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Return to the review by Harvey Blume.

Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Unacknowledged Legislators of the Digital World," by Charles C. Mann (December 15, 1999)
In his new book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig offers a disconcerting vision of the Net's future. Too disconcerting, objects our reviewer. Plus, an e-mail exchange between Lessig and Atlantic Unbound editor Wen Stephenson.

"Exquisite Source," by Harvey Blume (August 12, 1999)
Heads turned in June when the Linux operating system was awarded first prize by the judges of an international art festival. How far, one wonders, can the open source model go?

"With Liberty and Justice for Me," by Mark Dery (July 22, 1999)
Is the Internet giving ordinary people more control over their lives? An e-mail exchange with Andrew L. Shapiro, the author of The Control Revolution.

"Bits of Beauty," by Harvey Blume (June 3, 1999)
Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? An assessment of the first-ever Cyberarts Festival in Boston, where art criticism is forced to play catch-up with technology.

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
An Optimist After All These Years

An interview with Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say

January 13, 2000

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Harvey Blume: If I read Coercion right, you see the Web as a surrender of freedom as compared to earlier, more interactive, forms of the Internet. If that's so, how to reverse so momentous a change?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I don't know if we have to "reverse" it as much as push through it. We shouldn't dismantle the Web altogether, but rather build more interactive interfaces on top of it, like discussions, chat, and live collaboration. Find things to do with it other than commerce. I suspect, especially after this mondo Christmas-to-beat-all-Christmases and the post-Millennium let-down, people may feel a bit disappointed by the e-commerce universe that has developed over the Internet. It may get harder for people to get themselves psyched for the next e-purchase. We might just get so nauseous with consumption, and so tired of the strip mall, that we begin to look for alternatives to these very passive sorts of "interactive" experiences.

As far as active resistance, well, the best suggestion I can come up with is for people to take a one-day Sabbath each week. One day where they don't consume or produce, or go online. It's kind of a safe day, where we learn that we don't have to do anything at all to justify our existence. It makes reentering the consumption and data spheres very different.

HB: You criticize calling our time the Information Age because that puts data above personal interaction. What would you call our time?

DR: I'd call it a communications age. An interpersonal age, really. We are building a communications infrastructure, and learning how to relate to one another. That's not about information as much as contact itself. This is a time when the boundaries between people and peoples are disintegrating.

HB: In Coercion you write, "The code for software was no longer routinely released to the public for us to modify or improve." Does the open source movement modify this kind of criticism? What do you see as the potential of open source?

DR: I think open source is terrific, but I'm still hoping it will begin to reach the people who need it, and that it will become as easy to use and install as commercial products. Linux is so open it's transparent compared with Windows, but paradoxically that also makes the barrier to entry a bit higher for people who simply want to use a computer without caring how it works. Problem is, the easier software is to use, the harder it tends to be to program. The fatter the interface, the more people can seem to use it, but the fewer that understand how it works. I do believe that open source will eventually replace commercial standards-setting -- if for no other reason than that it tends to work better in the long run, thanks to its natural development cycle.

HB: Wasn't technorealism aimed at the digerati's techno-utopianism as much as at commercialization?

DR: Of course it was. We meant to demonstrate that extremism is needlessly polarizing, and that it makes real conversation very difficult. But -- as I saw it, anyway -- techno-utopianism had become synonymous with commercialization. It was nothing more than a way of justifying the quashing of public interests online, and bolstering the Ponzi scheme of Internet investments. That was my problem with it. I am still something of an optimist myself, but I was very bothered by how the libertarian movement co-opted social utopianism (or even just social optimism) as a rationalization for letting the market decide reality.

HB: In Coercion, you recount the negative reaction to technorealism by established Internet players like Michael Kinsley. Why was technorealism received so negatively by Kinsley?

DR: I think that was largely generational. Kinsley seems to think that anyone who is under forty can't do anything but whine. In his column criticizing our point of view, he even admitted never having read the technorealism document! I'd guess it has something to do with not wanting to lose control over how America defines the "left" or progressive thought. In Kinsley's case in particular, it has to do with the fact that he went to work for Microsoft, and is assisting in that corporation's dominance of the information space. He doesn't need young progressives reminding him of what the interactive space might have been used for.

HB: Isn't there a danger of portraying the marketing forces as demonic and therefore unbeatable?

DR: Sure, but I don't do that, I don't think. Market forces aren't human at all. That's why it's so dangerous to automate them with computers. My purpose is to demonstrate how there is no force whatsoever behind market forces except us. That's the whole point of the book. There is no "they" -- there's only us, coercing one another, and mostly unconsciously. If there was a demon, it would be a lot easier. But there isn't at all.

HB: You were once an enthusiast about the liberating potential of digital culture. Now you are a trenchant critic. But do you think you've struck the balance in your own work?

DR: I am not a trenchant critic, am I? I am still extraordinarily enthusiastic about the liberating potential of digital culture. I'm just concerned about the backwards steps we've taken since 1994, especially in our implementation of technologies designed to lull us into consumption and passivity, and feel it's necessary to wake people up a bit. My first six books were much more optimistic, but they spoke of a world and a future that most people couldn't even imagine. This book is for the people who didn't discover interactive technology until after it became a strip mall. Most of them still have no idea what interactivity is.

See an interview with William Mitchell

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Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

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