Open Source Reality

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Disinformation: The Interviews on 1 November 2002

Douglas Rushkoff is one of the most widely read media critics to emerge from America in the past ten years. His thoughtful books, newspaper columns, magazine articles, television appearances and NPR¹⁴ commentaries are intended to demystify for the man on the street the various ways we’re all manipulated by the media, popular culture and especially by commerce. New Perspectives Quarterly called him “the heir to Marshall McLuhan” and like McLuhan Rushkoff’s briefed government agencies, CEOs and heads of state. His Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say earned him the reputation as the “go to” guy when the media needs a sharp talking head expert on matters of advertising and youth culture, and his role as correspondent for PBS’s¹⁵ highly regarded The Merchants of Cool documentary cemented this mark.

This reputation is justly deserved. For well over a decade now Rushkoff has sent first person dispatches from the frontlines of the future with his considered musings on advertising, rave culture, technology, designer drugs, cyberspace, Wall Street’s pyramid schemes and his rejuvenated interest in his roots and the meaning of Judaism in today’s society. He’s the author of the “culture jamming” classic Media Virus and Cyberia, the first book to be written about the then-emerging cyber-culture centered around San Francisco’s vibrant Mondo 2000 nexus and its vivid, Technicolor gurus like Terence McKenna, Timothy Leary and RU Sirius. He’s also written the novels Ecstasy Club and Bull (AKA Exit Strategy), his interactive, “open source” novel experiment that skewers scheming dot.commies with good-natured satire.

But aside from these activities and many, many others, Rushkoff is also one of the highest profile (and highest paid) corporate consultants in America today, especially on matters of communication technology and its often-unintended consequences for Fortune 500 companies. He’s received a lot of flack for this in the past, especially from the bitter trolls of The WELL cyber community, who’ve accused him of being a turncoat, a sell-out and worse. I think it really hurt Doug. I know it did. But it also made him dig deeper within himself and helped him hone his arguments, so ultimately it was something that he grew from and was able to personally gain from, even if it was painful. I watched the whole thing happen and I was always very proud of the way he handled himself with these people and their shortsighted criticisms, and I am proud to be his friend.

I’ve seen Doug in action several times in closed door consultations as well as speeches given at large CEO gatherings, so I’ve witnessed first hand what he tells these companies and I can tell you here, he’s not selling out the counterculture (or what’s left of it) to “The Man”!

What these corporations do get when they hire Douglas is someone who is part cheerleader for change, part patient handholding explainer, and a natural teacher, notably lacking in fatuity for someone who is so often called upon to voice his opinion. He’s one of those rare people who seem to genuinely want the world to be a better place and who actively work to pull their own weight in that group activity. In his guise as corporate consultant, Rushkoff takes his role seriously and in all earnestness. Part of it is an old-fashioned work ethic and Doug is a total mensch in that respect. He’s obviously well paid and wants these companies to be happy with his presentations so he puts a lot of thought and a lot of time into them. He’s a former theatre geek so he rehearses every speech until he gets it right and it shows. He’s a marvelous public speaker: witty, funny and (seemingly) spontaneous.

And he’s completely sincere about the advice he gives. It’s no wonder these companies keep bringing him back again and again. As he told me one day when we were discussing the controversy over his corporate gigs, “These people are asking me to help them. What kind of asshole would I have to be to say ‘No’ to that? This makes me a sell-out?”

In today’s culture, what the hell is a “sell-out” anyway? Is Steven Spielberg a sell-out because he makes multimillion dollar Hollywood films? Are Matt Parker and Trey Stone sell-outs because South Park is popular? Is Madonna a sell-out because people seem to like her music and she sells a lot of CDs? Michael Jordan because millions of people love to watch him play sports? Of course not: they’re all doing what they love.

And so is Douglas Rushkoff.

Let’s pick up the conversation there…

RM: Your early books, Media Virus and Cyberia, are books about counterculture–psychedelic drugs, raves, the emerging cyber-world–written from the perspective of a young journalist who was a part of that scene. Today you give talks to corporate conventions, the United Nations and CEOs. Is there a paradox here?

