Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: We are scattered, we are strewn across the country once again.
Micah Saul: Exactly. You are in Washington DC. I am in Clarksville, Arkansas.
Anderson: And that is nuthin’ if not classy. So, this conversation’s one we’ve been planning for a long time. It’s with Douglas Rushkoff.
Saul: Yeah. Before we talk too much about it, when I’ve mentioned to people that we were going to get Rushkoff, the response has either been, “Awesome!” or, “…who?” So I think we should probably give some quick background on who Rushkoff is.
Anderson: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist, and has been since the early to mid-90s. He has written several books. He’s done Frontline documentaries as well. So he’s really versatile. I always hate to use the term “public intellectual” because it sounds pretentious, but they exist. I think they’re good things. Douglas is one of them. His intellectual odyssey has been fascinating. He’s talked about media extensively, but he’s also talked about the slope of currency in economics, and he’s talked about the need for digital literacy in a democratic society. You know, he’s one of these thinkers who brings in a multitude of different ideas and sort of weaves them together in really cool, unexpected ways.
Saul: One of the cool things I think about the fact that he has been…well he’s been a media theorist for so long and in exactly the right years. So when he first sort of sprung into the public eye, he was very much associated with the cyberpunk authors and cyberpunk culture in general, early Wired magazine. But he was very much a tech utopianist, right. They were looking at the sort of transformative powers of the early Internet, and the Internet was going to democratize everything.
And as the Internet and as the tech industry has evolved over the years, you’ve also been able to follow the evolution of his own thought on it to where he is now, which is certainly not a tech utopianist. Much more critical of tech and what it does to us as people.
Anderson: And also rooting it within these other systems, too, you know, when we mentioned economics earlier. And all of that stuff is going to come to play here. So I think this is a really neat conversation. I’m very happy with how it turned out. He opens up a lot of new issues and uses a lot of new language to describe old issues that we’ve seen before, some of the big ones being what is knowable. And if we think about my favorite back and forth of two adjacent episodes in this project was Robert Zubrin and Wes Jackson, and that was largely a conversation about what can we know. And Douglas is going to jump in on that conversation and talk about it in some new ways involving quantification and the ways that capitalism has encouraged us to see the world.
Saul: Right. So… Shit, I was just about to do my standard here you go. So, I’m not not going to do that.
Anderson: So hard to not do that.
Anderson: You know, we always get to these points, and we have real difficulty segueing out of our nice description, and it’s like god, we want one pithy sentence that just gets us out of this awkward introduction and into the damn conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So let me just ask you the preposterously big question, which is, what is the crisis of the present? If you were to name one, and that’s a totally simplistic thing… But something that we really need to be thinking about that you address in your work.
Douglas Rushkoff: I hate to go meta on you, but—
Anderson: Oh, no. Go for it. This is a ridiculous project. We love the meta.
Rushkoff: I mean, for me the crisis of the present is presentism itself, or what I’ve been calling present shock. You know, it’s the effort by so many people to get the effects that we used to get over time in the moment. So, whether it’s Wall Street people trying to somehow reap the harvest of an investment through the trade rather than over time. Or people trying to somehow catch up with the peripheral input coming at them from their various Twitter and Facebook feeds. Or people trying to make sense of the world by drawing connections between everything in the moment rather than looking at any sweep of history or some cause and effect of where things came from. You end up with kind of a present-based society. Which is cool in some ways, if it was genuinely in some Tao now, but is freaky bad in other ways if people no longer have temporal context. And when they don’t, you end up with all of these what I would consider resultant crises. Which is kind of the impatience of the Tea Party, or the apocalyptic fantasies of everyone from Kurzweil to Pinchbeck.
The inability of people to tolerate waiting or being, and their utter confusion with living on a digital landscape or in what we’d call a digital media environment… They don’t really see the difference between a reality that’s shaped by the sweep second hand, and one that’s shaped more by the sequential logic of the digital clock, and that they’re really different things.
Anderson: I mean, it seems like essentially there’s a problem here and that’s we are a biological organism that deals with a certain amount of information and deals with it better or worse depending on how much is coming in. And we have a lot coming in. Is that part of this?
Rushkoff: It’s part of it—
Anderson: Or is it how it’s coming in?
Rushkoff: I’m less concerned with how the biological organism is sort of receiving all this flood of data. In other words it’s not the data smog or the information overload, or the failure of filters. But it’s more the way that we are trying, as little biological beings in time, the way we’re trying to have more than one instance of ourselves. You know, we’re trying to be in more than one place at the same time. So there’s Google identity and your Facebook Identity and your Twitter identity. You’re in all these different places and people are expecting you to kind of be in all those places at once. And the dominance of your incarnate existence seems to be fading in relation to that.
Anderson: That’s really intriguing because I’ve had people in this project talk about sort of data smog or gluts of information. But this is very different. This is definitely…you are demanded to be in multiple locations at once. Which seems like a very different challenge. What are the ramifications of that?
