The Shift Online

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Solstice Shift: Magical Blend's Synergistic Guide to the Coming Age on 1 January 1997

Although I like to think of myself as “clued in” to the motions of nature, they seem to evade me. But that’s finally beginning to change. I write mostly about technology and its effects on culture and spirituality. I see technology as a real extension of nature–an expression of the evolutionary drive towards complexity and consciousness. It wasn’t always this way. As originally implemented, technology was developed to deny the underlying patterns of nature. We invented electric lights to deny the blackness of night and the rhythm of daybreak. Heat and air conditioning allowed us to deny the climactic cycle of the seasons. Irrigation helped us conquer the patterns of weather. We fly in planes to break the laws of distance and break multiple time zones in just a few hours, throwing our bodies out of their own circadian rhythms. We invent pills from dexedrine to melatonin to convince our bodies otherwise, then wonder why we feel so out of touch. In this scenario, nature is the enemy and human technology keeps it at bay.

If human culture is an articulation of nature, then media is the articulation of technology. As civilization and culture grew out of the natural collection of human beings, media grew out of technology to control and restrict our free motions and underlying collective will. Just as technology denies nature, traditional media denies humanity. At any major university, you will find that the study of communications has nothing to do with helping people talk to one another. It is the study of how governments can manipulate their subjects or citizens, and how corporations can manipulate their customers and employees. It is not the study of communication–it is the research and development of social programming.

Media was put into place as a way of controlling the natural ebb and flow of society. By dividing amorphous populations into manageable market segments and interest groups, the social scientists could more accurately predict and alter our behaviors. Television and other top-down media arose to program the masses into submission. Why do you think they call it TV programming? They’re not programming the television sets; they’re programming the viewers.

Media programming only works when the programmer has the luxury of a captive and isolated audience. Like any form of hypnosis, television programming depends on the viewers’ reception without distraction. The subject allows her thoughts to be directed and ordered by the programmer. Her naturally free-form, holistic consciousness is made linear. She learns to follow the leader, step by step.

Television worked perfectly. The viewer sat alone and let herself be drawn into the trance. From this point, the programming part was simple: tell stories. Since Aristotle and even the Bible, the programmer has used stories to reduce his audience to passive participants. For aboriginal cultures, the story has served as a way of preserving sacred ancient ideas as they pass down through generations. For modern Western culture, the technique of the story has been abused to enforce purchasing decisions and moral agendas.

The traditional story works by putting the audience in a state of tension. The programming storyteller creates a character we like so that we identify with this hero’s plight. Then, the character is placed in jeopardy of one sort or another. As the character moves up the incline plane towards crisis, we follow him vicariously, while taking on his anxiety as our own. Helplessly we follow him up into danger, disease, or divorce, and just when we can’t take any more tension without bursting, the hero finds a way out. He finds a moral, a product, an agenda, or a strategy that rescues him, and us along with him, from the awful anxiety. The higher the level of tension we’ve been able to create, the more preposterous the hero’s critical twist can get. But whatever solution the character finds, the audience must swallow it, too. Along with it, we swallow the sponsor or network’s agenda, but at least we get to escape from the anxiety.

This is what it means to “entertain”–literally “to hold within”–and it only works on a captive audience. In the old days of television, when a character would walk into danger and take the audience up into uncomfortable anxiety, it would have taken at least 10 or 20 calories of human effort for the viewer to walk up to her TV set and change the channel. The viewer was trapped. As long as the programmer didn’t raise the stakes too abruptly, she would stay in her La-Z-Boy and go along for the ride. The remote control changed that.

With an expenditure of perhaps .0001 calories, the anxious viewer is liberated from her tortuous imprisonment. Although most well-behaved adult viewers will soldier on through a story, kids raised with remotes in their hands have much less reverence for these well-crafted arcs, and zap away without a moment’s hesitation. Instead of watching one program, they skim through ten at a time. They don’t watch TV, they watch the television, guiding their own paths through the entirety of media rather than following the prescribed course of any one programmer.

