Douglas Rushkoff

Post-industrial Society

Douglas Rushkoff (b. 1961) is an American media theorist, graphic novelist, and documentarian. He is best known for his association with the early cyberpunk culture, and his advocacy of open source solutions to social problems. Rushkoff coined the terms: viral media (or media virus), digital native, and social currency. He has written ten books on media, technology, and culture.

He wrote the first syndicated column on cyberculture for ‘The New York Times Syndicate,’ as well as a regular column for ‘The Guardian of London.’ Rushkoff currently teaches in the Media Studies department at The New School University in Manhattan. He has previously lectured at the ITP at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and taught a class called ‘Narrative Lab.’

Rushkoff was born in New York City, and is the son of Sheila, a psychiatric social worker, and Marvin Rushkoff, a hospital administrator. He graduated from Princeton University in 1983. He moved to Los Angeles and completed a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the California Institute of the Arts. Later he took up a post-graduate fellowship from the American Film Institute. He was a PhD candidate at Utrecht University’s New Media Program, writing a dissertation on new media literacies, which was approved in 2012.

Rushkoff emerged in the early 1990s as active member of the cyberpunk movement, developing friendships and collaborations with psychologist Timothy Leary, author and talk show host RU Sirius, journalist and comedian Paul Krassner, philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, mathematician Ralph Abraham, psychonaut Terence McKenna, singer-songwriter Genesis P-Orridge, psychologist Ralph Metzner, Scottish comic book writer, playwright, and occultist Grant Morrison, futurist Mark Pesce, journalist Erik Davis, and other writers, artists and philosophers interested in the intersection of technology, society, and culture.

As his books became more accepted (his first book on cyberculture, ‘Cyberia,’ was canceled by its original publisher, Bantam, in 1992 because editors feared the Internet would be ‘over’ by the original scheduled publication date in 1993 – it was eventually published in 1994), and his concepts of the ‘media virus’ and ‘social contagion’ became mainstream ideas, Rushkoff was invited to deliver commentaries on National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered,’ and to make documentaries for the PBS series ‘Frontline.’

In 2002, Rushkoff was awarded the Marshall McLuhan Award by the Media Ecology Association for his book ‘Coercion,’ and became a member and sat on the board of directors of that organization. This allied him with the ‘media ecologists,’ a continuation of what is known as the Toronto School of media theorists including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman. References to media ecologist and Toronto School of Communication founder Marshall McLuhan appear throughout Rushkoff’s work as a focus on media over content, the effects of media on popular culture and the level at which people participate when consuming media.

Simultaneously, Rushkoff continued to develop his relationship with counterculture figures, collaborating with Genesis P-Orridge as a keyboardist for Psychic TV (a video art and music group), and credited with composing music for the album ‘Hell is Invisible Heaven is Her/e.’ Rushkoff taught classes in media theory and in media subversion for New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, participated in activist pranks with the ‘Yes Men’ (a culture jamming activist duo) and eToy (a European digital art group), contributed to numerous books and documentaries on psychedelics, and spoke or appeared at many events sponsored by counterculture publisher Disinformation.

Rushkoff worked with both Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary on developing philosophical systems to explain consciousness, its interaction with technology, and social evolution of the human species, and references both consistently in his work. Leary, along with John Barlow and Terence McKenna characterized the mid-90s as techno-utopian, and saw the rapid acceleration of culture, emerging media and the unchecked advancement of technology as completely positive. Rushkoff’s own unbridled enthusiasm for cyberculture was tempered by the dotcom boom, when the non-profit character of the Internet was rapidly overtaken by corporations and venture capital. Rushkoff often cites two events in particular – the day Netscape became a public company in 1995, and the day AOL bought TimeWarner in 2000 – as pivotal moments in his understanding of the forces at work in the evolution of new media.

