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Protest as Perspective:
Do We Want a Revolution
or a Renaissance?

Douglas Rushkoff

So often we hear people using the word “revolution” to describe the current overwhelming cultural shift fostered by technology and new media. However overwhelming it might be, can we really describe the current transition as a revolution? For me, the word “revolution” evokes images of a violent upheaval and guillotined heads. There’s certainly very little progress implied by revolution; it’s simply someone spinning around in circles.
Digital culture may be marginally revolutionary in the sense that it is characterized by what so many companies and institutions have called “thinking outside the box”–a willingness to challenge conventions and consider meta-narratives. But, this notion of thinking outside the box and gaining perspective is not simply moving in a circle. We are coming to a new understanding of what had always been considered literal reality; we are seeing it instead as a picture of reality. Our new tools are also leading us to feel empowered enough to adjust the frame around that picture. Such an upscaling of perception, intention, and design is better described as renaissance.”

Renaissance literally means the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. It is a reconfiguring of the constructed ways we experience the world in order to reconnect with it, and the adaptation our of cultural lenses to conform to our changing vision. In the original Renaissance, a number of discoveries and inventions changed our most basic experience of the real. Perspective painting allowed us to create representations of reality that simulated dimensionality. The discovery that the world was round and the ability to circumnavigate it radically redefined our notion of space and our sense of agency. Furthermore, the development of calculus allowed us to relate planes to spheres and spheres to four-dimensional fictional objects, performing conceptual calculations never before possible. The printing press allowed the widespread distribution of ideas and data, connecting people in expanded social and political communities. Within the next century, coffee imported from Morocco encouraged people to stay up late at night and talk, giving rise to a “bohemian” culture and an Enlightenment dedicated to challenging conventional models of reality through new perspectives.

The late 20th century brought discoveries and inventions whose collective impact could be considered a renaissance of at least equal magnitude. While perspective painting allowed Renaissance artists to create two-dimensional images, the holograph now allows us to create three-dimensional representations that approximate our vision even more closely. By manipulating the laws of perspective, some Renaissance painters created deliberately skewed or “trick” representations of reality, challenging the reliability of our vision and suggesting the possibility that illusion exists in reality as well. The mechanics of the holograph offer a similar challenge because when a holographic plate is shattered into many pieces, the image is not fragmented. Each shard of the plate will contain a smaller image of the entire original, suggesting that fractal relationships may underlie much of our illusions as well as our reality. The underlying technology of holographs further extends our understanding of dimensionality and has been used to understand everything from society to brain anatomy.

While Renaissance explorers discovered that the world was round, modern scientists discovered atomic energy and took us to the moon. Having already mastered the globe through exploration, we were now able to explore beyond it, to see it as an object from another position in space, and even to destroy it. Meanwhile, chaos math and systems theory opened complex conceptual possibilities in much the same way calculus had for Renaissance mathematicians.

The computer and the Internet changed communication, publication, and the idea of community to a degree comparable with the printing press. LSD and psychedelics, like the coffee beans of the Renaissance, had people staying up late together and experimenting with the status quo.

A renaissance is a shift in perspective, the shift from living within a model to moving outside of it. Or, as video gamers might express it, from game to “meta-game.” Young people who spend a lot of time immersed in video game environments understand this phenomenon, well. There are two ways one can learn to play a game. The first is to read the rules, practice, and use old-fashioned trial and error. The second is to find the

magazines and websites that will share secret codes to avoid traps, win levels, and gain special advantages in the game. Are the people using these “cheat sheets” really playing the game? Certainly, but the game they’re playing is the meta-game. Finally, the gamer learns how the game is actually put together. He learns to create his own new levels of the game, or entirely new versions. He moves from game player, to meta-game player, to game designer.

Likewise, there are moments when we, as society, as a culture, or even as individuals, shift from simply playing the game by the rules to playing the meta-game and changing the rules. These are renaissance moments. Renaissance moments happen when we experience a shift in perspective so that the stories, models, and languages that we have been using to understand our reality are suddenly up for grabs. But these renaissance moments are transitory, because almost as soon as our perspectives are shifted, we settle into new conventions. Alas, the possibilities opened by our new perspective close up, and we once again mistake the map for the territory. We forget that the new stories and metaphors we have developed are just that, and we mistake them for literal history.

But, before things have been locked down, ideas compete for consensus. The challenge (and the opportunity) during these moments is to make a positive impact in that struggle. For me, this means preserving the notion that the ideas that win consensus approval may be useful, but they are still arbitrary. This is the true “hack”: to move outside the frame of the picture, and to show others how this is possible.

