Rushkoff Plays the Future

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in San Francisco Chronicle on 27 June 1996

By Fenton Bailey

READING DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF’S MEDIA VIRUS! ROCKED MY WORLD. Published in the middle of O.J. mania, it argued that our media world is a living, breathing Gaian entity within which stories are viruses with lives of their own. Instead of damning television and the media, it sang their praises with an optimism beyond even that of McLuhan and Toffler. I then went back to his first book on media culture, Cyberia, which showcased a collection of psychedelic computer ravers, people who seemed to suggest that we could choose our experience, design our own reality. For Rushkoff, this was the seed of his central idea that we are evolving as a species into something else, an idea that comes to fruition in his sixth and most dazzling book, Playing the Future (Harper Collins), subtitled “How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos.”

Fenton Bailey: In earlier drafts, Playing the Future was called Screenagers and subtitled “How Our Children Will Avert Apocalypse.” In the twilight of the 20th century, the millennium is beginning to have a gravitational pull on our consciousness. There are a growing number of doomsday cults, alien abductions, the threat of a slate-wiping plague and a slew of world’s-end prophecies. Apocalypse looms!

Douglas Rushkoff: That’s why I began my book with “Looks like this is the end” – just to get it over with right away. The only way out of the fundamentalist Christian nightmare scenario of apocalypse is to believe in evolution and that we are changing states. “Novelty is the new status quo.” And if you don’t believe we can evolve beyond our problems, sure it’s over.

FB: But whether or not there actually is one, apocalypse is an abiding idea.

DR: That’s because for each of us, individually, it is a reality. Each of us dies. But if we are all just members of some group organism, then the real question becomes “Does this whole thing end?” I say no, because I believe in evolution. Life wins because it can adapt. My way to explore that is by observing the culture of children, because they are the new growth. If you want to see the health of a tree or forest, you look for the new growth.

FB: There’s this whole idea in our society that kids are vulnerable, inexperienced, dependent, useless. But then kids are the ones who know how to program the VCR.

DR: Today’s kids are natives in areas like new media, where adults are just immigrants. We must look to them for cues about how to act, how to think and what to say. The whole trick to not just surviving but thriving in a chaotic age is learning to recognize patterns. Seeing patterns allows us to [adapt] to the new terrain, and it’s what kids get by channel surfing, watching rock videos and playing with computers.

FB: You talk about the evolution of the global organism. One of the things that I have begun to notice is that while we are hardwired by the mediasphere’s network of televisions, telephones, modems and computers, these are merely the external engineering manifestations of an interconnectedness that already exists. We are already connected and wired together metaphysically as a tribe.

DR: I don’t use the word “tribal” because it’s too retro, counter-evolutionary. I’ve been calling it “global organism” or “new community.” We used to live as tribes of interdependent hunter-gatherers in caves ‘round the campfire. That was our hive state – a cooperative single-organism entity. But we weren’t conscious of our individuality, too. Then we gradually reached specialization, single consciousness and ego. The next step is to come back together, maintaining both individual and group consciousness.

FB: What will the group being be like?

DR: I could never predict, but it’s going to be much more radical, yet much more subtle than we imagine. We are moving into a unique period, a “meta” age where we pull back and see ourselves as the artist painting at the easel, and see him as part of yet another painting. What I love about the group organism is that it is so camp. I talk about camp a lot at the end of the book. Camp is totally self-conscious distance. Camp is vogueing something, framing it. Something like RuPaul!

FB: You dedicated Media Virus! to your parents for letting you watch as much television as you wanted. You are pro-television in a culture that demonizes it and holds it responsible for all of society’s ills. I have come to believe that TV does have a tremendous impact on us, but not in the ways we fear it does. Television does not make us more violent. It may reduce our attention span, but as you say, “Short attention span equals broad attention range.” So what are the secrets of the magic box?

DR: Television is our psychic meeting space. Because the media is our culture’s collective dream space, I’m always arguing for as much violence, sex and perversion in the media as we want. If you go to a shrink, he is not going to tell you to stop having certain kinds of dreams. He’s going to try and help you use your dreams to figure out where you are. If you suppress the dreams of an individual, he will go into psychosis. If we suppress the dreams of our culture, people will start believing that they are being abducted by aliens or move into cults.

FB: I love the title Screenagers because it seems to me that the glass screen mediates so much of our experience, whether we are watching television, in front of our computer screens, staring out the window, peering through our car windshields, wearing shades or looking in the mirror. We are all screenagers, and glass frames and filters our experience.

DR: The essence of “tele-vision” is remote viewing – seeing things from a distance. In the end, the power of television is the process of television itself. Star Trek, Beavis and Butt-head and Mystery Science Theater 3000 are the most evolved forms of TV because they are about just this. Captain Kirk sits on a bridge watching television, and we watch television over his shoulder. MST 3000 is about a guy using technology – talking robots – to create a sense of camaraderie while he’s actually alone in a spaceship watching bad television – just as the child at home alone is using his TV to get a sense of camaraderie. He also knows on a social level that there are other kids in their rooms doing the same thing.

FB: It used to be one nation under God, now it’s one planet under television!

DR: I know it looks like I see media and TV as some kind of deity, but I see them more as remedial help for a civilization that has lost the ability to see itself, love itself and communicate with itself. We attach all these wires and mirrors to convince ourselves of abilities that we already have. I think I could look through your eyes or someone else’s eyes if we had those parts of our brains activated. We wouldn’t need cameras. One of the problems is we have no sense of community, no real compassion to enact this sight.

FB: Doesn’t television provide that sense of community?

DR: Sure you have your nongeographical surrogate community of Babylon 5 viewers, X-Files fans and massive, unifying media events like O.J., but we haven’t grown beyond the body yet, and while the mind can relate to an infinite number of other resonating minds, the body needs to relate to some other number of bodies in its proximity. That’s why suburbia is so dysfunctional. People, just like the television series, are “lost in space,” lost in a nightmare of loneliness.

FB: Television talk shows are breaking down that isolation. These shows are often attacked as voyeuristic, but voyeurism is a very healthy thing — it’s just another word for curiosity.

DR: People are good. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. What have I done to be ashamed of? And the loss of privacy is great when my neighbor finds out that I masturbate. He does, too. If we’re going to do this global community thing I’m talking about, there’s gonna be a hell of a loss of privacy. They scare us with that, but that’s one of the best parts about it.

FB: The idea in the book that will be the hardest for people to accept – especially critics – is your fundamental populism. Unlike most other cultural critics and social commentators, you believe that people are good, equally intelligent, sensitive and able to comprehend what you have written.

DR: I believe that my readers are as smart as I am and have all had, in one form or another, all the ideas in the book, which exists more as a kind of tuning fork. My book is written in defiance of the nonevolved notion that a few educated, compassionate people need to make the decisions for the rest of us and shepherd us through these chaotic times. The challenge is to realize that we are all capable of handling the tremendous empowerment that technology gives us. ★