Douglas Rushkoff is the host of the Team Human podcast and author of Team Human as well as a dozen other bestselling books on media, technology, and culture. He was invited to the VRTO conference in Toronto to record a live Team Human podcast about virtual reality with VRTO founder Keram Malicki-Sánchez and indigenous VR artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin.
I had a chance to catch up with Rushkoff before the live taping at VRTO to get his perspective on virtual reality, which I’d classify as fairly skeptical given what he’s seen in the overall trajectory of technology for the past 30 years. He’s really concerned that technology is being used more on us rather than by us, and he’s advocating to a return to human autonomy from an era of technology that’s been more focused on extracting data, value, and more recently towards control and manipulation of our behaviors. He’s also concerned about the demise of a viable counter culture, and he advocates for more critical voices and philosophical approaches that go beyond operating within the context of our existing economic paradigm but also return to more medieval pre-printing press sensibilities of custom, bespoke handcrafted culture, the occult, magic, oral traditions and the face-to-face interactions of building rapport, solidarity, and the cultivation of a real sense of collective power.
We debate a bit as to whether or not virtual reality fits into this emerging counter culture, and how to best make sense of the medium of virtual reality. He’s also quite concerned about the current ecological crisis and potential for species extinction, and he wonders whether it’s worth investing much time or energy into high-end technologies like VR when it’s unclear as to whether or not they’re being ethically produced without slavery or other injustices in order to acquire the required rare earth metals. He sees living in harmony with the earth as a vital per-requisite and that his counter cultural orientation is naturally skeptical for any technology that requires an inordinate amount of capital in order to produce and consume. So we have a lively discussion exploring the potential benefits and risks of immersive technologies and spatial computing through the critical lens of Team Human.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So on today's episode, I have Douglas Rushhoft. He's a media theorist and public intellectual, and he's written a number of different books. In fact, he coined the phrase viral media and social capital. And his latest book is called Team Human, which is really focusing on human autonomy and trying to recover the aspects of our humanity rather than just using technology in a more utilitarian sense to be able to extract value and to be able to serve the market. So Douglas is part of a counterculture. He's a critic of the mainstream culture. And so with that, he's looking at virtual reality through a bit of a skeptical lens. I wouldn't say that he's necessarily an advocate for VR, even though he's from the cyberpunk days and was there for the first wave of virtual reality, hanging out with people like Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna. and people who were very into the concepts and ideas of virtual reality. And so I had a chance to catch up with Douglas Rushkoff at the VRTO conference in Toronto. He was invited to come record a live session of his podcast called the Team Human Show. And so he gave a bit of an opening statement about what he thought about VR and his history and his opening thoughts and then invited up the organizer of VRTO, Karen Maliki Sanchez, as well as one of the participants, Amelia Winger-Berskin. And they had a long discussion that's actually going to be featured on one of the episodes of the Team Human podcast. But before the recording of the podcast, I actually had a chance to talk to each of the different participants before they went up on stage to have the recording of the Team Human podcast. And so in this, I have a chance to talk to Douglas Rushkoff and to get a bit of a sense of where he's at when it comes to VR technologies and where he maybe has some caution in terms of what he's seen before, because he's seen many of these different cycles of technology and what people were saying about the potential of technology, and then how he saw it actually play out over the past 20 to 30 years. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Douglas happened on Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 at the VRTO conference in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:21.867] Douglas Rushkoff: I'm Douglas Rushkoff. I guess I am an old cyber punk at this point. I was a theater director, and around in the early days, in the 1980s, and got really inspired by the possibilities for interactive, distributed arts and culture, compared to the kind of highfalutin, elitist, expensive world of theater. and jumped ship into that world and hung out with Terrence McKenna and Timothy Leary and R.U. Sirius and the sort of early Mondo 2000, Eric Gellickson VR era. And wrote these books explaining what was going to come to people who didn't believe me. And then by the late 90s, got concerned that we were focusing too much on how technology can serve the market rather than how it can serve people. And then watched over 20 years and 10 books, I watched it get even worse, that it wasn't just turning technology toward the market, but using technology to extract value and data and everything from people. And now in the last five or 10 years, watching using technology to actually steer people towards more predictable behaviors in order to increase the accuracy of the predictions and What am I doing? I just did a book called team human arguing for human autonomy in a digital age and trying to make a case for keeping humans around even after the legendary singularity comes, and why people are special, and kind of focusing on the weirdness and the liminal spaces that human beings inhabit. And I don't know exactly what's coming after that. I do a podcast called Team Human, which is very much about just having real, live, human, jazz-like conversations. So there's the content, but I think more important is the context, is demonstrating a style of engagement that seems to be going away. and trying to make a podcast that has explicitly no utility value as a political statement. And I'm interested. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do next.
[00:04:40.092] Kent Bye: Well, I feel like we're in a very interesting point in history where we've had all this technological revolution and yet we have created these networks that are like 2.7 billion people and Frontline did a whole documentary of the Facebook dilemma looking at how it's actually created this national security risk and you know with all the stuff around surveillance capitalism and privacy that we have with these big major corporations and Yeah, and at the same time we get all the utility and all these services are for free and there's all this amazing technology with virtual reality and I feel like we're maybe at this like turning point or this nexus point where Spatial computing seems to be getting a little bit more human It seems to be like putting the body into the experiences more natural language input with artificial intelligence maybe moving away from screens and having more heads up, hands down engagement with audio, with the Bose AR frames, and eventually putting our full body into the experience, which I would hope would maybe get us out of this stasis of like looking at these screens. But at the same time, there's all this new risks for doubling down on surveillance capitalism and having even more ways of tracking all of our biometric data and getting even more information about us to be able to control us and manipulate us in any way. So I feel like at one hand like super excited about the potential for all this could happen, but also on the other hand just utterly terrified that there seems to be less and less ways to hold these huge corporations accountable for their actions.
