin Thompson, who is about 50, is most famous for his book The American Replacement of Nature, in which he warns that the development of the mediaspace may be an unnatural thing. He even demonizes the people behind the expansion of the computer nets. At his Haight Street office the professor argued about whether or not we should be so optimistic about the growth of media.

“Electronic communication is totally destroying literate civilization. Your generation doesn’t read!” Eventually, however, he admitted that there are some good aspects by which we are forcefully being imploded into one another. “There’s no longer a private space. The idea of literate culture is basically a middle class notion—it’s the gentleman in his book-lined study with the privacy for reflection. That’s a very elitist notion.”

Further, the media shrinks the world, bringing the reality of remote regions into the living rooms of everyone else. Thompson agrees that there is no escape. “In our culture, we’re constantly being invaded and seeing horrors, such as those in Bosnia, right away. Between newspapers and television, there’s this whole sense of the planet as the public space. And this makes moral escape really hard.”

And far from seeking escape, Americans want more.

Phil Donahue is doing a show today on the computer interface called virtual reality. Or at least that’s what the show is supposed to be about. His guests are not computer programmers, interface designers, or even authors and researchers on cyberspace, virtual communities or future technology. No, Phil has invited the inventor of a pornography computer program to be the center of attention this afternoon. In order to spice up a potentially technical or information-based show, the producers of Donahue have fallen back on the easiest method of netting channel surfers: talking about sex.

VIRTUAL SEX Virtual reality is a tremendously promising new tool for media. Wearing apparatus such as goggles, headphones, gloves or even whole body suits, the user can experience a programmed or unfolding world in a fully sensory manner. He can walk through a three-dimensional representation of the Coliseum, swim through the cytoplasm of a red blood cell, or create, with others, an imaginary universe of sight, sound and even touch. It is no wonder that the technology has sparked imaginations and research spending. And, as with any new technology, many creative people are hard at work applying virtual reality to sex.

Just as home video became a conduit for porn, so did photographic technology, the telephone, and even the earliest written poems in the English language. Monks who spent their time transcribing Bibles and prayers also used the new technology–print recording–to send dirty riddles and rhymes to each other. Because of the real and imaginary barriers human beings have to sex, we often see new technology as a simple way of “getting off” without any painful, real-life consequences. Mediating technologies make sex anonymous, painless, emotionless, commitmentless and, of course, disease free. Though exacerbated by the AIDS crisis, this tendency to equate new media with sexual techno-promiscuity is by no means a new thing.

We have already seen how new media serves to promote intimacy. The more linked up we are, the more we know about each other, and the more everyone else knows about us. Media not only creates lines of communication between people, but also fosters the systems devices of feedback, iteration and phase-locking between members of the societal organism. A population that can communicate with itself is difficult to deceive or control. When push comes to shove, the ultimate form of intimacy for most people is sex. As soon as a new mediating technology emerges from the laboratory, somebody, somewhere is figuring out how to apply it to sexual intimacy. But while sex provokes technicians to develop new media and people to purchase the technology, it also provides ammunition for those against the new devices and their ability to empower the masses. By equating the power of new media invited with disgraceful or immoral sexual deviancy, forces against these technologies can succeed in stunting or at least suspending their development.

Metamedia activists are virologists whose chief concern is to bring people towards a greater self-awareness about the power of media, and to reawaken awareness of the ancient mediating technologies of spirituality, drugs, sex and magic. These activists are both the most modern in their thinking and the most ancient in their belief systems. They are modern “techno-pagans,” who see in this rebirth of nature through technology the best opportunity yet to reclaim their power. The memes they develop are all geared towards presenting technology as a kind of modern magic which grants access to sexual power, psychedelic vision and spiritual enlightenment.

