He is a consistent voice in the world of radio, television and journalism as he regularly appears in Time Magazine and his column on cyberculture is distributed monthly by the New York Times Syndicate. He's appeared on television shows such as Frontline, Larry King, and MediaTelevision, and can often be heard on NPR's All Things Considered.
He was the voice of and producer for the award-wining Frontline documentary The Merchants Of Cool.
He is a professor, a musician, a media advisor and an all around exceptional voice on culture within and beyond the societal media-sphere. Now Douglas is brining his voice to the world of panels, gaps and four colours.
Originally serialized in BPM Magazine, "Club Zero-G" is about an interdimensional dance club that kids go to while they're asleep. The story follows Zeke, a gangly, unpopular, 19-year-old college student- a townie who also happens to attend the elite college in his community- who has discovered this terrific new club experienced through a shared dream consciousness where he is accepted and popular. But it only exists in the dreams of its participants. If at all.
Zeke's friends think he is simply going crazy. His girlfriend in the club won't even acknowledge his existence in real life and as he descends further into the Club Zero-G reality, he learns that this shared dream space is more then just a party and soon gets involved in a battle that could very well overturn our entire perception of consensus reality. Featuring art by Steph Dumais, with colours by Anne Marie Horne and edited by Patrick Neighly of Mad Yak Press. Club Zero-G is a 144 page full-colour graphic novel that is in stores now or can purchased direct from the Disinformation Store.
Originally aired on PopImage.com, CBR News presents the following, expanded interview with new info on future projects and even more artwork.
Douglas Rushkoff: In some ways, yes. Teenagers have become so much the focus of everybody else. In a certain sense - at least as far as marketers and parents and maybe law enforcement are concerned - teenagers are the centre of the universe. But it's not the kind of attention any human being needs. It's attention trained on how to market to them, predict their behaviour, and, at worst, turn them into compliant mindless consumers.
The strange part is that all this marketing seems to work better on the adults than the kids. That's why adult women wear all those pathetic childhood dresses, and why adult men lust after their daughter's high school friends. Everybody wants to be in the world depicted in an A&F catalogue, out in the woods enjoying those bisexual Nazi youth fantasies. As if age 19 is the end of life - then you go over some sort of cliff.
So Club Zero-G is about a similar phenomenon, in that everyone - adults, the military, as well as some sort of interdimensional beings and their enemies are all focusing on the teenagers in this story. Observing them, getting into their dreams, and so on. In the story, they represent the last generation of humans before the genome gets corrupted; but that's really more of an allegory for a stage of life, and a stage of civilization. Adolescence of the species.
Ellis: Which sort of brings up the question of whether or not the species is adhering to the 'Live fast, Die young' concept, as more seem to be predicting its downfall rather then its evolution.
Rushkoff: Even the 'live fast, die young' ideal is a bit more romantic than what we're doing. Indeed, it appears we might not live through our puberty as a civilization, because we still think girls have cooties, if you will. We've gotten to the stage where we need to develop a certain amount of cross-cultural intimacy, instead of just fear.
Ellis: Years ago I did an essay wherein I basically said humanity had chosen comfort over evolution. Opting for 'more of the same' if you will, much like the comics medium…
Rushkoff: Comfort in the short-term. It's like drinking too much coffee. It can get you through the afternoon, but then you're more tired the next day. Everything in the West is short-term - as a result of industrialization, mass-production, and the need for more rapid consumption. We have to burn everything up really fast so as to need to produce and purchase more. It's the problem with end-stage capitalism in a commodities-based economy. There are ways out other than bloody revolution, of course, but our addiction to the quick fix, analogous to corporate culture's obedience to the short-term quarterly report, makes that a lot harder.
Ellis: You started this project a while ago, since its inception has your approach to the ideas in Club Zero-G changed in any way? I notice many of the themes present here are also the basis of discussions in your NYU class.
Rushkoff: Well, I always saw Club Zero-G as a way to express some pretty esoteric ideas in a very simple, and tangible way. So while the thinking might be inspired by Hegel, de Chardin, or Foucault, the story and characters are really straightforward. On the other hand, the premise for the story came to me in a dream - so while my dreams are probably affected by the kinds of stuff I read, this notion of a world we can all access together while we're asleep came from my subconscious. Really, for a few days after this weird dream, I was convinced that I had been to a real place, inhabited psychically by hundreds of people I knew.
