New Inquiry editor Samantha Garcia sat down with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in the green room of Engadget TV for a discussion that ranged from Occupy Wall Street to his new graphic novel, A.D.D., about a team of speed-addled young gamers. Rushkoff’s recent books include Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital age and Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back.
Samantha Garcia: We first met in Zuccotti Park in early November 2011.
Douglas Rushkoff: Oh right, remember? Back in the good old days of protest and revolutionary action.
SG: Of imminent utopia. Since then, we’ve had the Bloomberg eviction, SocialMediaWeek, SxSW — and even an array of seismic sociopolitical events outside the first world. What has life been like for you since then?
DR: Well, around Zuccotti time I was just starting on this book, Present Shock, that’s going to come out in — God knows when. Eight years. The book looks at “presentism”: the idea that we went from being a forward-leaning culture at the end of the 20th century, to a present-based culture now. It’s funny. That talk you and I had after Zuccotti about the letdown of Obama after all that had built up and that Zuccotti and Occupy were almost that campaign, but without him. It’s almost that such a campaign cannot happen around a person. It can only happen in an organic, networked total organism without individual leaders — this leader-ful movement, where everyone has moments of leadership and aspects of leadership. And I’m trying to focus on the possibilities for this kind of organization, this approach to life actually being able to address or mitigate some of the challenges that we’re facing as people now.
On the one hand, I have this optimistic view that we can educate ourselves into something better. But on the other hand — and this is what A.D.D. is about — in some ways, that feels like a retreat. The comic is about these kids who are seeing through the way things are, but that act of seeing is almost an Asperger’s or autism. Seeing pushes them into loneliness and despair. They withdraw.
SG: I want to talk about Adderall specifically, because in A.D.D., amphetamine use is subsumed in the narrative. It’s just another performance enhancer in this universe you’ve created. What’s more apparent in the narrative is the autism spectrum. Are you concerned about the empathic capacity of the future?
DR: I’m what they call a media ecologist, so I believe in media environments — both explicit ones and implicit ones. So it’s like the lightbulb is a media environment, right? You turn on the lightbulb, and you have a different environment because of that medium. But print is a media environment that encourages certain ways of looking at the world. Television changes us. Internet is a media environment. Somehow our media environment, combined with our economic environment, can really amplify one another’s effects in dangerous ways.
Way back in the mid-1990s — when Wired announced that we’re living in an attention economy, when everyone came up with these metrics to measure eyeball hours and the “stickiness” of websites — there was this competition to get our attention. Parallel to that is the sudden emergence of all these attention disorders and new prescriptions for Ritalin. So I’m thinking, we’re living in an attention economy, in which it’s been declared by Wall Street that the one commodity we’ve got to extend in order to make more money is human attention. And then we start drugging our children to pay more attention. I can’t help but worry. Not that there’s a specific conspiracy — Oh, let’s drug the children so they pay more attention — but rather, we’re living in a world where the brunt of our technological know-how is being spent on maintaining attention. Kids start to show these defense mechanisms against paying attention.
That’s why I did this in fiction rather than nonfiction, because, if nothing else, this is a really interesting metaphor for something that feels strange, unresolved, and of concern.
SG: Amphetamines, to me — beyond my anthropological interest as a former Southerner — are the classic capitalist drug, because they mute empathy and spur productivity. I even read that Ayn Rand was doped up on speed when she was finishing her draft of The Fountainhead.
DR: Wow! Right around when they were giving Judy Garland speed so she would be in all those movies.
SG: Exactly. I thought that was really funny. So drugs that were conditioned for long-haul truckers and people who work in factories are now fueling the next generation of knowledge workers. Do you think the current normative Internet is possible without speed?
DR: Yeah. You can either pace to the Net, or you can make the Net pace to you. That’s what my book Program or Be Programmed (2010) is about. People don’t realize that digital technology is asynchronous. The program will wait for you! There’s this four-hour-work-week, zero-inbox philosophy. People I respect talk about that “clean feeling” of getting down to the bottom of your inbox. But the mistake I think they’re making is that there’s two kinds of media: flow media, like Twitter, and storage media, like a book. You can finish a book, but you can’t finish your Twitter in-feed. It’s a stream. You don’t get pond scum on a stream. You don’t get culture. You don’t build. You need stillness. Look at New York. New York is built to promote flow on a grid pattern because it’s a city about money. You have Central Park, which is rounded to impede flow, so you can stop and breathe.
