What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 97 Douglas Rushkoff

December 20, 2022

Show Notes

Douglas Rushkoff makes another appearance on our podcast, sharing his latest thoughts on What Could Possibly Go Right? Listen to his previous interviews in episodes 28, 52 and 83.

Douglas Rushkoff is an author and documentarian who studies human autonomy in a digital age. Rushkoff’s work explores how different technological environments change our relationship to narrative, money, power, and one another. Named one of the “world’s ten most influential intellectuals” by MIT, his twenty books include Team Human, based on his podcast. Others include bestsellers Present Shock, Throwing Rocks and the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, Life Inc, and Media Virus. He also made the PBS Frontline documentaries Generation Like, The Persuaders, and Merchants of Cool.

As 2022 comes to a close, enjoy this casual chat between Douglas and Vicki.

  • The need to “adopt and invent alternative narratives of success that involve mutuality, rather than singularity; that are collective and communal, rather than alienated and isolated”
  • The importance of tolerating ambiguity, having a tender heart and embracing difference
  • The “idea of asking the right questions at the right times… to reduce the cognitive harm imposed by propagandists and media people who don’t have our best interests at heart.”

Connect with Douglas Rushkoff

Website: rushkoff.com

Twitter: twitter.com/rushkoff


Douglas Rushkoff: How do we do collective mental hygiene? What you’re talking about, this idea of asking the right questions at the right times, what you’re trying to do is reduce the cognitive harm imposed by propagandists and media people who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good and social artists, people who take the pulse of the times and create in this time when so much seems to be coming apart, for sure, much is coming together that we can’t see. Our guests help us to see more clearly and act more courageously in this potent time of change.

Today’s guest is my smart, funny, incisive friend, Douglas Rushkoff. This is his fourth appearance on what could possibly go right because he’s a consummate cultural scout and great at weaving multiple threads of insight into a single fabric. What to say by way of introduction? Well, Douglas was named one of the world’s 10 most influential intellectuals by MIT.

He is an author and documentarian who studies human autonomy in a digital age. His 20 books include the recent Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, as well as Team Human based on his podcast, and the best sellers Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or be Programmed,   Life Inc., and Media Virus. He also made the PBS frontline documentaries Generation Like, The Persuaders and Merchants of Cool. His book Coercion won the Marshall McLuhan Award and the Media Ecology Association honored him with the first Neil Postman Award for career achievement in public intellectual activity. His work explores how different technological environments change our relationship to narrative, to money, to power, and to one another.

He coined such concepts as viral media, screenagers and social currency, and has been a leading voice for applying digital media towards social and economic justice. And here’s Douglas. So, hey Douglas, my podcast friend. I met you early on when I started What Could Possibly go Right. And just to be completely candid, I rose in love with you, just, you’re just the right blend of me for me, of humor, smarts, heart and exquisite ways. Just speaking about what concerns us both.

Douglas Rushkoff: And gorgeousness.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Gorgeousness. Yeah. Yeah. That our society is selling our souls for a mess of Black Friday deals and the democratization of banality through social media. So I wanted to check in at the end of 2022 already. My God. Yeah. What are the stories that are pounding at our attention?

Soccer. Climate denial dressed up as I’m just looking after your interests in heating your home. You know, guns in America. Is it okay if one of the richest men in the world owns the largest public square in the world?, the fall of the Crown prince of crypto. I mean, you name it. Things to shock us are dished up daily.

And it occurs to me though that you have a front row seat on a show most of us don’t experience as we blather about the state of the world. What do fledgling Gen Z people see, think fear uh, you know about the future? You’re a professor at a large you know, public college. College students are classically dismissive of prior generations.

But I’d like, I’d like to see through your eyes uh, the world that of your students. What they see  coming into being and how they’re preparing or not to live in the world that we’re, you know, our generation is, eventually not too far from now leaving behind. So pick this or anything from your vantage point, Douglas, what could possibly go right?

Douglas Rushkoff: Wow. Well, all those questions have really different answers is the thing, and none of them spark a what could possibly go right impulse. I guess the closest one of what could possibly be going right is we are watching the real time collapse and implosion of the, the tech billionaire hegemonic uh, command over the public psyche.

In other words, Elon Musk has transitioned from an almost Trump level authoritarian potential. You know, when he took the helm of Twitter, oh, those many hours ago, he was threatening that, you know, he would unleash thermonuclear wrath on any advertiser who pulled out, you know, that he would like Trump, you know, turn the Twitter mob against any brand and out them as against the free speech thing, you know?

So he seemed terrifying and there were these, you know memes of him in like giant kind of Power Ranger suits as the new thing. And we’ve watched him skitter about, like when you turn on the light in the kitchen and the cockroach runs to get back under the cabinet. I mean, it’s gonna have a board and then not have a board and then let this one online, then not let them online, then let them online, then not let them online.