Rushkoff: Well, I guess the biggest ramification is people refuse to accept the reality of the cycles of time that affect who we are. There’s this sense in a digital universe that time is somehow…generic? One second is the same as the next is the same as the next. And as far as the computer’s concerned, or Facebook’s concerned, that might be true. As far as human beings are concerned, it’s not true at all. The more we learn about neurochemistry and circadian rhythms and biological clocks, the more we see that oh wow, serotonin levels change over the course of a month. Acetylcholine levels change. Dopamine levels change. That each week, really, of the lunar cycle seems to be dominated by one neurotransmitter or another, which makes certain weeks good for systemic thinking, other weeks good for socializing, other weeks good for getting a bunch of work done.
If you just pedal to the metal and kind of ride roughshod over those, you don’t just lose access to these sort of great high leverage points and this ability to do things at opportune times, but you also defeat sort of your natural rhythms and screw yourself up. It’s why shift workers end up getting cancer. It’s because they’re not waking and sleeping when their bodies kinda want them to. They’re working against their melatonin on the simplest level.
Meanwhile, if you do understand the way time works, that time isn’t generic, you can sort of begin to distinguish between what the Greeks used to call kronos and kairos, the two different kinds of time, where kronos is sort of the time you measure like it’s twelve o’clock, it’s one o’clock. The number time. And kairos is really time as opportune moments, the timing, the readiness. And people who have retained a sense of kairos always seem to be in the right place at the right time. And that’s because they’re recognizing what maybe looks to people now like some New Age weirdness but is the contours of temporal reality. It’s not all the same. It’s different, you know.
So in uphill moments you do certain things, and downhill moments you do other things. Our negation of that for me coincides with our negation of the complexities of nature, and our negation of the peculiarities of what it means to be human. There’s a lot of people, a lot of them supposedly on my side of the kind of the technologically-interested folks who really believe we can just upload consciousness, or transcend what it means to be human, or accept that human beings are just one stage in information’s inevitable rise to greater complexity—
Anderson: There’ve been a few of them in this project.
Rushkoff: And that’s all caca. You know, what that is is people who’ve so internalized the Christian Apocalyptic eschatology that they don’t even see how informed by religion they are. And these folks, it’s usually the ones who are the loudest atheists, you know. The ones who are out there telling everyone else who doesn’t believe in their particular systems theory. These are the folks who are actually the most steeped in a religious paradigm that they just can’t see.
Anderson: Right, it’s coming in through cultural backdoors.
Rushkoff: Right. Wherever they get nervous, whatever little scientific fact that they actually have no explanation for, is usually where you find their belief system, their completely unsupported handwave. Which is no different than the Creationist handwave about where we all came from.
Anderson: And can you ever get away from that, you know. In this project—
Rushkoff: You can’t get away from that. And that’s…just…fine. The only thing that you have to do if you know you can’t get away from it is know that you can’t get away from it. So the way someone like like me or Jaron Lanier might accept this is to say you know, there’s just stuff. Weirdness. There’s strangeness that we can’t quite…grasp. And before we relegate humanity to the dust bin, we should probably you know, cope a bit, or accept that humans are interesting and strange. That no, the DNA codon doesn’t seem to explain everything. That it’s very environmentally and situationally determined, as well. And this obsessive need to nail it all down denies us access to all of these other great tools for observation which are subtler, weirder tools.
I mean, it’s everything from what’s making you sweat? What’s giving you a hard-on? And these are things that you can’t reduce quite as easily as you can reduce the data on a web site into ASCII, too.
Anderson: I’m interested in other cultural assumptions about quantification itself. A theme in this project has been seeing quantification and sort of market thinking spread everywhere. And is quantification itself something that we’re overapplying? Is that part of the the cultural world that we live in that is a problem?
Rushkoff: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. What you’re talking about goes kinda all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. When you quantify things like we all started to do again in the Renaissance, you’re implying this kind of formal cause for everything, or these sort of absolute forms. And they are very useful as constructs, but they are constructs, right. The exact. Certain things are digital and perfect. Like, how many kids do you have? Two. You’re not going to have two and a half kids. I mean, if you do, that half child’s going to be—
Anderson: Just going to be totally screwed up.
Rushkoff: Yeah, exactly. This is a bad thing. So there are certain things that are discrete like that. But there’s a lot of things that are not discrete in that way. It’s funny, even… It’s interesting, in Talmudic law, or it might even be Torah law, you’re not allowed to count people.
Rushkoff: Yeah, you’re not allowed to do a census. There’s probably all these political reasons for it, but it’s also the idea of making people discrete countable units. But there was a lot that was gained by quantifying things. And it really had to do with dealing with a world in which the feudal lords of medieval Europe were no longer accepted as kind of the owners of everything. The world changed from one where their ownership was justified as an act of God to one where their ownership was justified mathematically.
So, the creation of contracts and charters and money systems and financial rules, and even two-column accounting, all came down to the implementation of mathematical and logical mechanisms that served the extant owners of stuff. So how do people with money make money by having money? How do people with ownership of land make money by extracting value from that land? How do we look at the rest of the world, these pre-colonized regions like America and Africa? How do we quantify them? How do we lay them out in such a way that whatever might be considered the innate, inalienable rights of people or to regents or indigenous pop—how do we just break it down? The longitude and the latitude line, and here’s this territory and here’s the company that gets it?
