Alternet Interview: The First 21st-Century Movement – Douglas Rushkoff on Occupy Wall Street and Reclaiming the Internet from Corporations

Media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff talks to AlterNet’s Sarah Jaffe about building a better Internet, the job-free future, and how Occupy Wall Street could save us.

By Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet
Posted on October 17, 2011, Printed on October 23, 2011

The sudden rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement made media theorist and futurist Douglas Rushkoff very happy.

He’s the author of two books that in different ways relate to the growth of spontaneous mini-societies of protest around the US. Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back is a history of the metastasizing of the corporation throughout society and a manifesto of sorts for ways to live without them. Program or Be Programmed is a call to arms for today’s wired generation to learn how to create for themselves rather than using uncritically the programs created by those corporations.

He also recently wrote a piece for CNN’s Web site asking if jobs were becoming obsolete. The piece prompted a response from AlterNet as well as many others (and is being played out in public squares around the country as the occupation movement works by consensus rather than by wage incentive).

On October 20, Rushkoff hosted a conference called ContactCon in New York City, bringing together open source programmers, technologists of all stripes, activists, and other forward-thinking folks not just to discuss, but to help build new programs and applications for a Web not controlled by corporate power. Instead of taking part in scheduled panels, participants broke out into small self-selected groups to work on solving real-world problems, like connecting Occupy Wall Street activists to technologists who can create tech they need, or organizing a social network where the 99% can organize debt strikes. Though beset by some of the usual problems of tech conferences (dominated by white men), ContactCon did offer an alternative to the usual marketing-heavy, venture-capitalist-dominated Web conferences. 

He took some time recently to talk to AlterNet about all these things. 

Sarah Jaffe: Tell me about the idea behind ContactCon.

Douglas Rushkoff: The idea behind ContactCon was in some ways the Internet equivalent of the idea behind Occupy Wall Street. My original Internet meme, the name of my first email list, my first radio show was called “The Radio Squat.” I always saw the Internet as an opportunity to occupy the media.

I was raised when media was something that rich corporate programmers made and the rest of us consumed. The Internet did to television what the telephone did to radio. Media became this place where we could do stuff, where we could be creative. I became aware of this at the same time as psychedelics, feedback, cybernetics, all of these extremely self-similar discoveries seemed to be being made at the same time, all of them spoke to a revitalization of human social activity and connectivity and a diminishment of top-down, corporatist, hypercapitalist control methods.

Watching the ‘net develop it seemed that this bottom-up promise had been surrendered to Wall Street. The big Internet stories in the paper weren’t on the culture page, about how we were changing as a people, they were on the business page about what IPO is happening and is Twitter going to buy Digg going to buy Groupon. I was getting invited to speak at conferences where everyone there was a marketer. I was invited to this conference called “Pivot” and it turned out to be a marketing conference, and I yelled at them and said, “You are not what is going on, you are the obstacle to what is going on.”

I decided to do a different conference, to fold the wild fringes, the disruptive, chaotic social ‘net back to the center, invite all those folks doing interesting and independent stuff and sort of reify the ‘net values of 1992 back up to 2012.

A few months after that, after I had the funding to do this thing, then the Arab Spring happened,Facebook starts doing these evil things too, now we’ve got a global movement and now we have examples of what happens when you don’t have this community: you have an Internet that can be flipped off with a switch, you have WikiLeaks, that can be defunded with one senator calling Amazon. The decentralized promise got flipped on its head.

I wrote this piece on CNN where I said “Let’s scrap the Internet and build another one,” that led to all these people wanting to come to Contact who were doing all this anticensorship work. 

And then Occupy Wall Street happened and those people tasked themselves with building stuff.

SJ: Very early on in my reporting on Occupy Wall Street, I spoke to activists who told me they knew they needed to build their own technology, that they had an Open Source working group very early to get around the corporate Web.

DR: I was always into “Let’s build something else,” and then I go and see Ethan Zuckerman of GeekCorps do this talk and he says American activists are kind of detached, we keep trying to rebuild the wheel because we think there’s a moral compromise in using Facebook. Rather than trying to be so pure, he says, use what’s available until it stops working.