[00:06:06.940] Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, I mean, there's that whole polarity between the people in the corporations and how any of these technologies really end up being used more on us than by us. And I can go all the way back even, I was thinking about talking about this tonight here at VRTO, about even Rave, which I loved and it was all counter-cultural and wonderful. Even Rave was technology acting on people more than people acting on technology. Take a 17-year-old kid, they come in, they take a designer drug, you play this music for them at 120 beats per minute, which is going to release certain serotonin and flashlights at other frequencies. And it's a machine for some psychedelic trance experience, but it's you putting people in the machine. I mean, I like the idea of technology receding a little bit and the human will and autonomy and sensibility being more ascendant, but I don't know that taking the goggles off and turning the room into an augmented reality experience where we can't differentiate between the augmentation and the real or whatever, I don't know if that is more empowering to the users or just like the final stage of the simulacra. And you could say it has to do with the intention. of the user, the intention of the programmer, and that's true to some extent. But when I analyze media, I always really try to look at the essential biases or affordances of the technology, and I do think they exist. Guns don't kill people, but they are more biased towards killing people than pillows are, even though there are many examples of pillows being used in final moments to smother the dying person. So they're more violent as a tech. So I don't know. I mean, there was a moment when Avatar came out, the Cameron movie, and everyone was going to go see it in IMAX and 3D. And there was some new better 3D they were using. And I didn't even trust them enough to go. I saw the movie flat. I was like, I'm not going in there. I didn't trust him. Some corporate guy, what's he going to do to me in there if it's that good? And that wasn't even VR. That was just a 3D IMAX movie. But it was like, I don't trust Spielberg enough anymore to watch his movie without my squeegee toy near me. It's interesting, my level of trust in the experience is so low that it takes... It's funny, I was just talking to Amelia Bearskin about this. It takes a lot to get me into one of these spaces at this point.
[00:08:55.730] Kent Bye: Have you been seeing much VR at all? Like contemporary VR over the last five years or so?
[00:08:59.938] Douglas Rushkoff: No, I mean, the last thing I saw was, I saw 360 degree porn, where you know about that, you can turn your head and it's just really like crisp video. But if you look at it more, me anyway, more than like 20 seconds, I get a migraine. Because something about these, I mean, it was in a, it was basically an Android phone in a three inches from my face.
[00:09:20.963] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd say, you know, as someone who does a lot of VR, I'd say, you know, that's maybe not the best, you know, VR experience that you could be having with modern consumer VR. So, you know, if it was Google Cardboard, yeah.
[00:09:31.569] Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, and I put Oculus on. I mean, the kind of VR I liked, I don't know if people still do this or if it counts as VR, but there was this thing called the Cave. Remember that? Now, that was kind of cool because you'd go in with like other people, like five or ten people at a time, and then It felt more holodecky to me than strap-on. And I don't know, I don't like things talking directly to my senses like that.
[00:09:56.378] Kent Bye: Well, maybe you could take me back to Terrence McKenna. He was talking a lot about virtual reality and what was happening in the 90s and maybe your interface to that community as VR was having kind of its first hype cycle wave, back before the technology was really ready, but where you kind of fit into that picture back then.
[00:10:14.420] Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I mean, the thing that Terrence kept talking about, he was excited about VR being like, human beings would be able to communicate the way squid would communicate. And he kept saying, you'll literally be able to see what I mean. You know, we'll transcend these mouth noises and move into a pure visual communication, you know, so that he will sort of dance this reality and turn the world red and blue and you'll feel So it was this sort of environment as self-expression and we're in it together and seeing each other's influences on it. So it was this very DMT vision of actually becoming one of the machine elves, if you will, you know, becoming a reality creator. And I think the idea, what we felt at the time, was if people could imitate the experience of reality creation in a virtual world, then they can come out and realize, oh, we're creating reality in the real world too. That we all saw digital technology as a kind of a psychedelic substrate. And we were trying to really create an appropriate set and setting for Western civilization to take this tremendous digital psychedelic trip together. And what happened was we kind of lost that battle to Wired Magazine. They got to establish the set and setting of the internet, which was the tool for the long boom and the salvation of the NASDAQ stock exchange and all that. And so now you have the whole world living on a psychedelic substrate with a bad set and a bad setting, so we're having a bad trip. We get reality TV and Trump. That is the bad trip of our own creation and potentially climate change and species extinction. Dang. And I would argue it's because we're tripping. and not well. But back in the day, I mean, part of what was exciting about VR was the creative capacity that it seemed like it would unleash. And most VR least that I'm experiencing, are these more like movies or immersive authored environments rather than, although there's one example of it here, kind of like an immersive paint box is what I'm more interested in. It's just give us the tools to build. But most people, it's that 80-20 Pareto principle. Most people don't want to build. They want to pay 10 bucks and freak me out, you know, and challenge my proprioception and give me an endorphin rush of some kind. And that's different. I think what we saw VR for was the oxytocin more. It was like, how can I bond to other people en masse in new ways?
[00:13:07.692] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm hearing a number of themes come up. One is like this sort of a psychedelic thread through both through VR and this crowd of people that you're hanging out with, Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna. And so I just went to this Awaken Futures Summit in San Francisco where it was by Consciousness Hacking. It's an organization that's looking at this intersection and cross section between psychedelics, immersive technologies and meditation. And so it was like these three communities that were coming together from the neuroscience perspective, the people were from the psychedelic underground, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research were there and in some ways like legitimizing psychedelics as a form of therapy. And so they were in the process of just talking about how they're gonna have MDMA as this federally approved drug and You know, they've created a public benefit corporation that is going to essentially become a pharmaceutical producer of MDMA for five years They have like an open patent to be able to compete with Eli Lilly and Pfizer So they have like pretty much free reign for producing psychedelics and creating the protocols for the ritualistic context All the money and profit from this public benefit corporation is going to be fed back into the nonprofit of MAPS to do more psychedelic promotion. And so we have this, what I see, we're on this cusp of like this real psychedelic revolution, starting with PTSD, trauma, depression, and, you know, treating it for people who are in real pain and want to turn their lives around. and they're gonna restrict it to like three treatments and not get people hooked on to this like overall, but they're really trying to tap into your own innate healing capacities. So I feel like that there's this thread of the psychedelic revolution on top of VR and immersive technologies, on top of all of the awareness meditation and contemplative mindfulness practices. And so just curious to hear like your history on all these different intersections and how you see all of these things coming together right now.
