Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Media Resistance – An Interview with Douglas Rushkoff

In july 2007 I had the opportunity to Interview Douglas Rushkoff for the Israeli site NRG (The internet site for the Israeli newspaper Maariv).

For those of you who don't know Rushkoff, he is considered by many to be one of the most important media critics of the last decades. He has published a series of bestseller books such as Media Virus and Coercion: Why we listen to what they say which deal (among other things) with media ecology, subversive uses of media and the way media, culture and people interact.

Rushkoff has also written a series of fictional books. Such as the ambitious graphical novel Testament: Akedah which transpires in part in a futuristic world in which future draftees are implanted with location tracking devices and whose other part follows the life of the biblical Abraham in 3 different episodes in his life.

It should be already apparent that Rushkoff does not cringe from taking two seemingly disparate topics and mixing them together. One of these at first surprising links that he's made and which made him both a sought after as well as controversial figure in American Judaism was the idea of "Open Source Judaism" – a blending of Judaism and open source, which actually might not be a blending at all, since for Rushkoff the two reverberate perfectly.

Judaism is for Rushkoff a religion of open source activists, literate people who can see the world around them as a code which can be read consciously and critically and also rewritten or reprogrammed. Judaism is thus actually a lesson in media literacy, our ability to be smart readers of the mediums and realities around us. It is not without reason, says Rushkoff, that the coming of age ceremony of Judaism is the Bar Mitzvah. In proving to be able of reading the biblical text, the code one becomes an adult.

In his Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, Rushkoff states that the basic values of Judaism are critical thinking and the readiness to destroy idols and stay on a never ending, convention breaking search. Rushkoff sees in these Jewish values powerful vehicles which can assist the modern man who is bombarded by a flood of aggressive media and marketing schemes.

If you ask me it is a shame that Rushkoff's ideas about Judaism has thus far not reached the Israeli public, since his radical reading of Judaism could well benefit the moldy image of Judaism in Israeli society today. This was partly the reason for this interview which opted to seek a different angle on Judaism and media.

Judaism is open source

Hartogsohn: Hey Douglas, so what is actually open source religion and open source Judaism?

Rushkoff: I suppose the easiest way to say it is that open source religion is the contention that religion is not a pre-existing truth but an ongoing project. It may be divinely inspired, but it is a creation of human beings working together. A collaboration.

I wrote a book on Open Source Judaism, entitled Nothing Sacred, because I thought Jews in particular needed to reconnect with the open source ethos at the religion's core. For many completely understandable reasons, Jews often use Judaism to justify certain static conditions - presumptions about race, nation, and favoritism. There's a need to "lock down" the religion and understand its stories historically rather than mythologically. And this makes it impossible to actually *do* Judaism.

Judaism is a process of interaction, deliberation, and ethical action. It's the process by which we make the world a better place. This was a radically original and revolutionary idea a couple of thousand years ago. It was illegal to presume that human beings can actually alter the story of the world. But that's what the escape from Mitzrayim (Egypt) was all about.

This is the original open source idea: to learn the underlying codes of the world in which we live, and rewrite them together to serve us all better. To participate.

Hartogsohn: Is this an essentially Jewish thing?

Rushkoff: Now, I do think Judaism's sister religions, as well as those that derived from Judaism - such as Christianity and Islam - have open source tenets as well. But I don't feel they're quite as central as they are in Judaism. People in these other religions really are supposed to *believe* things. As I've come to understand it, Judaism is more about crashing beliefs than constructing them.

Hartogsohn: When we carefully scrutinize Jewish culture from the Talmud and to the way Jewish Halacha has been assembled and received over the ages we can see it is actually already open source. Is open source Judaism anything new, or is it just radical in the meaning of getting back to the roots of Judaism?

Rushkoff: It is as classical as Judaism gets. But Jews don't practice Judaism anymore. It is too scary in light of all that's going on in the world. Judaism is just as hard as Buddhism or any real spiritual path. And it is incompatible with the rationale that American Jews, in particular, use to justify their lives.