So that idea was there from the beginning. Originally, I wanted to do this as a four-volume set. It started as a serial in BPM magazine, and I figured that would be enough to sell it somewhere, or to get BPM to sponsor the books. When Disinformation finally stepped up to the plate, they wanted the thing to be finished in a single volume - so I had to do a lot of thinking on how to simplify the story. There's definitely a lot more to be told - so that's either going to happen in some additional books that explain some more about these characters and their worlds, or in the screenplay or novel if there is one.
Ellis: What was the appeal of starting this story in a sequential format? While comics are mainly an entertainment medium, I know you see comics for their potential to teach and impart as well as entertain.
As for tackling a sequential medium, that has to do with the story, itself. It's not a story I wanted to tell in a novel or screenplay. It's about sequence, itself, in a way. Multiple time periods, attempting to affect one another. Multiple states of mind and consciousness. Sequential media lets you juxtapose realities quite naturally. It also forces a kind of audience involvement in relating the panes to one another. So since this is a story about the audience taking charge of the story, it seemed sequential narrative was the only way to go - if I wanted to practice what I was preaching, and convey this with the medium rather than just the content.
Ellis: When you say 'Multiple states of mind and consciousness' I think of Alan Moore and how he creates his performances so as to stimulate all the senses. Did you think of Club Zero-G as a performance at all? Maybe a Club Zero-G soundtrack?
Rushkoff: Steph, the artist, has been asking for this for a long time. He wants to create a set of dance tracks that would correspond to various points in the story. I think that would be great fun. I did write this story for this particular medium, though, so I don't know that I'd need to go Wagnerian, if you will, with this material. If I had the ability to do a full-fledged performance with this, I'd probably be into something more spatial than performative. Some kind of immersive experience - a walk through. Or even a ride of some kind, like in Disneyland.
Ellis: Have you had any contact with any of the mainstream publishers about writing for them or perhaps working with their characters and properties? With your connections to Grant Morrison and with the additional of Jonathan Vankin to editorial, Vertigo seems like a natural choice for your work.
Rushkoff: Sure, man, hook me up. Vertigo, pre-Vankin, wasn't interested in Club Zero-G based on the first couple of episodes and a plot outline. They thought it was too superhero, I think. Go figure. It wasn't fully written at the time, so I don't know how they would have reacted to the finished book. But I'd certainly be interested in taking a crack at re-interpreting the Eternals or a DC narrative.
Ellis: As a writer you've made quite an evolution, from Media Virus to Nothing Sacred is quite a journey. Had you always planned on coming this far? Where do you see your work in the sequential field fitting in, in the grand scheme of things?
I do feel like I've been saying one thing, all along: reality is up for grabs, so learn the codes through which the narrative is crafted and participate in its unfolding. It's the great psychedelic insight, as well as the thing people realize when they get involved in computers, systems theory, fantasy role-playing, or even a rave gathering, or media making. Turns out it's also the central message of Judaism - "you will be a nation of priests" really just means that what would make the Jews special is that they'd be the first literate nation. So I wrote a book on Judaism to show how Judaism isn't about race or religion, it's about overturning those obsolete notions and getting involved in writing the story of our reality. They didn't react to well to that - at least not most of the ones going to synagogue, and all. Scholars and very literate rabbis got it, but most of them wrote to tell me "yeah, you've got it - but it's not the Judaism people are ready for."
And the graphic novel says the same things, but in a different way. I don't want to give the whole story away, but it's basically about breaking free of the story. That's why I used a conventional format and structure, and then twist it up a bit. It's two comic books, or maybe three, that collide: a realistic one, an anime story, and then a more hyperdimensional thing. But the main character eventually calls the other characters out on their adherence to traditional plot structure.
Ellis: It is also comes back to the matter of control and reality creating the question of who's really in power.
Rushkoff: Yeah, but the people who are "really" in power are dead. They're not actually in power, they are in service to their idols and institutions. But they can't see it. Fertile life is not sitting in a chair being rich, or having a title or a bunch of cash. But those symbolic rewards are enough to make most of our smartest and creative people surrender their very lives to very dead institutional forces.
