What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 106 Douglas Rushkoff

August 15, 2023

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 52, 84, and 97.

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.

Enjoy this casual chat between Douglas and Vicki, including themes of:

  • Re-socialization and finding connection for well-being
  • Putting the soul back into our interactions
  • Questioning our social constructs and triggering our ag


Douglas Rushkoff: When we quantify things and quantize things, we actually lose touch with them in a sematic way.

Vicki Robin: Hello, Vicki Robin here and welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right?, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good – and social creatives, people who innovate in service to the life that we share.

We ask our guests to respond to just one question: In the face of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right? 

Our guest today is Douglas Rushkoff. This is his fourth time on this podcast because you love him and frankly, so do I. 

He was named one of the world’s 10 most influential intellectuals by MIT. He’s an author and documentarian who studies autonomy in a digital age. His 20 books include 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 Media Ecology Association honored him with the first Neil Postman Award for career achievement in public intellectual activities.

Rushkoff’s 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, screens and social currency, and has been a leading voice for applying digital media towards social and economic justice. And now here’s my friend Douglas Rushkoff. 

Vicki Robin: Well, well, well, Douglas Rushkoff, it’s time for another cruise around the question, what could possibly go right? And when I reflect on other existential times in US history, like the Civil War and World War, the Depression, the nuclear standoff, the brutality of racism, and on and on; I wonder if this cliffhanger moment is like those apocalyptic up close, but from further back a transition and seemingly for the better. 

But the climate chaos is for real, right? And we are trembling before AI. Will it kill us or thrill us, or a bit of both? And at the same time, there’s so much to admire in the movements for justice, in the interest in regenerative everything. So as Dickens says, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

So, here we are. Douglas, I’m asking you to help us to orient. You are always on the quirky and curious edge of the culture. You see glimmers and trends before the rest of us do, and you are on Team Human. You believe in humans and our capacity to be for one another and all the other critters.

So that’s just my riff, my friend, on the one question we’ve been asking for three years now. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

Douglas Rushkoff: So you want answers to all that?

Vicki Robin: No, no. That’s just sort of like raindrops on your head, you know? 

Douglas Rushkoff: Right. I mean, where I’m at these days is trying to help people develop the skills, tools and sensibilities they need to kind of, if not navigate this new terrain, just orient in it. My chiropractor used to tell me poor, dearly, dearly departed, Mark used to tell me, in order to feel safe, you have to have both your feet on the ground, put your feet down on the floor, even if you’re sitting, because otherwise your body doesn’t have the cue. And without the somatic cue of here I am, you are just f**ked. 

So, you know, when we’re online and all these spaces and all that, we don’t have a somatic context for these places, and we are using really new and undependable maps and road signs and symbols and factoids to decide how things are, where we are, how we are in relation to this other thing.

You know, it could be as simple as this person has more likes than I do, but you know, it’s the easiest way to understand it. It’s a metric. But then those translate back to the real world of, oh, that person has more money in the bank than I do, or more this and more that. 

Or, I’m moving toward that goal, but what is that goal? And is that goal a house of cards goal that’s actually taking me further away from any connection to other people or myself, or grounding in nature or whatever. 

So, and Covid certainly didn’t help this, although it had started before. We are all really – well, I won’t say we are all – I feel really destabilized and feel like a lot of people are asking me similar kinds of questions, but where am I? How old am I? How am I doing on the timeline of my life? Everything’s happening all at once. I don’t know what show to watch if I’m missing, blah, blah, blah. 

So there’s a strong temptation right now for people to negate the, let’s call them God-given mechanisms for establishing that orientation, which is there’s a person sitting over there, sit down next to them and ask them what they think of the weather. You know? How about those Mets? 

I mean, it’s easy. There’s people who need favors, people who you could ask a favor from, even if you don’t need a favor just to initiate a social connection. I keep talking about putting the social back into socialism. It’s not about counting toothbrushes for the next five years, which is what socialism kind of is known as.

It’s more, are we being social? And there’s so many places to be social. It’s just most of the places that you get to be social are the places that you earn money not to have to be. You know, the coffee shop, the laundromat, the street, the subway; all the places that privatization wants to tell you are the nasty, scary, unpredictable, potentially violent places where people of lots of colors and different religions are gonna be.

That’s where you want to go. That’s the place. It’s hard though. It’s hard. You think back to when you were oriented in life, It was when, for me, the spaces when I remember being the most oriented, feeling the most real and alive were, and again, I know this is a frigging leftist word, they were public spaces.

Watching fireworks on the 4th of July on the West Side Highway or doing a picnic in the park or going to the end of the dead end block where we had a barbecue, I don’t know whose it was. There’s one barbecue pit and we all went there and the end of the block and had weenies or whatever. The library. All these places where we did stuff. Block parties.