I don’t know how I feel about that yet.

SJ: In your CNN piece on Occupy Wall Street, you called it the first 21st-century movement and compared it to the Internet. It’s been interesting to see the tech/media people, like Jeff Jarvis, hardly a radical leftist, really get the movement while mainstream journalism struggles with it.

DR: Maybe even Malcolm Gladwell would get it better than some “good lefties.” In order to grok Occupy Wall Street you have to have the ability to tolerate open-endedness, you have to understand the infinite game.

The people purely from book culture only understand games in terms of competition of winning and losing. What’s a game if there’s not a winner? What an infinite game would be is where the object of the game is to keep the game going–someone who’s played fantasy role-playing games would understand. We’re trying to have the most fun, trying to keep the game going.

A 21st-century movement is not about winning and ending, it understands that life goes on, that what we’re attempting to move toward is not an end-state with winners and losers but a sustainable scenario where we actually keep the world and ourselves going. That doesn’t require a campaign as much as a slow steady movement toward a greater intelligence and new kinds of behaviors.

Rather than killing the disease, we strengthen the body. People are confused and they say “What’s the disease, how do we kill it?” But it’s about, “How do we build an economy and promote commerce that is consonant with human culture rather than destructive of it?”

SJ: You also pointed out that kids are showing up to these protests because it’s fun, but once they get there they are doing a lot of hard work, cleaning the entire park last week, building a new community.

DR: It’s a kind of mini-sustainable society of sharing, but we can’t all live in parks. It’s a debut, it’s a galvanizing moment, but what it should inspire is how can we live sustainably in the community where we are.

They’re being accused of laziness because they’re sleeping, they’re sleeping on the pavement, but everybody has to sleep sometime.

The one critique I could see making almost part sense, is the question: if Obama suddenly forgave everybody’s education loans, what would happen to Occupy Wall Street? I don’t think it would make it go away. But it’s interesting, I wonder. The way you basically end movements is by paying everybody off in one way or another.

SJ: Do you see this connection to the piece you wrote (and the response that I wrote) about the jobless future? These people in Liberty Plaza are doing hard work on a volunteer basis rather than as a “job”–they’re modeling the way we do the work of building society.

DR: And people refuse–I wrote a piece saying that jobs are obsolete, but rather than reading the piece people say, “Oh, Rushkoff said we don’t have to work anymore,” and that’s not what I’m saying at all, I’m saying we don’t want to have what we think of as jobs anymore and if you can’t draw the distinction, then–we’ll see.

The people who did the original Internet were called idiots, too. I tend to be on the side that always gets laughed out of the room for saying things, whether it’s saying “You’re going to use email someday, you’ll be walking around with a phone all the time.” They don’t come back and apologize later when you’re right.

But people are not going to embrace the thing that’s about to replace them.

SJ: From ContactCon to Occupy Wall Street to Comic-Con—you introduced a new comic book at New York Comic-Con this weekend. It was strange for me being at the con—I kept wanting to yell “mic check” at the crowds.

DR: I wanted to do it too! These people are so wrapped up, mired in entertainment culture.

I’m doing a comic called ADD, the original idea was: what if attention deficit disorder was not a bug but rather a feature, an adaptive strategy to a world where people are trying to program you everywhere you look. 

The theme is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s about the totality of an entertainment culture, living in Comic-Con, the kids who are living in that total saturation of entertainment culture end up being able to pierce the veil, end up being able to see through the marketing.

How do you make media theorists into heroes? By making them video game players who develop superhuman abilities. 

SJ: It relates right back to Occupy Wall Street–the people who are getting written off by the elites finding and creating the solutions.

DR: You know, I’ve gotten three calls from publishers to crash-write and they’ll crash-publish the “Occupy Wall Street book.” And I’ve said no. You want to see the manifesto of Occupy Wall Street, read the Invisible Committee—read my Life, Inc. The manifestos have already been written.

But there’s this big thing happening and you and your corporation want to make money off it! They read an article where I say this movement is the Internet, not a book, and they say write the book!

I just hope that [Occupy Everywhere] becomes a normative behavior. I hope it becomes the way we live life rather than just being the way we protest anti-life.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.