Ellis: In the past it had been announced on PopImage that Grant Morrison, Genesis P-Orridge and yourself would be collaborating on a project together. Is this endeavour still underway?
Then I invited Grant to a strange conference I did out in Aspen, and we had some conversations, there, but Gen wasn't around for that one. Grant has since gotten even bigger - he's doing stuff in Hollywood, now - and doesn't really have time for such an open-ended thing. And I've ended up joining PsychicTV - Gen's band - as the keyboardist. So there's all sorts of associations happening, just not the book. We're all in Richard Metzger's Disinformation Interviews book, but in different chapters.
Oh, and Grant and I will be teaching a spiritual workshop together - yeah, you read that right - spiritual - at the Omega Institute this August. I don't imagine this will be a trip for the feint of heart.
Ellis: That should be very interesting. Have you decided on the sort of approach you'll be taking for the class? I also wholeheartedly recommend the Disinformation Interviews book, which is just filled to brimming with genius and talent.
Rushkoff: Honestly, I've got no idea whatsoever of what's going to happen. I'm assuming we'll get some sort of individual units, or lecture/workshop periods. I'd use my time to show that literacy and spirituality are the same thing. That pretty much every religion starts by giving the participants power over the narrative - and then the religions turn into institutions that discourage this kind of authorship.
But yeah - these guys are about as smart and weird as anyone alive today. So it's a great honour to be on the same bill. I hope a big mass of people show up, so it gets kind of wild. I could use a shake up.
Ellis: In the publisher outline they make a note of referring to this graphic novel as 'American'. With an oppressive force trying to control consensus reality at the centre of this story, is this perhaps why the American part is accentuated?
Rushkoff: When I wrote the original story, back in 2000 and 2001, the whole 9-11 thing hadn't happened, yet. So I was less concerned with oppression of bodies and behaviours than a more subtle oppression of mind and spirit. And I figured that if corporate America and government were so very fixed on being able to predict and direct human thought and action, there really was a threat to free will. It's a lot of what I talk about in my book, Coercion.
So yeah, it's about the replacement of a collectively rendered landscape of possibility with the centrally devised reality of maximum profit. And that effort, these days, finds its direction from America. The premise of the story is to look at what happens when a civilization succumbs to the enforcement of 'consensus,' however oppressive things need to get. But I wanted to give the reader a set of countermeasures more hopeful and potentially useful than kung fu or appointing a messiah, like in the Matrix.
Ellis: Another important aspect is approaching 'rave' as a culture and not just a party.
Rushkoff: Well, I hate to call it a "rave" story because the word - the meme - has suffered of late. Most kids think of it as a failed movement, when it's probably one of the only music genres that has resisted co-option by the MTV machine. I mean, even hiphop is owned by Sprite.
Rave wasn't just about electronic music, but about an alternative to a top-down music industry, economy, and social environment. Rave is an effort to generate a collective experience that still respects individual autonomy. Not an easy task.
But I don't use the word rave in the book, even though these giant, organismic parties clearly take their cue from rave. While I didn't want to alienate people who are 'over' rave or who never got into it, I do help explain to people what was really under all that energy. What I do in this story, however, is try to extend the metaphor of collective organism to the next level. What does it really mean to be creating reality?
Ellis: Raves of course are not as prevalent as they were a few years back, perhaps because the ravers are too preoccupied with reality television, do you think the lessening of the rave culture is a loss for today's youth?
Rushkoff: Systems find ways of balancing. Rave - real rave - was launched in the early cyberdelic era. It was the thing after grunge, actually. The next form of resistance, this time through celebration and communion. What may have hurt rave the most was its migration to legal venues. Rave began as an appropriation of space and time. It was a political act, which then pushed a cultural identity forward.
Ellis: I was wondering if North Americans would adopt guerrilla texting in this way, instead it being used to vote for music videos. Two years ago the WTO protests in Montreal were big news, last year though the protests took place the same weekend as the big Rolling Stones concert and thus didn't gain much press. Blogs are a good point though, it seems everyone has a blog, livejournal account, a message board, a webcam, is on friendster, one of several dating sites and more and while these may be a great forum for decisive thinking there's still a barrier on interaction created by the computer. Seeing as how audio blogging is now available it's just a matter of time before streaming video web journals become the norm. Thousands of people around the world doing their own version of the Daily Show.
