Interview with Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff, American media theorist, writer and columnist, in Russia is known primarily for the book “Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture”. In the interview with Young Space magazine, media theorist assessed the younger generation of the Internet, the development of a graphic novel and told whether he himself fell into the trap of Internet technologies.

At the beginning of 2019 your new book «Team Human» will be released. Tell us what awaits readers in it.

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Team Human is a manifesto arguing that there’s an anti-human agenda embedded in our markets and technologies, which has turned them from means of human connection into ones of isolation and repression. Our corporations and the culture they create glorify individualism at the expense of cooperation, threatening the sustainability not just of our economy but our species. Digital technology is simply the latest tool for extracting value from people, and rendering them incapable of exercising agency over our own lives. I’m hoping to reveal this agenda at work and invite readers to remake society toward human ends rather than the end of humans.

The book uses biological and experiential evidence to argue that we have an essentially social nature. I show that evolution is a team sport, not a survival of the fittest. Team Human is a rallying cry for humanity’s best future, and a game plan for bringing that about.

In the book «Present Shock» you describe such a thing as «digiphrenia». Now it sounds even more relevant, because the number of social networks is increasing every year. What can you advise to those who are subject to this phenomenon?

Well, digiphrenia used to be a side effect of having to maintain multiple instances of oneself across many different platforms. Kind of like multitasking, but for our identities. We are all being multiple people, in parallel. It’s confusing and disorienting.

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Now, it’s not just a side effect of digital technology but a tactic of demagogues and social controllers. Donald Trump intentionally induces a state of digiphrenia in people, so that they can’t keep track of what he is doing, what he has said, or what people themselves might want. We have no sense of history — just the fake myths. And we have no sense of the future — only the moment we are in. This is an extreme form of present shock. It’s not a side effect, it’s an intentional exercise in psyops.

Sure, getting off social media definitely helps. We wouldn’t be as susceptible to this kind of thing if we had more coherence in our daily lives.

Has it happened to you that your brain has been trapped by Internet technologies for a while? How did you handle this?

I don’t get trapped by the technologies so much as the people on the other side. I feel trapped when I see 500 emails each day from people looking to me for answers. I realize it’s physically impossible for me to give them what they want or think they need from me. (They could just read a book or listen to podcast.) But the tech has made more accessible, and it’s hard for people to realize I’m just a person dealing with all of his own stuff, family illnesses, and everything else. So I get trapped by the false premise that I really should be able to answer every message I get, and that if I don’t I am letting people down in some way.

I think the tech leads me to assume people will be angry if I don’t make the time for them. So I end up in the same position as someone addicted to the tech. I spend at least six hours answering email every day. And I know it’s not an efficient use of my time. I am writing fewer books and articles, and reaching fewer people. But I am satisfying the fear.

The Internet is full of entertainment for all tastes, people are often distracted by funny videos or articles not only during leisure, but also in the workplace. Do you think it would be better if the Internet was a technology that provides only the work of companies, and not a platform for recreation?

Or maybe the recreation and not the work? I always thought the big mistake was when they put banking and other «important» business online. All of a sudden, security mattered when it hadn’t before. It’s not fair to take an open network like the internet — a place where every machine is supposed to shake hands with every other one — and then make it responsible for everyone’s money. Then everyone’s jobs.

No, the Internet’s highest calling was social. Intellectual. Business is BS. It’s just the way people game other people’s real needs. Screw that.

The new generation of children is not only growing in the Internet era, but also has been actively interacting with it from an early age. Can this bring positive changes in society, will children be less susceptible to the tricks of marketers, or will they become weak-willed consumers, which the older generation often predicts?

It’s hard to say. My first book on this subject, Playing the Future, argued that kids were «digital natives» who would speak the language more naturally, and be less susceptible to the lies and mind control. But it seems younger people have a harder time distinguishing between the real and the fake online than adults do. So not everything I was hoping for has played out — at least not in the short term.

I do feel like younger people are taking the net less seriously, though. They don’t think about it as a separate thing. It’s not magical or dangerous to them. It’s more like text or language. Just a thing.

They’re also beginning to see through the charade of capitalism. People don’t look up to Mark Zuckerberg they way they looked up to Carnegie or Rockefeller. The cycle turns too quickly. We can see the rise and fall of empires in a single decade, so we are more aware that these empires are temporary. They can also see how extractive money is. They are more aware of the downside, and of the possibility of species extinction as a result of the way these companies and the people running them have been operating. So while they may not all be like the kids from the Florida shooting, engaged in real activism or even voting, they’re more aware that something is off. I don’t think they will be fooled into things as easily. 6. If we talk about the elder generation, it is more a spectator of TV shows, the influence of television has weakened noticeably on young people. Now more and more often you can see about the news programs and show clips from You-Tube, posts from Twitter and Instagram. Is it possible to assume that such a policy of the TV channels suggests that they don’t have time to keep up with the news and experience the “present shock”, just like an individual person in modern society? Will television go back in time with such a trend?

