Team Human

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Space Cadet on 1 July 2019


REAGAN: I discovered you in my senior year of high school in 2002. My final senior paper for my Ethics of Science and Technology class posed the question, “Is cyberspace a pre-existing physical space we’ve tapped into through the use of computers much like we’ve tapped into observable space with the use of telescopes?” Your book “Cyberia: Life In The Trenches of Hyperspace” was one of the books I stumbled upon during my countless hours of research. Since then you’ve written other books like “Life, Inc.,” where you traced the historical evolution of the corporation from the middle ages to present time, and most recently, you’ve just published your new book “Team Human,” which addresses a number of topics pertaining to the anti-human agenda that’s found its way into modern technology and society.

I grew up a techno-junkie. My first experience online was in the fifth grade in 1995, and I was immediately introduced to software piracy and hacking–I used to design art and macros for AOL hacker groups. So I’d like to ask, now that we have awareness concerning the pitfalls of social media, news media, our government, and an out of control, unsustainable consumer driven, overly competitive winner-takes-all society, do you have any ideas how to address these things? Being that technology has become so ingrained into the fabric of our lives, how do we imagine something outside of that?

DOUGLAS: You may even want to flip that. Technology’s gotten very good at making the imaginary appear more substantive than the real. The easy part of the answer to your question is we don’t have to imagine something outside the technical. Reality itself is outside that. Touching another person or looking into their eyes or breathing the air or experiencing a child–any of those things will reconnect you to the real pretty damned fast. Pain also connects you to the real. No matter how online you are and someone cuts off your toe–you feel it right away. Just get food poisoning, and all of a sudden reality is back.

I do see the value when you use a word like imagination. There’s value in painting pictures or visualizing reality for people in such a way that they’re not afraid to experience it. Now, they watch TV or go online, and reality seems like fascism and Trump and poison water and all these things.

Part of the original function of the news media was to scare people about what was going on outside their homes so that they stayed inside watching TV–and we knew this before the internet. If you put on any local news show it was always, “three black youths attack middle-class white person,” and it was again and again and again and again–and in part that was to get people to watch the news. If they think there’s some kind of danger, they’re going to be more willing to tune in.

R: It’s a drama now. It’s entertainment. You’re taken in by the emotions the story invokes and suddenly engaged in the process of watching a show unfold with emotionally weighted story arcs.

D: Right. The net effect is to make you more afraid of real life, and that’s why we’ve got some of these people today who would rather be doing porn than dating, or watching a movie than experiencing reality. The problem with that is that reality becomes such a foreign place for people. I always think about that when I see people walking around using their smartphone to get guidance–where to go, what to do… It reminds me of Spock from Star Trek with his tricorder. The tricorder was a really cool thing, and we all wanted one, but it was to explore alien worlds–not to use at home. That’s the weird part.

R: I’m such a futurist sci-fi techno junkie because of how closely I’ve grown up with technology in my life and in my imagination. The rise of Facebook excited me at one point because it was like a giant chat room and all my friends are in one place at one time and we could have conversations at any time of the day about anything even when we’re not together, or getting to meet new people and forge new friendships around the world. But in all this, I somehow managed to lose out on the participatory experience of co-creating life in the real world, and over time lost my skills to connect with people outside of the chat window. As you put it–humanity is a team sport. The more people are less engaged in creating their own realities around them and having fun together collaborating the human experience, the more the reality we’re experiencing is controlled by a group of people that might not have the best interests of the whole in mind…

D: The funny thing is, when we were first playing with the internet, we thought that the whole promise of it was collaborative reality creation. That media environment of television was really closed up–whoever made television was creating our reality. With the internet, we could now program it ourselves or make our own world and create our own characters and do whatever we want.” Whether online or off, fantasy role-playing was the model for these new narrative experiences. Now it’s become about single user experiences and feeding susceptible people extreme YouTube programming. The people making the content are just imitating the influencers whose money they want, and most people aren’t making anything at all–so it kind of went the other way. I guess the real world is an easier place for people to model their consensus building. That’s why whether it’s Burning Man, or Occupy, or any of these 21st-century style gatherings work–they are bottom-up creativity through expression.

R: So I am curious for our readers–are you a raver? Are you into dance music?

D: I was sort of part of the first wave of rave–rave was such a long time ago. I got involved in rave in like 1989, 1990. It was in London before it came to the US. My first novel is called “Ecstasy Club,” and it’s about the original underground rave culture in San Francisco–but the positives and the negatives. My book Cyberia is mostly about Toon Town and Big Hearts City and the original raves before we had clubs or anything like that.