Then do this policy, then not do this policy, then do it no, than not. Then, then now, I mean, his most recent thing was, basically paid, not with money, but he gave who is it, uh, Glenn Greenwald, he gave a story about how Twitter in the past took a call from the DNC about taking down some Hunter Biden rumor, and this is now evidence that, and it’s like, all the manipulation, it’s all transparent.

Or the poor kid, Sam Bankman-Fried whatever at Crypto Crazy FTX, you know uh, this effective altruist  billionaire child who was, you know, paying for uh, donating a lot to people who believe you could do whatever you want now as long as you donate some money to charity for the future. You know, this movement that kind of believes that the 8 billion people alive today are just kind of the larva or maggots of the future post-human machine, you know, machine enabled cyborg, that will be, you know, trillions of us spread through the universe. So it’s okay to let these little maggot people suffer if it means more units of pleasure for the people in the future. Some weird cyber libertarian digital steroid, Jeremy Bentham utilitarianism on, on, on Ayahuasca, right?

So, So the fact that we can watch this happen and implode, I think is really good for us because a, a lot of this, this so-called Gen Z that you’re talking about is gonna look at its role models, at its heroes, whether it’s Zuckerberg trashing Facebook for the fantasy of Meta. You know, Facebook is a ghetto now.

It’s like, wow. To watch how quickly that went away to, to watch the collapse of these things and the, the dreams of these, you know, man children at the helm of these places, these kids who were, you know, plucked from college before they took history, you know, and made billionaire heads of companies at the behest of venture capital, we see, oh my gosh.

So as that mask is revealed, I feel like we are, we are liberated to adopt and invent alternative narratives of success that involve mutuality rather than singularity. You know, that, that, that are, are collective and communal rather than alienated and isolated, where winning doesn’t mean separating from the pack, but elevating the pack.

And I feel like we are, we are on the brink of understanding that,

Vicki Robin: That is fascinating. Every single word that comes outta your mouth, of course I hang on them all, but you know, I think there’s more examples of that where the you know, authoritarians and autocrats who have been able to manipulate us through Black Friday deals or whatever it is are getting more and more outed.

I mean, just even Trump’s yeah, the name. But, you know, even the things that, you know, the outrageous statements he’s making, they’re falling flat. You know, there’s many people in the Republican party is saying like, we’re sort of over him. He still has power because he has power from before.

But also in China, the zero Covid policy. There’s pushback, you know, the trade off of like, I will give you my freedom if you give me your security. And, you know, in better times that might, you know, I mean, that’s a, that’s a trade off that has been done throughout history in families and communities. I will give you my freedom if you give me my security, if you gimme securities.

Those, that formula, I just feel like China’s backing off a little bit from that policy. You know, the morality police are backing off of the morality police. It’s, it’s, there’s some, you know, so what do you see in sort of like, as you aggregate the kind of rising up from below the, like, you know, this is this is too far. We, we will not do this. And it, it, and it doesn’t even necessarily have a political agenda. It’s not Marxist per se. It’s just like, No!

Douglas Rushkoff: Just like no, right.

Vicki Robin: No, but I think that, as you say, the, the authoritarians, the ones who could get away with it before are just too much on display.

Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. But I think. How to say this nicely? I think that the right is better at acknowledging its own affect, its own performativity and the left is not quite acknowledging it. And that’s where we are in a sense weaker, right? We think that we are fact based, we are the reality based ones and all that, and there’s no performativity in it. But there are things I can’t even talk about in terms of our performativity without getting like canceled.

You know? There are issues in, in, there are, are issues in relationship to poverty and crime uh, intersectionalism and race, gender performativity among eight and nine year olds can’t be talked about scientifically because they’re too difficult for us, and part of leftist performativity has to do with accepting claims at face value and not interrogating them, and then applying an almost equally rigid authoritarian siilencing on those conversations, and we’ve got to, we’ve got to accept that we, we, we act as if we are impervious to these, to, to these forms of groupthink.

And that is our greatest vulnerability right now.

Vicki Robin: How would you frame that up so that it creates some space for learning without just being a muzzling?

Douglas Rushkoff: What I would do is to say we have to understand authoritarianism less as something coming from a particular dude and more as an environmental condition.

It’s like weather. And that authoritarianism, it, it moves through a society like electricity and yeah, certain kinds of leaders, if you will, are better positioned to capitalize off that authoritarian impulse, but we’re all subjected to it, right?  We’re all, we’re all in it. We’re all looking for polls and, and safety and rightness.