Rushkoff: Both Howard Rheingold and I have been writing articles about just this over at theFeature.com this week. It's a fascinating possibility. Probably a bit optimistic, but Blogs have forced a few major issues so far, that the mainstream media wouldn't touch. And people are using texting from cell phones to do some important activism.
The protests in Madrid following the train bombing were organized by SMS, as were much of the Dean campaign, the 2000 Manila "Generation TXT" demonstrations that toppled the Estrada regime, and, of course, most WTO activity. Voters register by SMS in South Africa, and political parties in India use SMS to communicate with party members.
Al Gore was thinking of starting a TV news channel to help give a platform to this user-generated media, but he's since surrendered that vision to a more 'produced' format. But it's inevitable. The age of public access media may finally be upon us. What'll be interesting is to watch how the mainstream attempts to discredit it.
Ellis: But most of the Gen TXT activism still occurs largely outside North America, and it certainly is used in as much high volume as in the Eastern world where some people might send hundreds or even thousands of messages a month or even just a week. But we are getting further. We already have people editing video games to create short films. What I'd like to see is the application for personal webpages, when webmasters begin to create streaming visual poetry is when my eyes will begin to light up. This of course should bring us one step closer to everyone broadcasting live video from their cell phones or headsets, which would really change popular perception, after all, all the worlds a stage.
Rushkoff: Of course, it'd be great fun to do a web comic. Get Your War On is a terrific use of the medium - and it's in a cut-and-paste style that doesn't require drawing ability, in the traditional sense. So it opens up a visual communication medium for those whose ideas and passion may surpass their technical ability.
But what you're really getting at in the first paragraph of your response is the relationship of text-based to image-based communications and cultures. Really, for the past two thousand years we've been in literate culture - ever since hieroglyphs (priestly writing) became the alphabet. Literacy and text have - until very recently - been associated with populism, non-elitism and social justice. A people who can read and write can also read and write their history and future. It's a tremendous empowerment.
As far as I'm concerned, the text-based Internet was much more empowering to a potentially wider number of people than the image-based Internet. While that might seem counterintuitive, the argument finds strength in that anyone who can read can also write. ASCII text is the same size for anyone who writes it. The image-laden web was not as much a communications tool as a marketing tool. Yes, it allows us to read comics online, which is terrific. But it tends to disable conversation, unless a rather complex piece of software is placed on top of the web, restoring the same functionality the internet had before the web even existed!
Luckily, there's a lot of web sites promoting conversation, now, and allowing for discussions to develop. But to put a comicbook online is a very different use of the Internet than what I'm used to, myself, and what I've been fighting for over the years. It's the creation of a fairly passive experience - it takes a person's hands off the keyboard, and back onto the mouse. And that's not what I feel a computer is really for. I get bored doing things like that on the computer. It's more of a TV-type thing.
Video and computer games seem like a more logical application of comics and sequential narrative to the computer screen.
Rushkoff: I don't know if I ever really believed in a separate "youth culture." This sort of segmentation is really the work of marketers, not reality. The word "teenager" was invented by marketers in the 50's, you know.
So I don't feel like I've ever been involved in 'youth culture.' I've been involved in culture, period. Wet, fertile, dirty, lively, cross-pollinating culture. I mean, sure - when I was younger I had a bit more energy and brain cells to kill, so I could stay up longer with Tim Leary (then in his 60's and 70') or go to more parties. And there were young people around at those sorts of things. But I'm teaching at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, now, so I'm hanging out more with people in their early twenties than I did even when *I* was in my early twenties.
But "youth culture" is a crock. There's no such thing. It's manufactured by the people wanting to sell to teens. The only sense the phrase makes to me is that young people - some of them, anyway - are not as spoiled by the programming of our manipulators, so they are still more free than adults, by and large. But they are under more direct and sustained attack, so it's a harder position from which to battle for one's consciousness than adulthood. If you're an adult and not particularly rich, they kind of figure you're already in the fold.