It was really formative. I was from sort of the second or third wave of psychedelic culture. The first time psychedelic culture hit, I was too young. Then the Reagan thing happened, and there were no drugs. Or maybe there were, but nobody knew about them… By the time I was in college, Brian Eno, and David Byrne, David Lynch were making waves, and then psychedelics made a comeback–but a really narrow comeback. I went to Princeton, and there were only about 12 of us that were psychedelic people at that school. Then my best friends from the psychedelic subculture in college ended up moving out to Silicon Valley and becoming some of the first software developers. That was really weird for me because these friends of mine were Deadheads–they weren’t really computer people. And then I went to visit Silicon Valley.

Programmers tell you stories about how they’re working at Intel during the day and scraping the flowers off peyote at night and having DMT circles and all that kind of stuff. Then around ‘91 or ‘92, some of the British ravers came over and taught San Francisco how to rave. It was like a techno version of a Grateful Dead parking lot. Finally, there was this medium through which people could synchronize, and it felt like this update of the Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests where everyone would drop acid and listen to the Grateful Dead play music in small bars or lofts, and they’d show oil immersion projections on the walls.

Rave said, “let’s do that, but we’re going to do it more scientifically and with digital technology.” And then there was always this moment–I dunno if you get it with EDM now. Back then you’d get there at 10 or 11 at night, and there’d be gay kids and straight kids and white kids and black kids, and you’d take the right drugs and dance, and by–hit or miss–three or four in the morning, there’d be this moment where the group organism would manifest–and when it worked, it was 500 people all part of this coral reef organism thing.

R: It’s a very transcendent experience in a way.

D: Transcendent and transient. You’d go to work the next morning, and it’d be tough to hold on to that.

R: Coming back from Burning Man is a bit like that. You’ve been engaged in this whole other world for a week–sometimes longer–and reconfiguring back into the world outside of the Burn always takes a second. Have you been to Burning Man before?

D: Yea–but back before what it’s turned into. Part of Burning Man is no money, and everyone is creating the experience at that moment. I think what happened to Burning Man is what happened to TED. The original rules of TED were that you did not know if you were going to be on stage or not, and being on stage meant you had to share whatever was the top of your mind for 11 minutes. You couldn’t prepare–no notes, no powerpoint–nothing. You get up there, and you just do it. The whole point from the beginning was that we’re moving into the digital age where so much is written down and archived and prepared, so let’s create some experiences that are truly living and spontaneous. Now it’s become something else.

R: I just started going to Burning Man about three years ago, and this year will be my fourth. I have to say, it’s helped me change my life in some significant ways, forcing me to become a better person to myself, and in turn, others. I do see a lot of participation out there still. There’s definitely been some culture change in the past few years as it’s become more popular and more people want to have this experience. I think at the core, Burning Man is still what it’s been about since the beginning–a super transformative experience that encourages people to take a break from their regular routines and patterns to see a different way of operating in life, and hopefully, in doing so, bring it back with you into normal life.

D: I guess when I see Peter Thiel [venture capitalist/co-founder PayPal] or Eric Schmidt [Executive Chairman Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company], and these people consider themselves full-on Burners, yet maintain such an extractive, exploitive, violent and controlling mindset, it makes me wonder. But it’s the same thought I had when I was in my 20s and had LSD experiences. I thought anyone who took acid was just going to be godly, and then I saw this documentary about the AC/DC parking lot, and it’s got all these kids eating acid and breaking beer bottles on their heads and I’m thinking, “gosh, did they take the same drugs that I did?” Different people have different experiences with these things.

R: It’s wild–my youngest cousin started experimenting with LSD with some friends of his when he was 17 or 18. He was running around with these high-society kids from elite politically connected families in Austin, Texas. I don’t know if you remember the guy Dick Cheney shot in the face on the hunting accident, but his grandkid was one of my cousin’s best friends. Now, these kids would drop acid, go hunting in the woods with AK-47s, shoot up small animals, scare the shit out of their friends who were first-time trippers, and I’m hearing them brag about this like it’s nothing. I’m thinking, “who the fuck are these kids? How are you having this kind of experience where killing something on psychedelics seems like a cool thing to do?” My younger cousin is no longer alive. Having suffered severe depression, he took his life when he was 19. I can’t imagine living a life where you’ve imprinted this kind of crazy morbid experience into your psyche on such a deep level.

D: That goes back to your original question–we humans developed the internet thinking that peoples’ experience of the net would be this marvelous social realization. We thought that people who went online would start believing in the Gaia hypothesis–understanding that human beings were neurons in this great global brain, or we were the consciousness of this great single organism–and that once people experienced that on the net, things would be forever changed.

But from 1995 on people were going online who were not getting turned on, but asking, “How do I exploit people? How do I make money?” So it’s just nuts. It’s the assumption that peoples’ values are the same as our own. Yes, different media and technologies have different environments, but the mindset and setting that you bring to them are going to determine the experience that you have. That’s what “Team Human” is all about, really, is saying that the particular setting that we use for the internet has become the same setting as extractive corporate capitalism, so we in the west are having this massive bad trip.