We’re all in an authoritarian era. When things get very polarized, it’s increasingly uncomfortable to maintain the comportment of what’s traditionally been called the Jew, right. You know, the one who brings ambiguity and goes, ah, you know, the moment of Tevye in Fiddler at the very beginning, where they come to him, where they’re the, they’re saying the, the Czar says this, and the people said this, and he did that, and he did that.

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And Tevye goes, he’s right. When he hears the first argument, then he hears the second argument and he goes, he’s also right. And that’s the, and that’s the, I mean that’s why both sides hate the Jew. Right? Cause they’re going, well, eh, eh.. But that’s the place, that’s the comportment, I think we need to engender the anti-authoritarian one. It’s the anti-polarized one of going, ugh it’s actually complicated. It’s complicated. Our inability to say it’s complicated as a society is what yields Kanye saying that Hitler was right. That Hitler’s a good guy. He can’t help himself, and it’s partly his psychosism and yeah, he’s obviously a psychotic person. He’s an extreme personality disorder, needs medication and love and all sorts of things.

But the particular brand of it and why it is so popular at this moment, you know, there were people like that on the street corners all the time. I lived in New York, I saw them, but they were not, you know, billionaire media celebrities getting tweeted and retweeted by millions of people. They were not, you know, giant public spectacles. And that’s because of, that’s the weather that I’m looking at.

And where does that weather come from? I’m a media theorist, so I’m looking, where does it come from? Is it, am I a media determinist? Is this a quality of the digital media environment or is there a cultural hunger for certainty when we’re, you know, faced with imbalances, with climate change, with threats of our own extinction?

Where does, where does it come from? I don’t know, but I don’t even know that laying blame on its origins matters as much as doubling down on a human connected uh, pro-social you know uh, way of moving through the world, you know, that that’s, and, and doing it grounded in the interpersonal relationships on a day-to-day basis seems to be the easiest way to to do it, not worrying about scale and what do I post on medium but how do I talk to the guy in the bodega?

Vicki Robin: Yeah. So I think there’s, I think you said, well, I know you said a ton of stuff there, but you know, I mentioned like with China that there’s a bargain that we’re trading freedom for security. And I think that  in ambiguity and a desire for security, you will trade some of that. You will trade some of your freedom of thought, you’ll trade some of your freedom to be an outlier, to contradict, you know, you don’t wanna be canceled because social ostracism is the, is like the worst thing. So, you know, that may be part of the electricity or the, just the goo that we’re living in is, is this ambient insecurity about the future.

How are people gonna double down so that they feel like, like they’ve got their landing bed. Like at least I have my X, Y, Z, you know? and. I wonder if you know the sort of the utopian prosocial that, you know, why can’t we all love each other? The Golden Rule Society that my friend Hazel Henderson used to talk about.

Maybe there’s a, you know, a coming of age sort of thing that we’re being put through. That’s about, it’s complicated ambiguity. There are no easy answers. Maybe it’s not, we’re not gonna all jump to sort of, you know, uncle Bernie, you know, like moral like prophetic morality, which of course I love, but, but it’s just this capacity to tolerate ambiguity, which is almost like what?

The ethos of what could possibly go right is, is like I’m asking people like you and my other guests, like just what you look like 10 inches into the future. You know, we’re not asking for something big, just like, you know?

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. And this is about 10 inches, right? Yeah.

Vicki Robin: It’s like, what do you see? I think that that, that’s probably what has been driving me , that’s been driving me. And this thing is like, can we get some help from people who are willing to tolerate ambiguity?

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. You know, I think the way we’ll do that, and I, this is the meme I was thinking of playing with is trying to convey the idea that life itself requires ambiguity, that that’s what animates life itself, and that without ambiguity you die, that there’s nothing you regret.

Then you know, once there’s not an ounce of ambiguity left, you are a machine, a robot, or a machine, or essentially dead, right? That, that’s the pharaoh. You know what God said about Pharaoh when he was trying to make Pharaoh strong enough to not back down, even after all the plagues, he said, I’m gonna harden Pharaoh’s heart.

And there’s a lot of, you know, biblical debate or, or scholarly on what that actually means. And to me, what it meant is that your cruelty eventually hardens your heart to the point that you don’t have free will anymore. You don’t, you’re dead. That Phaorah became a robot. He became essentially like an AI, you know, because he’s just automatically enslaving others.

And I think that’s what happens when I look at the, you know, the Sam Bankman-Frieds or the Elon Musks and however whimsical they seem to be. They’re no longer engaged with the ambiguity of existence. That’s why there’s like people who can engage with the ambiguity of existence are in that in-between weird place.

People who can’t what you see is them flip back and forth like, you know, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. And that’s when you’re watching, and that’s the beauty of what, of watching Musk meltdown in real time is him going zero to one, zero to one, zero to one, zero to one.

Vicki Robin: It’s like, Mr, would you please fix my glitch? Or like the Tin Woodsman, you know, I just need a heart. Because everything’s getting like rusted in position, you know?

