Douglas Rushkoff INTERVIEW (2010)
Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist (he coined the term and concept of "viral media"), writer, journalist, and professor. We spoke in April 2010 about his then-new book, Life, Inc.
BW: You've written about a lot of different things throughout your career and body of work. Is there a theme or belief that you see yourself working on throughout?
DR: Yeah. I'm a media theorist, first and foremost, and I'm interested in figuring out, what is the point at which people actually believe stuff to be true? One of the reasons I got interested in money (one of the subjects of Life, Inc.) is because people think of that green stuff in their pocket as money that’s worth something. I wanted to know, how did we get there? I'm interested in how does reality move from being plastic to being concrete? And I'm trying to help people understand that there's a difference between living in opposition to these institutions and living with an awareness that these institutions are social constructions.
BW: Let’s go into a little more detail about the arguments you’re presenting in Life, Inc. about money and how people might think about their local economy in a new way.
DR: The way we understand money now is that it comes from a bank. Back in the year 1100-1200, money was actually earned into existence. For example, people would go to the fields and grow wheat and bring it to a grain store and get receipts for the grain that they brought in and they could spend those receipts to buy chickens or shoes or services.
In late medieval Europe, which had been a feudal empire, as people started trading and doing things themselves, the people who were on the very top ended up becoming less wealthy in comparison with a rising merchant class. It was only because that economy was doing so well and monarchs were losing economic power that they came up with this idea for the kind of money we use today, which is centralized currency. So the ruling class in Europe developed this other system where any kind of money other than centralized currency was illegal. If you used [unapproved currency] you were killed. It was all just a plan so that people who had money but didn't create value could continue to make money simply by having and lending out money. Which kind of got passed down to us today as this single currency economy that we have in the United States, where there's only one kind of money and that kind of money comes into circulation in a very particular way. It's loaned into existence by a central bank to a subsidiary bank who then loans it to a business that the bank believes is capable of paying it back at interest. So, now, the purpose of this money is not to promote our transactions so much as to promote the interests of the first investor.
BW: And the people who hold the capital and loan it out, what's their angle?
DR: They make money by having and lending money, which is fine—venture capital and all that. It's just that it doesn't represent the totality of an economic ecology. Venture capital is part of an economic ecology. It's how you get auto companies, it's how you get bridges built, it's how you do big important ventures like creating railroads. But what if you just want to come to a town and hang up a shingle and make horseshoes for people? What do you need? Some coal, a bellows to make a roaring fire, a couple of hammers and some iron. But since our economy is so tilted towards the big thing there's not really a place for that blacksmith. That blacksmith has got to go work for a large corporation. For the same reasons, it’s hard to be an independent farmer because the independent farmer has to go find a credit union or a local bank that's going give them money for a single tractor. The bank is like, what's your business plan? How are you going to grow? To which the farmer says, well I can't really grow. I've got 40 acres and a mule. The farmer could create a sustainable business with those resources but sustainable businesses are not compatible with a debt-based growth economy—only “Big Agriculture” businesses like Chiquita. So the farmer can't borrow on his business because the farmer can't grow his business past a certain point.
BW: So, you’re saying, the guiding light of our current economic system is an interest in capital and acquiring more capital rather than promoting things or people?
DR: Right. And many very well-meaning people—even smart, well-meaning people—believe that as long as there are investors out there who want to acquire capital, then they will invest in companies that will make money and lead to the distribution of goods and services to all of us who need it. But that actually reaches a point of diminishing returns when you realize that there's a point at which a business might best be a sustainable business rather than a growth business. There's a point at which, say, Americans are eating about as much corn syrup as they need. But for Coke and other corn syrup manufacturers to meet the needs of their shareholders they have to make sure more corn syrup is consumed every year. How do you do that? Well you create certain kinds of marketing to get people to eat more corn syrup than they need. You create obese people. You convince government that corn syrup is what can run automobiles even though it turns out it's a bad organic fuel. And then you screw up the topsoil and you do all this other stuff. So it's a great thing for certain things, but it shouldn't be the only kind of business that's permitted.
