The European contribution to criticism of the us media has, let's face it, been pretty uncharitable. Whether sniggering at Courtroom tv or tut-tuting Geraldo, bashing the dumb Yanks has long been a rite de passage for the serious Euro-intellectual. Doug Rushkoff's Media Virus is a timely reminder that we don't have a monopoly on bullshit detection over here; moreover, the doom-sayers, he believes are really missing the Big Picture.
Drawing on current cyber-esque theories, from complexity and chaos to Gaian Post-McLuhanism, and illustrated with detailed critiques of American popular (MTV, Beavis & Butthead, cop shows) and alternative media (comics, zines, t-shirts), he paints an optimistic vision of the future ecology of media.
It's a refreshing look, because Princeton-grad Rushkoff distances himself from both naively Techno-topian treatises on the future of the media and the crushing pessimism of middle-aged media critics, to whom the media are simply channels of communication, artificial technologies that ultimately compromise 'real' human interaction.
The daytime talk shows, the cop serials, the way media endlessly devours itself; these are not the thrashings of a failed culture but a complex mass catharsis and self observation by society, claims Rushkoff, a sign that the media can serve to foster new cultural growth and accelerate our evolution. And contrary to popular belief, this is something we can all contribute to, with a little smartness.
He starts from Chomsky's position that from 1913, when scientific news management was first used (to manufacture consent for World War 1), the us Government – and later industry – has used public relations to create a spectator democracy, in which a 'dumbed' electorate is kept on a diet of oversimplified issues designed to evoke a purely emotional rather than rational response.
Distraction and over-simplification are still used today. But the gradual co-option of more and more media for this purpose has undermined that very power: Americans, argues Rushkoff, have simply stopped believing in or caring about the mainstream media. The original intentions of Madison Avenue and the White House - to manipulate the American psyche by deadening the senses and winning hearts and minds to pre-packaged ideologies – has backfired.
The explosion in diy media, from zines to camcorders, to bulletin boards, coupled with ever greater degrees of interactivity, means that media-wise Gen.x-ers are no-longer content to let the media simply wash over them; they are talking back, and using media viruses to get their message over.
It's Rushkoff's contention that media viruses are not metaphors; they are viruses. The media can be – already is – treated both by the media itself, and by 20 and 30-year-olds, as an autonomous entity or 'other' in its own right. The 'hive mind' of humankind is reflecting and becoming aware of itself in the media, which is effectively a single organism or sensory network of the planet. Viruses are simply Gaia's way of correcting faulty 'meme' code.
The 'protein shell' of a media virus is the initial interest sparked – the visual image of a black guy being beaten by cops, the new scientific theory, or sex scandal. Once attached to the arteries of the media, the virus injects its ideological code, its underlying memes regarding race, women or technology.
Viruses can be constructed consciously; they can be 'bandwagon' viruses, as some interest group hijacks an issue (say the release of prisoners back into the community) for their own ends, or they can be self-generating, when society has hit upon a weakness or ideological vacuum.
The Smart Drug media virus, for example, was created by an alliance of aids activists, pharmaceutical industry critics and psychedelics advocates to undermine the effects of the 'War on Drugs' on what they see as legitimate self-medication.
As an example of the self-corrective nature of self-creating viruses, Rushkoff cites the Chaos virus. Torn out of an obscure branch of mathematics, seemingly from nowhere, it reignited enthusiasm for pagan and anti-authoritarian values world-wide - at a time, arguably, when they are needed most.
Viruses attack not the whole culture but the systems and 'faulty code' (such as racism) inhibiting the natural, chaotic flow of energy and information around the globe. Viruses take apart the simplified Just say No sloganeering that passes for us Government policy, forcing the discussion open, removing the excuse to ignore ambivalence.
The first line of defence of scientific news management (Rushkoff points out how psychological techniques from est to Neuro Linguistic Programming are commonly used in mainstream media) is to marginalise the message. But a good virus gets the message through first; the shell hides the agenda. The self-referentiality of the media ensures its spread.
The main impact of interactive media, from computer bulletin boards to phone-in talk shows, is that they allow dissident voices the opportunity to prove they are not alone, not simply sidelined by the pr industry, as they have been for decades.
Rushkoff acknowledges that many on the Left (he reports from an anarchist conference in Oxford and The Next 5 Minutes from Amsterdam) have traditionally mistrusted these attributes of the media, being unable or unwilling to distinguish between dirty technology (cars, smokestack industry) and clean (computers and tv). But technology is now promoting nature's agenda rather than insulating us, he claims.
Showing an x-er's deep knowledge of 'trash' tv, Rushkoff shows from the evolution of us cop and law shows (from purely law and order-based, to ambivalence, greater realism and, currently, interest in the interplay between media and law), how the media can be a testing ground for new memes, and asks: is lowest common denominator tv really crap, or a 'Forum Media' for the masses, a coping mechanism for the postmodern chaos?
Far from making us stupid, the fast-cut mtv ('Meltdown tvs') is teaching kids 'Fluid Thought', further disintegrating parental and dictatorial force; shows like Liquid Television are televisual anarchy. The 'vidiot' is actually a very smart kid, able to interpret and assimilate extremely rapid information. Beavis and Butthead, Rushkoff believes, was shifted to night time tv because adults ''got spooked by essentially activist memes shrouded in a meta media which they couldn't understand.
Media Virus is a cool read, whether taken as an approachable résumé of new thinking about media, as a self-protection manual, or as a How-To guide. But remember dudes: if you're thinking of trying this at home: media viruses are no respecters of their creators. According to the New York Times, it was Rushdie's agent who sent a copy of The Satanic Verses to Ayatollah Khomeni, hoping for a reaction.