Ellis: Perhaps the younger generations have a greater resistance to programming because of over-exposure - "We're going out kids, the TV's in charge, go to bed when it says"
Rushkoff: Well, now you're talking about Generation X. We were the latchkey generation, raised by our television sets - the glass teat, as it was called. I wrote extensively about this phenomenon back in Media Virus and the GenX Reader. GenX resistance to programming was borne out of our deep exposure to public relations. As the first generation to grow up with state-of-the-art television commercials AND remote controls, we spoke the language of TV advertising like natives, whereas the adults making commercials for us spoke it like immigrants. So, naturally, we knew what was going on better than they did, and had the ability to resist.
But once all the GenX people became the new programmers, we didn't stand a chance. Kids today generally love being marketed to. Kurt Cobain shot himself, and rave is a mall phenomenon. America supports the war, and believes in the Passion of Christ. Perspective has collapsed.
Ellis: How did you hook up with artist Steph Dumais for this project? I'd imagine lots of artists would jump at the chance to work on a graphic novel with you, particularly your first.
Rushkoff: Weird - he was on my media-squatters list. It started as a fan list, but turned into a discussion about media and culture. And I mentioned on there that I was thinking of getting into comics, somehow. And he just volunteered. Then, when the actual opportunity came up, I looked at a few people's stuff - but Steph's felt the most human, to me. And that was important. Plus, he was able to do the most with the least amount of lines. His version of Zeke was vulnerable, weird and a bit doofy - which isn't how I first imagined him. But when I saw that rendition of the guy, it made the whole book seem more dimensionalized and self-conscious in a fun way. So Steph became my guy.
It was hard - I still haven't met him. And Steph wasn't making a lot of money, so during the BPM phase of publication (for which there was no money exchanged) I sent him checks to fund the drawing, which took him longer than the writing took me.
Ellis: Not only is this your first graphic novel but it is also Disinformation's first graphic novel. How do you feel about being the first in what will hopefully be a number of new graphic novels published by Disinfo?
Rushkoff: Frankly, it kinda sucks being the first. I'm very often the first. I've been the first novel on certain imprints, the first cover story on certain magazines… so companies often tend to work out their kinks on me. That's what you get for being 'ahead of the curve.'
I do hope they continue with the genre. I don't want to be the only one of these that they do, or it kind of sticks out in a funny way. Let it be the first of a bunch of things - with more of them by me, too!
Ellis: Not only are the characters in Club Zero-G dealing with conflicts from all sides but they are also involved in a race against the clock, in this case the date of December 21st, 2004. What makes this date important?
Rushkoff: Well, I ended up taking that date out. When I was writing the story (sounds like you've read the summary) 2004 was in the distance future. I was looking for a special singularity date - like Terence McKenna's TimeWaveZero date. It was a way to generate a ticking clock in the story - a moment of novelty where a certain cosmic window would open up. So everyone would be rushing to get things the way they wanted them to be for this special moment. But as I shortened the story from four books down to one, I found some easier, less mechanical ways to generate that suspense.
As for the numerology of the date, I never give those mathematical justifications away. Ecstasy Club has so many of them (all the characters names, every date, etc.) that I put a little program called "numbers" up on my website to help people deconstruct them.
Ellis: One of the big questions posed has to do with affecting reality. Given the chance, what kind of reality would the club kids choose? But how about yourself? Given the opportunity, what would you do?
Ellis: Which of course would, at first, result in several people rewriting the world so that they'd end up winning the lottery.
Rushkoff: That's not rewriting the script, alas - it's just changing the ending of the same old story. Like a person getting over their drug addiction problem by giving himself and infinite heroin drip. But yeah, that's the way most people think about authorship, when they first wrap their heads around it. What they don't get is that none of writes the script, ourselves. It's a collaborative act. Like I've been saying since Cyberia: evolution is a team sport.
Ellis: The crux of the novel also involves a rather familiar boy meets girl scenario. Gangly, unpopular guy in glasses seeks acceptance from the collective and attracts the eye of rich and popular girl who wouldn't be caught dead talking to him if someone else was around. What is it about the geeky young man that you find makes him a suitable hero?
Rushkoff: We're *all* geeky young men. Even big muscle guys - those popular guys in college - they're geekier inside than the geeks are. Real people are soft and squishy. So it seemed appropriate to have a hero who was vulnerable. I always saw him as a gangly teenager and an outsider. He's a "local" middle-class kid going to the prestigious, rich kids' college in his town. So it's strange - he's both more indigenous to his community, and less.
