Interview with Douglas Rushkoff
I had the great opportunity to interview Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff is one of the most interesting speakers you can listen to. His ideas are challenging, eye-opening and thought-provoking. Rushkoff who most frequently regarded as a media theorist is a writer, lecturer, columnist, and documentarian. His books and movies won many prizes and he is best known for his association with the early cyberpunk culture, and his advocacy of open source solutions to social problems.
Before interviewing him I read his articles, watched his movies, and listened to his lectures – it was quite an experience and I highly recommend you to do the same. Let me start and say Thank you Douglas for taking the time and sharing your thoughts!
The Artian: Douglas I listened to your keynote presentation at the 7X7 conference and you stated something that surprised me. You talked about how in the past the artists were the ones that were the “abnormal”, the idea initiators; maybe what we would call the guys with the “out-of-the-box” thinking and that the programmers were more structured or dogmatic perhaps. You also said that the roles have changed: technologists are now the “crazy” ones that hallucinate what can be done and that deal better with constraints. Artists on the other hand have become more structured. The artists are going to school while technologists avoid it.
Can you elaborate on why it happened or still happening in your opinion?
Douglas Rushkoff: There are lots of reasons. Remember, though, we’re talking about a very particular scene – not the arts as a whole. These were seven artists and seven hackers [the seven on seven conferences] being put into teams. And as I reviewed the qualifications and experiences of each group, it became clear that the artists were more educated and erudite, and the hackers were more off the street and raw.
In answer to your question about how this all came to pass, well, first off, the arts itself became more legitimized and – as a result – tamer. The easiest way to neutralize a threatening burst of art activism is to throw money at them. Get the artists to apply for grants, to bend their work and statements of intent to the agendas of the grant givers, and soon enough you see some pretty clean work – all conceived and executed from sterile little bubbles, unaffected by the greater political economy. Plus, arts education got really good. People who wanted to study arts ended up learning philosophy, aesthetics, history, intersectional studies. Artists trained themselves to be smart – to distinguish themselves from the craftspeople and designers who just made visually pleasing things. The liability was that they became more reluctant to do or try things without justification.
So artists became better – or at least as good – at explaining work in terms of its historical and cultural context than at making it. Lots of “say” for every “do.”
Hackers, meanwhile, had no such obligation to justify the intentions, aesthetics, or historical context of their work. They just did stuff. Broke stuff. Tried new things, turned existing structures on their head, and disrupted conventional thinking and systems. They didn’t necessarily see their hacks as “art,” but interventions, jokes, or political activism.
But no one else saw their stuff that way – not until the artists came to the rescue and began to describe and contextualize what the hackers were doing. So the 7 on 7 festival was really interesting to me, for the way the tech kids – the ones who may have traditionally been considered the ‘nerds’ – were actually the rougher and tumble, improvisational hacktivists. While the artist in each pair was the more educated, erudite member of the team.
TA: So in that case what can artists do to reclaim their place?
DG: You feel artists have an exclusive claim on being the crazy, psychedelic members of society? I don’t think artists have to claim a particular space as their own. I do think some artists could stand to embrace a bit more intuition in their work, and team up with activists. Work from passion, disgust, and outrage. Look at how Molly Crabapple’s whole perspective broadened as she began to work with Occupiers and to chronicle the goings-on at Guantanamo.
Engaging with the underlying political reality, or opening oneself to the bigger picture, forces a response. It’s what turned me from a cultural observer back when I wrote Cyberia to an economic activist like I am with the Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus book. Even my becoming a teacher last year, and starting up this master’s program in media and social change at Queens College has put me back in touch with a deeper artist’s sensibility. Art and activism are, in some ways, the same thing.
TA: If what you say is the current reality, does it mean that the source of innovation belongs to business companies who can hire/buy [the tech entrepreneurs’ companies] these technological minds?
DG: Well, there’s a lot of assumptions in there. Do you think that technologists can be bought more easily than artists? I think the fraction of technologists who sell out to business is likely the same as the fraction of artists who sell out to business. But businesses seeking true disruptors these days might be looking more to technologists than artists. Certainly, our educational system is coming to value technology over the arts. Arts and humanities are treated as useless subjects compared with technology.
But that also means that they can go unnoticed. They are underestimating the power of art, which is a terrific time to employ it.
TA: You also explained why in your opinion, back then, Silicon Valley chose the guys that were artsy programmers. [“We need these people that can hallucinate and make it a reality. These are the people that could image the world we all can live in”] Is it still happening today?