He spent several years exploring Judaism as a primer for media literacy, going so far as to publish a book inviting Jews to restore the religion to its ‘open source’ roots. He founded a movement for progressive Judaism called ‘Reboot,’ but subsequently left when he felt its funders had become more concerned with marketing and publicity of Judaism than its actual improvement and evolution. Disillusioned by the failure of the open source model to challenge entrenched and institutional hierarchies from religion to finance, he became a colleague of professor of media studies Mark Crispin Miller and social activist Naomi Klein, appearing with them at Smith College as well as in numerous documentaries decrying the corporatization of public space and consciousness.

He has dedicated himself most recently to the issues of media literacy, participatory government, and the development of local and complementary currencies. He wrote a book and film called ‘Life Inc.,’ which traces the development of corporatism and centralized currency from the Renaissance to today, and hosts a radio show called ‘MediaSquat’ on WFMU (a listener-supported, independent community radio station headquartered in Jersey City, New Jersey — it is the longest-running freeform radio station in the U.S.), concerned with reclaiming commerce and culture from corporate domination.

Rushkoff’s philosophy developed from a techno-utopian view of new media to a more nuanced critique of cyberculture discourse and the impact of media on society. Viewing everything except for intention as media, he frequently explores the themes of how to make media interactive, how to help people (especially children) effectively analyze and question the media they consume, as well as how to cultivate intention and agency. He has theorized on such media as religion, culture, politics and money.

Up to the late-90s, Douglas Rushkoff’s philosophy towards technology could be characterized as media-deterministic (a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values). Cyberculture and new media were supposed to promote democracy and allow people to transcend the ordinary. In ‘Cyberia,’ Rushkoff states the essence of mid-90s culture as being the fusion of rave psychedelia, chaos theory and early computer networks. The promise of the resulting ‘counter culture’ was that media would change from being passive to active, that we would embrace the social over content, and that empowers the masses to create and react.

This idea also comes up in the concept of the ‘media virus,’ which Rushkoff details in the 1994 publication of ‘Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture.’ This significant work adopts organic metaphors to show that media, like viruses, are mobile, easily duplicated and presented as non-threatening. Technologies can make our interaction with media an empowering experience if we learn to decode the capabilities offered to us by our media. Unfortunately, people often stay one step behind our media capabilities. Ideally, emerging media and technologies have the potential to enlighten, to aid grassroots movements, to offer an alternative to the traditional ‘top-down’ media, to connect diverse groups and to promote the sharing of information.

Rushkoff does not limit his writings to the effect of technology on adults, and in ‘Playing the Future’ turns his attention to the generation of people growing up who understand the language of media like natives, guarded against coercion. These ‘screenagers,’ a term originated by Rushkoff, have the chance to mediate the changing landscape more effectively than digital immigrants. In ‘Coercion’ (1999), Rushkoff realistically examined the potential benefits and dangers inherent in cyberculture and analyzed market strategies that work to make people act on instinct (and buy!) rather than reflect rationally. The book entreated people to ‘read’ the media they consume and interpret what is really being communicated.

Himself an atheist, in ‘Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,’ Rushkoff explores the medium of religion and intellectually deconstructs the Bible and the ways that religion fails to provide true connectivity and transformative experiences.

Most recently, Douglas Rushkoff has turned his critical lens to the medium of currency. One of the most important concepts that he coins and develops is the notion of social currency, or the degree to which certain content and media can facilitate and/or promote relationships and interactions between members of a community. Rushkoff mentions jokes, scandals, blogs, ambiance, i.e. anything that would engender ‘water cooler’ talk, as social currency. In ‘Life, Inc.,’ Rushkoff takes a look at physical currency and the history of corporatism. Beginning with an overview of how money has been gradually centralized throughout time, and pondering the reasons and consequences of such a fact, he goes on to demonstrate how our society has become defined by and controlled by corporate culture.

Rushkoff has long been skeptical of social media. In 2013, he announced in a CNN op-ed that he was leaving Facebook, citing concerns about the company’s use of his personal data.

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