Cyber Space

An interview with author Douglas Rushkoff recorded during the 2019 edition of TodaysArt festival.

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Forward-thinking Douglas Rushkoff author, broadcaster, and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff is one of the We are Europe Faces. As part of TodaysArt festival in 2019, he answered some of our questions on autonomous technologies, runaway markets, weaponized media, AI and the future of humanity.

Author: Karel Feenstra

It was during the early nineties, at the down of the internet, when Douglas Rushkoff wrote his book ‘Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace’. It took the publisher two years to overcome his hesitation. Electronic mail and internet were obscure topics, unlikely to gain traction. In 1994, the first edition of ‘Cyberia’ was a fact. The rest is history. Recently, Rushkoff delivered a totally different book. Not because his perspective shifted, but because the world has changed. It’s a call upon arms to “remake society together. Not as individual players, but as the team we actually are: Team Human”.

Named one of the world’s ten most influential intellectuals by MIT, Douglas Rushkoff is an award-winning author, broadcaster, and documentarian who studies human autonomy in the digital age. The host of the popular Team Human podcast has written twenty books, including the bestsellers ‘Present Shock’ and ‘Program or Be Programmed’. Rushkoff coined such concepts as ‘viral media’ and ‘social currency’, and has been a leading voice for applying digital media towards social and economic justice. Being social may be the whole point, he says. It’s time for us to face it. We’re in the same team. Because “humans are weird and interesting and deserve to be treated as such. Human beings have more than inputs and outputs. And if we try to autotune people, through technology or capitalism, we will lose the most valuable thing about ourselves and about our environment”.

If we try to autotune people, through technology or capitalism, we will lose the most valuable thing about ourselves and about our environment

Douglas Rushkoff

Karel Feenstra: Like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: always treat human beings as the purpose itself…

Douglas Rushkoff: Yes, you can be human for its own sake. We’re often told that we have to earn our place here – that we have to justify our right to exist, and define our purpose as if we were primarily workers or machines. But the highest purpose of existence is not functional. This question reminds me of the discussions in the Talmud, where the rabbis were asked to come up with the highest reason for reading Torah: to understand history, or to behave ethically in the future? And the rabbis decided it was neither. “The best reason to read Torah is for its own sake”.

In your book ‘Team Human’, you talk about figure-ground reversals: they’re easy to spot once you know how to look. Money was the medium for the marketplace’s primary function of value exchange. Money was the ground, the marketplace is the figure. They’ve switched positions. In social media, humans and AI did the same thing. It seems to be a pattern. Which is strange in a way, because humans should be inclined to keep control. How come that’s apparently not the case?

The humans urge to control eventually becomes desire to control others, through slavery, colonialism, or exploitative capitalism. We don’t look at other people as people anymore. We look at them as if they are part of the landscape to control – as data to extract or value to mine. Only now, the colonial urge to control indigenous populations, we now apply to ourselves. We are colonizing ourselves.

The objective of ‘Team Human’ is to try to reframe being human as a team sport. We’re part of a collective. It may sound like hippie talk, but it also is science. We have succumbed to an intentional misinterpretation of Darwin. We think we are in competition with one another, when evolution is actually a collaborative act – more like the cells in an organism. If we don’t recognise our social structures better, we will not survive. We’re at the brink. The world is on fire, literally. And that’s partly a result of this way of thinking that things are not connected to other things.

Still, people are collaborating a lot, inventing loads of technology to help, but then technology makes this U-turn…

Technology certainly has the potential to connect us and to make us more aware of our connections to one another. But the problem is – and I wrote about it in the early nineties – that this increased sense of intimacy that tech brings us also leads us to want to resist it. It’s scary to know that everybody is connected.

Will Artificial Intelligence ever become our ‘evolutionary successor’ in terms of gaining consciousness?

I don’t believe that consciousness and awareness are just emergent properties of complex matter. Scientists think if they are atheists this means they are free of superstitions. But at the same time they wave their hands and use the word emergence to cover up for the fact that they have no idea how life or consciousness came to be. It’s just as likely or even more likely that consciousness is a pre-existing condition that gives rise to matter as to say that consciousness emerges from matter.

The theme of TodaysArt festival this year (2019) is CONSCIOUSNESS. We need more consciousness on several levels. How can digital technology help to achieve these goals? Or do we have to do this ourselves?

We are living in a digital media environment. And that doesn’t just mean that we have digital tools. It means that our inner senses and our experience of the world are influenced and contextualised by living in an environment where everything is digital. I was raised in a television environment, so I tend to look at the world through the lens and biases of television. Today, a digital sensibility colours our experience of everything. So one can’t just disconnect oneself from the greater digital environment, unless you don’t want to participate in society and what’s going on. It’s hard because the digital has so many drawbacks. It’s not as compassionate. But even if we like the global spirit of the television era, it still won’t fix climate change. The television sensibility led to globalism and the extractive, advertising-based reality that we’re living in. The digital sensibility, appropriately used, leads to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) or Greta and Extinction Rebellion for instance. AOC may appear too strident on television, but she looks just right on a Facebook live stream. It is an example of how we can inhabit these digital media in very positive ways.

TodaysArt shows liberal arts, technology, cross overs. What role can art play to lift TEAM HUMAN?

Art can contribute to human betterment in many ways. Art often feels like a luxury. I often feel guilty when I work on a piece of theatre instead of a nonfiction essay about climate or social justice. As if making theatre is somehow self-indulgent when we’re in an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment in society. But on the other hand, art celebrates our very reason for being. Real art highlights the things we can’t resolve. It’s the opposite of the kind of entertainment you see on TV, which always has an ending, an answer. In mere entertainment, you pay your money and you get your release and you get to go to sleep. Real art keeps you up at night.

That’s cool, TodaysArt never sleeps…

Real art is open-ended. It celebrates the human ability to engage with paradoxes and to sustain paradoxes over time. That’s why I love the work of someone like David Lynch, whose movies and tv shows are incomprehensible on a certain level. You have to be open to openness, to the fact that you will not get an answer. And that’s such a healthier way for people to move through life. Not looking for answers and closed endings, the world is about to give us one: extinction is a nice closed ending. Can we tolerate not going extinct?

Can I take that as a statement of an optimist hiding in a style figure?

No, I’m not an optimist. I know too much about probability to be an optimist. But I’m hopeful. I still have hope that the human spirit will survive this next century.

Panel w/ Douglas Rushkoff @ Elevate 2020

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