It's particularly difficult to justify Israel using Torah stories if you want to also use those stories allegorically. The whole idea that everything is up for discussion is too threatening to those who need to use the text for political reasons. And the enforcement of certain ideas tends to require unifying myths, rather than open ones. If you can get people to believe a particular story in a particular way, they are easier to control.

So the necessities of state and social control really are at odds with the fundamental teachings of Judaism.

Hartogsohn: You have stated before that you see Judaism as a product of media literacy. How is Judaism related to media and media literacy and what is the Jewish message in that aspect?

Rushkoff: To me, Judaism is a product of media literacy. Hieroglyphs were “priestly writing,” and limited to the priest and royal classes. The invention of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet turned the greater population into readers and writers. So when God says to Abraham ‘you will be a nation of priests,’ he may as well be saying ‘you will be a nation who can read and write.’ Imagine that! A whole nation of people who have attained literacy. What would that mean?

It would mean a people who no longer simply react to the whims of their gods, but instead write their own laws, record their own history, and who take the very controversial stand that human action makes a difference. You have to realize, in pre-Israelite times, to say that human beings made a difference was blasphemy – heretical. For the Israelites to run off to the desert after desecrating Egypt’s highest gods (sacrificing a calf was illegal, particularly on April New Year’s Day when he was being revered) and then create a legal and spiritual system based on life – that was revolutionary. Lechaim is a naughty thing to say in a society based on death cults.

Dealing with Media Viruses

Hartogsohn: Your books talk about a world where the people are being attacked and coerced by continually evolving media viruses. How does the hyper-Jew of the media age defend himself against ever evolving media viruses?

Rushkoff: Media Virus isn't about people being attacked by viruses; it's about how people can create and launch their *own* media viruses. Unfortunately, marketers tended to read the book more than radicals, and so it ended up becoming something called "viral marketing." And in this case, yeah, I suppose people are being subjected to something like viral attack. Except for the fact that the marketers are so very inept at what they do, it's more like flood of shit than carefully crafted viral assault.

The way to 'defend," as you put it, against media viruses is to be secure in own code and outlook. Things will always grab your attention if they're crafted well enough. Like an accident at the side of the road. The trick is the second part - is the code within that virus (like the DNA within a biological virus) - capable of confusing your own thoughts and intentions? You have to know who you are and what you want. Then, a piece of new information can be parsed and digested without throwing you totally off balance. You choose to interpolate the new idea or not to.

Hartogsohn: Your book Coercion which aimed to help consumers gain control in the consumer-media arms race. At the same time you also acknowledge that "they" are really "us" and meanwhile you also consult for corporations like Sony which wish to stay cutting edge. How can "Us" win against "They" when you are on both sides? Can one work with corporations and still "do no evil"?

Rushkoff: My book Coercion was aimed at helping consumers gain some agency in a consumer-media arms race. My book Media Virus was really a celebration of the datasphere's new complexity. I was celebrating how it was now operating more like an organism than a system of control.

Coercion took a step back, and tried to help people see how easily they transferred their autonomy to others. The idea of Coercion is that we see many institutions and people as a "they" - as an authority. When there actually is no such authority. We create "they." Without us, "they" don't exist.

As far as your us and them, there is none. There's only us. There are many human beings working in corporations who are the most programmed beings on the planet. Yes, they are doing terrible terrible stuff - but that's the reason why real thinking human beings need to go in there and help them come back into consciousness. Sometimes, it means convincing people in corporations to quit their jobs. I've done that. Sometimes it means helping a small group take over the company - take it back from those who have perverted its deeper purpose. I've done that.

Sometimes I just give up. I realize the place is too big and the people are too hardened to hear what I have to say. But those aren't the kinds of places that invite me in, to begin with. They look at my website or read my articles and very quickly understand what it is I'd be asking them to do.

Regrettably, Most people seem to think money is real

Marshall McLuhan used to say "There is absolutely no inevitability, so long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening." Understanding Media, McLuhan's masterpiece reads like a catalog of technologies, media and the symptoms they create. Rushkoff who is considered to be one of McLuhan's theoretical followers in the field of media critic today seeks to raise the consciousness to the various way media functions and foster an active and creative approach to media instead of passive reception.