DG: Between 1988 and 1992, the psychedelics people and artists were the ones who were best at hallucinating future realities. They designed the net we use today. They understood hypertext and association and generative design. I don’t think that a small community of visionaries is called upon today because the digital age has come to fruition. Kids who were raised in the reality of digital media aren’t as disoriented. Today, you don’t necessarily need crazy psychedelic people in your company to design interfaces or code software. All you need is people who know code. It’s not as much of a leap as it was then, so you don’t need freakishly different sorts of people to execute it.
TA: In a conversation with Jason Silva you said that we must teach liberal arts because we need to teach our children to think critically and to change the role of education as it was structured 100+ years ago. We need a “generation that will ask the big questions”. You are probably familiar with the movement STEM to STEAM that calls to integrate arts into the education system together with science, technology, engineering, and math. Is this what you mean? Can you share your thoughts on this?
DG: Well, it’s better than nothing because at least it recognizes the role of the arts. But it’s entirely applied arts. Like, artists and designers who can build the industries of tomorrow. It’s all about growing the economy, competing in the global marketplace, and all that. I don’t think of art as, say, designing the next model of Tesla or logo for Google. So yeah, better than nothing because some money can get spent on art. But it’s not humanities. It’s not critical thinking.
TA: You talked about our need to be the programmers and not the program; how it is essential and crucial for children to understand both technology and the arts – but what is the role of the arts, if at all, in dealing with what you describe “digital literacy”?
DG: Lots and lots of questions wrapped up in there. Most simply, I’d respond that digital literacy is more than learning code. It’s not just the math and science and engineering of programming great software. It’s also understanding the social, political, and human context of the work. It’s understanding what a particular piece of technology is really *for*. Digital literacy is understanding that Uber is essentially a piece of corporate software designed to extract value from the labor and capital (automobiles) of people, and convert it into the price of VC-owned shares. It’s understanding that Facebook is not a platform for people to make friends, but for marketers to extract value from our social graphs. It’s recognizing what things are for.
Artists who do recognize what things are for can create projects that make people more aware of these biases. An artist can take a tool or platform and subvert its meaning. Heck, there’s an artist who conducted a funeral for a Facebook Thumbs-Up “like” icon. Or look at etoy or Ubermorgen or the YesMen. That’s art, making people more digitally literate.
TA: You talked about that technologists should remind the artists why artists matter to humankind. What is the public role of the artist and technologist today?
DG: Again, a huge huge question. Millions of words have been written attempting to answer such big questions. It depends on so many things. For some people, art is a way of showing praise to God. For others, it is a path toward revolution. For others, it is a means of creating connections between people. For some, it’s purely aesthetic or sensory.
As much could be said about the role of technology, from the first use of fire through bronze and text to gun powder, the steam engine, television, and the computer. Is it to extend the abilities of people? Is it to promote the repression of people? Did the role of technology change after capitalism? Or is technology all for the war of one kind or another? Do military needs lead our development of technology?
Right now, I’d argue that one great public role for artists today is to make fellow humans more aware of the processes they take for granted. I’m interested in art that helps people see that the ground rules of our society are not the ground rules of reality. They’re just agreements. Or systems invented by people, that have come to be accepted as pre-existing truths. Expose those – whether through art or technology – and you’ve got a friend in me.
TA: In the conversation with Silva you said that creativity in your opinion is everything that men can do. So why is it difficult to find creativity in the business world?
DG: I don’t think it’s difficult to find creativity in the business world. Even a hedge fund or stock market algorithm is creative. It’s just creating destruction instead of life. But those people are creative. They’re simply innovating in the wrong direction.
TA: What are the positive trends you recognize?
DG: People care. More than half the US recognizes we are destroying our environment with fossil fuels. That’s more than believed it when I was a kid. People are reconnecting to the places they live – they are becoming more locally focused. Sometimes this looks just awful (like in violent nationalism or the caliphate) but that’s just a distorted version of the very same drive toward rediscovering place and identity.
I’m inspired by young people who are demanding a place at the table. They’re not satisfied with the way problem-solving is being done, and want to bring new methods and new values to the challenges of the world. I’m excited by platforms like Loomio [Collaborative Decision Making], which encourage the establishment of consensus rather than debate and winners or losers. I see Podemos as positive. Local currencies. The Debt Jubilee and Occupy Debt movements.
I’m finding people willing to accept the fact that the growth of our economy is coming at the cost of human prosperity. And that this is not the state of the world, but a design challenge.
Seven on Seven 2012: Keynote by Douglas Rushkoff from Rhizome on Vimeo.