Many metamedia activists argue that sex (and, for that matter, spirituality, drugs and healing arts) was co-opred centuries ago by people in power. Religion and morality were put into place to deprive people of their natural sexual self-expression. People have been made to believe that sex is somehow wrong or dirty, and fear that if left to their own devices, they would become libidinous maniacs. Without social controls and safeguards, we would all be raping each other. This imposed sexual tyranny, according to some activists, gave lawmakers and moral authorities absolute domination over the people. In constant need of sex, the populace could be controlled by associating sexually provocative imagery with the church, state or, today, corporate interests. Deprived of healthy sex, men will buy the beer associated with the prettiest models on television. By controlling sexual expression in the media, one can control–to some extent–the direction of cultural focus and societal desire.

In other words, if teen-age boys were allowed to or able to find sex, they would not be watching so much MTV. But in the current system, these sexually frustrated boys can be motivated to purchase products hawked by sexy girls. Their divine, sexual energy has been harnessed and transformed into consumerism. Phil Donahue is engaged in the same process, but with an interesting twist. He has chosen to highlight the sexual potential of virtual reality in order to make the subject draw in an audience. But the axis around which he chooses to organize the debate of the show serves to marginalize the technology itself. He presents VR as a fun but potentially dangerous form of pornography, and demonstrates the opening section of a sex program on a big screen for his studio audience, who “ooh” and “ahh” as they watch a computer-animated model begin to strip off her clothes.

Despite the protests of the one, true virtual-reality designer on the panel, who begs everyone to understand that the technology is not exclusively used for pornography, the audience quickly sides against VR on moral grounds. They worry, along with Phil, that once a technology like this can be hooked up to the genitals, people will plug themselves into virtual sex programs and interactive computer sex clubs, and masturbate themselves in this way for the rest of their lives. Many people even demand that the technology be outlawed, lest society come apart altogether. The only human being in the room who seems to understand what is going on is R.U. Sirius, the founding editor-in-chief of the once brilliantly provocative meme collection, Mondo 2000 magazine. Although he is only given two brief opportunities to speak, he calls attention to the fact that the same audience that was so titillated by the sex programs is now condemning them as dangerous. The point went over their heads and Phil cut to a commercial, but Sirius, a savvy media ringleader on the order of Tim Leary or Ken Kesey, had exposed what was really going on in the center ring of this media circus. The audience is not innately against the technology, but embarrassed and ashamed of its own repressed desires.

A CULTURE OF SURVEILLANCE As the gnomish prankster R.U. Sirius admitted over a cappuccino in Berkeley a few weeks after the Donahue appearance, “I believe we live in a mass mediated society–a simulacrum. It is very dense. It is really a culture of surveillance, where everybody is watching everybody else. And in the context of that kind of culture, everybody’s lives, particularly their sex lives, get examined and certain people are shunned.”

He brushes a lock of his very long hair back so it won’t fall into his frothy beverage, then smirks sheepishly, “I’m interested in creating a fool-proof media virus that R.U. Sirius is already presumed to have bad habits and has nothing to hide, I want to create a virus that I can do whatever the fuck I please. This is how to bring spontaneity into an already self-conscious culture.”

R.U.’s idea is more thought-out than it sounds. He hopes to fight the defensive response against technologies like virtual reality by giving himself and everyone else the permission to do what they please. By playing the fool to a certain extent, Sirius is free to perpetrate demonstrative media prankery. His current media effort is something he calls “Mondo Vanilli,” a play on Milli Vanilli, the rock band that was exposed to be merely lip-synching for other singers. “I like the idea of trying to create something that has no product, no performance, nothing. Just a pure meme, a pure virus. I call it Mondo Vanilli.” Like Milli Vanilli, who produced no product by themselves, Mondo Vanilli is meant as a shell. It cannot be attacked because it has no mass. It can be thought of as a rock group, a magazine, a religious group, whatever. As such, it can burrow through the media system without getting cornered or identified.” Along the way, R.U. hopes, it will enlighten observers about the the nature of the relationship of corporate interests, radical agendas and the media.

“We’ve reached a point where multinational corporations are a radical cultural force in society. Warner Brothers defends Ice-T against community values, because they have an interest in a free market environment where they can sell records. Advertisers are putting out their own magazines! Benetton does advertising too radical for even rock and roll magazines [they printed advertisements of what Queen Elizabeth would look like if she were African]. This is a very interesting reversal of roles.”

