An interview with Douglas Rushkoff
This is a large chunk of the interview I had with Douglas at The Sanctuary in Brighton on the 28th September 1995. This was part of his tour of Britain to promote his book, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace.
David: How did you get into this?
Douglas: I was a theatre major in college. I went to Princeton, which is a very traditional kind of school, and the theatre people, the music people and the weird people in general hang out together. We were the sort of psychedelic crowd. I moved out west and a lot of the people, the most involved in alternative culture, were also deeply involved in computer software, computer programming, doing high level stuff up in Silicon Valley and I really wanted to find out if all these computer people were like that. I’d remembered computer kids in school, as you know, pocket protector wearing nerds.
David: We have the same image here. You must have picked the most interesting and the most literate specimens of their kind. [The same with] Role players, over here they’re dorks obsessed with power. You don’t get kids saying, "I’m into another hyperspatial reality," interconnecting with another world.
Douglas: You don’t think so? Dungeons and Dragons?
David: Oh yes, they don’t mind a bit of rape and pillage but that’s basically feudal economics.
Douglas: Right, but they don’t have to understand what they’re doing to be doing it. They’re involved in a non-linear reality. They’re involved in roleplaying, without knowing, "Oh, we’re experimenting with other fields of reality."
David: Mmm, I sort of expect that from McKenna and Leary. I read Food of the Gods and enjoyed it. After reading your book I was a bit more sceptical. How did you find him?
Douglas: I think he’s a brilliant guy but he’s got a kind of fundamentalism that bothers me. What he talks about is that there’s a bottleneck effect at the end of time, and that humanity’s going to take this leap into hyperspace. First, I think it’s going to happen but it’s going to be much more subtle than that. It’s not like zoom, we’re out of the physical reality, and two, the problem is, he says that if you have the DMT or psychedelic experience you’ll make it, if you haven’t had that experience you won’t. That’s kind of fucked up. Because that’s exclusionary. To me what the psychedelic experience says to me is that All is One, either we all make it or none of us make it.
David: Yeah, like in Cyberia, a technophobe’s nightmare. If you’re not on the Net, without a computer you can’t get a job, effectively you’re not literate. I’m not sure if it will become like that, any new medium finds its niche. Literacy was an exception, it took over completely, I don’t know about computers. You could become dependent on the Net for all information, all support.
Douglas: But if what you’re saying is true, and the Net becomes the overculture, then the counterculture will go onland. Right now the counterculture’s online and mainstream culture’s in space. And what will happen is the counterculture will be people doing real things.
David: Reading Cyberia, I thought there was a bit of a time lag. Britain seems to be more Pagan than Techno.
Douglas: Well House comes to San Francisco and we incorporate the Pagan thing into technology, it comes here and you guys incorporate technology into the Pagan thing.
David: Yet the way you put it over in Cyberia, it seems much more passive than say Chaos Magick in Britain, which exercises more will than that needed to turn on a computer or drop an acid tab. Plug into the Net and surf Chaos, click your way around the world, and you’ve got "freedom of information," that’s just crap. That’s just an excuse to lay back and enjoy what’s been given to them by sixties radicals.
Douglas: Fine. Even Genesis P-Orridge talks about the ‘bliss’ response. You know, to get the kid into the club you don’t have to let him know he’s coming to a Pagan thing, that he’s coming to unlearn his Christian ethic, question his parents, the Queen and the Pope. The music’s cool, the girls are pretty, everybody’s wearing black make-up or whatever. They come in and they have the bliss response, after they’ve had that I think a different set of desires emerge. I think it’s OK for a first stage. You drop acid for the first time you’re thinking…
David: …mystical thoughts.
Douglas: Yeah, you’re thinking Wow!, but then after the fourth or fifth hour when you’re starting to come down some people get a desperation, how am I going to bring the reality of the state, how am I going to bring all this one consciousness into reality. In the United States that did get downloaded as the environmental movement, the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement.
David: But it wasn’t just acid that did that though.
Douglas: Not just acid, no.
David: By itself what is in Cyberia is not going to produce a revolution [of thought]. I really think it’s another cog inside a wheel that’s turning slowly. […]
[We shift onto Mayan time.]
Douglas: He [McKenna] sees 2012 as the end of Mayan time, then we go out of history into chaos. We’re in this small intermittent period of control in this vast period of chaos and we’ll go back to it. I think when there’s a fundamental shift in the way people perceive what’s around them, it creates the environment where the sort of changes we’re talking about can happen. It is passive in that sense, feminine whatever. All these people are doing is tilling the soil. They’re not activists in that sense. They’re creating a state of readiness. I mean Rupert Murdoch and the corporate control machine, consumer whatever, they’re the ones who put the wires out there. They’re the ones that created television, telephones, all of that. They had no idea that people were going to start talking out through these things. So you can even look at consumerism, or even the patriarchy, feudalism, all those horrible things. You can look at all of these as the build-up to the release from all that stuff.