DR: There’s a seeming paradox in it, I guess, if you draw a clear line between what’s called the counterculture and what’s called corporate culture. However, if you go into almost any corporation there are tons of people working there who by night would consider themselves part of the counterculture and if you go into any rave club or bizarre event at a nightclub there will be a certain number of people who are going to work the next day in an advertising company or a major media conglomerate. So if you look at the people you’re talking to as people, then ironically they’re all the same people. This counterculture perceives itself as what could only be called enslaved by the corporations they work for, as if those corporations are conscious, or as if those corporations actually exercise some power over them. When I go to a corporation and talk to people I’m trying to talk to the actual human beings there and wake them up, if anything, to the reality of their situation and to the fact that they’re working for, you know, a dead thing.

RM: A dead thing?

DR: Corporations aren’t really alive. What corporations are is really very much like a computer program. They are a set of instructions for making money and that’s all they are.

I’m only playing both sides of the fence if you think there’s a fence and you think that’s real. What I’ve been saying from the beginning, from Cyberia to the counterculture and with Coercion to the corporate culture, is that there is no fence. If that’s true, the counterculture loses by definition. If we’re in the counterculture, are we against culture? I’m not counter culture. Are you counter culture? I’m pro culture! Let them be counter culture, I’m all for it. Those people don’t want to stop culture. Those people, at worst, are just miserable in jobs where they feel powerless to do anything, so if I go into a corporation and talk to those people about how they can have a better time with life and how they can make media that actually means something. I try to remind them of what it was like when they were 19-years old and decided to get into the communications industry.

And remind them that it was not about selling pantyhose to women, but about helping people communicate with each other. Having some real fun. I really try to empower them to make conscious changes to what they’re doing. I think almost anybody brought into consciousness ends up doing some really good things, and people who are asleep or afraid or people who think they’re at war end up, well they end up fighting. They end up with a very aggressive and hostile attitude towards people that really should be their friends.

14 The United States’ noncommercial National Public Radio network.
15 The United States’ noncommercial Public Broadcasting Service television network.

So although my work has been geared towards different audiences, I see myself as saying the same thing. When I wrote Cyberia and Media Virus all I was saying is “Hey look, we did it. The media is alive and the media is a chaotic space. New ideas, information, political movements, spiritual movements can emerge from anywhere and catch on like wild fire. The world is in our hands now.”

In Coercion, I’m saying to the big corporations, “Don’t try to force us to do things with fear and associate your product with fear or paranoia, because that won’t work.” The main thing I’ve been trying communicate, whether it’s in terms of spirituality, in terms of media, in terms of marketing and communications, or even in terms of politics and economics, is that there’s one thing going on here: people are desperately afraid to accept the fact that we are moving towards a very organismic relationship with one another: that the human being is one big thing. The problem about accepting that is if the human being is one thing, if we’re all part of the same big organism, then those people starving in Africa or India are not them, they’re us. So all of a sudden it’s not their pain, it’s our pain and we’re all responsible for what’s happening here. And I think the real obstacle to that kind of a sensibility is not that people want to control what’s happening or that people want to be bosses, but that people are really afraid of that level of intimacy.

RM: When did there stop being an us and a them?

DR: In theory, there never was an us and a them. Us and them is an illusion that’s usually perpetrated by one group of people who have an ability that another group of people don’t. You could argue that Hitler came into power because he basically had control of radio, which was a new thing, this remote, vocal presence in people’s homes. And people didn’t really understand radio or how it worked but all of a sudden this man, his voice was everywhere. Television had that effect. This was a magic box that only the BBC newscaster or Edward R. Murrow could get his face on there and no one knew how it worked. But once a kid has a Sega joystick in his hand and is actually moving pixels around on the screen, he doesn’t look at that guy on television speaking the gospel truth anymore. He just sees it as a middle aged man playing with his joystick, if you will.

I think the latest movement towards the dissolution of an us and them sensibility was a direct result of young people and so-called counterculture people understanding the tools of media better than the so-called over-culture. Young people and cyberpunks and hackers understood the Internet and new media better than GE or Rupert Murdoch or any of their people.

So all of a sudden the tools that them uses to maintain its authority as a them, were in our hands. So when there is a leveling of the playing field when the technology is such that anyone can understand the magick of their time as well as the authorities can, then there are no more priests. There are no more people who seem to have this magical authority. That’s why Prince Charles can’t be what he might have been 100 or 200 years ago. That’s why even Madonna can’t be what she might have been 50 years ago.