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. Which way do I go? Which way do I go? Which way do I go? It’s like, just, you know, it’s like my friends who were tweeting, you know, last night, cuz they were all scandalized about the, you know uh, Elon Musk leaking to uh you know, Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi or whoever it was uh, about, you know, the DNC telling Twitter to not to publish stories about Hunter’s laptop like this is, what did you think?

What did you think? Of course, of course, people in power can call publications and make requests that you or I can’t. Right. When, when, when when, when there’s YouTube videos of entirely uh of books of mine, right? YouTube videos of the copywritten material of mine and I can write to them till the cows come home and can’t get a response yet. on my Team Human do a four second drum beat from Ringo Star, which was referenced by someone on the show saying, oh, remember that moment when Ringo Star did this drumbeat? I put on a four second needle drop and I get, you know, all the alerts right away from YouTube. Duh. I mean, what did you think is going on?

So they’re all scandalized about this planted story basically by Elon Musk trying to get more attention to Twitter by making it look like he can now publish rumors there. or, or publish uh, new news about, about, about Twitter. The brittleness of my friends who are well-meaning leftists, but upset, you know, get so scandalized and clutch their pearls at a moment’s notice.

It’s the same thing. It’s the same. And there are real things. When I get tweets in the middle of the night that someone’s scandalized, what I’m imagining is uh-oh. What did Putin do to the Ukrainian babies? Right? Or what’s happening in Pakistan or the people up to their necks in water now, rather than just up to their waists, you know, what’s being done?

You know what, what new group of refugees has been refused passage away from a climate disaster or or war zone to somewhere else? There’s real. There’s such real stuff happening that these, these distractions are, again, it’s not intentional, but it’s how fascism actually works is you distract the public with spectacles that they can grit their teeth over and divert their attention from the actual human horror that they could take real world action to abate.

Right? Yeah. Wow. But the good news. Yeah. What can go Right. We’re coming to see it. I think we’re getting nauseous with it. I think, you know, I used to be upset, you know, you’re talking about students. My students don’t watch any of this or know about any of it, but I’m teaching at a public university where they’re, you know, they’re not even reading the stuff I’m giving them much less, you know, the stuff anybody is giving them, they’re just trying to survive and get, you know, from the, their job at the Footlocker, to class and not fail in hopes of getting a entry level job at a sports broadcasting network. They just wanna live and they care more about  right now, more about the Mets than they do about, you know Zelensky or somebody.

And it’s a different thing. You know, they’re not, they’re not these you know, more high strung Princeton and Oberlin students who are looking out at the, you know, the social justice landscape and wondering, you know, what to do. But I do see it, you know, I, I, I see, you know, women at Oberlin planning to organize buses for women who need abortions in Ohio when it’s illegal, how to get them out of the, you know, get them rides and, and, and to convey them outta the state to get the, the reproductive services they need, you know, so I do.

Um among the, the elite colleges, I do see very organized forms of, if not resistance I guess that counts as resistance uh, but more service, you know, and that’s the, the shift in focus now, and I think it’s a good one, and this is probably the best result of the social justice movement.

The first impulse of of, of an effective activist today is to focus on the most vulnerable. Who’s the most vulnerable? So there’s something’s been passed, an anti-abortion law has been passed. What is the vulnerable population that’s going to be affected by it? And how do we mitigate the harm?

Wow. Isn’t that a great place to start? Yeah. Isn’t it? You know? Cause it’s like, and I’m glad there’s still people who want to go to this capitol and yell at the Supreme Court or do whatever you do. I don’t know how that works. I’ll just vote and let those people do the thing. But I do understand how to do logistics for the vulnerable people. Now how do we compensate for that? And, and in that, and the more people we enlist in that really the more people are gonna care about the issue. Wow.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Uh, what a, what a mouthful. I, I wanna just roll back a little bit. I’m still on this sort of you’re talking about Pharaoh’s hard heart, you know, and, and basically when we close our hearts.

See, this is another what could possibly go right. Thing is I think, I think you have to have a tender heart, as you say, you know who’s being harmed and how can I help? You have to have that kind of heart to be able to see it all, because otherwise your strategy has huge blind spots. Like in the nineties when I was working on consumerism, I just felt like there was no defense in the basic consumer society to people asking a  legitimate, not, you know, hectoring question. Like, well, is it working for you? You know, like, is the money you’re spending buying you something you really want? Have anything else you wanted to do at that time?

So there’s a I just feel like the more power experiences itself as unassailable, it’s got a free lunch, free pass, you know, I am beyond consequence. That’s when it’s brittle and it’s vulnerable to a rupture somewhere that it can’t even see. It’s too big to see a blind spot. So I think that’s another piece of what I’m hearing from you is that, and I feel it sort of in my bones too.