So, the world ends up increasingly abstracted into these more numerical values and regions. So, place becomes territory, and territory becomes property. Property becomes lease, and lease becomes deed. And deed and title become mortgage, and mortgages become derivatives. And derivatives become credit default swaps. So we end up with all of these increasingly abstracted representations of reality.
And yeah, in such a world of course you’re going to walk around thinking of things in terms of this property value versus that one. What are my metrics? So that your life ends up locked down into into kronos, really. Into this single timeline instead— Something like the brain is a multi-dimensional tool through which you can continually reinterpret your past. The most beautiful thing about your past, I think, is that it is changeable. I can look at my past in one year and say, “Oh, lookit. That’s the upbringing of a troubled, neurotic child.” And the next year I can understand it as, “Oh, well look at that as the upbringing of a young artist in a troubled society.” That ability to change context, for the past to be liquid, I think is so important for us as humans. It’s not important for us as market segments, as consumers, as… If your object is to make human beings more and more predictable, and more and more predetermined, then MyLifeBits or something is a great way of looking at it. It’s weird. And that’s maybe I’m just generationally wrong, you know—
Anderson: I don’t think it’s a generational thing, based on the conversations I’ve had. In this project we’ve been talking about monism and pluralism, in terms of just thinking about the universe and what makes it up. And it seems like a lot of the the things we’ve been talking about here, in terms of what are those weird aspects of memory, or of personality, what are those things that defy quantification, and then what are the values of quantification, what do we get from it? It seems like both of those sort of ultimately stem from a philosophical place where you look out at the universe and you say, “There is one kind of thing, and it is matter, and it is predictable.” Or you look out at the universe and you say, “Maybe there is more than matter that we can measure or perceive.” Or we only have the tools [crosstalk] to perceive the matter and not the other stuff.
Rushkoff: Yeah, but if those of us who are on the “there’s more here than meets the eye” side… If we relegate that kind of argument to the “weirdness” side, that’s unfair. So it’s like, the rationalists end up with the entirety of capitalism on their side.
Anderson: And all of Newtonian science.
Rushkoff: And all of Newtonian science. And we end up with me, RU Sirius, Jaron Lanier, and the New Age community.
Anderson: And maybe the Marfa lights.
Rushkoff: And the Marfa lights, right. The multi-trillion dollar engines of capitalism are increasingly depending on the quantification of human activity. So you’ve got the market research firms like Axiom and Claritas, or if it’s the big data firms like Opera and EMC at this point, whether you’re trying to promote consumption or fight terrorism, the quantification, modeling, and statistical reduction of human activity to predictable algorithms, really…it’s a real uphill battle to fight that.
Anderson: It’s interesting because you’ve used new language to describe something I think I’ve been seeing, but I haven’t been talking about directly in this project, which is a rift between people who are more interested in quantification and the people who feel that quantification has more limits.
Rushkoff: Yeah. And this is really what folks like Norbert Weiner were trying to warn us about when they were looking at the beginnings of systems theory and sort of pre-fractals, and saying, “Well, the purpose of this stuff is not to reduce human activity to computer-quantifiable legends, but rather to try to elevate computer activity so that it has some feedback.” We’re trying to make computers more human, not humans more machine-like.
Anderson: I was having this conversation with my co-host the other day when we were talking about one of the the biohackers I’d recently interviewed, and we were talking about how he frames all of his understanding of the human mind in terms of computer metaphors, both hardware and software. Do you think there’s any way to sort of avoid that we will project our current technological systems as our metaphorical language on what we are, and to some extent try to conform ourselves to our metaphors?
Rushkoff: No. Well, there’s no way around that. But we can at least be conscious of it, and conscious of, you know, when we had a clockwork universe and we equated humans with machines. “Oh, we’re going to wind her up.” Or when we were in a radio and television based universe and we started to talk about everything as waves. “I’m being on the frequency,” and all that. Now we’re in a computer age, and we’re thinking of ourselves as well as RAM and hard drives and getting with the program. As long as we’re aware that these are metaphors then we’re fine. The minute we think it’s real is when we get awfully screwed up.
Anderson: And do we generally seem to think that it’s real?
Rushkoff: Yeah. I mean, people are losing the ability to engage with metaphor at all, actually. We don’t…
Anderson: That’s an interesting comment. Can you explain that more?
Rushkoff: Yeah. I mean we’re we’re in a world with reality TV. Stuff that’s actually happening. We don’t understand parable. We don’t understand metaphor. People look at the Bible as a historical record of humanity rather than a brilliant set of metaphors about the human condition. And they end up denying themselves the richness of what it is, and locking themselves into some real stupidity. And then shuttering themselves as to the actual history of where this stuff came from. If you understand who wrote this stuff and when it happened, the audience it was intended for, you end up getting something really deep.