We’re all deconstructing and analyzing and remixing everything that’s coming out of Hollywood and Hollywood is mining our activities for stuff for their next movie. We all have access to the same computers and digital video cameras so the fact that The Blair Witch Project does better than a major motion picture by a major studio means that there is no them anymore.

RM: That’s somewhat discomforting. I like the idea of the loyal opposition. Sure we’re all in this together, but I think the Leviathan needs contrarian thinkers.

DR: It’s interesting. My subtitle for Coercion is Why We Listen to What “They” Say, with they in quotation marks. I think what’s happened is we’ve all become sort of unwilling pawns in the market economy. It’s very easy to walk into The Gap and understand that this salesgirl is using some awful technique on you; they call it GAP ACT “Greet, approach, provide add-on clothes and thank.” It’s this very carefully devised set of strategies to get you to buy more than you originally wanted to. To up sell you on more items. To get a belt or “We have new tee-shirts that go great with those jeans.” So you can blame that girl and be annoyed at that girl but it’s not really her fault, her managers probably made her watch those videotapes that teach her how to do that. So it’s the manager’s fault then. It’s not the manager’s fault because the manager is being judged by corporate headquarters and if they don’t get more sales then the manager gets fired. So you go back to corporate headquarters: it’s that marketing department’s fault. Well it’s not really their fault either, because they’re just answering to the CEO. If they don’t do a good job they’ll get fired, but then is it the CEO’s fault? Well no, he’s answering to the Board of Directors of the company and to the shareholders. Well, okay then, it’s the shareholders’ fault.

Who are the shareholders? Well the shareholders are all those people with their retirement plans who have Gap stock and that’s generally the same person who’s walking into the store who’s upset that the salesgirl was trying to up sell him with a new belt that would look so nice. So when you realize that you’re part of that coercive cycle there, you conclude that we’re each the next guy’s “they,” so the way to end this acceleration of coercive techniques and to end the coercive arms race is to stop coercing ourselves. Each of us has the opportunity to end the coercion. Rather than looking at who’s coercing you, look at whom you are coercing.

RM: What’s a media virus?

DR: A media virus is really any idea that uses the momentum of the media to spread itself. A biological virus is composed of genes: it is genetic code wrapped in a protective protein shell. It spreads successfully through the body because the body mistakes it for one of its own proteins, “Oh that’s me.” The body has proteins running all through it. The shell of the biological virus is protein and this sticky protein shell latches onto a cell of your body and then injects its code inside. Then that code, the genes formerly inside that virus, compete with the genes in your own cells for command of that cell. And if it wins it turns that cell into a factory to make more viruses , it just says, “Make me. Make me.”

As the world got more and more wired up with cable television, fax machines and the Internet, it started to take on properties of a global nervous system: biological organism. Certainly the most fun way and one of the easiest ways to spread an idea, or a strand of “thought code,” through such an organismic media space was to wrap it in a shell, like a virus, protect it and serve as a container for it to spread unrecognized through the media system. But instead of it being a protein shell, as it would be in a biological virus, you’d wrap it in a media shell. All that means is creating a shell, a form of media that people haven’t seen before. Something “sticky enough” to get people’s attention, so that it spreads throughout the system. “Hey, check this out!” The media loves media; the news loves stories about the news. The video tape of Rodney King getting beaten by white cops in Los Angeles that spread around the world overnight: it spread not because white guys were beating on a black guy, it spread because no one had captured this on a camcorder before. The original story of the Rodney King tape was “My God, look what someone captured on their camcorder.” People don’t remember it that way anymore, but it’s true.

Once it spread around and it was in all our homes, that’s when it injected us with its code or with its ideas, which are issues like police brutality, race relations and the plight of black people in urban America. So you can look at almost any of the media viruses that were spread over the last ten years, you know “Camillagate,” the Prince Charles tapes, his little dirty phone calls with his mistress. The reason that spread was, yes, partly because it was Prince Charles but the real story of it was we had captured telephone conversations of famous people, no one had really heard telephone conversations like that broadcast on television before. So a media virus really is a way of nesting our culture, nesting our media space with new ideas by creating new and virulent forms of media.