I stupidly call it the overlords, but you know, at the level of the overlords, they, they, there’s a sense I think, of such disconnect from what’s, you know, what you call the larva, there’s such a disconnect.

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, that’s what that, because they can’t feel it. It’s like that’s what this book is about.

Yeah. The Survival of the Richest, that’s my latest book is all about that, and it’s called Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. And most people think it’s about them going to their bunkers, but them going to their bunkers is just the central metaphor for this separated bunker mentality that the object of the game is to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the damage you’re doing by earning money in that way.

Right? So they are separate from the thing, but they’re not, they’re just positioned differently in this kind of authoritarian fascistic, nightmare fractal that they’re helping to perpetuate.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Yeah. So, I guess one of my instincts now, as you say, you can go and you can protest at the Supreme Court, and yes, God bless you. Please do that if that’s what your gig is.

But I feel like there’s another, what could possibly go right, if you will, is that there is a lot of creativity at the ground level. It’s like, okay, you know, big gaping holes are opening up. For example, where I live, you know, we, we just have, we, we are developing gaping holes in our sickness care. You know, in the clinics and the hospital and there’s just holes.

Douglas Rushkoff: I just love that, when you even said sickness care system, I was like, wow, that’s an optimistic phrase. It’s as if there’s a sickness care system. I mean, my god, there’s a patchwork of for-profit corporation, it’s a sickness profit system.

Oh my god. Sickness care. Exactly. She’s like, oh, I wanna live in that world with a sickness care system. Even a faulty sickness care system sounds so good.

Vicki Robin: I think that what I said was like a mind formed in a prior time. Wait, I actually think there’s a system, and I’m always surprised.

Douglas Rushkoff: Public healthcare. Totally. Remember that public healthcare, it was like this idea like, I mean, know what we still have, which is so funny. It’s such a relic of another era. I just, I’ve been going there a lot. The public library.

Vicki Robin: My goodness. You go there?

Douglas Rushkoff: Do you have one on the island? Is there a library?

Vicki Robin: Oh, we have public libraries up and down the island.

Douglas Rushkoff: Really, more than one? With books in each one, yeah? That you can take out. Yeah. Isn’t it? It’s just like this idea, you know, and I remember, I’ve seen kids go in there now and they’re, they’re, they take into the line and they’re like, what is this? What do you mean, I just take a book. I just take the book home? This is what you’re saying. I can take it home and read and bring it back. I don’t pay. What, how does this work? Cause they’re so stuck in the business model. It’s like we just did this. Who did this? Who did this? Well, you know, there’s a bunch of people really werre into it back in the 18 hundreds.

It’s like America. It’s gonna be public and through literacy and you know, schools, you don’t pay for schools either. Well you do through, through school tax or whatever. All the kids, you’re allowed to just go to this place and teachers will tell you stuff and show you how to read. It’s like, I know. So there’s still so many great examples out there if you’re willing to look at them of like, the commons.

Vicki Robin: It’s, yeah. So what if what could possibly go right… I hate to harp on this, I’m just kind of coming back to it, but is, it’s not even, you know, advancing to social affection. It’s just understanding.

Douglas Rushkoff: You don’t have to like anybody. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. You don’t have to like, your neighbors. I promise. You can hate them. I’m glad you’re keeping that, because you know, that would frighten people so much if they thought they were gonna have to like something, have to like each other. Oh my God. That’s asking too much.

Vicki Robin: Sort of like that. That sort of like, the end of the cargo cult, you know, it’s just they’re not coming for us and living on an island. You know, there is a bit of a sense here that there is a still a sense that, oh, okay, fine. Well we have to have, you know, we have to be prepared for their, they’re not coming for us.

Douglas Rushkoff: We may be coming for us.

Vicki Robin: But in a different way.

Douglas Rushkoff: We’re in the old way. In the old way. I mean, there’s a lot of writing on the wall at the old ways. I mean, the easiest canary in the coal mine is antisemitism, you know? Oh, right. I see what you, from both sides. I know people who are afraid, you know, and you can call it crazy, and they called it crazy in the, before the pogroms and before the holocaust, and before everything. They call it crazy, but the language, the confusion, most Americans think that 20% of America is Jewish. My God. that’s a big footprint, when it’s actually a less than two. It’s interesting.

Vicki Robin: I mean, when they’re coming for us, they’re not, I didn’t mean that they’re coming for us, like the Jews or the gypsies or…

Douglas Rushkoff: Et cetera. Or the Muslims.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. No, I meant that there, that there’s a rescue boat that, that there’s anything in the society that’s gonna come and rescue us.

Douglas Rushkoff: Sweet chariot. Coming forward to carry sweet chariot. Coming forward to carry me home.