I was working with the "spoil sport" concept - the idea of the guy who sees through the game. He's the trickster - the shaman. That's generally going to be someone who isn't quite at the center. It's much harder for "popular" people to see what's going on around them, because everyone is looking in on them. Like I said at the beginning, that's why it's so hard for teens these days to gain any perspective, and why a story like this one could help change their conception of the power struggle they've inherited.
Rushkoff: That's the central question of civilization, eh? It's certainly the question of the story. I try to deal with it in two ways - the first is the more sci-fi story, and the second is the social reality of the kids. Interestingly, the story still functions if you pull out all the sci-fi stuff. It becomes a story about social expectations, and how they weigh on a person's ability to make choices. The pressure of the social group can stunt autonomy; but without the group, there's no autonomy, either. So it's a question of learning to collaborate with people rather than just ruling them or submitting to them.
Ellis: As for the teens today, I feel they're the biggest targets of the fear machine. Of the 'if it bleeds, it leads' mindset. Even when I was in high school, bomb scares were a tool of those who made the threats as a way to get out of having to do an exam.
Rushkoff: Well, teens are adults in training. So a lot of social programming is directed at them. It's tricky, because such programming is the opposite of real education. And we're wondering why our high school kids are getting stupider.
Education may just have to become something countercultural - something we do after school. Theatre is great for that - it's what I did - because you get to communicate with brilliant playwrights from the past, and act out multiple possibilities and alternate realities. People today have to look outside the established institutions for their educations, these days. But there are a lot of us out here providing the textbooks.
Ellis: Luckily for us. If there were one thing I could say to everyone still attending some form of educational system it would be that so many of the answers are OUT THERE. A treasure trove of knowledge is available to you but you need to seek it out for yourself instead of expecting it to come to you. You have to be willing to learn.
The following questions were asked after this interview had originally aired, consider it a bonus for those of you who read this far. Big thanks to Douglas Rushkoff for participating in this interview, for more on Doug and his work be sure to visit Rushkoff.com. Also Congratulations to Douglas and Barbara as they are beginning the journey of bringing a beautiful baby daughter into their lives and this world.
Ellis: How has reaction been to the book so far and how did you feel promoting it at the recent Book Expo?
Rushkoff: So far, so good. The Book Expo was interesting when it wasn't traumatic. Most of the people there knew me as an author, so it was fun showing a different side of my work, a different sort of collaboration, and even a very different kind of publisher from who they're used to seeing me with. It was almost as if I scared a few of them by going to the 'dark side' - meaning the indies. But the whole convention was just too much. I felt like a tiny cog in a giant system. I usually write alone, and it's a pretty intimate process. I never quite visualized how much industry was leveraged in each keystroke. As far as the people at the convention were concerned, they could have been trading corn or soy. It felt that big and impersonal and commercial.
Ellis: You've already started planning working on more stories for the comics field, can you tell us anything about what's next?
Rushkoff: Yeah, well, it's hard to describe it because it's going to be more impressionistic than this one. What I can explain is that it's about the fertility of our species. Whether or not there's a future, what might have been coded into us, who is in charge, how we can send some aspect of ourselves into the next civilization when ours is over. That kind of thing. I want to call it Ovipositor.
Yeah. And not that I'm so afraid to do it - it's more what's at home in different places. Novels really do want to be linear. I've tried other approaches, and read countless more, and they all fall back into linearity. Which means that the story, on some level, must follow that linear convention as well. It's what Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong were trying to explain when they theorized on the difference between oral and literate culture. Literacy, for all its great points, tends to make us think in more abstract, individuated, and linear ways. People in oral, pre-literate cultures had a greater sense of connection to the planet, and to one another.
Comics have the ability to communicate through both visual and literate means. They're cut-up, and even communicate in the gaps between frames. That's why they lend themselves to alternative narrative constructs - ones that defy our current understandings of the way people organize, where we came from, who made us, who is in charge, what time has to do with it, how are we linked, and more. It is an environment in which alternative narratives are free to emerge. That's what makes them dangerous to those who have a stake in the narratives currently passing for reality.