RM: But a media virus doesn’t have to take the form of A Current Affair type story; it can also be a popular cartoon like The Simpsons or South Park

DR: Right. Some of the most virulent forms, the most activist forms of media are in kids’ programs because they seem innocuous. Pee-wee Herman or The Simpsons or South Park, they’re kiddy shows so no one expects very potent ideas to be in them, but they ended up being these hotbeds for very, very controversial memes. Very controversial ideas. Pee-wee Herman’s show was really about gay camp culture. The Simpsons is media satire. The experience of watching The Simpsons is not watching to see whether Bart’s going to get in trouble or if Homer is going to keep his job; the joy of that show is looking at each scene and going, “That’s a satire of Alfred Hitchcock” or “That’s a satire of this commercial,” so the kid watching The Simpsons, or the adult for that matter, is really learning media semiotics. He’s learning how to make connections between different forms of media, so the reward you get on The Simpsons is not getting to the end of the story and finding out who wins or loses, the reward on The Simpsons is making that connection and actually learning about media. Once you have any kind of media that seems to be about media which is about media which is about media, chances are you’re dealing with a viral form of media. So on The Simpsons you might have the Simpsons trying to help Krusty the Klown keep his television show, so then what are we watching? We’re watching a television program about kids trying to affect television. And once you have that sort of screen within a screen, or that Beavis and Butthead show where you have two guys watching rock videos and commenting on them, it changes the way we look at rock videos after that.

RM: Have you launched any media viruses yourself?

DR: I guess the most important media virus I launched was the Media Virus media virus itself. To launch the idea that ideas spread like viruses. That’s what got the people who run media and those corporate conglomerates a little bit scared because they were thinking, “We’re going to get infected with these media viruses,” you know, “What is this?” So it had kind of a scary ring to it, taking those two words and putting them together.

RM: So then they invited you into their corporate boardrooms…

DR: It was weird. I didn’t know whether companies were calling me in so that they could more easily dismiss what I was talking about or because they were actually afraid of what might be going on. At the very beginning, a European corporation would call me in and say, “What is this Internet? Do we need to be concerned?” An airline flew me to Europe and it was this big money thing so I’m like, “Wow, what does this airline want with me and the Internet?” They had me sign all these nondisclosures and stuff. They were all afraid, and they finally revealed the thing they were upset about was their pilots were about to go on strike and they had threatened to go online and start announcing in Usenet groups, this was before the Web even existed, they were going to announce in Usenet groups all the stories of the near misses that they had experienced over the last five years. And the company was asking, “How do we stop this from happening?” And I said “Well, you can’t stop this from happening.”

They didn’t ask me the smart question which was “What can we do to counteract that?” and I wasn’t about to volunteer it. What they could have done to counteract that was put up their own near miss stories that weren’t true and then go on the news and pull them up and say, “Look this isn’t true.” Disinformation. Say “This didn’t happen,” and then in terms of the mainstream media it would negate everything, even the true stories posted by the real pilots.

So at first I was associated with this sort of Mondo 2000, rave culture, psychedelic, sub-cultural Internet thing, and it was companies wanting to know do we need to be worried about this? And, if so, what are we supposed to do about it? And I had a lot of fun. I was really, at that point, still psychedelic enough to feel like I was goofing, you know I’m just going to go in and goof on these people; imagine what Ken Kesey would have done in his Merry Prankster days.

Then I realized that really, honestly, I like people, even scared people, so my ambition really changed from tweaking people to trying to reduce people’s level of fear. Just letting this thing happen. This Internet counterculture. This is a beautiful thing; it’s going to unite people. It’s going to let people talk to each other. And I really saw my next two or three books, too, were about reducing people’s level of fear of change. The human species is undergoing radical change. The Internet is almost a test run for this change. I don’t think the Internet, in this sense, is such a major deal at all. The Internet is a way to practice what it is that we’re going to have to do for real, which is deal with privacy when we can all read each other’s thoughts, deal with a global community when we’re all realizing that we’re part of the same thing. The Internet is like a good, dry, safe way for scared white people to experience community again, after we’ve been so isolated through television. At the beginning when I went to corporations I wanted to have fun, I just was amazed that these people would even want to talk to me or that I could go to TCI¹⁶ or Pepsi-Cola and–I mean me–and I’d go in my tee-shirt and my jeans and walk in and be like, “What do you want to know?” I would literally say, “You know you could read my book. $19 and you can get way more than I could possibly give you in an hour of consultation.“

But they don’t want to read. They don’t know what reading is, or they could get an assistant to read it and give them a book report, but no, they want me in there to actually talk, because I guess there was this tradition of this idea of consultants.