[00:15:04.274] Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, that's kind of hopeful. I think so. You know, it's just, it's interesting. It's, it's, I always wonder, it's like, okay, if you can get like medical marijuana now, is it still marijuana anymore? I mean, is it, it's not, I mean, it's interesting when it's no longer part of the counterculture. Because I guess what we're in now is a stage where if something exists, it must be part of the overculture or it doesn't exist at all. Because there's only overculture. There is no counterculture. There is no Timothy Leary. There is no Adam Parfrey. There's no Throbbing Gristle or whatever you associate. with counterculture because everything is kind of one level deep thanks to digital tech. So we are seeing though some of the best of the counterculture get revived or retrieved, I guess, by the current culture. It's just now the question is whether we can retain non-utilitarian use for any of these things? In other words, do we have to justify everything as having some, it's going to make someone function better, or it's going to help the market, or it's going to increase productivity? Is there a place for just arts and experimentation and exploration of stuff. I mean, I guess that's always the goal, that you start out, let's at least get this stuff into society as a healing thing, and then once it's sort of more accepted and less taboo, then it can move into, you know, what they call recreational, but I would call spiritual or, you know, the work or something. So, yeah, I mean, it's great that some of this is being folded back in. I'm also concerned that it not be Soma, you know, that if we're in a civilization that's moving towards imminent extinction, that it's not like, all right, let them smoke some pot, you know, so they're less upset about where it's all going. That would be my concern.
[00:17:09.787] Kent Bye: Well, what do you think the sort of the highly leveraged point is in terms of bringing about these shifts and if my sense there's this centralization and decentralization and it feels like the gatherings of communities people connecting to each other and Finding ways to be connected maybe not even like through technology, but face-to-face and embodied I feel like there's like movements towards experiential entertainment where immersive theater asks you to show up and be embodied and put down your phone and be immersed into an experience and I'm seeing these deeper trends towards that. But, you know, with your book, Team Human, you're sort of laying out some different guidelines and principles. But just curious if you've thought about a theory of change for what it's going to take in terms of either bringing awareness or getting people woken up or connected or to have some sort of resistance to the economic zeitgeist.
[00:18:00.290] Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, I mean, I see the best resistance is sitting with other people, making eye contact, you know, breathing together. The old conspiracy literally means to breathe together. You know, and to think that the word conspiracy sounds like a conspiracy now. But yeah, it is a conspiracy of the living. You know, the conspiracy of the bonded. I mean, I'm believing these days, I'm believing the high leverage point is rapport. You know, if you establish rapport, rapport is kind of the precursor to solidarity, which is the path towards collective power. But if we don't have rapport, then we can't even build that. And I think it's why so many of these sort of online movements fall flat, because you've got to occupy, you've got to be on the bridge with your extinction rebellion friends, you know. And that's when, once you're with other people doing something, is when you can start to see the sort of magical element in it. That's another thing that's getting retrieved now is the occult. Right now, the best at using the occult sciences are the alt-right. They understand how to use sigil magic on Twitter and Instagram in order to promote. They knew what Egyptian deity to retrieve and how and what it would mean. So they're playing the cultural game at a much higher and more historical level than the left is. And that's partly because the left, since Clinton, has gotten all utilitarian about everything, you know, and they've lost that other dimension to it. Or they've thought that that other dimension is demonic or something rather than, I don't even know what you'd call it, rather than spiritual, unifying, organic, you know, and real.
[00:19:46.047] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems to be that, like, I've seen the books about meme magic and using visual communication through these images and memes. It seems to be like a meme warfare that we have right now and that in some ways the alt-right arguably used memes and this visual communication style better than the left has, but philosophically, I feel like there's also this tension between Aristotle and Plato that Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind cast the last 2,500 years of history as this dialectic between Aristotle and Plato. And I feel like we've been in a center of gravity for Aristotle and sort of the pragmatism and being able to empirically see things. But I feel like in some ways there's this turn towards a more platonic realms of reality. And I see the philosophy of math as something that the more platonic tradition has been maintained. And the relationship between mathematics and science seems to be this gap from the more empiricist mindset that doesn't really interrogate or question that platonic view. But I feel like in some ways VR and AR is this overlaying of these platonic realms of reality on top of reality so that we can get connected to this more enchanted or ideal form realm. But I sense that there's this shift back into Platonism. I just look to like the printing press when it came out. So Ficino is doing this translations of Plato and their Corpus Hermeticum. And then from that, all the platonic visions were inspiring the artists of that time in that They were really you know trying to embed their art with those platonic ideals and I feel like we're in this similar shift where We're kind of tapping into those more platonic ideal realms and that perhaps that will inspire the next generation of artists I mean, I think you know McLuhan would probably say the reverse and
[00:21:30.193] Douglas Rushkoff: It's funny, if you read his dissertation, it was about the trivium, you know, between rhetoric and dialectic, and he takes it back to Aristotle and Plato too, but I think what he argues is, yeah, he sees the printing press as the moment things kind of went wrong. and that we moved out of Aristotle into Plato then and haven't recovered. So, he would say that, you know, the soul is like the formal cause of humans, of life. You know, there's this soul stuff. And McLuhan thought we all got formal cause wrong. We didn't understand that properly. So, again, this is, I guess, be a minority view in academia, but that the shift to platonic ideals was part of the separation of church and science. So we were able to say everything in the real world is mechanistic, everything in the platonic world is just like pure ideals, but that Aristotle was the one who integrated it all. He wasn't just a rationalist. He believed that our environments create us as much as we create them. It's interesting. I was thinking lately, and partly I've been talking with a friend of mine named Mark Stallman, who's a big McLuhan scholar, but he's been arguing that we need to retrieve Aristotle now, at this moment. And that if we don't, that we're in that all is lost moment. But that digital, because it's biased towards memory, it may be able to do that. It may be able to retrieve these sort of medieval pre-printing press sensibilities that have been, you know, all but lost to industrialism.