David: Mmm. It’s also an escape route for thousands of would-be students who would like to be would-be rebels, by latching onto this they feel they’re rebelling without actually having to go on the streets. A lot of this seems to be to do with image, it’s very important to have the right image—whether that’s all part of a big scheme and in the end our individual worries will be proved groundless, this new reality will appear and we’ll have been shitting ourselves all the way through it and yet it comes about whether we want it or not. I hope it does.
Douglas: In America it’s tricky, because the media reality, the simulacra, and the physical reality are intertwined. People have a hard time telling the difference between the two, people believe that if I buy products from a company that supports a ‘sustainable’ land thing, then I’m supporting the environment. That may not be true but on the other hand I had a journalist talking about just this, people fixing the rainforests and how the rainforests were the lungs of the planet, how they were being destroyed, how we should be down there standing in front of bulldozers and if you’re on the Internet you’re not doing that. Meanwhile, she’s sitting there chainsmoking cigarettes, and I said to her, "If you want to take a fractal approach on the whole thing, I would say, you stop smoking, and the rainforests’ lungs will take care of themselves." Who’s right? I don’t know.
David: Is that enough?
Douglas: From my point of view, from the Cyberian point of view, if the world is a self-similar, fractal kind of thing, then her smoking a cigarette is bulldozers chopping down rainforests. It’s one and the same. Not just in a visible tangible this-cause-leads-to-that-effect. We live in a world where, if our intellectuals are smoking cigarettes, then they are powerless to stop the destruction of the rainforests.
David: Fair enough, but to move to cyberpunk and the computer culture, do you not think there’s a tendency to see the whole world as a binary organism? Using the computer metaphor is OK but it seems people are getting confused between the map and the territory. It’s like Newton’s ‘clockwork universe’, a way of looking at the world, but it’s not the ‘real’ world.
Douglas: I think this is in Cyberia. You know the argument between a surfer and a cartographer, the cartographer would say where are you, above or below a certain degree of latitude, the surfer would say, "I don’t know, I’m on the wave." I would say the surfer is right but he’s using a different map, the chaos map.
David: But a map isn’t the same as the actual environment itself. The computer is just one in a progression of hopefully more accurate maps of the world.
Douglas: Maybe, but there’s what the computer maps and there’s what the computer does. I think what’s valuable about the computer is that it allows people to have a very non-linear experience, allows what feels like a very ancient/psychedelic/pagan experience through technology and in a very safe way. When you log on you really travel.
David: Yeah, but surely nothing in paganism is completely safe.
Douglas: But is it safe? It’s safe to you as a biological organism, but it’s not safe to culture as a discreet control operation. I mean they’re making raves illegal, what’s this called?
David: Criminal Justice Bill.
Douglas: And the right to silence has gone.
David: So do we surf this cultural wave or get out and protest?
Douglas: Is going out on the Internet sitting back, or is it extending out in a way that’s extremely dangerous for those who would control the information we get?
David: For the Cyberian image, they have to believe they’re dangerous to maintain that. There aren’t that many people in England on the Net. Some people can barely afford the phone, so on a purely economic level it seems only a small minority will get it. The Net has to have everybody linked up to be effective.
Douglas: The thing about the Net is that, unlike people who got television sets, they didn’t think, "I want everybody to have a TV so they can all watch this programme," when they get online, they really do want to reach out to other places, so in a way, the way that Rupert Murdoch or whoever is providing this service is going to provide a better and better service. You can talk to people in Somalia, you can talk to people all over the country. If it’s where the money’s to be made, and I don’t know what you’d call me, a libertarian anarchist or something, if it’s where the money is to be made then the Rupert Murdochs of this world have to be there.
David: So it’s going to get cheaper and cheaper and everybody can get linked up.
Douglas: In the States they’re giving away computers.
David: The Net is a displaced power to some extent but you have very little control over it.
Douglas: You don’t want control. You want access.
David: Yes, but your access is limited by factors you can’t control, the phone companies whatever, until you have control over the entire system, when it’s free to use and free of censorship, then you have something approaching a free network. At the moment you’ve got a Net with very few people on it. There’s no guarantee of an intelligent conversation just because you can phone America.
Douglas: I see the Net as very, very new right now. It’s certainly a cheaper way for me to have a conversation with you than on the telephone.
David: Yeah, but I’d just write to you.
Douglas: You could but it’s slow.
David: Yes, but writing gives you more time. My phone conversations are relatively boring, you don’t have the time to create something really interesting like you do in a letter.
Douglas: I’ve heard literally hundreds of arguments against the Net, parents saying, "My kids can go online and get pictures of naked women, get molested by someone virtually or something."
David: That’s true of any technological advance. The first thing that gets printed is pornography.