No, we’re the change we’ve been waiting for. That’s what they said. but there is no, I mean if he comes it’s gonna come after we fix things. They don’t come, it doesn’t come and save us. It’s like we gotta, we bring on the Messianic age ourselves. There’s no meta-FEMA.

Vicki Robin: Somebody’s gotta like hear this on the radio or something, go like, meta…?. What is that?

Douglas Rushkoff: Just Google it. I mean like the federal emergency. There’s no meta one. There’s no big one up in the sky that comes and saves us. That’s for like incremental emergencies. No, we are the salvation. But you find it takes little disasters really help that. You know, hurricane Ida is great for my town. My town gets so divided between the sort of lefties and the righties, the Trumpies and the Bernies, the, you know yes for a school board and no for school board, all that kind of stuff where like a microcosm of America there.

But then when Hurricane Ida comes and buries a bunch of houses in mud we’re all out there together digging out our neighbor, and all of a sudden you realize, oh, we’re just, we’re digging out our neighbors together. And what unites us in our actual lived local day-to-day reality is 99% of our activity compared to what separates us, which are these, you know, more performative ideologies.

Vicki Robin: I think that’s really an interesting observation. You know, like we, if you take your eyes off the screen or the news or whatever, we live locally, you know, even people like who commute from where I grew up into Manhattan, you know, they all know each other on the platform. They travel into the city together.

It’s sort of like the whole town, you know, part of the town goes in the city and then comes home and it’s the whole activity of daily life is not so much in the conversation anymore. You know, we’re talking many, many levels of meta this and meta that and meta the other thing,

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. But instead what happens is they put certain figures on the screen, that get us totally upset, you know, so the, the right wing gets upset because they see a, you know, a teenage trans kid on tv. Oh my God, I’m upset. You know, the left gets upset because they see a guy wearing a MAGA hat, or whatever the MAGA people believe, you know, and it’s like, cool. You found something upsetting and you put it on the screen, and I can be upset by that and then generalize from seeing that to a whole bunch of other things to be upset about or I can turn off this aggravation device and actually get something done in the world. I could teach a kid to read. I can walk with that old woman and help her. There’s the woman who keeps getting stuck in her vestibule in my town with this dog and her walker, and I try to get out there around 11, 11 30 when she’s gonna come out so I can help her get out of that because it just breaks my heart to watch her in there.

She doesn’t know I’m going trying to be there at her dog walk moment. But and that fills me with such atisfaction just to help the old woman get outta her vestibule. Cause she’s got the dog and the walker on the leash and it’s a, it’s a, and there’s two doors, you know, it’s a whole thing. and it means a lot to me. I mean, and she’s a gift to me, right? Yeah. She’s the gift To me. I have an opportunity for service because it’s so hard in some ways, it’s so hard to find people who are willing to accept the service. That’s really the bigger issue. It’s not that they, that, that there, there’s not, it’s way easier to uh, to give than to receive right now.

And they’re afraid of what they’re gonna owe you or something. It’s odd. Yeah. Yeah.

Vicki Robin: I think you’ve also pointed out another thing that, you know, earlier on we were talking about ambiguity. Like ambiguity is the name of the game. And so basically if we wanna live in the world that we’re in, we’re gonna live in ambiguity.

We’re gonna live in that it, you know, it doesn’t all add up. We’re gonna live in it’s complicated. And so learning to live in it’s complicated is actually a skill of adaptation to our time. Yes.

Douglas Rushkoff: Second one. Yes. Yes. And that’s why more people find it easier to go to a Marvel movie than a David Lynch movie, right?

Because the certainty of killing the bad guy or whatever is so much easier than the uncertainty. What just happened there, you know.

Vicki Robin: Exactly. But I wanna say that another skill. So these are skills. Yes. Like you wanna do something, here’s a skill. Yes. You know, cultivate ambiguity. If it’s complicated, go like, Ooh, yum. You hang with this. This is like, this is the yummy thing today. The other one is to watch what is happening to your nervous system. In the presence of stories meant to, to knock you off center. This is what I had to learn during the Trump era, you know, that I turned over my nervous system to him it was like, it was like all I had to do was just like fling some red meat from my indignation system out there.

And I was like, oh, this is terrible. You know? And I start organizing my life around correcting for something he didn’t really even mean. He was just, you know, jerking us around. So this capacity, I don’t even know. I think there must be a question somebody can ask themselves in the midst of like, I don’t believe that he just, oh…

You know what else? You know, like what is the question we can ask ourselves is when, when we are just, the indignation is rising, our blood is starting to boil in the presence, just even of symbology, just words, right? Like what you know is like, is. I start to think, you know, what is the effect that this is trying to have?