Hartogsohn: Can the role of media be reversed? Can it turn from a disempowering agent into an empowering force? If so, then How?

Rushkoff: I think your questions betray an over-determined, almost binary way of understanding the world. I don't think things go one way and then we turn them around and make them go another. It is not just one thing. The media is many things, and it acts in many ways at many times on many people.

I think the best first step for helping people exploit media in appropriate, life-affirming ways would be to teach the biases of media. Different media have different biases. They were created with different purposes in mind. TV was created to market. The Internet was created to share. What is a blog? Is that the only way to use the Internet, or are there others? How was the Internet changed from a sharing medium to a publishing medium? Why does Rupert Murdoch like MySpace so much?

By understanding how different media and platforms work, and what sorts of behaviors they encourage, who in particular they empower, we end up in a better position to choose what we do.

But the first step is understanding that this stuff is programmed. It's not pre-existing. It's coded by people.

Hartogsohn: You have been described as a technorealist. Like Marshall McLuhan in his time you seem to be both the prophet of technological promises as well as a skeptic and harsh critic of the media. Has your view of media changed over the years? Where do you see the promises of new sorts of media and where do you see its dangers now and in the near future?

Rushkoff: I'm less hopeful about the immediate impact of the Internet. I thought we, as a civilization, were more ready for collective agency than we turned out to be. Marketers were faster and smarter than I gave them credit for. And money is a bigger force than I realized back then. I've always understood money to be a medium - something created, with rules, and with biases. But most people seem to think money is real. And that's a true obstacle.

So my belief in the promise of technology remains about the same. My respect for the social conditioning that people have undergone in the last century or so has increased, though. I think you could put the key to the universe in front of them and they would still be afraid to use it.

Go get some air

Hartogsohn: How would you advise our readers to go with their relations with the media: TV, commercials, the net?

Rushkoff: I don't have any single piece of advice that fits everyone. The best I could do would be to ask people to evaluate how a particular media experience makes them feel. Especially afterwards. Do you feel more alive? More social? If the answer to either one is "no," then consider doing something else next time.

Hartogsohn: If you could envision a utopist media society of the future which uses media in a smart and empowering way. How would that society look like?

Rushkoff: My utopian vision of the future is people engaging with one another in real space. Literally breathing together in the same room. If media can make the world more efficient so that people get more time to be with each other, for real, then it will have done its job.

Hartogsohn: Actually you surprise me. I was expecting maybe mind altering virtual realities. Why do you attribute that kind of importance to "real space", what is there about it that is so detrimental and necessary in your opinion.

Rushkoff: The body is a terrific interface for this dimension. The five senses haven't yet been surpassed by a screen and sound interface, and I don't expect them to. Most people can still tell the difference between sexual intercourse with a live human being, and masturbating to sexual imagery on the Internet. This is not a bad thing, as it's just possible there are aspects to sex that can't be recreated in a digital communications medium. Not every parameter of human experience can be taken into account in any interface.

And live contact has much much broader bandwidth than even a fiberoptic connection. People in real space communicate through their bodies, through position, through touch. Incarnate activity has many properties and feedback mechanisms that virtual processes don't.

The object of a virtual reality is not to replace life, just as the object of a map is not to replace the territory. Language doesn't replace emotions. God doesn't replace mystery.


Janet D Cohen said...

This is a fantastic interview. Thanks very much.

Kombo said...

I have read Rushkoff first time.It's very interesting that as earlier I thought Doug is a typical techno psycho man as now it turned to be he is the really sensible man.I mean especially his words on the "real space" and body as the sphere wich determine and define people.
Nonetheless I am pessimist as far possibility of usual user of Internet who secures his own outlook and "code".This is a little unreal vision.Much more real is a vison of normal user of net as a controlled consumer, is it? Because what does it mean that some medium helps people int interacting?If skype helps in interactions of people or not?
These sentences are a little imprecise

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