People Shape the Media

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Debating Democracy on 1 January 1999

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…. 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.¹ 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.

1. Rushkoff uses this term to express his idea that media have turned from a means by which institutions communicate to listeners and viewers into one where information can circulate freely from many sources.

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 Good old-fashioned local gossip has been replaced by nationwide coverage of particularly resonant sex scandals.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.”²

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”³ 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.

2. Paid advertisements that allow politicians and others to bypass the press and communicate directly with the people. Infomercials are usually much longer than one minute; in 1992, Ross Perot pioneered their use during his presidential bid.

3. The means by which audience responses to television programs are gauged by rating companies like Nielsen, Inc.

The event of do-it-yourself technology make 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 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…

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….

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…. The distancing effects—intentional and unintentional—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…. Now that citizens have access to and a basic understanding of formerly exclusive technology—they cannot be fooled…. 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…. 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 that of Marcia Brady⁴…. 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.

4. The eldest daughter on the 1970s TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch.”

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….

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.”⁵

This group of kids born since 1960 have taken their name from a…. 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….

The… 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…. GenXers examine and re-examine the images from the media which formed their own world views, and do so with humor….

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….

5. Refers to Americans born between 1961 and 1972 who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s. This generation is characterized by some as cynical and apathetic.

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 freedom 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 Angeles⁶. 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.”

6. In 1991, Rodney King, an African American, was brutally beaten by Los Angeles policemen after being stopped for a traffic violation. His beating was recorded by a bystander with a home video camera and later broadcast many times on television and during the trials of the policemen accused.

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….

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…

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 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…. 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 legs of its own….

Usually what allows a virus to multiply… 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…. The viral shell … takes 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.


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….

Countercultural media generally … 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.

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.