So our inability to engage with metaphor and allegory denies us of the sort of dimensional perspective we need to understand where we’re at, and flattens out reality into this, again, this timeline, which is not the only way to understand what’s what’s happened and what’s happening.
Anderson: I’d like to explore a hypothetical here. We’ve talked about our notions of time, our notions of maybe not appreciating some less-quantifiable things in the world. Where does that take us if, as a large cultural mindset, it continues?
Rushkoff: Quantifying the entirety of reality isn’t as much of a problem as accepting that data set as reality. What happens is we lose awareness of and access to all the nooks and crannies that haven’t been quantified. It’s one of the main arguments I make in Program or Be Programmed, the one that gets digital enthusiasts so upset, is that there’s nothing happening between the samples. There’s nothing there. The simple reality is we’ve sampled what we know is there to sample so that we can come up with a number to explain each of those things.
But any of the things we haven’t taken into account aren’t there. They’re just not there. It’s dead space. And reality isn’t like that. Still, there is more information in a single square inch of soil than we have terabytes to record. There’s so much going on that we just don’t know. If we really knew it, we’d be living in a different world. We don’t. We just don’t.
Anderson: Do you think it is knowable?
Rushkoff: I don’t think so. I mean, I think it keeps going. I think it keeps…going. And if it is knowable, then we’re at a tiny .00001% of figuring out what’s there. Maybe it’s knowable in some other civilization. But with the tools and recording devices and metrics that we’re using, no. It’s not. It’s not knowable.
Anderson: This makes me think of this awesome back and forth that happened just by pure coincidence in this conversation. Are you familiar with Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society? We had a really fascinating conversation about what can you know, and sort of when you’re making environmental changes in policy decisions, what do you feel you’re justified in doing. And his feeling was we can understand systems well enough. There are no limits on the planet because our creativity is unlimited. We can rationally rearrange the universe to suit us.
And the subsequent interview I recorded was with a guy named Wes Jackson. And he’s on completely the opposite end of the spectrum, even as a scientist. And he said we can’t know. The problems are too big. We are embedded within the system. Our actions feed back to us in ways that we cannot rationally understand yet. And it may just be that the system is simply too complex.
Anderson: But that because of that, you need to be really careful with how you tread in terms of trying to rationally rearrange the world.
Rushkoff: Right. I mean, it’s the difference between thinking of humans being made in God’s image or humans being gods ourselves. If humans are made in God’s image, and let’s use that allegorically for now, it means that we’re not quite animals but we’re not quite God, either. We’re somewhere in between.
So, we are conscious. We are creative. And we are also embedded, right. We’re also made of this stuff and in this stuff. So, we’re more aware of it than a rock or a worm or a dog, but we are still inside the system. We’re still, you know, the fish in the aquarium can’t really know what water is because it’s all we know. And there’s some really super duper obvious stuff that’s staring us in the face that we don’t see because it’s just…there. And we have to try to intuit a lot of these things.
So yeah, I think that we are both responsible for conforming the world to our designs. Certainly we’ve gone far enough that we can’t go back. But we are unqualified to make the kinds of huge, sweeping universal and oversimplified changes that we want to make.
Anderson: That puts us in a weird position, doesn’t it? Like, unable to reverse, almost forced, in a way, to make decisions that we’re incapable of making well.
Rushkoff: Yeah, but that’s the challenge of being human. And that’s why we have the arts, and religion, and community, and all these other things that help us… They help make these choices less stark. They create experience and buffers around things. And we’ve got guys like…even like Bucky Fuller, who help us see that reality is a design challenge. And that once you understand that, you move a bit more gingerly through this. And that brings us again back to the problem of corporate capitalism as currently practiced. Everything has to get bigger faster. That’s not great.
Anderson: Where does all of this when you just see the world in terms of stuff… What’s kind of our worst-case scenario? And then, what’s a better scenario?
Rushkoff: The worst-case scenario is that this quantification of reality into a top line and a bottom line of a corporate balance sheet…is we end up oversimplifying our reality into discreet measurable units that negate or avoid some other pressing, unrecognized metric that then bites us in the ass to the point where the planet becomes uninhabitable by our species.
Anderson: So there’s a real problem down that road.
Rushkoff: Yeah, I think. But if you abandon the immanence of the eschaton—
Anderson: And can we define “eschaton” real quick?
Rushkoff: A big big change. If you don’t think that we’re about to have a big big change, then we either need a rather rapid acceptance of the new normal and what might to many look like a compromised vision of the future. But to me it looks like a much happier vision. What if we in a sense retire colonialism? Really retire it, and say, “Okay, we’re in a new phase. It’s not about conquering new things,” and what if we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to move towards a more sustainable view of reality.” There’s that. There’s folks like Howard Bloom… I still don’t know if he’s sane or insane, but he would say, “No, you just gotta push push push forward. If we don’t push forward, the Arabs are going to push forward on us,” and…
Anderson: Complete Hobbesian sort of mindset.