One time early on, I was invited to an advertising conference and when I got there and saw posters up saying, “How to Use Viruses in Marketing” and “The New Media Viral Strategy” and I realized that they had really taken what I saw as a counterculture tool, an activist tool, and turned it into a marketing tool. So a guy like Calvin Klein can make commercials where they look a little bit like kiddy porn and they know perfectly well those are going to get pulled off the air but they’re going to get more media coverage for having done those commercials than they could possibly buy with even the biggest advertising budget in the world.

So they were actually very consciously using the kinds of techniques that I laid out for activist culture, but using them instead to spread marketing campaigns. So I was actually horrified at first and it was a dilemma. People thought, “Oh Rushkoff, all you did was give the advertisers all these hacktivist tools,” and I really started to think, “What side am I effectively on, anyway? Am I an unwitting double agent? Am I helping them?”

RM: Knowing you the way that I do I would argue that you are probably more like a Trojan horse smuggling subversive ideas into corporate boardrooms. When these corporations hire a consultant, they only expect that the consultant is going to tell them what they want to know. They don’t know exactly what it is they want, they just know that they expect you to tell them.

DR: Sure. Once I relaxed, I started realizing I could play with these people. I would get my check before I’d talk to them and then I could pretty much say whatever I wanted. So I went to the Leo Burnett advertising agency and they had me speak to 500 people in Chicago and I started the talk by saying, “The object of this talk for me is to get as many of you to quit the advertising industry as I can.” And I proceeded to explain how advertising was so coercive and why it wasn’t a good place for anyone who’s really interested in media and how they’re really sort of serfs to these corporations and I got like eight or ten emails after that talk saying, “I quit, I quit, I’m going to do something fun now.” I got off on that for a while, that they had let me in and now I can sow the seeds of discontent in their companies. But then what I started to realize was rather than getting them to quit, what if I got them to change the style of what they’re doing? So then what I started to say was “Look, corporations don’t understand anything. If you’re dealing with Proctor and Gamble or a cigarette company, they just want to sell their stuff. They don’t understand marketing and they don’t understand media. They don’t understand the way ideas spread, so what if you think of these companies as sponsoring your media? You can make these little 30-second spots about whatever you want. You can make them about sex. You can make them about drugs. You can make them about media. You can make them about politics. Just make them exciting. Companies will love that: ‘Oh, it’s exciting and controversial, people are talking about it.’ Think of commercials as little miniature sponsored 30-second activist movies.” And then you see the eyes light up and you see these people thinking, “I bet I can get Chevrolet to do something about that,” or whatever. So rather than thinking “Oh just quit, just leave this thing,” I was starting to think “Well these people are in a position of power. These people are at a high leverage point and if they can start using massive corporate money to create interesting media, you know, then power to them.”

16 TeleCommunications, Inc., now AT&T Broadband.

RM: Well, obviously, I feel very strongly that if the large corporations will give, you should grab.

DR: Well right, you did, but the thing that most people don’t realize is that in large corporations, there’s nobody home. There’s nobody there. There’s nobody in charge. All a large corporation is is a set of commands. It’s like a very simple computer program and if you look at what that program is, you can hack it to do whatever you damn well please because there’s nobody in charge. Nobody understands. I mean that’s the beauty of it. Everyone’s upset about these giant media conglomerates, you know, with Viacom buying MTV and buying Paramount or AOL buying Time Warner. The bigger these machines get, the smaller their little brains are in comparison with the whole thing. It’s a giant media company that allows something like Beavis and Butthead or gangster rap to happen. And so I really take delight in how stupid corporations are.

Ultimately there are these two things going on in the universe: there’s entropy and there’s life. Entropy is trying to make everything dead and life is trying to make everything more complex and more interesting. And they’ve been kind of in this seeming battle, in this dance, over time. But life gets more complex, and life gets smarter over time, so life ends up winning. So you look at corporations and you look at all the means and all the things they have and yes, they seem to have power, but they don’t get smarter over time. If we think of ourselves, not even as activists, but as the only living, breathing, thinking elements in this mess, then we’re tremendously empowered to do whatever we want with it.