I’m lucky that I’m a speedy person in general, so I can keep up online. Sometimes, if you throw an altered state onto your creative process, you see something from a new angle. But to do some speed in order to get your friggin’ inbox in order … no. It’s the assembly line.
SG: I’ll never forget the day that I realized that everyone around me was on a performance-enhancing drug.
DR: I know. And then you feel like you’re missing something, or that you’ll fall behind. Like in the old days, the reason we had the blue laws, to not work on Sabbath, was because you couldn’t take Sabbath off if other people weren’t taking it off. Then your competitor would get ahead, because he’s working on the day you want to take off. So now the question is that if all the other stockbrokers are taking speed and you’re not, are you at a disadvantage? Yes, you are, if you’re competing in exactly the same area. They’ll burn out and die, and some other kid will replace them on a different speed. You’re still fucked. But if you can say, okay, what abilities do I have as a non-amphetamine-taking person? What can I do? I can see the big picture. I can make certain logical assumptions. I’m capable of contemplation and certain deep thought. In a world like that, with me as an obvious beyond-leftie whatever I am — I make [Noam] Chomsky look like a capitalist at this point, because he belongs to a university — I’m as out there as can be. But I’m getting calls from millionaire corporate CEOs in Europe asking me to come help them understand what their conglomerate does, what value they can create for people and the world. They wouldn’t be turning to Rushkoff-as-speed-freak for that.
SG: Your critiques of market psychology often center on stories of individuals who, against their better nature, atomize for the sake of perceived gain. A.D.D. takes this angle, and then adds a boasting adolescent-male psychology. Honestly, I hope this book is first in a wave of gamification takedowns. A.D.D. illustrates its shadow side: passive consumption paired with mindless competition. The world of Foursquare mayors.
DR: I feel bad because he’s a friend of mine and former student.
SG: I’m influenced by people like Linda Huber, who blogs under “puella ludens” about the importance of active, profitless play in so-called interactive media. Is A.D.D. a comment on gamification?
DR: Not specifically. I hate gamification. Gamification is to play what crowdsourcing is to open source. How can we take this natural, cultural drive toward connection, meaning, purpose, and participation and incorporate it into the economic-growth requirement of corporate capitalism? Foursquare is the easiest example, but everybody’s doing it. I’m sure there are folks at Merrill Lynch gamifying their stock portfolios.
SG: It’s so insidious, obviously, because of the childlike wonder being removed. In A.D.D. you have badges, and everything becomes empty one-upmanship.
DR: The main character becomes the squad’s lead boy, and lead boy is what? You’re in charge of a cafeteria table.
SG: You’re the avatar of an übermensch. Congratulations.
DR: Yeah. Gamification is what American Idol did to music. I know I sound so old, but where I came from, if you even fucking tried out for something like American Idol, it would mean that you were so over.
SG: Super lame! [Both laugh] You can’t game the game.
DR: Can you imagine John Lennon or Bob Dylan trying out for that?
SG: The gender dynamic in A.D.D. is reminiscent of East Asian gaming culture. You create a brutal world of homosocial competition, where sex-selective abortion is basically just a team-management technique. What inspired you to create the character of Kasinda, the one young female gaming star?
DR: In the series version, there was going to be a girl’s side. The boy’s side was going to be all the testing for games, sci-fi and violence. The girl’s side would have all these social-media chicks with Flickr and texting. Kasinda was going to be the girl out of place on the girl’s side. I wanted to keep her, so I came up with the idea that she was this mistake. I wanted to create this Never Let Me Go sexual thing, an inability for people to connect on the physical level. It made it so triply incest-y for him to be the child of both his brother and his mother and to be in love with his half-sister. It was all just so Greek. And the whole idea of the seer is so Oedipal.
SG: I’d still like to see the female affective-labor version, with tweeting chicks and narrative video games.
DR: Yeah, we’d call it D.D.A.
SG: The current issue of The New Inquiry magazine is called “Arguing the Web.” You have written extensively on a cultural transition from the gilded age of online consortia — characterized by a sort of Hyde-ian gift economy — to the petty sniping that goes on now, whether behind avatars or in swarms. Do you think we should bring civic debate back into the flesh-and-blood commons? Is it possible at this point?
