Douglas Rushkoff has been carefully observing technology and its effects on human consciousness for more than 25 years. He was part of an early enthusiastic thrust that gathered around the Web in the early 90s, which had a distinctive psychedelic tinge. Some guys in California -intellectuals, artists, programmers, pranksters, ethnopharmacologists, chaos mathematicians, etc.,- were trying to model the Internet with the “set and setting” of a rave-party, using technology to enhance the trip and spread the nous. But even as he was riding “the crest of the informational wave”, in the addendum of his first book, Cyberia, Rushkoff insightfully saw how Wired Magazine and the libertarian venture capitalists were bound to reduce “the community-inspiring Internet to a shopping mall called the World Wide Web.” Now the shopping mall has been turned into a Las Vegas Casino, where “sunrise and sunset are images” on a screen (only seen in screens). (And the stars have become what we see in TV or in Instagram.) Those well-intentioned kids weren’t able “to match the intentions of Silicon Valley’s most prosperous corporations with the values of the psychedelics users.” How could they?
In the meantime, Douglas Rushkoff has become one of the world’s leading media theorists. In his latest book, Team Human (also a podcast and a movement of sorts), he sums up 25 years and about 20 books dealing with technology, media, economics and magic. Team Human is a major work in the field of media-theory, not only for the clear, pithy nature of its language and knowledge but also for the urgency of its subject. It is a kind of final wake-up call issued to the human soul. A voice of authentic human frailty calling to “find the others” amidst the autotuning of everything and everyone. In this article I want to comment on some of what I think are Rushkoff’s key ideas and put his work in a historical and philosophical context.
The book’s core argument is that there is “an antihuman agenda embedded in technology” which is not happenstance, but intentional. As Heidegger and McLuhan already had showed us, technology is never neutral, and it is a great danger to regard it as such and to approach it uncritically. Rushkoff beckons us to to think of it as a drug, as something that alters our consciousness and programs our experience of the world, ever more nefariously if we remain unaware of its intentions. Armed with slot-machine algorithms, sophisticated “captology” science and a wide-array of reward-based, reptile-brain triggers, digital technologies are undermining our autonomy, setting us against each other, dividing us into angry, polarized mobs, annihilating ambiguity and reducing the mysteries of life and death into problems to be solved (if only we get enough data). At the forefront of what can be called an epochal spiritual crisis, digital technology has become the perfect extension of corporate capitalism. The ideas of infinite growth and value extraction that drive the global economy -as opposed to actual prosperity and value creation- where bound to find a resistance in nature, as material resources are limited. But then “digital technology came to the rescue, providing virtual territory for capital’s expansion.” The next frontier had to be then the human mind and the developing of virtual spaces where the mind could close-in its attention -“be held captive”, i.e. entertained- so to fuel the new “attention economy”. Not a minor issue, as Rushkoff and others have noticed, since information can be near infinite, but human attention is a limited energy-value. And as William James pointed out, it is voluntary control of the faculty of attention that allows humans to be autonomous (to orient our experience of reality), and even to achieve genius. For the ancient Vedic seers -as also for French philosopher Simone Weil-, sustained attention (tapas) purified the mind, as prayer does; it was no less than the stuff that gods are made off.