No matter how much we complain about our kids’ short attention spans, their ability to disconnect from programming has released them from the hypnotic spell of even the best TV mesmerizers. The Nintendo joystick further empowers them while compounding the programmer’s dilemma. In the old days, the TV image was unchangeable. Gospel truth piped into the home from the top of some glass building. Today, kids have the experience of manipulating the image on the screen. This has fundamentally altered their perception of and reverence for the television image. Better yet, the computer mouse and the Internet turn the video monitor into a doorway. No longer just an appliance for passive programming, the monitor is a portal to places and ideas. Kids with camcorders don’t even bother to watch prepackaged programs. They just make their own.

The people I call “screenagers,” those raised with interactive devices in their media arsenals, are natives in a media-space where even the best television programmers are immigrants. They speak the language better and see through those clumsy attempts to program them into submission. They never forget for a moment that they are watching media, and resent people who try to draw them in and sell them something. We mistake their ironic detachment for cultural apathy. It’s not. They do care; they’re just unwilling to take on a character’s anxiety and then swallow some hidden agenda.

The shows embraced by the “screenage” generation accept the inherent discontinuity of the television medium–and our natural world–rather than trying to smooth it out. Most traditional programming attempts to smooth over discontinuity, lest the programmer lose his audience. When they have to break for a commercial, they introduce a cliff-hanger to tide us over. It’s discontinuity pretending to be continuous, and it comes across as false.

But where adults are challenged by gaps, kids thrive on them. Just consider the difference between the experience of an adult skier and a child snow-boarder descending a slope. The adult, with his long parallel skis, looks for the smoothest, most powdery path possible. The kid seeks out the bumps, rocks, and patches of ice. They thrive on discontinuity because, deep down, they sense it is real and not contrived.

Kids experience media and technology differently because they are on the far side of the evolutionary shift–that same shift the writers in this book are proclaiming. As I see it, this shift is in the way we tell stories.

The extended evolution of storytelling outlined in my book, Playing the Future, describes the three main stages of nearly every cultural invention. We start with a literal phase. For money, this is gold. It has actual, literal value. For Western religion, this is the Ten Commandments. Do this, don’t do that. It works with simple, straight lines, and works when one’s experience is very limited.

The second stage is metaphor. The metaphor for gold was the gold certificate. Paper money represented a real value of gold. For religion, it was Jesus and the parable. Teaching stories, such as the one about the prostitute in the road about to be stoned, work as metaphors for the situations in our lives. Better than a literal rule, a teaching story can be applied to thousands of possible real-life dilemmas. If we can all identify with the character in the story, then the parable works. That’s why they’re called parables: a parabola is a curve that depicts the relationship of a single point to whole line. As long as we’re in a linear world, and all stand in a line, the point of story will relate to us all. Stories require heroes we all relate to–super-beings, hierarchy, and allegiance. We moved from straight lines to curves or, mathematically, from x=y to x²=y.

But our world, and certainly the world of our children, is too chaotic for us all to stand in a line and respect one authority. Our kids don’t even go to rock concerts anymore; they go to rave dances, where there’s no sexy singer for everyone to face. The rave dance–a spiritual event–is a great example of the third cultural phase, what I call “recapitulation.” Rather than relating to someone else’s spiritual story, they create their own. The rave event recapitulates a spiritual truth. It is spirituality. That’s why Shirley Maclaine on the beach shouting “I am God” made sense to so many. She wasn’t declaring herself lord of the heavens; she merely realized that she recapitulated, in some small but grand way, the essence of God. She saw herself as part of the great fractal. That’s new math: a discontinuous equation.

The monetary equivalent of recapitulation is the currency we now use in the United States called “the Federal Reserve Note.” It is cash, but it has no value in relation to some real metal. The dollar recapitulates the original function of money. It is money.

In recapitulatory media and storytelling, the audience’s moment of reward is shifted away from the hero’s daring escape and onto the viewer’s own ability to orient himself in an increasingly complex media-space. Instead of experiencing vicarious relief from tension and absorbing the associated message, the “screenager” gets the joy of making momentary sense and associations in a chaotic media-space. He gets his bearings in what I’d argue is a natural world. Joseph Campbell was only half right when he suggested that Western civilization needs “a new myth.” We need a new kind of myth. Recapitulated media has come to the rescue.

