In this, the final installment of our serialization of Penny Nelson’s Douglas Rushkoff interview for HiLobrow magazine, the conversation turns to the differences between analogue and digital media, the derivative life and how to get out of this whole mess. In case you didn’t catch them, here are the links for part 1 and part 2 of this fascinating interview.
7. Freedom Isn’t Free
PN: Let’s talk about technology. In terms of administering a shared goods-and-services system, the internet might be a good match. But it also seems that the internet, and machines and technology in general, can stand in place of actual relationships, and can be a stumbling block. How do you negotiate between those ideas?
DR: The word that describes digital for me is discrete. For example, take sounds. With an actual sound, no matter how hard we zoom in, it’s still a real thing. There’s still more fidelity, more information to be found. If I scan or sample it, I’ve now translated that sound in the real world into a number. Something that was an event, in nature, in the world, is now a number. It’s a derivative of reality. That number encapsulates as many metrics and as much information about the sound as I’m capable of including, and I can then make copies of the number and manipulate them. So there’s greater choice in that way. But the only things the number can reproduce about that sound are the things I’ve told it to reproduce.
PN: It only knows what it’s supposed to measure.
DR: The reproduction process also involves a sampling rate, which necessarily leaves stuff out. Even if the sampling rate is so good, so super-mp3, that it’s beyond my conscious hearing, there is still space between the samples. Just like a fluorescent light; there’s space between the flashes.
Now the question is, for all intents and purposes, is it the same, or not? I would argue that for many intents and purposes, it is the same, but for all intents and purposes, it is not. It is a re-creation of a thing, and an approximation, and without even getting spiritual and talking about prana and chi and everything else, there is a difference.
In high school when I needed to do a research project, I would go to the library to find a book. I couldn’t help but see the 20 other books on the shelf nearby, I had to read 20 spines before I found mine. And in reading those 20 spines I would see stuff I wouldn’t have found otherwise, and I might get ideas for my paper randomly — not by predetermined choice. I would see them by virtue of the fact that some librarian who was alive before me made a decision, by virtue of legacies and input and real life messiness. Whereas when I’m in the digital realm and I know the book I want, I type it into Google, and it’s there. And nothing else.
PN: This discrete freedom of choice sounds like a very controlled environment.
DR: Right, what are my range of choices? And who’s giving me that range? People are utterly unaware of that. So when I look at technology I say well great, people have the ability to write online, but they don’t, most of them, have the ability to program. In other words we can enter our text into the little blog box, but we aren’t thinking about the biases built into a daily blog structure, which are towards short, daily thoughts, not introspective . . .
Or look at online communities. I’m going to become friends with another person who owns a 2004 red Mini with a sunroof, like mine, rather than with my neighbor who happens to have a different car; I’m going to look for that perfect affinity. But that’s not a real relationship, that’s my digital relationship, which is discrete! Discrete communities end up groping towards conformity of behavior really quickly.
That’s why it’s a consumer paradise, because it really does celebrate the idea of increasingly granular affinity groups, increasingly granular product choices.
8. The Derivative Life, An (Un)Reality Show
PN: An over-arching theme I found in the book is how the common-sense stuff of our reality, the economy and money and shopping and working, is really science fiction; we don’t live inside a “natural” economic structure — we made it up.
DR: It gets very much like Baudrillard in a way. We lived in a real world where we created value, and understood the value that we created as individuals and groups for one another. Then we systematically disconnected from the real world: from ourselves, from one another, and from the value we create, and reconnected to an artificial landscape of derivative value of working for corporations and false gods and all that. It is in some sense Baudrillard’s three steps of life in the simulacra.
So by now, as Borges would say, we’ve mistaken the map for the territory. We’ve mistaken our jobs for work. We’ve mistaken our bank accounts for savings. We’ve mistaken our 401k investments for our future. We’ve mistaken our property for assets, and our assets for the world. We have these places where we live, then they become property that we own, then they become mortgages that we owe, then they become mortgage-backed loans that our pensions finance, then they become packages of debt, and so on and so on.
We’ve been living in a world where the further up the chain of abstraction you operate, the wealthier you are.
9. The Way Out
[An Ithaca Hour, an example of an alternative currency]
PN: So since this is a system we created, can we create something else?
DR: Right, that’s what open-source was supposed to be about. I believe that every realm of human experience and design is ultimately open-source if we choose for it to be. That’s why I got interested in religion and money, because those seemed to be the two areas that people would not accept an open-source premise. Religion — of course it isn’t, those are sacred truths! But I would argue that Judaism was actually intended as an open-source religion. I’ve written a book about that, called Nothing Sacred, which was and still is controversial. Because if the Torah is open for interpretation, if it’s this beautiful, myriad, hypertextual, hyperdimensional document that it is, then the whole thing is up for grabs: what happens to the real estate, the Israeli state?
Money of course is the other big area, it’s still the one thing they won’t let you print.
PN: You’ve seen the dual currency idea from the Middle Ages coming back in certain places?
DR: We’ve seen it coming back for 10 or 20 years now in places like Ithaca, New York, and Portland, Oregon; little places with alternative communities and hippies and weirdos and Grateful Dead parking lots and things like that. They could try local currency because people were weird enough to go for it.
More recently, after the economic downturn in Japan, dual currencies started to take hold in the non-”alternative” community. Everyone had time, but no one had money. Everyone was willing to work, but there were no companies they could work for. And since the only way we know how to work is to outsource our employment to a company, things looked bad.
One of the main needs people had was getting health care to their grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in towns far away. No one could afford home health care for them — people to bathe them, walk them around, give them their shots, their IVs, their bedpans. So if you can’t afford the service what can you do? What they did was set up a non-local complementary currency system where you would volunteer a certain number of hours of work to take care of an old person where you lived. You would acquire credits, and then someone who lived near your grandparents would take care of them for the credits you paid. There was no money involved! The currency was literally worked into existence. Even after the economy improved and people got their health insurance back, old people preferred the health care workers who were coming from the real people rather than the ones that came from the companies.
Now it’s starting to hit places in the US where things are especially bad — Detroit, Lansing, Cleveland — these are towns that have resources in people, land, old factories. They have time, they have energy, but they don’t have money and they don’t have any corporate interest. So what can they do? Make a local currency, start doing things for each other. I’ll fix your car, and you do something for me.
Promoting bank-lent businesses is basically saying that you don’t believe in sustainable business models yet. Any business that started with the bank is not a sustainable business model, because it’s already in the debt/interest track. This is where Obama is still confused. He should say,“Look, I realize the economic crisis is real, there are mortgages and loans and we’re going to work on that. But the more important thing right now is, rather than spending $5 trillion of your great-grandchildren’s money on these bankers that screwed up, let’s see how can we spend a teeny bit of money and reeducate communities about real economic development and sustainability.”
And it’s easy! When I talk to economists, or when I talk to bankers, they all say, “well that doesn’t work, you need a bank to go in and invest in a community for it to happen.”
Actually — you don’t. You don’t need the bank.
Life Inc., How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back, by Douglas Rushkoff: website.
A version of this interview appeared in Reality Sandwich in July, 2009.