The Future is Now: Interview with Reality Sandwich

via Reality Sandwich:

His nebbish visage seems to pop up everywhere–like a “Where’s Waldo?” life-feature. I remember seeing him on CNN, whilst slugging off one last one in an airport lounge before a long plane ride to Asia in the previous century; a year later, Y2K, I would see that same earnest face in-person amidst a sea of notable folk at the DisinfoCon gathering, New York City. The guy has been around forever, before the world had heard of PeeWee Herman, and yet he considers himself a late-bloomer–receiving his Ph.D at age 50.

Students love him; he is as mischievous as they would like to be…and gets paid for it. Author of Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff teaches us that “the future is now”; that we are in control, if we choose to be, and that a career can be made as a sort of kosher Dennis the Menace.

Todd Brendan Fahey: You have “arrived” in Academia (congratulations!). Over the years you’ve taught adjunct at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the New School University, and word is you’ve entertained offers from MIT and other Ivy League schools–but your first “real job” as a professor is at Queens College. What kind of “life hacks” are you able to perform on/with your students, now that you have a certain modicum of stability in your role as educator? (For example, I’d probably be focusing on interdisciplinary work involving the cultivation of mushrooms…”legal variety,” of course [and then show the students how to obtain also legal psylocibin spore prints, and then let their minds take off and with a requisite completed short story at the semester’s end]; or, for the more timid class member, how to take advantage of the new micro-distillery laws and freedoms, and with a generous historical readings of “the revenuers v. Appalachian hoots-and-hallows boys.”)

Douglas Rushkoff: I’m not at New School, nor NYU or MIT, because I didn’t want to be sitting in a seminar, staring at kids I’m putting into six figures of debt for a degree. Somehow, it seemed a little hypocritical to be doing teach-ins at Occupy about student debt but then going and creating more of it at an expensive private institution.

So I went to public school – CUNY/Queens. Not even the Graduate Center, but out in the provinces. The beauty of it is that it’s cheap – like Learning Annex prices – but super brilliant colleagues who all have the same approach to this stuff that I do: it’s not about creating some professorial reputation, but making a change in the world and our students’ lives. It’s also a hotbed for radicals and radical thought. It’s where Malcolm X spoke, and where the Mississippi three (the civil rights workers who got killed) came from.

That’s the main hack: stop worrying what people think, ditch brand names, stay out of debt (you can’t even get rid of this stuff by going bankrupt) and – like Timothy Leary said – find the others. That can be the trickiest part – finding your team. It’s like finding your table in the high school cafeteria.

Plus, they are letting me do whatever I want. So I’m starting a new Masters program in Media Studies with an Activist bent. All I did was send out a tweet and dozens of applications came in from around the world, from people looking for something like this. People from Italy, Nigeria, China, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, thinking critically about media and acting purposefully with it. We started a Center for Media Activism, and an Interactive Narrative Lab. All in the first 14 weeks (that’s all it’s been so far!)

So the initial life hack is to get an Ivy quality education without going into debt, and to get right to the meat of what you want to do without jumping through elitist hoops. On a weirder level, some of us are studying the gnostic drive behind technology, and then applying these principles to sigil magick. Or looking at new forms of hacktivism.

But it’s not about me driving them to try or do stuff. It’s me building courses and seminars around what the cohort wants to learn or accomplish.

How have students changed from the time that you were doing the MFA at [the Walt Disney family founded/endowed] California Institute of the Arts–“CalArts,” for anyone living in Los Angeles? That was, from all that I have heard, a pretty footloose place to study, already; but we have The Internet now, with all its attendant instantaneous access and dispersal. What has this done to and for students (besides giving them the ability to txt their girlfriends and boyfriends when you are trying to lecture)?

Well, I was in an acting school at CalArts, getting a degree in theater directing. I think all arts schools are pretty, well, artsy. It was going to Princeton, the seat of young Republicanism and prep school entitlement, that radicalized me. I was the weirdo amongst the normals. But at CalArts I was kind of the normal amongst the weirdos. Until they saw my work, at which point I was welcomed among the freakiest of them. Those were different times. Everybody lived on the campus or nearby, and we were there 24/7 doing our plays, movies, learning Gamelan, watching animation. We had a nude outdoor pool and it was just the way things were. You couldn’t do that today without lawsuits.

I don’t really see the net interfering with students’ work or brains so much. The real problem is how companies want to push colleges to run their operations on the net. There’s one awful platform everyone uses called Blackboard, which is basically a business plan masquerading as education. The more you do online, the harder it is get offline. So if you put a reading up there, that’s cool – but it will be almost impossible to print out or to port somewhere else. It’s like the old roach motels – cockroaches go in but they can’t get out.