Rushkoff: Yeah. Maybe, you know, maybe he’s right. I’ve lived a sheltered Western life. The thing is it’s just hard to look at it all as warlike. And I think it’s kind of a joke also for Westerners and some to think that we’re fighting over the fate of the world, when you’ve got the Chinese there who’ve been doing something else for as long as the Jews, really. You know, they’re an old civilization. And they are not imperialist. Or they haven’t been. They’re not out there colonizing places. I mean, they’re trying to get resources now, that’s true, and make business arrangements. But China’s always been basically where they are. Japan invaded China. China isn’t busy invading Japan. They look at themselves as “here we are” and they’ve got this weird elite that kinda runs their thing. They’ve got this sense of a civilization that they’ve been a part of for a long time. And sometimes I wonder if our future may end up looking a little bit more like China than theirs looking like ours.
Anderson: So, I can think of a few examples where they colonized people, but yeah not many. I mean, the Middle Kingdom is the Middle Kingdom.
Anderson: At the same time it seems like now their focus is on economically growth in a way that seems very…Western, in a way that capitalism seems to be able to port over to other cultures with relative ease.
Rushkoff: It seems Western, but I look at it more as them seeing this as one tool they can use to feed their people and manifest their destiny as the great Earth’s empire. But I feel like they look at China as their planet, you know.
Anderson: So, let’s run with that view. So, there is this sense that if you’re okay with your boundaries, whether that’s the Earth or China or your local community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Whatever it is. To actually be contented with that and not fixated on growth as an end…as a good, in a way. What replaces that, in terms of where do you get value in your life, right? Because I think for us there’s a real sense that growth is natural, right. And that’s not always stated, but I think it’s like…to think of other value like, where do you get it from? Is it in the conversation that we’re having here? Is it in having a meal with someone? What are those sources of value that let you be within your local space sustainably?
Rushkoff: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. I mean you could trace progress back to capitalism and the need for growth of capital. Once we started borrowing money from central treasuries, it had to be paid back at interest, so you had to find more money to do that, so you needed to grow, right. So, implicit in our economic model is growth. If it doesn’t grow, the rich get poor, and that is intolerable. That doesn’t work. It breaks.
But you could also look at progress all the way back to the invention of history, with the invention of the alphabet and the Axial Age, when we shifted from kind of a circular civilization to a linear one. And that’s when we got the Jews and the calendar and the notion of well, next year we could be better than this year, and the year after that we can be better than that year. And it wasn’t about growing, so much as progress. Progress meant becoming more ethical, or closer to God, or whatever it was.
Anderson: So you get a notion of progress first, and later progress and growth are conflated.
Rushkoff: Yeah. And there’s a lot of ways to look at nature as growing, and you know it’s very Darwinian in that sense. But you know, you could also look at nature like the rainforests or the coral reef. Yeah, things are competing, but they’re competing in a kind of homeostasis. I mean the good thing about homeostasis is, you know, it lasts a long time because it’s balanced.
Rushkoff: When you keep moving, when you keep driving, it’s weird. I mean, we’ll see. I just don’t… I don’t have enough faith in our abilities to see this kind of Monsanto Genentech future where we really crack the fundamental codons of nature in time for us to get ourselves out of this mess.
On the other hand, I understand the argument that for every one of me that’s talking like that, I’m just slowing down those who are dedicated to it. That every thing I say against capitalism, every Occupy moment, is hurting American industry’s efforts to bring us into a bright genetically-modified cyber future.
Anderson: Which by some definitions of progress would be great.
Rushkoff: Right. I mean, if they are the only way out, then we’ve got to go with Howard Bloom and Kevin Kelly, pedal to the metal. That anything other than full speed ahead is a greater probability of failure.
Anderson: In this conversation we’ve talked a lot about different sources of value that don’t involve pedal to the metal plunging into this future. How do you make the case for that in a world where a lot of people conflate growth and progress, and conflate more complexity and progress, and maybe don’t see the steady state as anything of virtue?
Rushkoff: Well, then I think the easiest way to argue for moderation is…even if we are going to radically transform nature and humanity, we can also remove the requirement to do so. In other words, if you want to build a great nuclear fallout shelter, cool. You go do that. I can also work to reduce the probability of needing one, at the same time. I’m more interested in that part. Partly because I don’t want to live in a nuclear shelter. And partly because I don’t think it has to go there.
Anderson: So this isn’t biologically written in what we are.
Rushkoff: I don’t think so, but it may be. You know, boys will be boys.
Anderson: That’s the most terrifying application of “boys will be boys” that I’ve ever heard.
Rushkoff: Well, you know, you know. But I don’t believe in inevitabilities. That’s part of what I like about being alive, is that it seems at least like there’s more than one possible future.
Anderson: We’ve pushed off against the idea that current logic can take us down to some pretty dark places. A better place looks like…what?
Rushkoff: Well, I’m more a presentist than a futurist. So I would say a better place looks like…having dinner with the person who lives next door to you. Knowing who they are. A better place is sharing the same snowblower on your block. The better place is easiest to imagine, and ultimately get to, if we look at it in terms of our incremental moment-to-moment choices.