R: Totally. That’s a great way of putting it. So then, in your mind, how do you see us getting out of this bad trip?

D: Well, for those who are aware of it, remember that the only good trip is a bad trip. The bad trip is us recognizing how the underlying logic and ethos that we’ve embedded into this landscape is really awful and anti-human and enslaving. It’s not just that the net is that way, it’s that all western civilization has been that way–and for a Iong time. We’re standing on the sacred ground of people that we destroyed. We still have the grandchildren of slaves living in underprivileged and exploited ways–and they’re still oppressed. So when we thought the net was going to let us escape all this, it’s actually reified it. This karma–it doesn’t go away.

Now it’s the realization of the opportunity that we have a chance actually to fix this. We’re reminded that we can’t just go forward the way everyone else in the west wants to do and that history remains with you. You can’t just break from it–it’s who you are, what you are. It’s our legacy, and you can’t just build a car that goes fast enough to escape the fumes of your own exhaust. Eventually, you’ll come back around to them.

R: What would you say to encourage people to become more involved in changing the landscape? We’ve got the 2020 elections on the horizon, and I’m very anti-political. I don’t really participate there. I used to be vocal about it in previous years, but now I’ve just kind of chilled off. My own personal view of politics is that it’s a distraction from trying to create the world around you and making that immediate area a better place through bettering yourself, and that’s part of the power they have over us.

Politics has become the number one selling drama on TV and in the entertainment industry, and politicians have become celebrities–the whole thing is a giant 90210 episode in my eyes and extremely laughable. Politicians almost seem like they’re not even real human beings at this point, but caricatures of absurdity. So it’s tough for me to get excited about elections or anything on the political spectrum. (I’ve got my own master plan I’m working on right now through building Space Cadet…) I’m sure there are lots of people out there that would love to be involved but don’t know where to start, so what would you say to somebody that wants to jump on Team Human but doesn’t know how to start?

D: I think the problem is that people understand politics as this once-every-four-years consumer choice–this American Idol idea of voting for the one you like. And while it’s important, it’s no substitute for civic engagement. I think people have lost track of civics. Civics happens very locally in a bottom-up way, and the needs of different communities percolate up to the national leaders through local action. I think it’s important to keep track of both, but I think people spend too much energy on their presidential candidates because that’s the set bid–your kind of Coke or Pepsi, McDonald’s or Burker King.

At this point, I pretty much know I’m going to vote for whoever’s not Trump. Now that I know that, if I look at the Democratic candidates and am asked which one I’d like to influence, Elizabeth Warren seems to have a whole lot of substance that most of the others don’t. There’s a few that look interesting–and because I am who I am, I’m trying to help give the right language to some of these democratic candidates about how to get past the socialism label and start looking at: how do you predistribute the means of production rather than redistribute the spoils of capitalism. It’s not about taxing people after the fact or giving UBI [universal basic income], it’s about who owns what, and who owns these factories and these towns, and distribute that ownership. I want to help give them the right language. How do you move from a growth-based economy to a flow-based economy?

Beyond that, I spend most of my political energy locally, and I think that’s where people can really make a difference. It’s really easy to hate others when you’re talking about ideologies that have nothing to do with you. It’s a lot harder to hate people when you’re working together to source food for the community. How are we going to get our roads paved? How are we actually going to do stuff?

I think rather than reinventing the wheel (as many people want to do) and create a website that’s going to somehow aggregate all the websites of all the people who are doing good things… Or create a new social network that does this–I get three or four emails a day from people who are telling me, “I want to start a new social network,” or, “I want to start a new blockchain…” Look, we’ve got so many great existing but underutilized mechanisms for creating social change from your zoning board to the board of education in your town to your chamber of commerce. Creating local economic resilience committees to transition towns…

There are so many great mechanisms that are a google search away for people who want to be directly involved in making their immediate world a better place, it’s almost laughable that people, rather than joining any of them, want to create something new–just because it’s easier! A new organization is one Squarespace membership away, and you can make your nice pretty thing, or you can see where the Indivisibles are meeting near you [a progressive movement m United States politics, initiated in 2016 as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States], or see who’s doing community supported agriculture. Start a cooperative platform business instead of trying to get a job. Go on Meetup, there’s already a group there–they’re looking for you too.

There are so many ways to do things directly, and they’re all based on the same principles of rave, only when we were raving, we didn’t realize what was politically important about it. We were reclaiming public space for our use. We were entertaining ourselves outside the market. We were celebrating without a rockstar hero at the middle of it–even the DJs were not these mythological creatures yet. You just went and you didn’t even know who it was. You couldn’t even see them, and that was part of it–the invisible shaman.

It’s easier than it looks, which I guess makes it harder since we’re all so used to something dramatic.