[00:23:06.326] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's also, I'm not sure if you're familiar with the book of Leonard Shlain's Alphabet versus the Goddess and just the dialectic between the written word and the image and I feel like there's something about since the printing press it feels like there's been this linearity of communication through the written word and that maybe it's around 1890 or so when we start to have mass electricity and moving image and Freud and the unconscious and Madame Blavatsky and theosophy it starts to sort of turn into this past 120 plus years we've been in this era of the image and that I personally see like the computer technology is kind of like the printing press of this era and and that as books were able to capture information and knowledge, it feels like the compute technologies, to me, are able to capture the essence of the human experience, and that it's starting to start with the image and move an image, but move into the sensory experience of the body. But with that, it feels like we're moving away from the linearity of written word into the more non-linearity of spoken communication, embodied communication, oral history, visual communication, and a lot more symbolism, rather than just sort of the linearity of thought.
[00:24:13.968] Douglas Rushkoff: But I mean, I would I would argue that was TV that did that, you know, TV that brought us to the image. And TV was about always was about hallucination, you know, creating dreams. And VR right now, I think most people are seeing it as an extension of TV. It's like TV is almost like the content of this medium. It's certainly TV is the content of the internet, which is again another McLuhan thing. He always said that the previous medium becomes the content of the next one. So television is the content of the internet. That's the thing, is VR. And when I see Oculus Rift kind of stuff, it's hallucinatory. It's like, we're going to make this world that you're going to be in. And I feel like if it was truly digital in spirit, it wouldn't be that. It wouldn't be more projections of dreamscapes. It would be more collective world building or something.
[00:25:12.835] Kent Bye: I'm curious if you've seen any of the immersive theater, like Sleep No More or Then She Fell. It feels like there's a thread there.
[00:25:19.936] Douglas Rushkoff: That feels more digital to me than most of what I see digitally. I mean, yeah, since Tamara in the 80s was kind of one of the first of the new fun house theater things. I mean, there's that, there's the LARPs and the White Wolf fantasy role-playing games. I mean, it was part of Vampire the Masquerade in San Francisco in the, I guess it was the early 90s by then. and Steve Jackson games, which were almost a digital style of Dungeons and Dragons, where he created all these components that you could put together and, you know, it gave a lot more room to the dungeon master to, or the game master, whatever they were called, to create a world. But yeah, the experience of a person playing a fantasy role-playing game, which is a collective storytelling, is very different than watching Game of Thrones.
[00:26:06.493] Kent Bye: Yeah. And I'd say that, you know, after going to Sundance and Tribeca and South by Southwest, uh, for the last four years and seeing a lot of the different experiences there, I see that there is this fusion of immersive theater that is crossing over with virtual reality and the West world thing.
[00:26:20.617] Douglas Rushkoff: Did you go at South by?
[00:26:22.078] Kent Bye: I wasn't there. I didn't see that, but I have seen other immersive theater experiences, but yeah.
[00:26:27.379] Douglas Rushkoff: I wasn't there for that. Or if I was, I didn't, I, I don't remember what South by's I even have been at. It's just like so oppressive. I don't find anything. Well, it's it's kind of yeah I I met the guy who did that the guy who did that or the team that did that is the team that did Blair Witch They did Blair Witch and then formed a company after that and Blair Witch was partly based on media virus that I wrote in 1993 which I mean back to memes was you know, my original vision of memetics was not that it was going to be some kind of propaganda war of weaponized Russian memes or something. It was that we were now going to strengthen our collective cultural immune system, you know, with these sort of viral constructs. It seemed to me it was going to be a counterculture thing, not a manipulation of the masses thing. I mean, that's the poll I keep going back to is, are we doing or is it being done to us? And if it's being done to us, who's doing it? And is it going to help?
[00:27:33.292] Kent Bye: Well, I'm curious if, you know, because you're looking at media and media theory, if you have any sort of theoretical framework to be able to make sense and understand the differences between say a book or a movie or film or TV or virtual or augmented reality and like how you sort of make sense of all of those.
[00:27:51.783] Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, I use a lot of McLuhan for that. He's got the tetrad, where when you evaluate a medium, you look at what does the medium amplify, what does it obsolesce, and what does it retrieve from the past, and what does it flip into when it goes to the extreme. So you could take the automobile, and you could say, OK, the automobile obsolesces the horse and buggy. It amplifies locomotion. It retrieves the knighthood, you know, this sort of metal, metal-wrapped guys having duels. And what does it flip into when it goes to the extreme? It's like, well, when there's so many cars, it flips into a traffic jam. You don't get anywhere. Or it flips into oil wars and pollution. When you look at media that way, they become sort of easier to see what their effects and biases are. So, when I look at digital media, I mean, I'm most interested in what the medium retrieves. When I see digital, digital retrieves the medieval. You know, it's what it has, whether it's, you know, Burning Man, or Kraft, or Etsy, or sort of hands-on, the physical digits, peer-to-peer, blockchain. These are all medieval sensibilities that come back, and even the occult, and magic, and women, and then what happened if we can retrieve those things, rather than surrendering digital to capitalism, which is television and electric age. And it's funny, Blavatsky, all those people you were talking about at the beginning, they were kind of radio and television age. which is why that something's coming in, I'm tuning into a new frequency, all the language around seance and channeling. We're channeling. You didn't have channels. It's because we understood things in terms of waves and spectra and it was part of the radio and television electronic era. But digital is going to be something different. And I'm hoping, you know, like you're saying, it becomes embodied and real and local. And, you know, if we become more conscious of the air we're breathing, rather than the pictures we're looking at, we'll want to do something.
[00:29:56.412] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the problems I have with McLuhan and his use of hot and cold is it's kind of opposite of intuitively what I would think of it. Because when I think of Aristotle and the elements, I sort of use an elemental approach to make sense of what I see as qualities of presence, where for me, the hot is rising, it's active, you're participating. So I think of active presence, expression of your will. And in a video game, you're making choices and taking action. And so you're using your like,
[00:30:23.207] Douglas Rushkoff: opposite, right? So he would look at radio as hot because it's just one sense and it's high definition and someone like Hitler can get you all hot. Where television, at least in the early days, it was black and white, it was low resolution, it had multiple senses. So because you have to participate in the rendering of the image and seeing the image when it was back at whatever 30 Hertz and black and white, it brought forth more of your critical faculties, so you were more cool about it. But then, as television becomes this high-def surround sound, super-duper immersive thing in your house, television went from being a cool medium to being a hot medium. And then the internet was the cool medium, because you have to participate, you've got to type and all that. But what have we watched? We've watched the internet go from being very cool to getting increasingly hot. As it moves from DOS to VGA monitors to virtual reality, it becomes increasingly hot. But as it gets hot, the problem is we lose our real participation. You can participate in terms of some branching hierarchy or move around their program, but real participation is so hard for them to do. and maintain control of the story and get our money.