And this is where I differ with the people who are smarter than me (You know, that Mark Crispin Miller, Naomi Klein, and you know, the important people out there.) is that I believe that the way to rehabilitate our intuition about how to do this, about connectivity, is to take baby steps toward more connection with others. To start consciously engaging in non-GDP-increasing activities like sex and card games and play and sharing. And those are really really hard for people to do. It’s very hard not to share stuff with your neighbors but to accept sharing from your neighbors. Because when you do you feel like then you’re going to owe them something, and some relationship has been set up, and you’re having intimacy with strangers, and that’s…how it starts. It’s those baby steps that I’m looking towards.
Anderson: And this is kind of the the last level that I like to take the conversation through, is the idea of good. In here, it seems to be an awareness that you are more than just a quantified being, and that you are connected with other people, and that there’s a source of value form being with those people and sharing experiences with them.
Rushkoff: Right. And that your long-term security as an individual, and as a species, is not going to come from hoarding the stuff you need to safely retire, but rather starting now to create a world in which it is safe for you to retire. And safe means that you have people who are going to help you. We have reached the limits of our ability to defend our helplessness through acquisition.
Anderson: Where did these ideas of good come from? I mean, is this something that you can get from anywhere other than a spiritual place?
Rushkoff: You get it from having fun. I think.
Anderson: So it’s the act of going there, having the dinner party, playing cards, talking to those people, being with them…
Anderson: I’m curious about the places where that doesn’t translate. Where it feels like there’s a split in reality between what you’re enjoying here and calling the good, which motivates this whole vision of the future, and some transhumanist who’s over here thinking, “I can make myself into something else, exercise self-control and creativity, and that is a good.” Both of those seem like they’re arational goods. Is there any conversation that can happen there?
Rushkoff: Well, if the transhumanist guy doesn’t even care what I think about it, then he can go do that. You know what I mean? It’s like… But he seems to want to convince me of something. So, I think that’s the beginning. Let’s spend some time with him convincing me why that’s cool, and then me trying to find out what drives that need to convince me. Cuz he wants me there, too? Why does he want me there, too? There’s ways to have that interfaith conversation.
Anderson: Yes, and it’s very much that. I mean that’s the word. It is a faith conversation, in a way. This project is called The Conversation. And this project is kicking around a hypothesis, which I don’t know if it’s true or false but I wanted to play with it. It’s that we live in a moment where our old systems are no longer answering our questions. Do you think that’s the case?
Rushkoff: Yeah, I think that’s the case. But I also think that we have these other systems in the wings that are competing for dominance, and are all equally stupid. That the object of the game in these moments of wobble is to accept that there’s no all-encompassing system that explains it. There is no system. This is an opportunity to become alive again. And it’s just so hard, especially when our greatest minds are out there selling corporate capitalism via systems theory. It’s a shame that they’re so afraid to live without one of those all-encompassing systems and begin to confront and allow themselves to be awestruck by the immensity and inexplicability of what’s going on here.
Aengus Anderson: So, do you remember back to Timothy Morton talking about the crisis of the present is the crisis of presence?
Micah Saul: I love where these connections pop up and where the project loops back on itself when you least expect it to.
Anderson: You know, somehow I really was not expecting the number of Morton/Rushkoff connections that we got in here. But presence.
Saul: Yeah, presence.
Anderson: We talk about presence in such a different way in this conversation than Morton did
Saul: Right. Let’s get at, real quick, for those that don’t remember what Morton meant.
Anderson: So, Morton’s crisis of presence is essentially the sense that we live at a particular moment in history where, through science and philosophy and other discoveries, we’ve been able to situate ourselves in this gigantic bubble of space and time. And by doing that, we’ve lost ourselves. We’ve lost a sense of the present.
Anderson: It’s almost an existential sort of listlessness, if I could say that without sounding too absurd.
Anderson: Rushkoff’s crisis of the presence is a little different.
Saul: Right. Rushkoff’s crisis of presence isn’t so much the large systems that we’re embedded in and realizing we’re there, it’s the fact that we are…well, we’re in multiple places at once.
Anderson: This makes me think of… Are you familiar with Padre Pio?
Saul: [Laughs] Very vaguely.
Anderson: When I was in Italy in ’99, he was the man most recently to have become a saint. And one of the miracle claims that I heard about when I was over there was that he could bilocate. He could be in two places. And by God, here’s Rushkoff talking about our crisis now is that [crosstalk] we’re all doing this through technology.
Saul: We’re all doing that.
Anderson: And we’re not just bilocating, we’re trilocating. We’re being in even more places.
Saul: What’s the problem with bilocation, or trilocation, or n‑location?
Anderson: Well, for Padre Pio it wasn’t a problem because he was a saint, but for us it is a problem because we just aren’t big enough to be in all these places at once. That by being in all these places at once, our experience is devalued, I think.
Saul: I think presumably in Rushkoff’s critique of this, there was the sense that it’s especially devalued in corporeal space. So, this is a very different critique of social media and of the Internet in general then we’ve got before in this project. This isn’t Andrew Keen’s solipsism of the Internet. You know, this isn’t Zerzan’s critique of a lack of community and replacing real community with fake community.