We co-opted, no, we utilized public space to have public selves. And boy, I just went to Montreal for a couple of days and first, most of the people just kept saying, I’m so sorry for you. I feel so bad for you. If you need help to get up here to move up to Canada, I’ll help you. We’ll help you get a visa. It’s okay. I’m so sorry. 

But you know, except for that, it was also the sense that there was a public square. It was a different feeling when you have, I know in some sense, you have public healthcare and public education and all those kind of things, but it’s like, wow, these people are living well and it’s assumed that they’re gonna have clean subways and stuff. And it’s not just because they have a different tax system, it’s because they have a different value system and a different way of orienting their wellbeing. And we don’t have that here. 

Vicki Robin: Wellbeing is a key. What is wellbeing? It’s like a somatic experience. It’s when all your needs are sufficiently met and in balance, you don’t feel like you’re pushing your body through something, through a tight subway. There’s a sense of ease. 

There have been efforts to make wellbeing the metric. The gross national happiness in Bhutan, quality of life metrics. All of those are there. It seems to me as you’re talking about when you were a kid that before I had a smartphone, before I had the internet, but definitely before I had a smartphone that brought the world to me 24/7; or when I was growing up and there was nothing smart. You know, I was born before TVs, before commercial flight. I was born in the dark ages and it seemed to be that your world was what you could touch. 

But you had to trust reliable people to take care of the bigger thing. It just seemed that it was a more parochial life as well, and it was more sort of trusting, Like, okay, we sort of knew who to trust. Is that it? 

And the other thing is just everything is disintermediated. So somehow I sit here and I feel like I could, if I had the energy, influence anybody anywhere, through any social media or whatever what is this? That is what is tumbling us down that rabbit hole of disconnection.

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I mean, this is funny. This is what I was trying to write about in Present Shock in 2013, is when we quantify things and quantize things, we actually lose touch with them in a sematic way. 

So when you talk about, and I love the idea of a happiness index or a gross domestic happiness or quantifying care and nurturing as opposed to just blah, blah. But the minute you put a quantity on it, the minute you quantize it or quantify it, you kill it on a certain level, it’s gone. Or you’re acting as if. Once you’re quantifying something, the underlying communication of quantification is scarcity.

Oh, we’re quantifying it because there’s not enough. But baby, I got enough nurture for everyone. I really do. I do. I mean, if people would just take that part from me; I’m a fountain and so is everybody. There’s so much nurture, if you put down the gun and put down the computer and the mouse and the numbers.

Where are you gonna do it? That nurture, that was a 9.2 nurture experience, and over there I got a 9.7! It’s like, it’s very Sex in this City, rating your orgasms on a scale of one to 10. Yeah, I hate to be in your head when you’re having your orgasm calculating which metric to give it. It’s kinda like that. And the thing that’s so off for us is that quantification and quantized understanding of the world, that abrasiveness of the living on the ticks of the clock rather than on the spaces between the ticks. 

It’s all ticks, and that tends toward the fascism, that tends toward the authoritarianism. The clicks. I mean, even Hitler was so good at it. Click, click, click, click of the feet on the ground, everything, right? It’s to the same clockwork. Universe understanding of things. Everything’s on the beat.

We are all together. I am the cure. You know that thing. And because we’re living in such a highly quantized environment, we are all becoming fascist and authoritarian in one way or the other. I’m not just saying that things are equal, but there is a brittleness on the far left that matches the quality of the brittleness on the far right, the “with us or against us”. “Oh my God. He voted for Trump. I can never have him over to my house again. Right? 

It’s like, that’s your year. You’re getting brittle. The social justice warriors. Even the well-meaning ones in academia can throw out certain babies with the bathwater.

Yes. McLuhan is a white man from Canada and blah, blah, blah. But his works are still useful in a media studies curriculum. We can decolonize the curriculum without removing everyone of value, that’s from the colonizer community. 

I mean, I could see not having Columbus, the guy was a ***hole. Right? You know, really worse than right, worse than a slave owner, right? Like a would-be Caligula. I mean, this was really violent, horrible, dehumanizing there. There’s nothing good there. But let’s think on before we adopt that kind of defensive posture through everything.

It just makes it harder. It makes it harder to make eye contact to see where people are coming from. I get it. That the social justice side of it says that your intention doesn’t matter, right? Your intention doesn’t matter because you’re part of a system of whatever, of oppression, but your intention, if you have a magical worldview, do what that will, your intention is all you have.

That’s your will, your consciousness proceeds matter. You are, we are all speculating as we move through the biological experience. You can’t take that away from us either at the same time. It’s too scientific, it’s too genetic. It’s too eugenic on a certain level that there’s no intention, that there’s just the code that you’re enacting. 