DR: It is possible. It’s part of the promise of Occupy. People are occupying their reality and their body. Extreme sports and Burning Man and tattoos and piercings were early reactions to the disembodied, nonempathic Web world. I feel like Occupy and localism are the second, more mature versions of that. That’s why I moved out of the city. I wanted to be in a community. The book I’m doing right now is the last I’m doing in a long time, because I don’t want to be on the machine anymore. I don’t know how many more years I have left or how many more the world has left. I want to be in it. I just heard some woman talking about her kid who could do anything, and decided to make furniture for a job. His grandparents were upset because to them it was a dirty profession. He wanted to do something with his hands.
SG: That’s very typical of my generation. I just heard about a magazine called Kinfolk, which celebrates sitting down to dinner with your friends. Handcraft and social rituals have to be cultural movements now, because these can’t be the status quo.
DR: At least that’s something.
SG: One of your commands for online conduct is to “Be yourself.” What separates your vision of online transparency from corporatist radical-transparency advocates like Mark Zuckerberg?
DR: Well, Mark Zuckerberg is there to profit off your data set; the trail you leave behind. It’s true that if you do what you do publicly, that you can be modeled effectively, and that predictive algorithms can figure out what you’re likely to do. Facebook can figure out which 13-year-old boys are going to turn out to be gay. And that’s weird. So when you have companies like Opera doing data research to model us all against one another? That is dark, indeed. What I’m almost more concerned about is the world in which we feel we have to be anonymous about what we do in order to feel safe. When your public identity is so abused by Facebook reality, people become very mean in their bifurcated, anonymous reality. It’s almost a compensatory thing. I’ve never done anything online anonymously. I should try it just to see. I mean, I guess I’m a member of Anonymous, the movement, on a certain level. We all are. But I’m in Anonymous publicly, if I am. If I’m doing a DDoS attack, I’m doing it as me! I’ll do it with my name attached and keep hitting the button. I don’t care. “Down with you, Scientology!” or the Pentagon, or whoever I’m mad at this week.
SG: Well, overt action may be important when surveillance culture can catch you anyway. One of my favorite quips from A.D.D. was, “Who needs comrades when you have followers?” and in the opening scene of Life, Inc. (2009) you describe a Brooklyn brownstone Internet mob attacking you for driving down their property value when you report your own mugging. Do you think comradeship is still possible online?
DR: It’s weird, because I used to think that the real world was all hierarchical and status-oriented and that the online universe was more egalitarian and peer-to-peer. And now it feels the opposite. You go to a group of 10 people and all of a sudden, you’re only as loud as your one voice. People think I have conservative values now about the Internet, but I wrote the first book just to say, “No, when you’re online, you’re not just a worker, you’re not just a drone. You might be a kid who’s building a new reality and creating something for the future of humanity.” But most kids are no longer doing that. It doesn’t even occur to them to be doing that. That’s why the next thing for me was scale: I don’t need to influence reality on this meta-generic-corporate-blockbuster level. There is a conversation happening there, and I can get on MSNBC to be in that and drop my thought-bombs. But in terms of my actual organic being, there’s a different conversation I need to become a part of — a much more local, immediate, human one.
SG: I have to give you credit: You’re the reason I feel guilty when I don’t grow my own vegetables.
DR: I have to tell you, I tried it and failed. I spent $300 on soil and equipment, and ended up with maybe two salads. I’m better off contributing to the efforts of my community-supported agriculture group.
SG: Who inspires your writing right now?
DR: I get more clear about my formative influences all the time now. Brecht was really big for me. I’ve gotten beyond it, but it was so foundational, the idea of “Can you entertain people and feed them ideas at the same time?” Mcluhan. Robert Anton Wilson, in terms of recognizing that you’re in various reality tunnels. Harvey Pekar, in terms of being a participant in the real world. I liked Eli Pariser’s book Filter Bubble, which shows people they don’t know what they’re missing. Google, for all its Android openness, is not necessarily secretive, but it’s not transparent. The kind of people who came to my Contact Conference inspire me; the guys doing FreedomBox and FreedomTower. I’m inspired by Code Academy, these kids who dropped out of Columbia to create this super-free programming education online, and they’ve reversed the money equation. Rather than you paying for your education, they make companies pay for access to you. They make money through finder’s fees. As for reading, it’s hard for books to keep up. I love terrestrial radio.
SG: A.D.D. is pitched as a young-adult graphic novel. Have your experiences as a parent informed youth-themed projects like this?