[00:31:40.062] Kent Bye: Yeah, I sort of see like the physics metaphor of particles moving faster and engaging more as like a form of participation and that's like you're actively engaging with it rather than passively consuming it. I'd look at a lot of the Chinese philosophy metaphors of the yang and the yin where the yang is much more of your outward expression of agency and the yin is more receptive and you're receiving and so I sort of roughly equivalent that to the The four elements were the two yang would be the fire and the air. And so the fire being much more of the active expression of your will into the experience, your agency. And then the air is the making choices, taking actions. It's all the abstractions of language and communication. And so it's the mental and social presence. Those are the two yang, which is more outward expression of agency, participation. And then the yin is the earth and the water, so the earth being much more of the body, the sensory experience. With VR you're sort of hijacking all of the senses, but also it's the environmental presence that you're receiving. Your perception is in parallel receiving everything and you're sort of making sense of that based upon your lived experience. And then the water element is the emotional engagement, the degree to which your emotions are being engaged. through the consonance and dissonance cycles of music and narrative and drama. So you have active presence and mental and social presence, which I see as like video games, as making choices, taking action, but really it's the active presence where the internet and cell phone technology is a lot of the mental social presence of being able to get information and communicate. The emotional presence is much of the you know TV and film because you're passively receiving a story that's engaging your emotions And then the embodied presence are all the meditation and yoga But also all of the virtual and augmented reality that is addressing your sensory experience So I see it's sort of in more of an elemental way
[00:33:29.395] Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, yeah. I mean, and then I would think if you do, then what you're looking for is how do we achieve balance in any of these media?
[00:33:36.517] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's the Chinese philosophy insight is that things are like more Alfred North Whitehead and process philosophy where you don't see things as concrete objects, but you see them as processes in relationships that are unfolding over time. So it's more a relational approach.
[00:33:51.181] Douglas Rushkoff: That's more Aristotelian than platonic though, right? Everything's, everything's cause.
[00:33:57.039] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess I think it's maybe it's a balance. Maybe what we're looking for is a balance between Aristotle and Plato where you have both because it feels like from a science perspective it's Wigner's what he says about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics and how is it related to the science. So, I feel like it's like we need to have a balance between both Aristotle and Plato and see how math and science are kind of related to each other in that way.
[00:34:17.996] Douglas Rushkoff: And now I mean in a society that's at the mercy of the market is at the mercy of a very particular kind of math. as well. And that's why now we live in this world where if you don't have a metric for something, it doesn't exist. Or if you're between those lines, it's like it doesn't matter. We're auto-tuning ourselves into oblivion.
[00:34:37.350] Kent Bye: Well, you had said at the top of the interview before we start recording that there's all sorts of topics that you would love to be talking about. What are some of the stuff that you would like to be exploring or talking about?
[00:34:48.097] Douglas Rushkoff: Well, there are two different things. I mean, if I'm exploring, then I'm probably not ready to talk about that. Right now, this week, I'm interested in the demise of the counterculture. And I want to fully understand why people don't like the counterculture. What are the ways in which the counterculture, any counterculture, kind of sucks and really fully take that in before trying to recreate an argument for the counterculture? I mean, I think people are down on the counterculture when I try to understand like a Trumpian or like an intelligent Trumpian. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but an intelligent overculture person. They would say, look, you counterculture people are just complaining all the fucking time. That's all you do, that we're like critics. We're like this thorn in the side of the necessary growth and expansion of this white Western civilization thing, this victorious civilization. And why complain? Just let it go. In other words, if everyone just got on board, and I think though without anybody, even just culturally, critiquing what's happening without constantly being able to evaluate it, then we lose our immune system as a society. We lose our critical faculties. So a society without a counterculture doesn't have a loyal opposition either. You know, you just have to kind of accept what's happening. You don't have the faculty to resist. And I feel like that's why Right now, the press is just totally victimized by this sort of American-style fascism now. They don't know how, because they don't even think. They've got to churn out more. They're in the business model. They're so far into the business model. It's sort of what Adorno and those folks, Horkheimer and Benjamin were talking about, that once the business model of entertainment dominates all forms of cultural production, there's no more resistance. You have to go to fascism then. And I fear we're there. And back to VR, if VR is going to remain as expensive as it is to produce, I mean, that's part of my concern for video games is once they got all into simulation, they're way too expensive to make. And every video game has to be a blockbuster in order to exist. It's like when you go back to the games that we wrote, as kids, you know, our little vector graphic games. And it was, I don't know, there was something more, more, I mean, I guess it'll get there. People are making game construction engines so that you can build games without endings and without wars or whatever. But in other words, I'm, as a counterculture person, I'm inherently suspicious of anything that requires a massive amount of capital to produce.
[00:37:53.573] Kent Bye: Well, for me, I see the tension between, like when I went to the American Philosophical Association and I went to the Eastern meeting and I saw that the way that the analytic community looks at the philosophy community, they say it's a binary. There's either analytic or continental philosophy. And I'm like, well, what about non-Western philosophies like Chinese philosophy or indigenous philosophies or Latin American philosophies? And, you know, it seems like that just the way they even think about it, but it feels like the phenomenological perspectives of the continental philosophers, they don't have conversations with each other. They're so siloed that in some ways it's like a metaphor for all of the academia that it's siloed and that they're not talking to each other because they form their own languages and they can't even speak to each other. But what I see happening with VR, at least, it's part of this move towards this melting pot of these interdisciplinary collaborations between architects and neuroscientists and game designers and storytellers and sound designers. It's like basically all of the domains and disciplines, they have to start to collaborate with each other and speak through the language of VR, which is essentially the human experience. So I feel like, you know, part of what that is, is this counter-cultural movement that is advocating for a philosophical shift that's trying to have a little bit more integrated perspective of what is the experiential design frameworks or the ethical and moral frameworks that we can make sense of this. It requires interdisciplinary fusion and some sort of framework to be able to combine things together rather than to separate them as the analytic mind has been doing. So if anything, that's where I see what VR is a part of that countercultural movement is towards that holistic process philosophy mindset rather than trying to reduce things down into their silos.