Vicki Robin: I hear it, that we have no souls. We have no right will. We have no heart.

Douglas Rushkoff: I know, and I don’t like that. Especially, you know, that’s the problem with the right. Sadly the right has taken magic. The right has taken satire and operation mind f**k, and all the great yippy techniques of media subversion are on the right and the right has taken the soul. You know, can’t I be a good soulful lefty? Atheist? Spiritual dude.

Vicki Robin: Totally. You can. You have permission. 

Douglas Rushkoff: Thank you. But we should be right. And I get it. Marx is facts and fascism is metaphor, but they are extremes. It doesn’t mean that we have to abandon metaphor and allegory altogether just because it’s what the fascists use. We can have a little of that, a little literature, a little dreaming.

Vicki Robin: I almost feel like there’s something that you’re not punching at. There’s something that is a niggle, something that’s bugging you, that you’re talking to or about.

What is it that so bugs you? Is it that quantification? Is it like, years ago, I was talking to somebody in the sustainability field, and the big breakthrough he is working on was that we’re gonna put a price on nature. Because if we can put a price on things like the price of the value of a forest, a standing forest, then it has some competition with the value of a forest that’s cut down.

It’s such a Western viewpoint, dominion over nature. It’s hierarchical, it’s binary. It’s like the computer is everything, is sort of like it’s displayed on your screen, but it’s just 1 0, 1 0, 1 0, 1 0, right? It’s everything, that’s the ticking that you’re talking about.

Is it like a global sense that we’re trapped in the matrix and that you’re trying to find your own way out and tell us how to get out? Is that what you’re doing now?

Douglas Rushkoff: I don’t feel like it’s a global problem. I feel like it’s a largely American problem. And because the way America asks these questions is basically,  how do we make environmentalism and human welfare compatible with capitalism and finance?

You don’t, that’s like the answer, right? So when you start saying, there are all these plans; Oh, so we’ll create the market value of the forest. No. In capitalism, nature will never win. You can’t do it. Markets were invented and the financial markets, which are an abstraction of the market, were invented to extract value from living things and convert it into dead numbers. That’s what it’s for.

So it’s not going to save nature. It’s going to destroy nature in another way. That’s all we can really do with it. So, bless AOCs heart and everyone, I don’t believe in the Green New Deal. Oh, we’ll make solar panels and create more jobs… Where did jobs come from? A 11th century social construction. In order to take people’s value from them and pay them a wage for the hour rather than for what they’ve made and all that. 

It’s like all these underlying assumptions are all basically embedded industrialism and embedded capitalism, and they’ve reached the end of their lifespans, but instead of transitioning to a post-market, post-financialized reality and celebrating that we got there, we are clinging to that thing as if it’s real. You know, if you tried to pitch the public library in America today, they would say, you’re a communist. Or the postal service, any of those things. 

They don’t make sense, but you go spend a few weeks in Italy, nobody’s worried about their health bills; getting sick doesn’t bankrupt you. It’s like, oh no, they pay tax. Oh, they do this. They walk around. They walk around, talk to each other. It’s just so weird.

Vicki Robin: So you’re just saying that the United States and Wall Street particularly is the center of financial power, center of capitalism and that it’s totally resistant. You’re not gonna make a silk purse outta a sow’s ear. You’re not gonna get blood from a rock, and you’re not gonna get wellbeing from capitalism.

Douglas Rushkoff: You’re not, it’s not what it’s for. It’s a great tool. Capitalism is a great tool to grow an economy in a hurry. It’s just like speed is a great tool to stay up the night before the test. And it works, within limits. 

It works. But you gotta realize what you’re doing is you’re gonna accelerate this thing we gotta get more growth outta here than is really kind of happening. So we’re gonna dig into this soil with some big tools and we’re gonna wreck the soil matrix for a while and we’re gonna pay for it on the other end, just like some kind of hangover. But we’re gonna get the necessary growth, to do this thing.

But boy, capitalists now are almost quaint in the digital finance markets. The capitalists are like the workers used to be because the capitalists are being exploited by digital capitalists, by financial markets, derivatives and derivatives of ultra fast trading algorithms that are exploiting the former traders who used to be exploiting the businesses who used to be exploiting the workers.

Vicki Robin: So this is also parallel argument around AI and that painting that won some prize. You look into it and you don’t see the artist. You don’t quite see the beating heart of it. It’s exquisite. It’s really exquisite. It’s well rendered and it’s interesting, but it’s just the result of AI scraping images from everywhere and resembling them.