DR: My daughter’s only seven. She’s not one of those kids they throw an iPad in front of at age one-and-a-half, and suddenly they’re programming Rube Goldberg simulators. She likes dolls and puppets and make-believe play. Part of what motivated me was seeing just how prevalent and real it is. Half the kids in her nursery school had a person there just for your kid to help them with sensory integration issues. Everybody’s got a diagnosis these days. There are very few kids who are what they call “ neurotypical.” Some people might think I’m making light of these disorders. I’m not saying that video games cause spectrum disorders, but certain disorders are sure like ’em!
SG: A.D.D. reminded me of a classical Greek story arc, where you have a sibyl or seer who is separated from society, or individuated, and suffers for that.
DR: That’s what I meant it to be. You can’t be of the body and see the body at the same time. Without giving too much away, I went the other way with that, saying, “Okay, kids, you can change the world!” And them saying, “Screw it. The grown-ups are going to screw up the world.”
SG: Abandoning the meatworld and its body politic.
DR: [Laughs] In the early days, as any kind of psychedelic cyber-utopian would, I was into that gnostic trip, that Kurzweillian “omigod, we’re going to build the virtual mind!” As I grew up, I realized, “Oh no! There is no virtual mind!” The virtual mind is fucking Facebook or something. I don’t want to upload my consciousness!
SG: That’s a very permeable arrangement! So back to the comic book, I think A.D.D. is my favorite moral mutant story since the glory days of X-Men.
DR: Grant Morrison said the same thing, so that made me happy.
SG: You’ve scripted documentary, written histories, and played in bands. Can you tell me about your collaborators at Vertigo, and what you learned from storyboarding a graphic novel?
DR: Vertigo’s process is different from the traditional Marvel process where you’re sitting around doing that. The comic I wrote before this, Testament, had actual innovative panel concepts. There were characters who lived outside the panel, reached into the panel. But this was very straight up. It started out pitched as a series about these kids who have special abilities and live in this facility but escape, almost like The Incredible Hulk, going from place to place and solving all these problems because they see the world in a different way. And then they decided it would be a graphic novel. I was going to start with a utopia where you get to play video games, you get to masturbate, everything’s free, and it’s shopping mall perfection. My editor, Jonathan Baken, said, No, start with the premise that this was fucked up. As a nonfiction writer, it was unbalancing, but that’s the way drama works. They wanted this to be accessible to the so-called young-adult reader, and to move like a regular comic book, not like some highfalutin’ graphic novel written by a media-theorist guy. They laid out these rules: no more than two dialogue balloons per panel. No more than three characters per panel. Five panels per page.
SG: To me, the rules were successful. Perhaps this reveals my own attention deficit, but for 50% of the story I was consumed by propulsive denouement.
DR: In no sense was A.D.D. a dumbing-down, but rather a simplified, straightforward storytelling style. I’ve always felt you could either say something new, or say something old in a new way. With Testament, there were retold Bible stories. With Cyberia, my first book, was the unknown hypertext universe written as a straight-up nonfiction book. Boom.
SG: I was surprised to find myself jumping from panel to panel really quickly. Do you think that this pacing will influence your next project?
DR: I don’t know. If I do another graphic novel, yeah. This was my first successful work of fiction since Ecstasy Club. First novels are sort of easy in a weird way because you’ve got so much autobiographical momentum, and you’re young, and it leans forward just because that’s the way you are.
SG: And then there’s the sophomore slump. I know a lot of young writers just getting to that place right now.
DR: Right! so I was in sophomore slump from 30 to 49 in terms of fiction. Nonfiction, I know how to hit those out of the park. And that’s not to show off: Some people know how to make a really good pancake. I know how to write a really good nonfiction book. I did some screenplays, and they had great ideas but didn’t function well as a good, old-fashioned yarn-spin. I felt that spinning a yarn was like throwing a bone to the masses.
SG: You’re capitulating.
DR: Yeah, to some commercial thing. My old high school buddy, Aaron Sorkin, is the best in the world at that. He can take something and make that feel-good, emotional, ironic undertow. That’s what he does. I bridled against traditional Aristotelian narrative because it’s wrong on some level. Things are more complex. There’s no closure. so I always looked at act of storytelling the way artsy European films do. “Is it over? Oh it’s the credits! Omigod! So are they getting together, or not?” But those don’t conform to Robert McKee’s story, and on some level, they exude an audience contempt that the audience doesn’t deserve. They paid their money; they want to feel good.