Or am I, am I being sold a product? Am I being like, is this a magician? You know, am I paying attention to A and not B? And, and I think, you know, there’s people who are like, you know, at the university level who are public intellectuals, you know, people think about this all the time and they don’t understand how hard it is for us peons out here.

You know, we don’t read their monographs. We don’t read, you know, their, these high, high level magazines. We’re just trying, trying to survive and this mass of people trying to like, be decent in this media environment full of shock and, and, and, and sort of manufactured suspicion.

It’s like we have that’s in a way that’s like the most precious thing right now is we have to be able to stay and as upright citizen brigade, if you will, you know, in not buying it. Just not buying it.

Douglas Rushkoff: And it’s interesting, I’m noticing now that that state of sustained triggered indignation seems to be a precursor to taking the black or the red pill.

That I notice it in my,… so I have two or three friends now who are, are effectively being really well, effectively triggered by Musk and Greenwald and Taibbi and those things, and sure, whatever they’re saying that may be true, but the choice is to let the indignation rise.

If you do your check in, there’s, oh, indignation’s rising; pause for a second and ask some questions. Who benefits from my indignation? Oh, look, Elon Musk is tweeting about this in order to restore interest in his platform, he set up the news, he released the leak. What’s going on? What, even if it’s true, what larger matrix am I becoming a part of here?

Vicki Robin: Totally. That’s what I used to suggest in the old consumerism days, is like, who wins if I believe this?

Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. Yeah. That’s the old, I mean, this is, you’re talking basic media theory.

Vicki Robin: 101, eh?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, you know what I mean though, if we just forgot it. It’s what I try to teach in my propaganda class, in city university. It’s that it’s who wins if? I believe that is a great starting place, to examine a piece of propaganda.

Vicki Robin: So I think that’s important. It’s like the public mind. I have a friend who’s really interested in this question of the public mind and, and if we, if the public mind doesn’t have the ability to think clearly about its own future. You know, what is the public mind? What is it and where is it? You know, are we all contributing to it? And is that like a piece of our activism? Just like helping the little lady with her dog in her walker is part of her activism?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, first, what can possibly go right is that there is a public mind, or public collective mind.

So, you know, how do we do, you know, how do we do collective mental hygiene? Yeah. I think we do it by, you know, and what, what you’re talking about, this idea of asking the right questions at the right times. What you’re trying to do is reduce the cognitive harm imposed by propaganda and media makers and people who don’t have our best interests at heart.

How do you reduce cognitive harm? When I have students, you know, falling into the sway of like a Jordan Peterson or, you know, some of the crazy uh, whatever intellectual dark web things I find that deconstructing the arguments of those people is a way of doing kind of ideological harm reduction.

And that’s fine pursuit, you know, and there’s a lot of groups out there doing that. I’ve been listening to a podcast called Decoding the Gurus that, that Wow. Does that really? They’re fun. Um and they uh, there’s another one called Symposias, but with a P – P s y m p o s i a – and they look at a lot of the kind of psychedelic gurus and people making bizarre claims about psychedelics and, and, but they, they said that their main purpose is ideological harm reduction.

And so I, I kind of took that meme from them and thinking, you know, that’s, that’s, I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m not trying to replace people’s ideologies with other ones. I’m just trying to reduce the harm, you know? And that’s the  cognitive confusion, but also the almost somatic and behavioral harm, created by these things.

Vicki Robin: Yes, yes, yes, yes. The stress on the body, the, yeah. It’s a, you know, how is it, what is a trigger? A trigger is a biochemical process that’s, you know, activating some parts of you and deactivating other parts of you. I mean, it’s a, so yeah, so, so we, we are sort of like menching, Jewish, you know, ambiguity-loving complexity yum people. So where is that? Where is that faculty in society is, you know, is is it just that there’s a faculty out there? Not like a a student body faculty, but just, you know, is there such a thing as a conscience?

Douglas Rushkoff: You know, is there something I believe there is.

Vicki Robin: I mean like, is there, you know, like I presume, I know that one of my assumptions is that there is a sort of a moral sense that’s embedded in the collective now, that I could have just made that up and maybe I read the wrong Bible, but I just feel like, like that’s what a lot of, you know, writers, I mean, people are trying to speak into something that can respond.

What is that? What are we speaking into? What are we presuming? And if we presume there’s a collective conscience of some sort, you know, a sort of a collective, you know, that we have a collective sense in our minds.

Yeah. So how, how are we, how do we intercept that? You know, how do we speak into that? Or is it just that we write books and we teach classes and we do podcasts, and we do all that we can because that’s who we are. Is there a way in to this all?

Douglas Rushkoff: It may be completely unrelated, right? But what came to mind as you were speaking for me, and then we can figure out if it’s related or if I’m really going senile at this point, which is possible. when my wife and I, when we were married, couldn’t get pregnant, right? We did a few things. We got this thing called blighted ovum where like the baby didn’t work. It’s like it wasn’t really alive or something.