So, I guess my question then is, How do you and I, Douglas and a few other friends, and maybe everybody, how does the world get re-souled? It’s like what we are talking about is that the world that we’ve created is soulless. Humans have souls. AI doesn’t have a soul. It’s something about being born and dying about our relationship with eternity.

There’s something about the soul, right? And whatever you say it is, and we’re building around us a soulless world that we think is our tool, and it’s not. It’s our master. So how do we bust out of this thing?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I’ve developed an app. That uses a square wave, a sine wave, and a solenoid to induce soul in the listener. You pay $3.95 a month, you can download it and play it with earbuds. And your soul will be manifest. 

Vicki Robin: So great and so does everybody end up having the same soul if they’re using the same?

Douglas Rushkoff: No, you get your own soul. It triggers, so if you want your own soul, then you also have to take this supplement that I’m selling.

Vicki Robin: Ah, and it’s a hundred dollars a pop, right?

Douglas Rushkoff: Yes. Each dose. But it’s worth it because it activates the app. If you don’t wanna do that for whatever reason, right? You can just send me money and then you send me $10, then find anybody, anybody around who’s willing to look into your eyes for two full breaths, takes about five or six seconds, two breaths in, out, in and out that long, you’ll feel your soul.

Vicki Robin: Wow. Can we do it without sending you $10? Tell us the truth. 

Douglas Rushkoff: Why would you want to? Actually, it turns out you can. Yeah. I was just trying to make some money off it. No, you don’t have to send me the money, but you can do that. It’s available. It’s available to you. And it’s not placebo effect. It’s real. It’s recalibration. 

Get your feet on the ground. Go outside. Look at a bird. Look at a bird. I was gonna say look at a squirrel, but I know a lot of people live in cities and don’t have squirrels around. Squirrels are really good for it cuz they’re very playful and they’re furry. But I won’t describe, if you haven’t seen one, it’s too difficult.

But no, look at a living thing if you can’t. But if you make eye contact with another person and do two full breaths, there’s a scientific something will happen, right? Yeah. Mirror neurons, oxytocin, totally. All that kind of stuff. It’s really good. And I mean, yes, it’d be great to make love with somebody and do all those bigger things, but you know, if you don’t make love properly, that’s the good word for it. It’s not gonna happen anyway. It’ll happen more easily just looking at someone’s eyes for two breaths. 

Vicki Robin: I just heard a talk you recently gave and you had like a four part, not like a four point plan. It’s sort of like a matrix of four things that if we were to be able to swing it, we could change things. So I’m just feeding you your line. Do you want to go there?

Douglas Rushkoff: I’ll go anywhere you want, sweetie. Okay. Yeah, I mean, I spent most of Covid looking at people who were similar to me, but coming up with plans. What seemed like very techno solutionist inspired plans for how to get people to do this.

How are we gonna get people to spend more time doing this? How are we gonna get people to care more about the environment? How are we gonna get people to, and I’m like, wow, you’re getting people to do this and getting people to do that. It feels very top-down, manipulative. Well, if you are gonna use some technique to get people to do that, what if the bad guys are using that? There are  better techniques to get people to do that. 

It’s all getting people to do that. How am I going to get her to do that? It’s like, yeah, seduction is very different my friend. You don’t “get her” to do something. So I was thinking if we want to engender the sort of society where people are doing what might release us from the enslavement of capitalism, the way that the Israelites were released from the slavery of Egypt, which is a metaphor. It’s the narrow place, you know? Well no, what you have to do is create conditions where people can smash their idols. That’s what the plagues were. The plagues were the desecration of the Egyptian gods so they could be released because they worshiped them themselves. You know, blood desecrated the Nile, locusts desecrated the corn and all. So it changed the circumstance. 

You don’t change the water, you dig differently so the water goes in a different place, right? You don’t try to move the water, you change the environment so that the water, the stream will go somewhere else.

So I was thinking about what can we do to change the register, if you will? The language, the environment from digital capitalism to something much more sharing and nice and human and all. I looked back at all my work really from the beginning and figured out that I’ve been really trying to do the same four things.

I’ve been making the same four interventions over the course of the last, whatever; this has been 30 years of writing books. I mean, the first one is to denaturalize power. You know? It’s the thing that happened for me when I first played with computers and I saw, well, I was asked, how do I wanna save my first file?

The woman who is running the computer lab said, do you wanna save it as a read-only file or a read-write file? And I was like, well, what’s that mean? She said, well, read only means other people can read your file. Read write means they can read and edit your file. And I was like, Ooh, I wanna save, read-write. Let’s see what people want to do. Let’s read-write.

But then when I left the lab, I started looking around at things in the world wondering why were so many things in this world saved as read-only when they’re actually read-write. You know? And that’s sort of a really simple version of understanding FCO for the first time and going, oh my gosh, all these things that I took as real are actually social constructions. 