According to Rushkoff, capitalism has become the software, and we humans the machines where it embeds its “values” -if they can be called values. The algorithms -the new legislators- leave out of the equation “human ideals such as autonomy, social contact and learning.” Instead they promote competitiveness, fear of missing out, self-obsession, need for closure, and all kinds of desirous, vapid states of mind. These “values” increasingly pervade our lives and define how we relate to the world. Since for capitalism -and for modern materialistic science- the real is only what can be measured, we seek to quantify ourselves and see how we measure against the others: metrics become the mirror of reality. These “values” start to creep into our relationships, which become transactions, profit oriented. Love becomes a business deal to develop or actualize our selves. Education becomes something we invest on to get better jobs, instead of the general improvement of the soul. We do things instrumentally, not for their own sake. An utilitarian society objectifies experience and relates to humans and animals as things (to be mastered) or as resources (to be used and exploited). It is a society, as Heidegger noticed in his critique of technology, that has no room for the poetic, for the encountering of Being in itself. Or as Rushkoff puts it “modernity is not particularly conducive to awe”, which is the essence of our humanity: to wonder and delight it the mystery of our existence. As a wise little doggerel puts it:
Fish gotta swim
Bird gotta fly
Man gotta sit and say
Why why why
Both for Plato and for Aristotle it was wonder (thaumazein) that gave birth to philosophy, to the love of knowledge, and to a life lived like an art. Philosophy for Plato is the child of wondering at the stars at night and is only true to its nature when it learns for the love of learning in itself and not to extract and exploit (as the money-lovers of the Republic always do). In the same sense, the Bhagavad Gita‘s highest teaching is to do things without attachment to their fruits. One must act, but one must forget oneself in the act, like the artist and the children do while playing. This is ancient wisdom.
We are living a moral crisis. A grave situation, not least because our society has come to believe that the three olden trascendental values -good, truth, beauty- are wholly relative and conventional, human beings have no essence or purpose (no formal or final cause) and the world is just a stochastic machine. Rushkoff in recent talks has advanced a moral posture: good is what unites us and contributes to human intimacy and compassion; evil is what divides us and devalues our worth in relationship to machines. Rightly so, in my opinion, he has been tempted to fall into essentialism and posit a soul. How else can one argue for an intrinsic, irreplaceable value for the person? In Team Human he calls the idea of “seeing a human being as a machine or computer” the mechano-morphic model of reality, wherewith we see the world as a blind mechanistic process. If we are machines or meme-replicators, then we are certainly not souls living in an organic matrix, in an animate environment that speaks to us and calls us with meaning and beauty. As Terence Mckena used to say, against Sartre, Nature is not mute. Or as Rushkoff argued in Present Shock, time is not the lineal succession of discrete units interchangeable for money, it is not only Chronos, but Kairos, the right time, time with a certain quality or spirit, the opportunity to find meaning and reenact “the essential, mythical truths of our existence” (Team Human). This paragraph sums it up nicely:
This innate, natural, effortless connection to ideals was surrendered to the market, to colonialism, to slavery, to extraction, and to technology, then justified with applied science, utilitarianism, and public relations. We reduced ideas to weaponized memes, and humankind to human resources. We got carried away with our utilitarian capabilities, and lost touch with the Reasons to exercise those capabilities in the first place.
There are no capital R reasons in a mechanistic, soulless world. This worldview inevitably entails nihilism, the concourse of will to power, the triumph of alpha male lobsters.
Humanity is in danger of losing its connection to its past, to its own traditions, to nature: to what was called “the sacred” (a word that is at risk of becoming, like “soul,” a pale shadow of what it once was). Rushkoff points out in the book: “The Japanese built a nuclear power plant right down the hill from the stone tablets that their ancestors put in the ground warning, “Don’t build anything below here.”‘ They thought that ancient knowledge was no match for their powerful technology. A disenchanted worldview has allowed us to upload without any real resistance a new story, a story that collapses all previous stories, trumping all myth with the emancipatory power of science. It is the story that we have become free from all superstition, and are marching free into the future, unhinged from the wheel of cosmic interdependence and karmic responsibility, free from magical thinking into clean objectivity, finally able to decide -as in a vacuum- what we want to be. But this might just be the greatest hubris yet. The Luciferian or Promethean whim to think of oneself as master, to refuse to accept something superior than ourselves, deeming that we exist without other-determinates. For as physicist Werner Heisenberg stated “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Perhaps in the same sense that algorithms leave out of the equation the humanness that gets in the way of their goals, our way of questioning -based on a materialistic worldview- is leaving out consciousness or spirit. The contemporary story tells us we are just information, skin for code, and in that sense just a bridge in “Information’s journey to higher levels of dimensionality. . . beyond biology and humans to silicon and computers. ” It was McLuhan who first saw this substitution:
Electronic information environments being utterly ethereal fosters [sic] the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer (Letter to Jacques Maritain, 1969, quoted in Techgnosis).