Douglas: There’s a lot of possible very bad trips that can be had, but there’s also tremendous potential with this stuff. It’s actually pretty cheap, and what I think our responsibility is to envision the way in which this can work to society/civilisation’s favour and then enact it. […] I think it comes down to two questions: is human nature changing, and if so, is it changing for the better, or is human nature essentially good but worth moving forward? If it’s not, then no amount of cybernetic movement is going to change that. […] Cyberia is aimed at Middle America and whatever Middle England is. People who have never gone online, who think that kids going to raves are crazy, would never touch a psychedelic in their lives, and think that the Internet is for weird nerds to talk to each other about Star Trek. My purpose is to say; it’s not. This is a vibrant community of people with some very interesting bright aspirations for the future. While they may sound off the wall and overly optimistic, I spent a couple of years with them, and I like them. There’s something worthy that they’re trying to communicate to us. If nothing else they do have a inkling of a new way to organise reality, to organize the way we look at things that might be better than what we’re using.
David: Maybe it’s because I come from up North, I always felt some sympathy for the Luddites. I don’t really like machines that much.
Douglas: That’s good. You see, I think there is a natural evolutionary force against change and there should be, if human beings changed too quickly they wouldn’t recognise themselves.
David: Well the Luddites lost. If they’d won, change would still have come but technology might have been subservient to people needs, rather than the other way around. Will we need the equivalent of the Luddites now, or will the change come gradually, allow people to acclimatise themselves? […] Being able to confirm or discount a newspaper article about Somalia, say, by contacting someone on the Net out there, is a nice idea, but it doesn’t remove any of the power bases, it simply spreads them out a bit.
Douglas: As I see it, the reason we have powerbases, controllers, people in charge, is because we as a people ask for it, we want it. As a civilisation we are a civilisation of children, who like parent figures to set boundaries for us because we’re scared to make decisions and choices on our own.
David: Is that conditioning or would you say that it’s inherent?
Douglas: It’s both. It’s inherent and we have people condition us because that’s the way we want to grow up. I like to think we are on the brink of our societal adolescence.
David: That’s not too good a prospect.
Douglas: It’s rough, there’s a lot of raging hormones. There’s a time when a kid listens to his parents, he doesn’t like girls he thinks they’re gross, has his own stuff, my this, my that. Finally because he wants to contact another person he breaks down some of his barriers, he reaches out, and I think that’s what happening on a cultural level, people are going, "Well, I’d rather reach out to other people than just take it from up there."
David: But in reaching out down a phoneline or whatever, it gives people confidence, they can be someone else, but in the end they’re going to have to meet them, have social contact.
Douglas: Yeah, this is play, this remedial help for a society that has lost the ability to communicate with itself.
David: I find that easier to believe; that it’s therapy we all need rather than The Answer.
Douglas: It’s not the answer. It’s a stage. As any good pagan knows, this is something we could be doing anyway. We don’t need a fucking computer to contact the entire Gaian mind, all we need are the right drugs, the right ritual or the right state of mind. But I think we have to convince ourselves of that, through a kind of play period.
David: So in a way the computer is a toy, a learning toy like giving a kid a toy to help them read.
Douglas: And that’s why it’s alright now that only the first world has them, because as far as I’m concerned it’s only us that need to learn this. I don’t know if people in Somalia need to learn the same lessons as we do.
David: Only problem is, it’s people in Taiwan or wherever that are making the damn things. The Internet is going to be supported by more exploitation of other worlds, it needs the cheap labour.
Douglas: Every silver lining has an awfully big cloud. […] It’s a slow process.
David: What sort of reception are you getting in America?
Douglas: Fear but different fears, not fear of Somalia not getting computers. Not fear of there not being enough intention. I get fear that kids are going to get addicted to teledildonic sexuality online, they’re not going to listen to their teachers anymore, they’re not going to listen to their parents anymore, that rather than watching public television getting their stories that way, they’re going to talk to some weird radical person and find out about world events through people who’ve no right telling them how they are.
David: Sounds reasonable.
Douglas: Yeah. These are the parents’ fears for themselves.
David: I can see the Net as a good tool to bring people together but there needs to be something else. Travel used to be considered a good thing, you travel the world and you become this wonderful mature person. Now it’s lovely and cheap to travel, people whizz around Europe, station to station, they come back and they’ve learnt nothing; to learn a culture you have to experience it, that’s why I think the Net is too easy, just click your way around the world, no face to face contact. I’m not sure that matures you.
Douglas: I’m not either but it is training. Some person living in a remote region who doesn’t have anyone to share his opinions with, who can’t find anyone to agree with him, he’s reading Noam Chomsky or something. If he gets online he’ll be able to find a community of people who can say, "If you like Chomsky, read this." If a person begins to get positive feedback to their point of view, for what seems like radical wayout ideas in the country they’re living in, then I think they’re more willing to go to the pub or café and say, "Well you know, this is the way it is."
We live in bedroom communities in America. We’re so desocialised. So many people have opinions but they’re too scared to speak out against conformity. It has to be the first step to something else. It’s not an end all.
Photo of Douglas Rushkoff, CC-licensed by Paul May
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