This stuff in my pocket called money. Well, it’s not money, it’s paper. I could make my own money. The only reason I can’t is because there’s a law, you know. The sacred truths, why are they sacred? Because some priests locked them down. All these things, the way the roads are in New York, I mean, I was a New Yorker. I thought that cities are grids. I thought that’s what they are, because that’s just what cities now. No. Turns out, Manhattan, that grid pattern, someone decided to make it like that. I didn’t realize it. I’m 19 at that point. I’m like, oh. It wasn’t just like, God didn’t just do this. It wasn’t an island. People decided, I get it, and they numbered them like they did, so much of the world. 

I looked at TV and said, oh my gosh, I’ve been raised in a read-only media environment of television. Why can’t we make the television? It’s like, oh, and then, video recorders came out and camcorders and Rodney King and I started to see, oh, so denaturalizing power really means seeing, being able to distinguish between nature and the social constructions created by powerful institutions that look like nature, but aren’t. 

You gotta have a job, you gotta do this, you got… Oh, wait a minute. Those are rules that some powerful person made and they should be up for discussion. The up for discussion is my second intervention, and that’s to trigger agency. It’s back to Joan Rivers when she says can we talk. 

Can we talk? Remember that used to be her line. Can we talk? Is triggering agency saying, well, wait a minute, if these are read-write, then why can’t I change them? Why can’t I rewrite them to my specifications, make local currencies and rewrite the codes and build whatever I want you. You can, right? You should be able to.

Then once you trigger people’s agency to actually take charge of the world that they’re in and grow their own or roll their own or whatever it is you realize that works best if you’re doing it with other people, which is what gets to my third one, which is re-socializing people, or I’ve started to get more political with it, re-socializing the people. to put the social back in socialism. 

How do you re-socialize people? And again, it’s like in America, if you’ve gotta put a hole in the wall, you’re gonna go buy a drill at the Home Depot, right? You’re gonna buy a minimum viable product drill, use it once, stick it in the garage, when you go back to try to recharge it, it’s not even gonna work and you’re gonna throw it out. 

So you spent 49 bucks to get the one hole, and it’s not even that. You’ve sent some kid into a mine to get the cobalt rare earth metals to make the thing. You’ve seen those movies, those kids at getting the stuff, digging with their little fingers and then you’re dumping it in the trash heap that’s gonna go to Brazil or China where some other kid is gonna be picking to find the renewable parts and then sending it back. It’s like what? And the carbon footprint and the pollution and all that, just so you could have your own frigging drill.

The alternative, the re-socialized alternative is go down the street and knock on Bob’s door. Bob is always, I always see him in his garage working on stuff. He’s got lathes and routers and tools. I don’t even know what they have. Of course, he’s got a drill and he will not only lend me his big metal plugin, no nonsense drill, not the Rico disposable minimally of drill, but he’s gonna come with that drill over to my house and go, Doug, you know the place you wanna put that hole? That’s just drywall, man. You gotta go to a stud. Then he’s got this other tool called a stud finder, and he finds the stud, that’s the piece of wood behind the wall. And you go, that’s where you wanna drill the hole, man. And he’s gonna drill it in there and put an anchor and a thing and a who’s it? And go, there you are. It’s gonna be great. 

Now, why don’t I want to do that? Because I don’t know if I like Bob. I don’t know Bob and Bob’s got kids, but Bob might want something from me, right? Bob might want me cuz he knows I’m nerdy. He might want me to help his daughter with her algebra homework or something, and then, oh my God, I’ll be sitting at their kitchen table helping this 12 year old girl with her algebra. I mean that, Ooh, that might be horrible.

Or what if I have a barbecue and then the Bob and his family are gonna smell it? And because Bob came over and gave me, and lent me the drill, aren’t I kind of obligated now to invite Bob and his kids? Then they’re gonna come over and then they’re gonna try to be our friends, and then they’re gonna know people on my block.

Ah, right, that we see that as a problem, oddly enough, in the American suburbs when it shouldn’t be. The whole point of neighborhood is that the reason why, when someone – when I was a kid, anyway – someone moves into the neighborhood, someone new, you bring them a plate of brownies or something. Now that’s not actually a good favor, right? Because they’ve just moved into the house. Their kids are gonna be scared shitless in their new bedrooms, right? And you’re going to just jack them up, the neighbor, the new neighbor’s kids on brownies, right before they have their first sleep.

No, you’re not doing it because they need brownies. You’re doing it because they need to feel obligated to you. That’s the way you welcome them into the neighborhood, is you do them a favor. So they have a reason to come over and do a favor for you. You’re knitting them into the fabric of debt, of community debt, which is what helps us bond.