So a whole lot of the most subversive and weird parts of education get neutralized and made generic. No better than some online class. When the most dangerous thing about education is people in the room together, just talking and plotting. That’s the original meaning of conspiracy: to breathe together. It’s what Socrates was trying to do, and why they got rid of him in the worst of ways.

In some ways it’s really hard, because schools are so institutionalized, and everyone wants “job skills.” As if there’s really some job they can train for that will still be there. But in some ways it’s easier, because people are so unused to just being together. My undergrads tell me that their courses have all been about absorbing facts, when mine are about challenging those facts, even challenging our own underlying assumptions. So in a landscape where people aren’t questioning a lot, it’s pretty easy to create a sense of rebellion. At CalArts it took PeeWee Herman roller skating through the basement corridors in a dress. It doesn’t take that much anymore; these are much more conservative times.

We are four years apart in age–not a big spread, both Gen-X’ers; we both lived in California, with its permissive culture and plenitude of substances, some of which I trust you are familiar; you got your Master’s at Cal Arts, I at USC…but as I count being published in High Times and VICE as “highlights of my career,” you have been a columnist with the Guardian (UK), have written for Wall Street Journal, featured on “The Colbert Report,” yaddayadda. I mean: “Dude. WTF’s your secret?”

Well, VICE is more the future than the Wall Street Journal, no? I only got my own words in there once, anyway, and they’ve panned all my books as being unrealistic. They said my assertion that there was going to be a mortgage crisis or that anyone on Wall St. was betting against the securities they were selling was outlandish conspiracy theory. I think they let me in there that one time as a way of apologizing for all the unwarranted abuse.

But yeah, it’s been a good ride. I get to make radio, write books and graphic novels, make TV shows. I just have to work really hard, all the time, because things don’t always come at the right time. I’m always doing three things at once, I never go out (really – like never since having a kid), and I’m driven to try to keep humanity from surrendering to digitally amplified industrial capitalism.

If there’s a secret to my success it is being willing to challenge the underlying assumptions of our time, without regard to whether people will agree with it. I used to get laughed out of editors’ offices back when I’d pitch stories about emerging technologies like the Internet. My first book about things cyber was canceled in 1992 because the publisher thought the Internet would be “over” by the 1993 publication date. I took my book Media Virus to maybe 20 publishers until one took a chance on the idea that the media space might be changing. I wrote Life Inc. – the one that got me on Colbert – *before* the economic crisis.

So a lot of it has to do with being right, but more important it’s a matter of having been in the right place at the right time. Not luck, exactly, but going to the places in culture where I thought people were having the most fun, doing the strangest things, or thinking the freshest thoughts. So my California experience ended up being Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, and Robert Anton Wilson. Then the whole rave/cyberdelic scene, Jaron Lanier and VR people, and RU Sirius and Mondo 2000. RU Sirius was my graduate education, really.

The other secret to my success has been the insistence on bringing something “back” from whatever I do. No matter how strange the journey, I make sure I’m still a participant-observer. I wouldn’t even go to a Dead show without also playing cultural anthropologist or mythological interpreter or something. I feel really privileged, so I always ask myself how this experience can provide value to others.

What was the value of Mondo 2000 to you; how would you gauge its imprint on American culture of the time, and why the fuck did it disappear?

Well, it’s history now, but Mondo 2000 covered new technology, science, and social forms before anybody else. Mondo was the first place other than PC Mag or a math journal that you could find out about the emerging net, virtual reality, chaos math, and fractals. And they were all covered from a revolutionary, psychedelic perspective.

The forgotten history of this stuff is that it was built by acid heads. Other than children, people who had taken LSD were the only ones comfortable imagining worlds into reality. They had experience with hallucination. And believe me, building the first virtual worlds – even ones based entirely in text – was akin to hallucinating something into the real world.

The value of Mondo was to anchor these new technologies in something other than the military. That’s all we knew about computers in the early days: they were an artifact of WWII cryptography, or used to calculate missile trajectories. Then Stewart Brand (of the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests), he told everyone that these technologies were cool and could augment humanity. So the hippies jumped in.

I learned about this stuff because my most psychedelic friends from college – the ones I was scared might die from overdoses or insanity – they were living out in San Francisco getting jobs at Intel and Northrup. It just didn’t compute. So I went out there to see what computers and freaks had in common. Mondo 2000 was the first and best guide to this overlap.