Saul: This isn’t information overload, or data smog. This is something very different.
Anderson: But I wonder if Rushkoff isn’t actually dividing the sort of…being in multiple locations from data smog in a way that it doesn’t need to be divided. Like, is part of the problem of being in multiple locations at once that you’re confronted with the associated information of being in all those places at once? Which seems like a data smog problem.
Saul: Sure. I completely agree with you on one hand. I think data smog and information overload is absolutely one of the concerns you get when you’re dividing yourself into multiple locations. But I don’t think they’re the same thing. I think if there’s a subset/superset relationship here, it goes in the direction of information overload is subsumed by this fracturing of the self. Because I think there are other issues inherent in Rushkoff’s idea of being in multiple places.
Anderson: What are those other things that make this different?
Saul: Well, I mean, I think one simple case is just we’re expected to be fully present in all of our locations. Again, this is you know… Information is part of this, but also just being there, talking to people, contributing. There’s an input and output here. And you’re expected to be able to receive all the input, but you’re also expected to be able to provide some output.
You know, there’s that that image of people sitting at a table at a restaurant and both of them are on their phones having conversations online. The problem there is that they’re not also having conversations with each other. That’s why we see that and we’re like, “That’s awful.” It’s because they’re not fully present in either location.
Anderson: Gotcha. So the data smog just applies to the information in and how you’re processing it. But this is almost like even if you weren’t dealing with more information than you can handle, you still couldn’t produce enough to actually be a full participant in these places.
Saul: That’s sort of how I’m thinking.
Anderson: That’s really interesting. Yeah, I mean breaking the inputs and outputs apart is something that I hadn’t really done. Also thinking about…you know, we were talking a little earlier offline about when you’re in multiple locations you can have different faces for each of them, right. A different persona that you’re expected to project. And we were arguing about, is this really any different than at any point in history, where you appear before the king and you have your courtly face on, but you’re at the tavern afterwards, you’ve got your tavern face on…it’s not pretty. And is being able to do this now really any different?
Saul: Right. And I think what we were talking about was, in the past there was, “First I am this. Then I am this.” Now there’s the issue of simultaneity. So to go back to that image of sitting at the restaurant, if we’re having a casual conversation at a restaurant, and I get a pressing email from work. So, I’m continuing to have that casual conversation, but I’m now writing a formal email on my phone. I’m not doing either of those things well.
Anderson: And that also, you know we’re always interested in unprecedented things. That seems unprecedented, in a way. If this had been five hundred years ago, you can’t be both at once, right. Or if you are they’d call you insane. Because you’re behaving as two people in one body. And yet when you have media there, you can be your professional, insipid corporate self writing the email at the exact same moment that you are at the dinner table with a bottle of wine in you. It’s odd to think that two or three or four faces of you can coexist now through technology in a way that maybe is totally different than at any other moment in history.
Saul: And so in some ways, this kind of raises a disturbing question of, when you are able to be multiple people at once, not one after the other but simultaneously multiple people—
Anderson: Who are you, really?
Anderson: I don’t know.
Saul: What is the real you?
Anderson: Hang on, let me check Twitter.
Saul: We can go from there into an interesting broader conversation that you were talking about with Douglas Rushkoff. You know, who am I really? That’s one of the deep fundamental questions in life. And throughout history, we have been working towards figuring out those deep questions of life. Who are we? Why are we here? What sort of thing are we? And so that takes us into I think the next huge theme in this conversation, which was, what is knowable?
Saul: And the idea of of quantification in general.
Anderson: Again, if we were talking about which subsumes which, the question of knowability is the big question in the background. But quantification is I think this really exciting new way that Douglas was talking about it. So, quantification. What the hell is quantification? I mean, we’re talking about a whole mindset which he traces back to the birth of capitalism, in which we start thinking about markets, and we start thinking about measurements, and measuring things in the world. And how does that spill over into areas that it seems like Douglas is uncomfortable quantifying.
Saul: In many ways, I think it’s the fundamental myth of our modern society.
Anderson: Sweet, we got that nailed down.
Saul: I’m using myth of course in the philosophical sense, not the… I don’t want to imply that it’s false. I’m just…it’s the set of beliefs around a thing.
Anderson: Right. And what Rushkoff seems especially interested in is, I like his analogy that comes from his book Program or Be Programmed where he talks about when you were looking at things in the digital realm, and this is essentially what quantification is, right. It’s putting sort of a digital blanket over reality.
Anderson: You miss all of the unknowable, unmeasurable stuff between the samples. You know, the idea that there’s this whole murky world that we don’t even have the tools to look at. Like, all of our tools tell us that it’s not there because it’s not what we’re measuring.
Saul: That was a really cool, really interesting analogy that I liked quite a bit. And it just got me thinking… Is that an argument against monism?
Anderson: I think we should go into this more.
Saul: Okay. So, we’ve talked to people in the past in this project who will argue that the world is just stuff, and there’s nothing beyond that. Laying a digital understanding of the world over whatever the actual world is… Well, one form of digital world is existence and non-existence. So, if it either exists and is measurable, or doesn’t exist and is not measurable, that’s a very monist world. Then there’s stuff and no stuff.