So we have to re-socialize, and the way we re-socialize is by being. It’s not even just by doing favors for your neighbors, it’s by being willing to accept favors from your neighbors here. And finally, once you’re having those kinds of communal group experiences, is my fourth intervention, which is to cultivate awe. 

Awe, a real experience of awe is an experience of connection. You’re sort of one with everything, right? Whether, if you’re looking at nature or looking at the Grand Canyon or looking at a baby squirrel being born or whatever. I don’t know if you get to see that, but let’s assume you could. These are all gonna be experiences of awe, right? Of awe. Even for me, I have it sometimes if I’m at a good neighborhood barbecue and there’s sound all around me. You know when kids are playing and you can hear them in 360, right? 

It’s like what we call immersive sound in the technology world, but it’s actually out in the real world all the time. It’s all 360. All the time in your real world you have an experience of awe. When you have an experience of awe, your body has a cytokine response that regulates your immune system. You actually have a healthier immune response for like three days after an experience of awe, so you’ll get less sick, you’ll have less allergies. Your body is actually healthier. You’ll be more generous after an experience of awe. 

They’ve done tons of experiments. You’re more likely to be more generous if someone asks you for money or for help after you’ve had experience of awe. And that’s because awe is reminding you that you’re not alone here, that you’re part of this thing, that it’s all there and then, it self generates, right? Because then you will lend the thing to the neighbor and then you will be at the party, and then you will have an ecstatic trans dance experience with neighbors that you’d otherwise be embarrassed to even smile at.

Right? And so they all contribute to each other, but this is what my books have been about really from the beginning. Denaturalizing power. It was my book Life Inc that wanted people to look at what is central currency, what is the corporation? When were they invented? Where did they come from? Why do we have them? What is the automobile? Why does everyone have to have one? Oh, because GM went and lobbied to create an American suburban landscape where you needed a car to get to work. People used to ride the street car home, they drank a beer. Now they’ve gotta spend one day working just to support their ownership of a car, and they’ve gotta operate heavy machinery with great risk for an extra hour or two every day when they come home from their job.

Operating heavy machinery. It’s like, duh, unwind it and you can see, oh, let’s denaturalize power, let’s challenge these underlying assumptions, these things that we’ve mistaken for conditions of nature. That’s what Life Inc was doing. 

Triggering agency was Program or Be Programmed. This book I wrote saying, if you are not doing the programming, if you are not aware of the programming, you are being programmed. Right? It’s the book that argues that kids getting ADD today. Which finally people are agreeing. Kids are getting so much ADD not just because they have the actual organic ADD. but they’re having an adaptive response to a world where someone’s trying to colonize their attention and program them everywhere they look, right?

Then re-socializing people was my book Team Human, you know, how do we re-socialize? The last one, cultivating awe really goes to all of my fiction work. All the comics and the Judaism, and even the first book Cyberia that I wrote about the cyber era, was about rave and psychedelics and all of the new sort of communal group experiences that people were reinventing or retrieving. 

And partly the new Federation of indigenous people, indigenous societies, and their steadfast connection to experiences of awe. I mean, they know that these are way down low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is awe. I’d put it down there with food and shelter.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. It’s interesting, you know, you’re almost describing like the old hippie lifestyle. That’s what we figured out, you know, and then we had communes and then we had co-housing, and then we had intentional communities and co-housing and…

Douglas Rushkoff: They were hard though. They were exploited, you know.

Vicki Robin: But everything, see, this is part of it too. And this is not said cynically. It said, yeah. There is a piece of the consciousness to cultivate at this point is to be able to, as you say, denaturalize power to be able to see that these beautiful ideas that come, there’s gonna be threads of the old, there has to be the people who are creating these beautiful things have been acculturated in the Western society.

So it’s almost like what I’m hearing you say, because what you’re evoking is how I live, by the way. What you’re evoking is the choices that I’ve made again and again and again and again and again in my life. And to do that against the grain of the order that is, as we know, the order is going down. This dominator society is going down and resisting like crazy. 

I guess maybe a windup question here would be, how do you stay in the world like this? How do you continue? Not you, me, us white people, but what do you see happening? What could possibly go right in this regard? What do you see happening that is cultivating this kind of joy, that is cultivating this kind of capacity to think critically and to differentiate between the false and the real? What do you see emerging that is actually sort of an intimation of the post-capitalist world?

Douglas Rushkoff: One is the kinds of questions that are raised by ubiquity and plenty of digital products, is a conversation. The conversation we used to have was, first they came for the cab drivers and I said, nothing, cause I’m not a cab driver. Then they came for the writers and I said, nothing. You know? 

