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A Talk with Douglas Rushkoff

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Lately I've been asking myself, what is media? Or, more exactly, what is not media? I've been writing for quite a while about media as a conduit, media as a way of creating communities, media as a connection from one person to another. And it occurred to me that everything is media. Everything outside my own awareness ­ whatever it is I call "me" ­ is some mediation of me. That is, until it gets to you. Everything between the thing that I'm calling Doug and the thing that you're calling John is media. Then I started to wonder, well, what is the thing that I call Doug? The best we know so far, what we call "Doug" is some distinct DNA pattern ­ or perhaps the vessel that's carrying out that pattern. If I'm the vessel, then I'm just a medium for a set of genes. And if I'm the DNA itself? Well, what's more media than DNA? It's a medium for a code that goes back into history and right through to the future. Has there ever been a better broadcaster than DNA?

So that's why I started wondering about what's not media? And all I've found so far is intention. Intention is not media; it's what we're using to try to drive media, what we're trying to express through our various media. As Hamlet asked, "what is a man" beyond than his bestial, feeding existence? "Cause and will."

And that pretty well gets us down to the very biggest questions people in this discussion and discussions like it for centuries have been asking. What is life? What is consciousness? And I'd answer it's pure intention ­ and that studying media helps us distinguish between intentionality and its many manifestations.

As a child, I wrestled with this distinction by studying theatre and biology ­ which are both looking for answers to the same question: what is it to be alive? For biologists, it's a matter of determining what animates matter into life. For dramatists, it's the study of how to re-create life. And Aristotle arrived at the same conclusion: drama is a human will striving towards a goal. Life is the intention to maintain itself, to carry itself forward ­ and it does so through forms of media. Biologists define life as matter trying to sustain and replicate itself over time in some active fashion, just as a dramatist sees character as one trying to retain or even extend his sense of self ­ playing out his true nature.

What makes my inquiry unique, if anything, is the fact that these sorts of questions came out of the Twinkies television culture in which I was raised. It's hard for a smart kid to watch television 8, 10, 12 hours a day, without eventually having to think.

JB: Perhaps you're not DNA . Maybe you're television?

RUSHKOFF: Maybe I am! If anything is expressing itself through me, it's TV.

JB: Who raised you?

RUSHKOFF: I suppose it was June Lockhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and Lucille Ball who raised me. I took class in Room 222 and Dr. Smith was my pediatrician! Honestly, I don't believe I was being raised or informed by these programs quite as they were intended. I wasn't watching television shows as much as watching The Television. From 4 or 5 years old I remember looking at the sets of sitcoms and wondering why almost all of them had the door into the house on the right side of the set ‹ All in the Family, I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, everyone came in from the right, even the Mary Tyler Moore show. What did this mean, especially when in the 1970s, it seemed that sitcoms about broken homes had the door on the left. Maude, One Day at a Time ­ shows about divorce, really, had their doors on the left. Even in the last season of Mary Tyler Moore, as she grew into a more desperate single woman, she moved to an apartment where the door was on the left instead of the right.