[00:39:37.006] Douglas Rushkoff: I mean, for me, the question always comes down to, I've got 20 more active years, say, of thought and participation. And when something comes like, do you want to go talk at VRTO? I have to think, well, we're living in an all hands on deck moment for species extinction, climate catastrophe and terrible stuff. Is it appropriate at a moment like this to be out talking about VR? And I don't know. I mean, so part of why I'm here, part of what I'm thinking about is, I mean, I guess I've always thought about this, you know, when I'd blow my candles out at my birthday party when I was eight wishing for world peace, you know, because I'm thinking, is it fair? Because I heard about the kids starving in Biafra. And here I am feeding cake to my friends when there's kids starving in Biafra. Is this right? Should we even be doing this? You know, my mom and people would say, oh, but even if you want to help the world and do all these things, you're still entitled to your own enjoyment and some fun in life. Just because there's all these people suffering there doesn't mean there shouldn't still be high art and interesting things happening at some other part of society. You don't want to all suffer just because this part of the tree is dying. But if the whole tree is in cardiac arrest, do trees have hearts? Probably not. But you know what I mean. If the organism, the human organism is on the brink, then is a focus on a highly technologized art form appropriate? I don't know.
[00:41:34.442] Kent Bye: I would say yes. Because I think, you know, when I went to this conference of the awakened futures, I talked to Cassandra Vieten. She's the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. And she said she sees these technologies, whether it's psychedelics, whether it's meditation, or whether it's virtual augmented reality, these immersive technologies, they're like scaffolding. because they allow us to get access to parts of our consciousness that we don't have access to otherwise. And then maybe it's like training wheels for us. As we go into these immersive experiences, maybe we really get to cultivate and learn what it means to really be present in life so that when we come out, then we're actually more connected and more engaged. And that's what my experience has been.
[00:42:12.654] Douglas Rushkoff: That's what I argued in the 80s, you know, and I watched tons of people go in and have those experiences and become business people. And I watched the entire internet go from that use-net-the-well, Stuart Brandian kind of vision into what it is now. John Barlow, bless his heart, Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, pushed government off the net and created free reign for business, and here we are today. He was a libertarian, and I didn't even really know what that meant. So I don't know. Yes, I would love to believe that these are the training wheels that we use to get to that other place. It's just never worked out that way.
[00:42:57.792] Kent Bye: You know? Well, we're kind of in a unique position in the history of humanity. So I think in some ways it's asking us to really get in tuned with our intuition more than our brains. It's like asking us to tune into other ways of knowing so that we can actually have some guidance and direction for what needs to be done.
[00:43:15.352] Douglas Rushkoff: Right, and I'm concerned that VR may take us further away from those other ways of knowing rather than closer, further from our heart and our instinct. It's just that our social rapport is so close. I know we can get it without that stuff, and I don't know if we can get it with it.
[00:43:38.194] Kent Bye: Well, you talked about final cause. Well, we talked about Aristotle and formal cause, but I think, you know, the final cause is like the deep intention. And I think that's a crisis of final causality where the intention is to do this utilitarian, violating our autonomy to be able to use us, to be able to take our data for profit and deny us of our autonomy. And so I feel like, there's this need to have deeper ethics and ethical frameworks to evaluate these companies and to maybe have that into our calculus for who we support and don't support so that we can start to see, like, have a more clear final cause and be supporting things that are actually trying to have good intentions to bring about positive change. But because we're blind to that, we don't look to it, then we're sort of being used as puppets to a certain extent.
[00:44:21.127] Douglas Rushkoff: Right. And then the only way to do that, I think the only way to do that is to live and produce cleanly. So we've got to look at who made the chips that are in this device. Where was it assembled? Under what conditions? Where does it go when it dies? Where's the Oculus made? Some little Chinese children assembling it, losing their fingers. And where does the rare earth metals come from? And so if we took a breath, like I love the work of Bas van Abel. He made Fairphone. Fairphone was started as an art experiment to see if he could make a phone that didn't have any slavery in it, even much less pollution. And he couldn't. You can't do it. You can't do it. It's a fairer phone, but it's not fair. And it's like, OK, so if injustice and slavery is intrinsic to the devices, then aren't we back colonizing America with slaves or killing the natives and, you know, for the higher cause that we're going to get there? Because, well, we're Enlightenment people. So I'm troubled is all.
[00:45:34.260] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's not a lot of, there's not a lot of transparency on that for sure. That's a question that was asked to me and I don't have a good answer as to whether or not these things are ethically produced. You know, maybe blockchain and be able to track things eventually we'll get there to be able to actually have a little bit of a record to be able to trace back and see if it's fair trade or whatnot. But I think our culture hasn't been demanding that and it's, it's going to be a while for we, we can actually have some transparency or accountability in that way.
[00:45:57.904] Douglas Rushkoff: It's really hard, you know, cause then you say, okay, this was ethically produced. Yeah. But what about the hammer that you just used to make that thing?
[00:46:04.463] Kent Bye: Well, just to wrap up here, I usually ask people what they think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be. And I'm curious what you might think, like what the most exalted potential of these immersive technologies could be.
[00:46:19.907] Douglas Rushkoff: The most exalted one would be to create for people a experience of such safety that they learn how to be with other people again.
[00:46:37.258] Kent Bye: Nice. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?
[00:46:48.527] Douglas Rushkoff: The immersive community. Hi. Hi, immersive community. My name's Douglas. I'll go in there with you. If you've shown me the door.