Now with AI, people are realizing, oh, you know, I guess an AI kind of could do most of my job, couldn’t it? And not caregivers, the 10% of people who actually do something that’s worth something, but the rest of us who are doing mortgage actuarial measurement calculations or the vast majority of customer service kinds of things and catalog writing and the bulk of stuff.

We’re starting to ask the other question. When CNN interviews me about it, what are we gonna do about the unemployment problem? That’s what they always say. What are we gonna do about the unemployment problem? And what I say to them, which comes off like a joke, but is starting to trigger agency, is, well, what if we thought about it as the unemployment solution?

And then I’ll say, well, I’m happy for robots to do all the work if I get to do all the play. And they’re like, yeah, ha, ha. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks for this interview. But it triggers, well, wait a minute. Why are we working? Why do we have jobs? 

It initiates that process. All you gotta start doing, people like us, is dropping in little thought bombs. Little thought bombs that… bombs is even the wrong word, cause it sounds weaponized. Thought fungus, that recolonize and reeducate sort of capitalist frameworks with other possibilities, complementary possibilities. 

Capitalism doesn’t go away. You still need some capital at the table. Adam Smith understood that. What about the land? What about the labor? What about the other things? 

So you can start thinking about that. But we can start thinking, oh, what if we don’t have enough work for everyone to have a five hour workday? Well, then what? Then we’ll have to share the work. Well, all right. You can work Wednesdays if I can work Thursday, and then can you imagine it flipping to that side of things? I think it will. 

So if we actually get good at things, which we’re not, because none of the things we’re doing are actually more efficient, long-term, they’re more extractive. You really want to farm properly. We need more hands on the ground, less tractors, more people. You can’t do it the way we’re doing it. It’s not tractors in Monsanto. Chemicals don’t work. Not long term. Not unless Mars is really coming and Mars doesn’t seem to have good topsoil. So there’s a lot. We’re gonna have to geo-form that place. Terraform it, it’s a lot. It”ll be easier to re-terraform Earth than to terraform Mars. So come back here. 

Let’s look back where we are. I don’t think it’s as hard as all that, because the solution is so easy, it’s counterintuitive. The main critique I get of my books, even from smart people, like the Washington Post and Boston Globe type reviewers will say: Rushkoff’s book. His critique is great, but his solutions don’t really make sense. He’s saying we should share more and borrow more stuff. 

It’s really old ideas. Okay. Jesus had old ideas, right? I mean, those ones still sound pretty good to me. Buddah had old ideas, right? Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It means that we can, if anything with the new stuff that we got, all the new toys and gizmos and iPhones and things, maybe the old ideas will work even better now than, than they did before.

You know, intentional communities of years past and with the experience of hippiedom, which I think from the hippies I’ve talked to, got f***ed up mostly because the guys did none of the work. They were out playing Frisbee stoned and the women had to do everything. I heard that’s the way it went.

Vicki Robin: I mean, that’s very glib. Here, I’ll just pitch my thought as I’m listening to you, I’m realizing the idea of regenerative agriculture, which we were talking about. We need a kind of agriculture that actually increases fertility, not decreases fertility, right? Increases life, not decreases life, et cetera. 

Regenerative agriculture used to be not on anybody’s lips and now it’s regenerative everything. It’s sort of like the coolest thing now. So I think there’s a real push toward regeneration, and I think it’s on the part of maybe old hippies, who opened the way. But there are so many scientists, young people, people really dedicated. I would say that, even as the dehumanizing, very visible world is out there, We can all go just freak out like on a daily basis if you want to.

I think that there’s, I feel this chugging forward of values and practices and attitudes and ways of being, and ways of seeing that are coming right out of that more wholesome sense of living in this world. I don’t know how that becomes more evident because there’s a resistance in the dominant media to telling these stories or they’re sort of marginalized stories.

I think what you’re evoking is something that I can feel people yearning toward and I can feel people embodying I don’t think it’s just that I live in a nice little, sort of privileged enclave of really good, sweet people. I mean even yoga’s commercialized and meditation’s commercialized, but this impulse toward the healthy communities, healthy people; I think that impulse is actually, it’s sort of like another drum beat. Not quite as loud as the AI and freak out drum beat, but I think it’s there. I think it’s there. You can disagree with me, but I mean, do you see that as well?

Douglas Rushkoff: Yes. I see that as well in my what could go right mindset. Even though I’m training myself to say, but I’ve also seen remarkably almost heartbreaking awareness stir in people when they’re dying. They’ve realized, oh my, I mean the most horrible people. I’ve been lucky to be at a lot of death beds. I mean that non facetiously you see them in those last days saying, It’s all love, isn’t it? That’s all there is. That’s the only thing. I mean it, I really mean it. That’s all there is. Everything is love. It’s what’s holding ourselves together. 