I am having trouble understanding the question. I think the easiest way to understand what has happened to television is to turn to McLuhan. He explained that when we get a new medium, the previous medium becomes the content for the new medium. The content of the Internet is television. That’s the majority of Internet use: people streaming videos. But they are removed from their original context. The television itself is in the network. So instead of watching television, we «play» the television. We don’t sit down in front of television, we pull out the clips and pieces we want to see.

That doesn’t mean we can’t sit in front of long clips. Just as we may watch 30 seconds on YouTube, we may also choose to watch 30 hours of a show at one time on Netflix.

You have written graphic novels «Aleister & Adolf» and «A.D.D.» that describe serious problems of society. Did you choose this style of the narrative — the graphic novel because of it’s more difficult for people to master the book quickly and without constant distraction from the phone notifications?

No, I’m not thinking about it that way. There are some ideas I want to express in books, others in television documentaries, and others in graphic novels. If anything, graphic novels require more focus and attention than regular books. You have to keep track of pictures and words, which requires a different sort of focus.

For me, the choice of medium has to do with the topic and experience I’m trying to convey. Aleister & Adolf is about magic and marketing, icons and brand imagery. So it naturally fits in a visual medium. The book is meant as a «sigil» and sigils work well with a visual component.

Now comics are gradually equated to full-fledged literary works, an example of this is the «Maus: A Survivor’s Tale» by Art Spiegelman. How difficult was it to work on novels, taking into account the form of the graphic novel itself?

I don’t know exactly what you are asking. How does the existence of graphic novels change the way I work on non-graphic novels? The answer to that would be that the availability of a visual medium like graphic novels makes the choice of working in words more deliberate. I haven’t written a regular novel in over ten years, but if I return to that form, it will be with the knowledge that it is a more continuous flow. Comics break things up. They’re better for comparisons and contrasts. Words against image, image against image.

Or, are you asking if it is difficult to work on graphic novels now that we know that graphic novels are an important form? To that the answer would be no. The fact that the form is respected means I can tell important stories in there. It’s interesting that a lot of us have told stories of Nazis and other horrific stuff in graphic novels. In some ways, the form is more unassuming, so you can tell darker things. A regular novel is just too realistic, sometimes.

In your book “Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture” of the part describing the underground, you pay a lot of attention to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and his philosophy. He was a bright representative of the underground at that time, there are representatives of society, like P-Orridge, at the present time? Were you inspired by the industrial?

Well, Genesis P-Orridge is still alive and creating work, so I’d say he’s the best representative of his approach to art and culture. Many have been influenced by him. I suppose mashup video is the primary descendent of his cut-and-paste work, which was itself derivative of his collaborators William Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Who is doing that work today? Some of the transhumanist body-modification people, I suppose. There are people with all sorts of implants and things, challenging what it means to be human.

How do you see the future of the book? Is the era of only digital media waiting for us?

I think books are fine. We still have bicycles even though there are cars. We still have plays even though there are movies. They are different.

Films about AI technologies and our not-so-distant future give our brain food to present an infinite number of options for how and where we will live in the future. Were there any cases in your practice when you were consulted on an absolutely unbelievable version of the outcome of events?

Do you mean to ask: have you ever been asked to consult on a science fiction movie, and were they asking crazy things? I have been called a bunch, yeah. Not as much as people like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, I’m sure. But yeah, I get asked to help think through things for movie people. They’ve never paid me, though. I think they assume it’s just too cool to get to help. Most of the sci-fi ideas are okay. The part that’s silly is that there’s always a human villain who knows what’s happening. It doesn’t really work that way. The thing about the future — particularly the technological future — is that unintended consequences are more consequential than the intended ones.

Is there any fundamentally new technology or a new project that has interested you recently?

I’m interested in permaculture, and applying the principles of permaculture to society at large. Permaculture is a more sustainable way of understanding agriculture, where you cycle various kinds of living things through the soil so it doesn’t require chemicals or other invasive methods to yield crop. Some folks are looking at how to apply this logic to everything, from economics to human relationships.

So it’s less a technology than a retrieval of methods.

In one of the interviews you said that now not everyone is able to allocate 5-6 hours per book. Do you have such time? For which book will you spend it?

Right now, I am reading a couple of books a week, in order to be prepared for my Team Human podcast guests. I get sent around three books every day, so I can’t read them all. But if there’s someone I want to talk to on the show, I usually read their book first, if they have one. I’m reading very little for pure pleasure. Most everything is applied, somehow.

But you have to remember, we are in an all-hands-on-deck moment in human history. This is a make-or-break moment. Most everything I do is dedicated toward the possibility that humanity can make it through this century.

Russian Version Of The Interview

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Ольга Сажнева
Ольга Сажнева
Литературный обозреватель Янгспейс

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