Interview With Douglas Rushkoff
If you're going to meet Douglas Rushkoff, you might want to bring graph paper. Every now and then, in the course of an interview, the 34-year-old author of Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (1984) and Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (1995) will get a frozen look on his face and grab at the nearest piece of scrap paper. Don't worry; he just needs to graph. During the course of our conversation, Rushkoff managed to plot the following phenomena along X and Y axes:* the Ten Commandments* the teachings of Jesus* New Age philosophy* the path of the male orgasm -- which just happens to be the path of the dramatic paradigm of Greek tragedy -- and the plot structure of Twister. Rushkoff did not graph the female orgasm, although during the course of our discussion he did, amazingly, liken it to the plot structure of Beavis and Butt-head. As time went on, I started to worry that he would graph the interview, or other, more personal, things. That his graphing stopped with the male orgasm was a coincidence of scheduling.Rushkoff -- talking head, software developer, social theorist, novelist, and one-time Beverly Hills tutor -- has made several careers out of zapping back and forth between high concept and low culture, like some kind of hopped-up intellectual pixie. This talent has served him well as a consultant for Sony and Turner Broadcasting, which periodically fly him in -- at considerable expense -- to explain to rooms full of executives exactly what the kids are up to.In his most recent book, Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us To Thrive in an Age of Chaos (HarperCollins), Rushkoff tries to explain it to the rest of us. He makes a case for the redemptive qualities of snowboarding, rave culture, body piercing, Power Rangers, and those graphable scamps, Beavis and Butt-head. Every one of these '90s youth-culture fixations functions as a guide to a future in which, Rushkoff says, our old modes of learning will no longer serve us. The kids are all right, Rushkoff tells us. It's grownups who are more or less obsolete.It's hard to argue with his premise: that Internet kids are newer models of ourselves, better prepared for the computerized world they will inherit. He argues at one point that the much-mourned long attention span is obsolete in the age of the remote control, since tomorrow's adults will be called upon to process a constant barrage of information, not stand transfixed before one story line. He has a point, and Playing the Future is ultimately a hopeful, convincing book.But Rushkoff's defense of, for instance, a slimy substance called Gak (which "represents a post-apocalyptic view of society" and will usher in a "non-determinist future") crosses over into the realm of silliness. I spent a good portion of my childhood playing with that low-tech Gak analogue, mud, but I'm not post-apocalyptic. I suspect that most parents in America would agree that cyber-children are in on something important; it's the partisan defense of body piercing - a "willful opening of the flesh" signifying "the mutability of the human form" -- that may irritate readers. In the book, and, indeed, in person, Rushkoff makes cognitive leaps that left me slack-jawed and scratching my head.Q: Did you expect this to be a reassuring book? Is that why you wrote it? A: Two things. I did it to reassure people that their kids may be up to more than they suspect, and to wake people up to the fact that they're acting like children -- to wake adults up and say, "Look, you're asleep, you're programmed. You're all worried about your kids, but your kids have woken up and your kids are doing something real and exciting and, to my mind, more sustainable than what most adults are involved in." It turns out a lot of people are reassured by this book. A lot of teachers have been reading the book and say, "Oh, we were so glad to see that and have our ideas confirmed." I think a lot of parents suspect that their kids are smart and really doing something cool. The mainstream media is telling them how screwed up their kids are, and they think they're being irresponsible by even entertaining the fact that by playing on the Internet and turning on the computer, their kids might be getting smart. Q: What is it in us that distrusts technology? A: There are two reasons people are afraid of technology. There's sort of a sweet reason and an evil reason. The evil reason is that technology was originally put in place to contain nature, just as media was put in place to contain population.... The controllers, the would-be controllers and oversimplifiers and dominators of nature and culture are getting freaked out because they can't control it. It's beginning to express the wildness of life. The good people are afraid of technology because they understand that the media and technology are usually used to dominate people, to overpower them, and they can't understand the widespread proliferation of new media as anything but further victimization of the worker, the woman, the child, the black man, and all their traditional victim groups they see as being further disempowered. Q: To what extent is it also the resentment of people who see themselves becoming obsolete? A: The question I usually get is, "Don't adults always have problems with kids?" And that's kind of the same as, "Don't people always have problems with change? Aren't people always afraid of new technology?" Yeah. Definitely. The way I describe it in the book is that they feel like immigrants in their own country. They don't even speak the language. Maybe that's always the case, but now, with this high degree of change, and with novelty becoming so rampant, it's really disturbing and disorienting for sure. But it's not just the technology, it's what the technology is implying about the world that is making them so uncomfortable.... Most people avoid stuff that disorients them. They do a pretty good job of it. Watch Roseanne. Q: You talk about this organic culture and the idea of a post-apocalyptic society. How do you apply that to a government? A: Well, if you have a big, top-down dictatorship where everybody's goose-stepping, you can't apply it, because that's not a chaotic system. It's so linear. The reason it gets made that way is to defy chaos.... Now, when you get a culture that is as complex as American culture, with its interactive media space, and so many people saying so many things and calling radio shows and taking camcorder tapes and Rodney King ending up on CNN, then you have a chaotic system. To those who would maintain order and stasis, it looks less stable. Q: So chaos has already arrived. A: Yes. Well, I think we put up barricades against chaos, and I think chaos has been here since the beginning. Nature is chaos. Q: But more so now. A: More so now than before.... I think the interactive media space is getting people more active and more educated about this world that they live in. The new thing I've been thinking about is sort of that Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian debate in modern culture, with Wired magazine being the Hamiltonian elites, the evil guys trying to make people afraid and trying to create anxiety in people who read Wired. I'm sort of representing the