RM: These corporations see the profits from South Park, from Marilyn Manson records, from The Matrix, and they realize that they cannot make this kind of thing themselves and that they need to go to underground types in order to keep this cultural engine churning, so there is a real potential for mischief here.

DR: Right, so as they keep looking for coal to stoke into the fire, all you have to do is toss a few good diamonds in there and they’ve ended up throwing the most virulent cultural material into mainstream media and that’s where you start having the fun. They’re desperate for anything. Anything that twinkles. They don’t realize that when they produce The Matrix movies, what they’re doing is producing stuff that’s saying, “This reality is a sham.” If all a corporation wants to do is make money and make compelling media and make things that people want to go to and spend money on, then they’re going to end up having to make, even by their shotgun approach, they’re going to have to make media that addresses our current cultural concerns.

And what our current cultural concerns are, are things like “What is going on here? We’ve all been hypnotized.” People desperately want to wake up, and South Park and The Matrix and Marilyn Manson, they wake people up to varying degrees. So the corporations, by supporting these kinds of media, end up sowing the seeds of their own demise.

RM: These days Che Guevara might as well be Captain Crunch or Ronald McDonald. That well known iconic portrait of him has now come to symbolize “rebellion” in advertising in some vague way for kids who probably have no idea who the guy was or who may mistake him for a member of Rage Against the Machine or a famous skateboarder. Tell me how that happened.

DR: Corporate America is embracing counterculture because they’ve found that a new way to sell us more stuff is to endorse the strident individualism of the early counterculture, and I think that the strident individualism that all this consumption promises is actually a booby prize. They want us to think of ourselves as individuals so that we buy more things; so that we don’t share our toys with one another.

The better idea is to find out what do we have in common? The idea is to find out: how do I get closer to these other people? How do I transact with them on a level that’s deeper than just me buying jeans from you, you know? When do we get down to the nitty gritty of actually being involved with each other?

The amazing thing about corporate America and the relationship with the counterculture is that things that used to represent a person’s distance from corporations now almost represent their attachment to it. In the old days you used to be able to have a couple of tattoos and a piercing and that meant you’re not part of the society; you’re different; you’re dangerous. The people working in the corporations have them now and it’s a style statement to have a tattoo under your Prada tee-shirt or a piercing with your Donna Karan sports coat.

This desperate need of counterculture-type people to say, “No, we’re not part of this thing,” well the only way they can do it is by going into cults, basically, Heaven’s Gate or Waco or something like that. They’re the closest things to a counterculture we’ve got today because they’re the ones who are, by whatever means necessary, maintaining their separateness.

RM: I agree. I think there’s a good argument that cults and alternative religions are the only valid counterculture in America today.

DR: Right and they’re the valid counterculture because they’ve found ways to insulate themselves and to isolate themselves. They formed pods that are distinct from the rest of culture and part of the premise is that it’s an us versus them world we’re living in. They don’t ever get absorbed, but they usually die or suffer for their resistance. And their methods of separation are usually pretty damaging to their members’ ability to exercise any true autonomy.

But remember that anything that the more vaguely defined counterculture does that catches on with kids is immediately scooped up by corporations and sold back to us. In some sense, I think that rather than trying to avoid that co-option, what we have to do is play with that co-option. If corporations are going to co-opt everything we do, then let’s have them co-opt some really cool, dangerous, weird stuff. Let’s have them co-opt homosexuality. Let’s have them co-opt psychedelic drugs and designer reality. Magick. Spirituality. Let’s have them co-opt environmentalism. Let’s use our imaginations instead of complaining about people who sell out! Don’t sell out, sell in.

RM: It’s a bigger game than all that, I agree. With the amount of media that is being hurled at the average American today and this so called “reality” TV programming, are we becoming an over-mediated spectator society, and is there anything even resembling “reality”–as it used to be defined–left in American life?

DR: Well there’s certainly reality left, but I’ve always looked at media as something I call social currency, in other words: people don’t buy records in order to have the record, just in order to have that music; people buy records in order to have an excuse for someone else to come over to their house and visit them. People watch a movie so that they can talk to their friends who have also seen that same movie. It’s not the experience of the media itself as much as the way that that media can act as social currency for other interactions. Where it gets dangerous is when we’re just consuming media and have no time to actually relate about it.