Mondo Vanilli, though still in the embryonic stage, is a conceptual virus—an experiment in media to see how far “nothing” can get. R.U. turns on the hype:

“Mondo Vanilli is a dada-esque, multinational, multimedia corporation. I’m interested in linking us immediately to corporate interests. We can even usurp the interests of advertisers by making serious and successful advertising on the behalf of corporations who never asked for it. This virus is well beyond the media democratization of Ross Perot or Jerry Brown, the call-in shows and all that. In the fabled twenty-something generation are large numbers of people who are so media sophisticated they can do advertising better than the people in advertising. The meme is an extremely sophisticated generation using image and turning around advertising and politics to its own end.”

As other metamedia activists will argue, media provides us with an opportunity to reclaim sexual and spiritual practices which have been usurped or outlawed by those in power. R.U. Sirius is probably not just hoping to create a safe, electronic playground for sexual or physical practices that cannot be carried out in the real world. By reawakening deep human countercultural urges in the apparent safety of mediated interaction, R.U.Sirius and other metamedia activists are playing with fire. Although this is the most theoretical and removed branch of media activism, its ability to alter the public imagination and its impact on the real lives of its proponents are the most dramatic.

WILD PALMS By the time Oliver Stone got hold of the virtual reality meme for his television mini-series W_ild Palms,_ VR and psychedelics were synonymous. Stone, who was most recently associated with the conspiratorial JFK, took the opportunity to extend his world view into a technologically enhanced future. In the story, by ingesting the fictional drug “mimezine” before entering a virtual computer world, the user can experience the touch, taste and feel of the computer simulation. To the senses, there is no difference between reality and the designed simulation. While it might not be remembered as brilliant, landmark moviemaking, Wild Palms did provide the VR meme with its widest possible audience, and presented it over broadcast television in the context of its most virulent sister memes.

The 2007 world of Wild Palms is controlled by a single television channel, run by a successful cult leader-turned senator, whose life ambition is to use technology to launch himself into the datasphere as a pure consciousness capable of running the world. His television empire is a cross berween the worst conspiratorial nightmares about the CIA and big business, complete with men in dark glasses and black suits roaming Los Angeles in minivans, beating up and carting off suspected dissidents as bystanders hardly notice. Though he started from a Bruce Wagner comic strip in Details magazine, Stone, who served as executive producer for the show, made sure to capitalize on the series’ ability to spawn metamedia. In the opening hour, Stone hints at metamedia by making a cameo appearance as himself being interviewed on a talk show. It seems that in 2007, newly released FBI files have proven that Stone’s version of the JFK assassination was correct, and the host asks the filmmaker if he feels vindicated.

The series hopes to provoke the audience’s own paranoia a bit, and force them to take charge of the emerging media technologies. The New York Times recognized the plea: “In imaginative, eye-popping style, a mini-series asks a good question: Who will control the media technology of the future?” In this scenario, it is a totalitarian group headed by the senator called “the Fathers,” who have developed, through media, virtual and pharmacological technologies, the ability to control people’s lives. “Those Father Knows Best days are over,” explains one monstrously evil media child, “only Fathers know best.”

UNIVERSAL INFECTION As a race, our biological link to time and inheritance resides in our own genetic code, the DNA which researchers are rapidly learning how to manipulate. While the DNA is only a code–a language of codons–it directs the physical shape of the future of humanity. Likewise, those who manipulate the codons of media by launching meme-rich viruses are challenging the traditional, linear process by which history is regulated. The way in which culture moves through time has been altered.

The cultural immune response to mimetic engineering appears to prove that media activists have tapped, if not yet mastered, the hidden but pervasive language of our viral media. Whether or not their alterations of the codons of cultural history are necessary or good is left to be seen. But rejecting the fact that the efforts of viral activists are having a tangible effect on the architecture of our ever-increasingly mediated culture is to pretend that what goes on in your City Hall is more important to your kids than what Beavis and Butthead said to each other on MTV last night.

You can ignore media viruses if you like, but it’s already too late. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already been infected.