Jeffersonian optimist, Rousseau, the natural man. Let's all be entrusted with our destiny. Don't cut yourself off at the wrist. Don't believe Time magazine that you're going to be seduced into a cyber-pornographic frenzy.... The mainstream media [is] trying to scare us off the interactive media. Q: Well, don't you think it seems like a frightening time to raise children? A: You could never control what reaches them. It used to be that they ran to the corner bar or the pool hall. Q: And yet there is more now. They're getting more. A: But they're actually safer. It's on a screen, and it's in your home. And if you're actually there and can talk to them about it.... Our parents used the television as a baby sitter for us, and they knew there was regulation and that they could sit us in front of it, go to work, not have a family, not have a community. Now parents can't just sit their kids in front of a computer screen and expect them to be treated to a nice censored experience. No. Because the computer screen is the real world. Q: And do you think parents are going to rise to that occasion? A: That's what I'm here to help them do. It's a two-pronged thing. It's one, to be able to recognize the underlying positive educational evolutionary values of the experiences, and two, to be able to accompany the kids on these journeys. Connections between all this stuff can help [parents] reckon with all this information -- this seemingly contradictory information -- and teach them how to cope with paradox. Which is stuff that we as adults in a very determinate world have not gotten used to reckoning with. But yeah, it's a hard time to be a parent. It's also the best time to be a parent, because it [provides] one of the clearest examples of getting something from your kids, and sharing with your kids. What we're getting from our kids is that they have already adapted to this new world. These are new prototypes. They're out there absorbing all this information in ways that we can't. But they need us more, probably, than any generation of kids has needed adults. Q: Now they might need that guidance in certain contexts but not really when they're, say, at a rave. A: When adults look at a rave, they have to say, "What is this about? Is this about 'My kid wants to take drugs and hurt himself?' " Or they can read my book and say, "Oh, I didn't realize that the rave is about global community." It is. You know, rave is not just pure abandon. It's got a tremendous underlying spirituality to it. Whether or not the kids are even conscious of it, the organizers certainly are, and the little flyers have all that talk on them.... Even if [the kids are] not aware of it, it's reaching out. They want community. They live in a world -- in a suburban world -- with no sense of community at all, no connection. So they use the mall, they use the mosh pit, they use street gangs to have a feeling of belonging, of community. Q: But if you talk about global communities -- well, to some extent, the kids at a rave are coming from the same neighborhoods. A: In fact, our children in the last six years or eight years have not managed to eradicate the racial discord that has plagued this planet for the past thousands of years. I admit that. So what? Hopefully they're going to experience some forays into it. Let them experience community first. Yeah, I admit there are some skinheads out there doing some nasty things, some real fundamentalist things. But if you look in San Francisco, the raves really united the straight kids and the gay kids, and now the rave is working to bring together San Francisco and Oakland, which is a black and white thing. I mean, in New York it hasn't been that successful. I admit that. And Lollapalooza is basically white kids, and hip-hop in New York is basically black kids. But at least they're experiencing something that I don't think I had when I was a kid. We didn't have this group vibe thing -- the trance thing for the rave kids and the almost sexual vibe of the mosh pit for the regular white kids. It's all about forming group organisms. It's frightening to parents. Q: Well, drugs are frightening to parents. A: These are things in the real world. I'm not saying kids take drugs to be able to connect to something bigger than themselves -- which is probably the case -- but most of the things you see kids doing, particularly the '90s youth's cultural fascinations from vid games and Barney, to rave and mosh, to piercing, are all about trying to forge some community.... They've had nothing. They were each raised in their own little, scarily private asbestos house. There was nothing! So they go to a rave, and it's better than nothing. I mean, where are the church-basement chicken dinners? None of it's there. Q: When you equate high culture and low culture, which is something you do in your book, are you saying that mass production is on the same level as hands-on artistic creation? A: You have to admit that for some reason the characters and situations in Star Trek served a mythic purpose that gave something of value to a lot of American nerds. And Power Rangers [offer kids] mythic value on how to use technology.... I consider it worthy of our attention when it addresses our needs, when it addresses our cultural hunger for exercise in pattern recognition rather than moral absorption. These regular stories have one damn shape. Everything since Aristotle. This is so male. It's the male orgasm curve here. You build up the tension until you can't take it anymore, and then you give the character an answer, be it Athena, or Ronald Reagan, or Procter & Gamble. It's true. It's the male orgasm. You bring the person to the point of extreme tension. Then you give them an answer and they go aaaah. That's why Brecht hated it so much. Because it didn't work! Because it didn't make people want to go and break windows! So people go and see Angels in America and they say, "Sure, I care about gay people." So they pay their debt to society by paying $30 for their ticket. But it's a male story structure in the way it relates to . . . that curve .... I mean, a woman's curve, as I'm sure you know, doesn't just end at an orgasm. It can open. It can be an opening.... That's why you look at Beavis and Butt-head, and, in a sense, that's a female medium. There's a screen within a screen within a screen. People don't experience television as a flat screen anymore. They see it as an opening. They travel through the screen to do stuff. That's what the Internet's about. I know you think it's silly, but this is what I'm getting paid to go explain to Sony. Because people that are stuck in that three-act thing, they're doing the stories for things like Twister, and the kids are laughing at it. They're laughing at Twister's clumsy plot structure, because it doesn't relate to our experience. That's why they're turning to The Simpsons and Mystery Science Theater. It's because they don't do that hokey tension-and-release. Q: How can you gain that type of sophistication without losing something else? A: The fishes who watched their brothers and sisters grow legs and go up on land, I'm sure they looked at them and said, "They're aquatically challenged." You do lose certain things. And we are losing a certain sense of comforting nostalgia. We are losing our certainty.