BW: Do you foresee ways of correcting this imbalance?
DR: I think you can solve it in a number of ways, but right now it's very hard for people to do the kinds of things and feel the way they need to feel in order to do what's necessary. So you've got to start small. For example, if you get people to join a babysitting club where they start to put in, say, two hours of babysitting this week and then, another week, get two hours of babysitting from someone else, then people could start to see how they're getting babysitting for doing babysitting and it's all fair and it's working. Isn't this an economy? If people can start to see things this simply then they can start to envision other ways of accomplishing things.
But we also need to realize that we've been trained for 100 years now not to trust each other. We trust companies, we trust government, we trust laws. We don't trust other people to meet our obligations. And we believe money is real and we don't really value other forms of currency. Even the whole idea of sharing things with other people sounds like something you would do only if you're poor or low-class, rather than that it's actually more fun.
BW: Where do you think the stigma that you would only share your possessions if you were low class comes from?
DR: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, bless his heart, was trying to get the engines of capitalism and industrialization going in the United States after World War II. And he was scared that all these returning veterans from World War II were going to be crazy. He wanted them to be happy but he also wanted to keep them from gathering in public places and creating mobs. So he worked with the Levitt brothers to develop Levittown which was the first sort of individuated community and it was intended to develop a new value system in America where every returning veteran is the king of his own little castle and he's entitled to each of the consumer comforts for him and his family. But each family was a separate unit on the block, not supposed to interact so much as be in their own, self-contained, little fiefdoms, designed to promote the maximum possible consumption of stuff.
Back then, it wasn't seen as a bad thing. If you didn't know about pollution then wouldn't you want each family on each block to have its own car? Of course you would, because that means more jobs and everyone would have their own everything, or two. And if everybody's buying their own everything then our economy is going to be great and we're going to be digging more iron out of the ground and all of these businesses that are looking for consumers are going to have them. The problem is that economic model ultimately requires a somewhat de-socialized model of reality.
BW: Are there any other institutions, besides our financial ones, that reinforce a de-socialized behavior in American culture? And what might those be?
DR: Yes, and they all kind of dovetail and self-reinforce. American religion is a big one. The idea that your relationship to God is as an individual leads to the same every-man-for-himself ethos. It’s given us the prosperity gospel, among other things. In the book, I mention Frank Baum and the precursors to the New Age movement in the early 1900s. Frank Baum, the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz, was also the Wanamaker department store’s window dresser. And Baum was one of the first guys to talk openly about how, in America, the acquisition of stuff and merchandise is Christian; being wealthy is an indication that God loves you and that you're doing the right thing. And I compare all that with more contemporary books like The Secret and this extreme form of basically, think rich, be rich, become rich. If you're not doing well, if you're not wealthy, then you are the problem.
BW: How does media play into it what you're talking about here?
DR: I'm into practical uses of local media. You can create a Google group to organize the people in your town around local needs. Like, right now, in my town, we're fighting to get the school budget passed. That doesn't necessarily mean I've got to fight to get every school budget in the world passed or something. For a majority of our problems now I feel like if people reconnected with reality and their neighbors and the on-the-ground, immediate, human-scaled problems and challenges they'd be a lot more empowered to do something about it.
There's this tendency to want to go meta on everything. We live in this universe with Facebook and Google and these other, almost universal global media entities and there's a temptation to make everything we do exist on that level. It's like if it's not being talked about on MSNBC or something then it's not real. I understand if you have a business, you want it to scale, you want it to be up on that level, but there are things that don't have to happen on that level.
You know the point of living in a big world is that we can share lessons with each other, it's not that this one place here has to make the Swiss chard for every plate on the planet. If people in a certain town figured out a way to fix their school or build solar panels or successfully fight for the right to grow appropriate crops on their own land in an area where they weren’t allowed to grow food before, then they could write about what they did. These stories wouldn’t be about nationally marketing their cause but about globally sharing their models and solutions, so that other people don't have to reinvent the wheel every time.
[Transcript edited for length and clarity.]