I look at something like people file-sharing MP3s and I think it’s not really a good thing. The reason why everyone trades all these little MP3s is because the recording industry basically fucked us over when they went from regular LPs to CDs and charged 14 bucks a pop when it was actually cheaper for them to make. A revolt like what people are doing was bound to happen, but in some sense having all the music out there and all the music free, everything you want, is much less interesting than going to the record store and picking out a record. In a way it takes the joy out of it and it reduces music’s value as social currency because now it’s no longer like when we were kids, “Danny has the new Sex Pistols album, we’re all going to go over his house and listen to it;” now it’s emailed back and forth and then what are you going to do? You listen to it while you work or you listen to it while you go on Amazon and buy something else.

I’ve always thought that the purpose of the media properties we create were excuses for people to have something to exchange socially. I also originally thought that the Internet was going to be this place where everyone expressed who they really are, and thought everyone’s going to make their own media and all that, but frankly most people don’t feel like making their own media. Most people are not artists. Most people are not media creators and they would rather actually create a fan site to Britney Spears where they collect all of the social currency that has to do with Britney Spears and assemble it all in one place and then they get popular and they feel good because they are purveyors of that stuff. If you look at a lot of so-called musicians today, they’re really deejays and what are deejays but surrogate consumers, people who know what are the good sounds, what are the good tracks, and they play their record collection for us. So those records become social currency for that deejay to become popular in his crowd. That’s the function that media often plays, but it’s being devalued.

RM: It feels like we’re being screamed at by idiots to me.

DR: You keep saying, “This horrible media is being shoved down our throats. Every time I turn on the TV I see this horrible thing.” Well if every time you turn on the TV you see this horrible thing then stop turning on the TV. It’s like my Tai Chi teacher used to teach us. I’d say, “When I move my knee like this it really hurts,” and she would say, “Well then don’t move your knee that way.” If the stuff on TV is crap then stop watching it.

RM: Yeah, “This smells like shit. Smell this.”

DR: (Laughs) Exactly, exactly, and look somewhere else for it because somewhere there are people who are doing something that’s interesting and if the stuff being directed at 14-year old girls is not interesting to you, then look for something else.

RM: You were very close friends with Timothy Leary and he’s now dead. Terrence McKenna’s dead. William Burroughs is dead. Allen Ginsberg is dead. Do you feel in any way that you are continuing on in that sort of counterculture lineage?

DR: Well, yes, in the sense that the torch was passed, you know, and that Leary, who was the closest to me of all those people, he read my books and said “Wow, Doug, you really are continuing this thing.” In a sense that felt great and then in a sense it was just a great big ego trap. The place I feel that the most is when I’ll talk at something like at your event, like at the Disinfo.con, to a thousand people, most of whom are ten or 15 years younger than me, and I realize that even though I don’t necessarily know anything more than them and even though I don’t have any more answers than they do, they are looking up at me as someone to tell them where do we go and what do we do? I think it would be flip and foolish of me to deny some sense of responsibility in that and just say, “Oh, follow your hearts and follow your bliss.” At a certain point there is some responsibility that comes with the territory. When I’m trying to tell people to trust themselves, to trust their impulses and trying to wake people up to use their time on Earth wisely, the fact that I may have ten or 15 years more experience in this and that I’ve been gifted with the opportunity of getting to have the most outrageous experiences I could have, or of getting to sit and think about the most intense things and then share my conclusions with people, means something. I am paid to journey to places that most people don’t go and to report my findings and to help cast some light on these areas. That’s what any artist does to a certain extent, but as someone who’s frequently in the media and standing at podiums and talking to people, yes, I do take it seriously and it’s no longer enough for me to do what I used to do which is just say, “Hey all that stuff is crap. Don’t listen to this, don’t listen to that.”

I think it is incumbent upon me, and others in my position, to ask, “Well then, what do we do?” I’m no prophet. I’m no Leary. I’m no Terence McKenna. I don’t see the future and I can’t tell people where it’s going and what they should do, but I can give my most considered and responsible responses to their questions. I can use the fact that I have the time to consider it, the means to consider it, and I’ve been so privileged to get educated enough to have some of the tools I need to think about these things and I’m sure as hell going to give the best answer I can.