Not to get too Apocalyptic and all that, but there is some truth here: information has replaced spirit in our world. We are being taught that, as Rushkoff says in Team Human, the human mind is just a computer, and “reality itself is just information.” This leads into transhumanist escapism, where we can supposedly download our minds into computers, escape the mess we’ve made of embodied existence and live forever in artificial paradises (mainly just for the rich). But transhumanism is just the uncanny fusion of materialism and gnosticism, a gnostic materialism that is being predicated on the metaphysical assumption that there is no spirit, its just information. For materialism (or naturalism) to be true, consciousness must be an illusion or an emergent phenomena. Something that is quite unproven and quite irrational, because thinking, as Aristotle and other Platonists showed, is a universalizing activity. We think of things that are not particulars which are universally true -like mathematical equations. The forms we think are universals and so are not identical to any particulars located in spacetime, but to the mind itself, so mind must be immaterial. It seems to me that consciousness is fundamental and matter secondary, which is not to say that consciousness does not need matter. As philosopher David Bentley Hart puts it: “matter is a function of spirit.” Consciousness is being and being is consciousness, as Parmenides also observed at the dawn of Western philosophy, perhaps influenced by Indian ideas. Rushkoff agrees that consciousness seems to be “the preexistent cause” of matter, and not the other way around. Physicist Andréi Linde lucidly reasons:
But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.
The subjective is preeminent, it is what we are. But in our world it comes last, because it cannot be measured reliably. McLuhan urged us to ask always what does a new media amputate while it amplifies something else? In Team Human Rushkoff writes:”Plants bind energy, animals bind space and humans bind time, then what do algorithms bind? They bind us.” That is, as Rushkoff told me in a recent interview for the Mexican site Pijama Surf, they bind (amputate) our souls, they disconnect us from our essential nature. Algorithms can be thought of as modern demons. They operate in the shadows, feeding on our energy -our own attention- learning to find exploits in our psychology and pushing us into states of FOMO, anger and alienation so that we are better customers. They have become sort of like Castaneda’s scary “inorganic beings”, a type of vampires that feed on our worst emotions. Our own self-inflicted Wetiko virus, as Rushkoff points out. In seems to me that we have called forth the specter of technology, the prothesis of our selves, the stuff that do things for us, like the magic brooms in fairy tales. But like the sorcerer’s apprentice Zauberlehrling in Goethe’s Faust, we have learned only how to summon ghosts but not how to get rid of them. A perilous spell we have cast on ourselves by means of digital technology. For “the real threat is that we’ll lose our humanity to the value system we embed in our robots, and that they in turn impose on us.”
In the early years of social media there was a full-scale campaign to make us believe that privacy wasn’t really important (after all we weren’t terrorists), and that making our information widely accesible would give us all kinds of benefits. We have accepted this intrusion, and now the Internet is not something we connect to, an experience we have occasionally, but a mode of being, something in which we move. It is the ubiquitous environment in which our humanness develops. Surely we didn’t realize that with this bargain in a way we were also signing off our souls. Indeed our souls, to fully express themselves, to grow their roots and ensoul the world, need a space free from corporate colonization, a silent space to practice the holy writ “be still… and know thyself”, and also a real communal space to establish rapport with other human beings. Whatever our human essence might be, it seems to be or at least reveal itself as a rhythm and a resonance. Rushkoff argues that the fullness of our nature -that ineffable mixture of soul and body- and even our autonomy is attained only in social intimacy and meaningful relationship. “The only way to heal [to make whole] is by connecting to someone else.” It is deep human bonding that gets out the best of us and perhaps even churns out the language and consciousness that makes us humans. He reminds us that our most basic right is the right to assemble, to conspire: to breathe together. You cannot breathe the same breath -the same spirit- with someone through a screen. And, as the scripture says, when we truly connect something divine happens: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
*Quotes in first paragraph from Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. All other quotes from Team Human, unless stated.