It’s just love and they realize it, and they feel it and it’s beautiful in that last three, four days of their life. They get it. Or three, four hours, or three, four minutes for some. But the fact that so many people are having this inkling of, oh, wait a minute. Even the ones that you might call crazy, who have the inkling and they’re in a strange neighborhood.

So then they say they see that reflected in MAGA values or something else, because they understand. Everyone understands that there is some kind of a system that’s gone out of control and is repressing and against that, and it’s neoliberalism. And neoliberalism is on the forehead of Clinton and what was his name? Tony Blair. As much as it is on Ronald Reagan and George Bush. 

So it doesn’t matter what face, who the actor was, who you blaming for it. They’re all feeling that thing. But again, then what we have to do, I think is, and I can say we have to you and me, but I wouldn’t say this, I’m not saying people have to do something, because that’s against my thing, of getting people to do stuff.

I think what we have to do though is help people recognize the soul love. What could go rightness about this emerging sensibility. And there’s still time. There is always time to change. There’s always time.

Talk to any Catholic priest until the person’s dead, they can always last rite them into goodness. And the fat lady has not sung. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of life yet on this planet. There’s a lot of mycelia that we could turn to help us regenerate a whole lot of things and get the plastic outta the ocean.

There’s a ton. It’s eminently fixable. Eminently fixable, if we can imagine a path toward that.

Vicki Robin: Right. Imagination is so crucial. So crucial. And also in the face of all odds, looking like an idiot, just to confirm, love to be generous, to greet people, It’s like when you say what we can do, you and me, Douglas, we’re just having a strategy session here for like saving the world.

So you and I, what we’re gonna do is, it’s as you say, it’s so simple. It’s being love. It’s being love and trusting love, and keeping your powder dry. But that’s what I hear you saying in a way. What I see in your books and in you is that you are sort of like a love bug, and then you’ve got all ironic and snarky and all this cool stuff, that you put out so that you can shock us into awe. You’re shocking us into awe. 

Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah. Shock in awe. But for sure, my mentors were the hippies. Tim Leary, Robert Anton Wilson. Of course people with, they had good and bad features, but they were the hippies and really for the most part, they were right.

I still wonder what it would’ve been like, and everyone who’s done it says, oh, you wouldn’t have liked it, but it what it would’ve been like to be like raised on a kibbutz, a bunch of bearded dudes and knit yamakas singing at guitars, while we picked dates from the, I don’t know, 

Vicki Robin: I don’t think I would’ve survived it, frankly, but I understand what you’re saying and it’s almost like if you give up that there’s some kind of shangrila, if you give up that there is a beauty and wholeness that’s available to us and that our lives are tending toward, that if you give up that, then it is just a prosaic world.

You wouldn’t have liked being at a commune, I mean, a kibbutz, You would’ve been there for a week and it would’ve planted something in you and you would’ve been carrying it forward.

Douglas Rushkoff: Oh, good. Then I could go back to the city. Exactly.

Vicki Robin: Exactly. But what I’m saying, and we’re gonna have to wind up here, I feel safer in the city. I really do. I feel safer in the city than in the forest, but that’s cause it’s where I’m oriented. But you, like me, you like talking about the forest and the mycelium. As long as it’s like out there, out there.

Douglas Rushkoff: Not in my apartment, please.

Vicki Robin: But what I’m saying is, what I’m hearing from you, don’t lose heart in the midst of all of that’s churning and crumbling and venal and heartlessness. Don’t lose heart. That’s not an instruction. That’s not like me telling you, Hey, you don’t lose heart. Like I could lose heart if I want to, but that’s what I hear you saying;  don’t lose heart.

We’re magnificent beings. We have a capacity for love. Don’t lose heart. It’s almost like that is a very potent instruction at this time when it would be easy to lose heart. So anyway, that’s my windup. Do you have any final words for us, my friend?

Douglas Rushkoff: No, I love you. I love getting to do this, to bask in positive possibility is a nice feeling. It’s like singing gospel music or something, which I love. But you know what I mean? It feels, it’s not hope. It’s not hope. It’s something else. I don’t know what the word would be for it, but it’s good.

It’s a kind of re-socialized awe is what it is. And it’s nice. It’s all possible, and that’s the thing that really we have to fight with. That’s where I’ll go with the end. That’s how I’ll wrap up. 

The possible is very different from the probable. The AI is enforcing the probable, yielding the most probable combination of words from the past. If we use that as our guide, we all die. You can’t use the probable, you have to use the possible

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Thank you, Douglas.

Douglas Rushkoff: Thank you.

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