[00:46:58.135] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, I just wanted to thank you so much for sitting down and joining me today on the podcast. So thank you. Thank you. So that was Douglas Rushkoff. He's the author of team human. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I think that Douglas is bringing up a lot of really important and vital points, especially in terms of the ecological sustainability of these technologies. Where are all this metal coming from? Is it being produced sustainably ethically? How much slavery is involved in terms of producing these VR headsets? Because he said, you know, it's a bit of a colonial mindset to be able to justify these larger injustices and to not be in harmony with how these things are produced for a greater purpose of enlightenment. So I don't know if I have a good answer for that critique. I don't know if anybody actually does, because I just don't think there's a lot of transparency as to how these things are sourced and how they're actually produced. I think generally I'd say that Douglas seems to be a bit of a skeptic of virtual reality technologies in general. And I think in the opening statement that he made for the recording of team human podcast, it was a little bit even more polemical in terms of, you know, his stance against VR in some ways. And, you know, he was opening up a dialogue with Karen Maliki Sanchez, as well as with Amelia Winger-Bearskin. But in this conversation, I think you get a little bit of a seed in terms of where he's a little bit cautious, because I think he's seen how this has played out before. I think he's heard these arguments about the potentials of technology, and then he kind of sees how it actually plays out in reality. And the other thing that I say that Douglas is doing when he was looking at VR is that he's taking a bit of an academic approach in terms of like, I wouldn't necessarily say he's had a big and wide, robust set of direct experiences for him to really be able to understand what the real affordances of the medium are. Because, you know, he said something like pretty much everybody would say that VR is just an extension of television. And that is literally the first time that I've heard anybody ever say that after talking to over 1100 people. I think anybody that is looking at VR thinks of it more of as a complicated fusion of like video games and film and theater and different aspects of the internet and social media and contemplative practices. I think it's way more sophisticated in thinking about it than just sort of an extension of television. If some of the only experiences that I've seen is like 360 degree porn, I could see how he may think that VR is only going to be an extension of TV. But I think of it more of as this real immersive, real time simulations in these immersive environments. It's more like a video game in that sense. But there's also different theatrical elements of the storytelling. But I think the deeper point of what I think he was trying to get at by saying that VR is just an extension of TV is what is the degree to which you're actually meaningfully participating within an experience? Is this just a simulated environment that's being handed to you and you have no ability to engage or interact with the environment in a way that's meaningful? And I think in contrast to that, you look at something like he was talking about all these different D&D, these fantasy role-playing, where there's a sense of collaborative storytelling, where you're able to really engage in the participation of the story that's being told. And I think that on the whole, there are some experiences that start to get to that point a little bit, but I still think it's going to be hard to reach the essence of what a D&D experience is in terms of collaborative storytelling. But I do see that at the leading edge of storytelling that I see at Sundance and Tribeca and South by Southwest is that it does have this more fusion of immersive theater with this interactive live participatory nature of you engaging as a character within these different experiences. And, you know, and I think it's on the trajectory of us being a little bit more of LARPers and these live action role players. And we're able to, you know, engage with the story in some sort of meaningful way. I think it's going to start with like bootstrapping some of these experiences with live actors and eventually maybe get into AI. But I think the deeper point is Douglas is saying, is this technology happening to us or what are the ways in which that we are actively engaging with the technology? And I think that with the turn with Oculus Quest, with it being a little bit more restricted in terms of what type of content can be on the platform, there's a number of different experiences like Oculus Medium, Oculus Quill. Those types of experiences weren't prioritized to be able to say, hey, let's empower these people to experiencing VR to be able to actually be active participants and be able to create different experiences was reassuring to me to at least see that there was Tilt Brush by Google that was made available for a launch of the Oculus Quest. We're going to have experiences like Gravity Sketch that are going to be available for the Quest at some point. So I think that there are some of these creation tools that are made available, but I think the larger point is to what degree is the balance of all the different experiences that are made available are they're going to be enabling people to really become active participants in the co-creation of whatever experiences that they're having. And I think that's an open question to see where that ends up. But the trajectory I see is that I'm more optimistic that it's going to move more and more into that direction rather than to the more passive consumption of these different experiences. And he mentioned the Pareto principle, which is the 80 20 rule, which is essentially that like 20% of the people are doing all the work to create the experiences. And then 80% of the people just want to. tap in and be able to consume whatever content that's there without any sophisticated expectation for them to put in too much work to be able to actively participate in these experiences. So I enjoy Marshall McLuhan. I think he's got some interesting concepts and ideas, but I also think that it could be a little limiting to only look at VR through the lens of this academic kind of linear progression of each medium being an extension of the previous medium. I think in some ways it's including all of the previous mediums, and I think that McLuhan affords for that as a possibility in terms of like, it's not only encompassing the previous mediums, but it's also encompassing all of the previous mediums. And I think that video games do that and as well as VR is able to do that to a certain extent as well. And so it's like this underlying questions is what is it? Amplify? What is it? Obsolesce? What is Retrieve from the past and what is it going to flip into when it goes into the extreme? And so for me, I think it amplifies the sense of phenomenological direct experience where we're tuning into what is the qualities of experience that we have and what are these different flavors and modalities of presence? How do we tap into what are our deepest aspects of our character are and who we are? So I feel like in some ways it's retrieving from the past all these aspects of theater and architecture and embodiment and being able to actually be immersed within these different worlds So in some ways, it's going back to being able to actually be an embodied human in the world. And what's it obsolescing? And in some ways, I think it's obsolescing space and the restrictions of space, because you're able to switch a context into a completely new paradigm. But you're also able to be able to have these embodied interactions with people in these virtual realms, where if you're far apart from each other, you wouldn't necessarily have the ability to have that direct embodied experience with other people. In some ways, it's removing the restrictions of space and the politics of space and able to democratize access to these different spaces for people and to be able to be co-located with each other. So it's able to cultivate these cultural dynamics that didn't exist before. So in some ways, one of the things is going to be amplifying is this niche culture where you're able to produce these cultural artifacts together to be able to prototype things that may not have the resources to be able to build out an entire like Burning Man, for example, but. There's going to be lots of these little mini Burning Man type of cultures and environments based upon these meetup groups that we have existing now in these different cities. But it's going to be even more niche in terms of there might be only three or four people in the world that are really into the thing that you're into. And now you can meet up in