Although technology may have been put in place to contain nature, and the media may have been put in place to contain populations, they became too developed in their own rights to be contained themselves. Our techno-mediated infrastructure became too complex for anyone–William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch, or Bill Gates–to control. Although the wires may have been set down to function as avenues for unidirectional programming, no one predicted that we would start connecting them up and talking through them. Faxes, telephones, camcorders, modems, and computers changed the top-down quality of the media-space. We all started communicating with one another. No one in charge had taken into account the fact that electrons don’t care which way they travel through a wire.

They know no allegiance. There’s no up or down, so hierarchy and one-pointedness is impossible.

Even more disastrous for those who would dominate nature and program human beings, technology and the media have begun to express the underlying drive of evolution itself: for awareness, complexity, and connectivity. Evolution is the way nature expresses itself over time. In its age-old dance with deadening entropy, nature strives to become more conscious and alive. Atoms become molecules become amino acid chains become cells become organisms become, well, civilization. It’s no secret to anyone who has gone online, on a vision quest, into psychedelic space, a meditative journey (or even onto the pages of Magical Blend) that the next obvious evolutionary step is for human beings to coordinate, somehow, into a single “meta”-being. That’s the whole human struggle: to find group awareness, but without losing what we cherish as “individual” awareness. Evolution itself is a recapitulating event–that’s why the fetus in the womb passes through the entire history of biological evolution as it gestates.

While many argue that the impending “Gaian mind” of cyberspace–all those wires connecting the individual human neurons together–will turn our multifaceted world into a monoculture, I’d argue that just the opposite is true. The programmed media hierarchy is what pushes us towards monoculture. A world where each member can express herself is absolute chaos. Not disorder, chaos.

So technology now addresses the great and natural human urge towards connection. Kids who go out on the Internet don’t browse for facts. They search for other humans. It may look cold and electronic, but what other means do they have at their disposal in a culture that values competition over cooperation, and so-called family values over community values? Cyberspace is remedial help for a civilization that has lost the ability to touch itself. Ironically, it is not the so-called “Third World” indigenous cultures who need to get online. They already understand their connection to nature and the natural rhythms of the planet. It is we, the members of the over-ordered Western civilization, who need to learn that we’ re all part of the same great organism. Cyberspace merely approximates the level of communication that we’ll be capable of, once we develop the compassion to perceive our deep connectedness organically. The Internet is Western white man’s clean, dry, safe, electronic way of experiencing some global community.

As a culture, we are predisposed to resist the chaotic nature of the real world. The stories on which we have been raised for the past several centuries reduce the complexity of the human experience to oversimplified moral platitudes and determinist certainties. We have become addicted to stories with endings. It is the only way we know to relieve the tension of not knowing. We so crave definitive endings that millions of fundamentalists worldwide would rather the entire planet be consumed in a fiery apocalypse than simply let it keep going. We’d rather be eternally damned and get the relief of an ending to the story than live on in existential uncertainty. We refuse to accept the alternative to completion: change. This is why fundamentalists are so opposed to the notion of evolution. Evolution changes the ground rules.

Technology and media have never really been apart from nature. Nothing ever has. Our power plants are no less natural than a beaver’s dam. Our chemicals are no less natural than bees’ honey. We just fooled ourselves into thinking we had devised a way to resist the ebb and flow of nature. We were really just serving its greater agenda.

By allowing our media to reach a state of true turbulence, we find that rather than exacerbating our disconnection from nature and one another, it is forcing us once again to confront the human urge for self-expression and group awareness. For spiritual people to resist technology for its seemingly unnatural implementation would be as foolish as it is for absolutists to resist its new tendency to promote an evolutionary agenda.

Living in the free-form chaotic realm of cyberspace is what awakened me to the underlying rhythms of our world and the urge of all people towards greater connectedness. Most importantly, it’s what made me realize I’m part of a great shift from allegiance to self-expression, metaphor to recapitulation, fundamentalism to globalism, apocalypse to evolution, and artificially imposed certainty to the unpredictable impermanence of real life. It has gotten me back in touch with the underlying rhythms of nature and the great planetary quest for shared consciousness.