Anderson: And I think part of that existence is also assuming that existence is only matter, right?
Anderson: Physical, detectable, through instruments.
Anderson: Knowable. And mapable. And Rushkoff is saying, now there’s a lot that falls in between. I like that he concedes that maybe it is knowable, but it’s so not knowable by us at any conceivable, reasonable time in the future.
Saul: Right. And I think there’s a cool connection there with Wes Jackson, with Whitehead, with Morton again. But that one especially I think with Jackson’s attack on hubris.
Anderson: Yes. And if you can’t have the knowledge, what are you going for? Where do you get the sources of value? Wes Jackson says the universe is not just stuff. And this is from a totally non-religious stance, but there’s something else intangible. Rushkoff is on the same page. Both of them seem to think that that sort of belief in our ability to know and control can physically, as Rushkoff says, bite us in the ass at some point. But they both seem to object to it on other grounds, on it reducing our humanity, or blinding us to something more important, which neither of them situate in religion. Which I think is interesting, because I can see how it might not be religious, but it seems like that’s a very spiritual assumption.
Saul: And I think you got into that a bit with Rushkoff in that fundamentally this is a discussion of faith.
Anderson: Yeah. Talking about, how can you have the interfaith conversation between him and a transhumanist. And it’s interesting because he sort of flips it around in that the people we’ve spoken to who are secular transhumanists don’t frame themselves as faith-based. Rushkoff frames them as faith-based. Do you think Rushkoff would frame himself as faith-based? You know? I mean, when I asked him about the ultimate source of value, he said “fun.” Which is not a faith-based-sounding answer.
Saul: Is it not?
Anderson: Say, you’re Max More and you’re listening to this conversation. And you’re hearing all this stuff about the spaces in between the samples. And philosophically you say, “Okay, I acknowledge that.” But. Where is Rushkoff running with that? I think More would observe that Rushkoff is just as faith-based as maybe secular transhumanists. If you’re going to call one faith-based, you have to call the other faith-based for the same reason that Torcello pointed out that at the end of the day this is all about arational assumptions, and no one gets away from that.
Okay, well clearly Rushkoff is coming at this from an arational assumption which you could certainly frame as kind of a spiritual or faith-based assumption that there is something between the digital samples. Is fun really getting to that, or is that a cop out?
Saul: I think it depends on how you define fun. And if that’s not a cop out, what is?
Anderson: [Laughs] Damn.
Anderson: You’re in the project, man. You can’t cop out on me.
Saul: Ah, goddamnit. No, I think…to be entirely honest, I think that sentence is probably a cop out. But I don’t think he meant it as one.
Anderson: No, I don’t think so, either. I was just thinking because, that could have been exactly the same answer that Tim Cannon would’ve given for a totally totally different metaphysical stance, and a totally different political agenda.
Saul: Exactly. So, I don’t think that’s actually his answer.
Anderson: I mean, I think his answer is what comes after that.
Saul: Right, exactly. He immediately follows that by talking about meaningful community. This seems like a strong connection with a lot of the people we talked to that are more project-based, doesn’t it?
Anderson: It does, and certainly his approach to it in terms of let’s not obsess about the future in the long term so much. Let’s go out right now and have dinner with our neighbors. And there’s something I really like about that. This is going to sound really weird, but it’s like the underlying value system has some strange similarities with Zerzan’s valuation of people and relationships, but this is not primitivist at all, and it is immediately appliable. You can go out and connect with people around you now. You can find a sense of security and meaning that is not at all related to acquisition. Like, pull yourself out of the quantified universe. You will find more value outside of it.
Saul: So, let’s just real quick talk now about where he leaves us. There’s a real sense in the ending of this conversation of acquiescence in a very Morton-like sense.
Anderson: We’ve taken the Ferris wheel all the way around here, through our quantification talk. And we are back at where we got on, aren’t we? We’re with Morton again.
Anderson: And when Rushkoff talks about, we have this system that we’re critiquing, we’ve got all these other systems in the wings… Maybe the ones that we’ve spent the past six months exploring, and they’re all stupid. I love that. They’re all stupid. They’re all comprehensive systems, as Torcello would say.
Anderson: And as such they’re all destined not only for failure, but almost sort of winding you as a person up to this point of disappointment, where your comprehensive system doesn’t work and you have to recognize that. And why can’t you just let go? There’s an arational sense of good. You also have a connection with Whitehead, I think, who thinks very similarly about sort of the vastness and complexity and, there’s not a sense of—
Saul: And unknowability.
Anderson: And unknowability, yeah. And you can acknowledge that. In a way, you can kind of surrender to that. But you don’t stop.
Saul: You do what you can, to the best that you can, because you can’t not.
Anderson: Which seems to be the lowest-level justification for action that anyone offers us in this project. Maybe everyone offers us in this project.
That was Douglas Rushkoff, recorded October 19, 2012 at his office in Hastings on Hudson, New York.
Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at findtheconversation.com
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.