virtual reality and start to create these cultural artifacts and collaborate with each other. And so what does it flip into when it goes to the extreme? I think in some ways, VR is going to flip into like the matrix where you're going to have this entirely other world where you walk into and it's going to be just as robust as any sort of direct experience that you have in real life is. And in fact, it may be so amplified and targeted in terms of your sensory experience that it may be even more compelling to go into these virtual worlds, this vision of the metaverse from like Snow Crash or Vision of the oasis of this big massive learning environment that you have in like ready player one So I think you know There's a lot of potentials in terms of where this could end up in terms of like creating these massively immersive worlds that are just as sensory rich as what we're able to experience in real life and so I guess you know the The risk there is like, do we escape into these worlds and not be connected to what's happening in the world, especially in the face of all of this ecological disasters that we have right now? And I think part of Douglas' fear is that, yes, we have all these amazing, both psychedelics, meditative techniques, as well as all these virtual and augmented reality technologies, but are people going to start to use them as a form of soma to be able to numb ourselves, to be able to handle the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in? So I think that's a good point. You know, I think we have to be mindful in terms of how we repair our relationships to the earth and start to have more of a regenerative culture. And, you know, there's a lot of me that thinks that, you know, these technologies could provide the antidote to be able to help train and cultivate this sense of presence and this sense of connection and a sense that we are in this world together and we are interdependent upon each other. And so are there going to be these experiences that are really going to help amplify those different types of awarenesses that we need? And so, you know, in some ways, what does it flip into? Maybe what it flips into is this process of individual transformation and cultural transformation for us to really. become into more harmony with what's happening in the world. And just because that hasn't happened in the past ever before, I don't think that that precludes that it can't happen now, especially when it has the right intention and the right collective zeitgeist that we have. I think it's way different than any other point in history that we've had. And so as we look to the past, we can say, okay, well, yes, that hasn't happened before. That's not how it played out. But I don't agree with Douglas that that's going to necessarily predict that this is the way that's necessarily going to work out this time around. But at the same time, he may be completely right. And there's a lot of optimism and hope that this is a potential, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the way things are going to go down, especially with these companies that are involved, what their final cause is and what their deepest intentions are and what they want to get out of this whole new platform in the system. Is it just a new colonial mindset of trying to seize all of our biometric data and to have us mortgage our privacy in order to create these new business models? Or is it really designed to empower us and to focus on our human autonomy and our sovereignty to be able to encourage us to be able to live and grow and thrive in the world? And I see more of the colonial mindset of trying to own the different platforms and to harvest our emotions and our biometric data, further eroding all of our different rights to privacy. So, I mean, I fall somewhere in between where I have this deep skepticism trying to critique the culture that we live in, but also this optimism that there is a potential here for if people actually gather with the tools that are available, we could actually bring about some pretty significant change. But it was interesting to me to hear Douglas Rushkoff talk about how there isn't any real meaningful counterculture that we have right now. I would say that there's a lot of non-mainstream culture, especially when you look at underrepresented minorities and culture that's not in the mainstream paradigm. But there's things that are happening on the fringes, especially with the psychedelic culture and communities of consciousness. There's a lot of non-Western thought that is out there that is totally in contrast to this kind of reductive materialistic paradigm. And I think Chinese philosophy and Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy, in some ways that is a challenge to the existing reductive paradigm. And in some ways, VR could be a part of the counterculture in terms of this turn towards the direct embodied human experience that values qualities of presence that come forth with the direct embodied experience that some of these experiences that are modulating our consciousness in different ways, then it's a focus more on experience rather than owning the materiality of specific objects and things. And so it is this shift into this more platonic realm of objects and having the experience of the objects rather than have the materiality of those objects. And it was interesting to hear him talk about how, you know, what happens when all of the counterculture is put into the paradigm of business models, then it's hard to critique those business models when everything in order to survive has to become a business. Then you have this lack of cultural critique that happens and there's no immune system within the culture, which I found fascinating as a metaphor to think about how the counterculture serves this purpose to be able to create this Hegelian dialectic to see where the blind spots are of the mainstream culture and to try to address and critique those and to provide alternatives or to at least provide the faculty to understand and resist the mainstream paradigm so that there can actually have an evolution and growth of that mainstream paradigm, because it's not a static thing. It has to continually be in this evolving process. And so what are the points in which you need to really attack it and address it in a way that you're trying to create even new paradigms and new solutions? And I feel like in some ways, virtual and augmented reality and spatial computing have the seeds of a lot of that. But again, like Douglas says, it's not necessarily an inevitable outcome that things are going to move into that most exalted potential. So, you know, Douglas seems to think that the most highly revered point right now is to build rapport. And if that we could build rapport, then we could start to have this sense of shared solidarity and to be able to occupy spaces together for us to be able to really have this deep, intimate connections, sitting down face to face, breathing together in this conspiracy, but in a conspiracy where it's more about this collective, connected, interactive and bodied interactions and that with all that solidarity and the rapport that we build face to face, then we eventually are able to reclaim our sense of collective power that we have in our lives. So I'm really struck by this idea of the reclaiming of the counterculture and to be able to look at what are the things that need to be revived, whether it's these medieval sensibilities of the burning man, the craft, the the occult magic and the perspectives of women and underrepresented minorities and this blockchain technologies, the decentralization efforts and movements that are happening, artificial intelligence and AI. I think all of these are some sense they have elements of the counterculture that is asking for a new paradigm, a new frameworks for ethics and morality that we need to be able to navigate and understand our world today. So I like to think that anybody that's listening to this podcast is a part of this countercultural movement of trying to figure out new ways to operate and to think about the most exalted potential of these VR technologies and to go out there and actually build a lot of the experiences that are going to be on these platforms. And so with that, I think another big part of the cultural shift in paradigm is, you know, moving away from ad based revenues and to go into more patron supported models. And so. This podcast is a patron-supported model. I'm completely reliant upon the donations and the support that I get from this community. And I just wanna take a moment and say thank you for anybody that is a member and supporting, or if you've supported in the past, I wouldn't be able to do this podcast without the support from my patrons. And I would encourage people to be a part of the resistance, be a part of this virtual reality counterculture that I feel like is emerging, and to consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.