Then, once the net became accepted, Wired magazine and its libertarian founders came along and recast the whole phenomenon as a business story. They made the net safe for investment, and kind of killed it in the process. Wired – the voice of net business – claimed it was the voice of net culture, and pushed Mondo off the map.

Mondo 2000 was actually the third incarnation of a magazine that was originally called High Frontiers, and then Reality Hackers, as it went from an almost purely psychedelic journal to a really intentional mashup of drugs and computers. “Reality hackers,” like BoingBoing’s “happy mutants,” were people who felt comfortable redesigning reality while they were living it, and by any means necessary. It was a cyberpunk ethos that spanned everything from fantasy role-playing games to smart drugs, body modification to cold fusion.

RU was a really fascinating figure – in some ways the Andy Warhol of this whole cyberdelic circus. People would go up to the old Victorian house in Berkeley Hills where the magazine was written and lived, and basically party with RU and the others. It was a form of pitching, really. I saw people bring new technologies up there, or just share new ideas in the hopes of getting covered in the magazine. But everybody was really high. There was always a new designer drug to be tried, and not all of them were as happy as others.

It was a crazy scene. Tim Leary would pass through, Joichi Ito (now head of MIT Media Lab), Todd Rundgren…tripsters, scientists, mathematicians, technologists. I remember one time where Walter Kirn and I were supposed to be visiting and no one was home, so Walter went and peed off the front porch in the hope of generating a chaotic attractor that would draw RU’s arrival.

Another night I remember getting into a conversation with RU’s girlfriend at the time, who had just had an abortion. She told me how she did the whole thing on acid, because ergot was a traditional purgative.

It was a real scene. At least as real as the Factory or the Pranksters, in that there was a real place, real stakes, and real insanity.

What, in your learned opinion and having been a successful one, should a student be doing these days–both in and out of class?

That depends on the student. I mean, there’re 16-year-olds and 30 year-olds, high school seniors and nuclear physicists getting fourth PhDs.

If I was a successful student, it was because I remained aware of the frame – the cultural assumptions underlying what I was supposed to learn – but then still went ahead and learned the stuff anyway. That’s a big and hard thing to do. So if you see that, say, the English literature you’re being taught all comes from a place of anti-Semiticism or anti-feminism or racism, you can say “fuck this” and fail the course. Or if you see that the science you’re being taught all comes from a really western perspective of industrialization and domination of nature, you can drop out. But what good does that do? Better to maintain the awareness that your teacher, your whole institution may be stuck in a really tight reality tunnel. Stay aware of the fact that the corporate funding they’ve taken has limited what they can even see about the subject they are supposedly teaching you. And then learn from inside that little frame. Learn everything they know, while also figuring out the bigger picture for yourself. And once you really know the things they know – only when you know the things they know – are you in a position to break their boundaries. Punch some holes in their world view. Let some light and air in there. Chances are they will hate you for it, but that’s how you replace them.

Ho ho: My only C’s in mine undergrad [two of ‘em, same semester, same Professor; a study abroad term at University of London] came from “punching some holes” in the agenda of a World Government-focused course; I began interjecting elements of None Dare Call It Conspiracy, and the Rhodes Scholar jerk who taught the courses didn’t like that one bit. >:-(

You wrote very publicly (CNN.com) of your self-escape from Facebook, to–and for many reasons–its intrusion into users’ real-life autonomy and the piling on of users’ so-called innocent “Like”s, in a way which benefit third-party advertisers and of Facebook’s own market scrutinizers. Any regrets?

I suppose so. As a minor public figure, I think my being on Facebook amounts to condoning the platform and their practices. And from everything I know, it’s just really evil shit masquerading as social empowerment. If it was just me that was going to get screwed by the place and its algorithms, I wouldn’t mind. I am pretty tough skinned and resilient at this point. But I don’t think its appropriate for someone who is out there preaching about what amounts to digital hygiene to be subjecting his readers to that stuff. Anybody who “likes” my page can be used in an ad for something associated with me? That’s not fair to them.

In some ways I guess it’s patronizing of me. Shouldn’t my readers be able to take care of themselves? Sure, I guess so. But I don’t like giving tacit approval to the company. And if by not going on there I give a few hundred or thousand other people the courage to say “I don’t need that thing,” so much the better. You know I got a ton of people asking me how I could live without the Internet? They thought leaving Facebook was leaving the net. That’s good enough reason to do it.

Rorschach test question: Edward Snowden

Hero.

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