And then the doctor said, you know, we tried these things and say, no, no, your eggs are too old. Whatever, it’s not gonna work. So we decided to adopt a baby and we had to do all these things to get he baby and one of them involved like a health blood test or something I had to do.

So this guy they sent this guy to the house to take my blood, and he was like, really Muslim, you know, he had the little Muslim yarmulka on and all this stuff. And he’s taking my blood and I’m telling him the story and he goes, oh you want a baby? Wait. And he took out like some beads and he held me and he prayed and he looked in my eyes and he goes, God is great.

You have faith. God is great. And a month later, my wife was pregnant. Right? What happened? What was that? This Muslim man came in a plainly Jewish house talking to a guy who’s, you know it. What happened there? what happened there was the, the human organism came to its rescue through every cultural whatever barrier thing.

I’m mean Sure. His religion says, don’t ever touch a Jew. I’m sure my religion says, don’t ever let a Muslim pray for you. Right. I’m sure it’s all in there in the, in the footnotes somewhere. And and it led to, I mean, I know it’s not science, but it led to the actual procreative life energy thing. And somehow for me, that was both real and metaphorically an example of this transhuman or interhuman potential that is just alive at all moments and, and generative of life, you know, that that’s our, that that’s our capacity. Is that of anything to do with that?

Vicki Robin: I have, I don’t even remember what I exactly asked. I mean, it was sort of like a question of are we good? You know, we are, do have it in us. We do. We have it in us to transmit, you know, a loving culture. Do we have it in us to activate that thing within a society that has, that tends towards health that tend, you know, is anti brittle, if you will, anti, you know, that tends toward health that tends toward menchness, if you will.

Yeah. And I, you know, that was, I mean, what a beautiful moment. What a beautiful story. And you know, in our, I mean we started out this conversation and we’re gonna have to wind it up a little bit of a critique of the brittleness of the left that, you know, you can’t critique anything cuz then, you know, it’s, it, what is it like, you know, leftist fragility,

Douglas Rushkoff: it’s like, right, we can’t interrogate. Right. We can’t, we have to be able to interrogate our own performativity, our own vibing, you know, and, and see and understand what it is.

Vicki Robin: And also to have compassion for it, to have that mench sense that inside that performative behavior is, is a, is a fellow or sister human with that same impulse to express love. The collective to serve.

You know, that’s them trying to help the collective. So it’s almost like that’s another piece and clue from this conversation is to remember at some level, either the fear that’s driving what comes toward us or the good intentions you know, wearing black hats, if you will.

You know, that’s a wrong metaphor out of the Wild West cowboy movies. But, you know, just wearing frightening masks, you know, so that is possible for us to activate that collective will to flourish.

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. And you do it, you, you, I know what I experienced with that man. I can only imagine what he experienced.

Right. And that’s the thing. We experience human flourishing through others. Totally. You can’t do it yourself. You can get, you can acquire something, but you can’t, back to my Team Human, you can’t be fully human alone. That to be fully human means to enable others.

Vicki Robin: You know, that’s where really, and so I’m gonna take it like a little bit further, is just to go around the world to sort of go out into whatever you consider nature, the park, the trail beside the river, whatever, and, and have the imagination that other living beings are also rooting for they are rooting for us. Like to talk about trees. Rooting for us is sort of like, haha. But anyway…

Douglas Rushkoff: They watched us get here. I mean, they were here, they’re the oldest brothers.

Vicki Robin: And not only are there other blessed human beings who will open the door for you when you’re struggling with your walker and your dog, but there is other blessed non-human beings who are also rooting for us.

Just imagine if instead of the natural world going like, boy, the sooner we get rid of these pishers, you know. Imagine, imagine that there is a, there’s energy of goodwill.

Douglas Rushkoff: Imagine even your gut bacteria are rooting for you. They better be. They better be. Really.

Vicki Robin: Exactly. And I feed them things that they would really like. I’m nice to them.

Douglas Rushkoff: I’m trying to be, yeah, yeah.

Vicki Robin: Anyway, we’re just gonna have to wrap this up because, because just because of time and you have stuff to do and probably I do too. I could talk to you forever.

Douglas Rushkoff: You know, we shall, and then afterwards, after this life, we get to hang out with each other? Isn’t there a park bench in the afterlife we can sit on and…

Vicki Robin: Totally, totally. In my afterlife, there’s gonna be a park bench with you on it.

Douglas Rushkoff: Excellent. All right then, I’ll come to that one. Okay,

Vicki Robin: Thank you once again, Douglas, for considering the insane mess that we’re in with a really wonderful sense of humor and impossibility.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient communities, interbeing, media literacy, mutuality