I would argue that we are currently in a period of renaissance–still in the process of assimilating the results of a shift in perspective caused by remarkable technological progress. We are still aware that the shift is going on, and hoping to preserve some aspect of our newfound sensitivity into the next phase of human society. It’s akin to the realization many people have in the heightened state of awareness caused by a mystical or psychedelic experience: the person on his vision quest wonders how he will be able to remember that state of awe or insight once the experience is over. He wonders how he can plant a seed, or landmark of some kind that he will remember when he returns to waking state consciousness.
Likewise, those of us aware of an unleashing of cognitive liberty by the current renaissance, are attempting to preserve and extend the notion that much of reality itself is open source, and that the “codes” by which we organize our experiences are more accessible than we generally assume. For artists, cultural producers, and, of course, activists, there is an imperative to influence what will become the new consensus, and to mark it with sense of possibility that will help us maintain a sense of agency over our own collective and individual perspectives.
A lucky beneficiary of the digital renaissance, I have been encouraged to believe that our reality is, indeed, open source—or at least that much of what we have been regarding as permanent “hardware” is, indeed, only “software,” and subject to change. For me, the most important insight of cyberculture is that we all have access to its codes; we are all potential reality-programmers.

Media is the realm in which our reality is negotiated. I used to stay up nights wondering: what is media? It was a perplexing question. A zipper is media; open, it means one thing and closed, another. A face is media; we read people’s appearance and expressions for information about them. Even our DNA is media—arguably, the best

media nature has developed, capable of sending codes through the millennia.

Ultimately, the only thing that isn’t media is a person’s most essential consciousness—one’s agency, will, and intention. As consciousnesses swimming in media, we create and control narratives to negotiate reality and our places within it. Through competing stories we can negotiate over “what” is going on. But by making up rules and creating tools through which those stories will be told, we negotiate about the “how,” the meta-story.

Renaissances are, in part, the moments when we pull out of a particular story for long enough to consider the way in which it is being told. The game and the meta-game, the stories and the way stories are told, have largely been regulated and controlled for the last few centuries. As Aristotle well understood, stories work by creating a character that the audience likes and having that character make a series of decisions that put him in terrible danger. This brings the audience into a heightened state of tension about this poor character who has made all these wrong decisions. Then, once the audience can’t take it anymore, the storyteller invents a solution. In a Greek play that solution might have been Athena coming down to save the day.

This same storytelling technique has been honed for centuries, and perhaps perfected by the advertising industry, which has exploited the mainstream media space for its ability to tell very influential little stories called commercials. In twenty-eight seconds, we identify with, say, an aggravated executive, follow him into his hellish day, up the incline plane of tension. Because we are a captive audience, with no access to the tools of storytelling, we must take that pain relieving pill with him at the end of the commercial to relieve our anxiety. The storyteller chooses what pill the listener has to swallow at the end of the story—whether it is a new president or an old religion.

Cyber culture, based on an ethic of interactivity, releases the captive audience from the spell of the story and offers them the opportunity for active participation, instead.

The television remote control represented the first in a series of liberating interactive technologies. Imagine a man sitting in his LaZyBoy chair in 1958, with popcorn on his lap, watching a painful commercial. The TV programmer is dead-set on throwing this poor man into a terrible state of anxiety. If the viewer wants to get out of that imposed state of tension, he’s got to move the popcorn off his lap, lift himself out of his chair, walk up to the TV, and turn the channel–which is, perhaps, fifty calories of human labor. If he sits through to the end of the commercial, however, it may only use up ten calories of anxiety. The brain is lazy; it makes the lazy decision. It will take the ten calories and submit to the programming.

After all, the material on TV is called “programming” for a reason; it's designed to program us as we sit passively in our seat. But the remote control changes the equation. Imagine a fourteen year old today, watching a commercial, and feeling the first signs that he’s being put into an imposed state of tension. With the .0001 calories that it takes to press a button, he’s out of tension and out of the arc of that story. Kids with a remote control watch TV in a new way, following ten stations at once, surfing back and forth through different stories. When they experience TV like this they’re not watching

television at all, but watching the television, deconstructing it as television.

The second liberating interactive device was the videogame joystick. For most of you, your inaugurating video game experience was Pong. And, perhaps amazingly, you probably still remember that first moment you played. Pong was a simple game based on ping-pong, with two white squares on either side of the screen that would move up and down along with your movements on a control knob. People remember their first time playing Pong the way they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. This isn’t because Americans loved table tennis so much and were so happy to have the convenience of practicing it on TV. It wasn’t about the literal meaning of the metaphor; it was about experiencing something on the television as metaphor. It was a thrill just to move the little white square up and down on the screen, to control the pixel. We had never had control of the pixel before. The TV screen was the holy and inaccessible realm of newscasters and movie stars, a magical place where things just appeared. But, just as the remote control deconstructed television’s stories, the joystick demystified its technology—making it an accessible medium, and rendering it safe.

Finally, the computer mouse and the keyboard turned the receive-only monitor into a portal through which we could express ourselves. The mouse and keyboard spawned a do-it-yourself or “DIY” Internet culture in which people created, uploaded, and shared their own content. In a sense, people were the content; we used technology to connect with other people.

The resulting cyberpunk culture was a renaissance culture. It was a chaotic space, where new ideas could spring up from almost anywhere. It was a gift economy where new programs were created and shared, for free. It was a community, where new members were introduced and escorted around as if they had just bought a home in a fantasy suburb. Best of all, Internet users came to understand that the mainstream media space no longer represented their reality. From now on, users would represent their own.

But almost no one was making money on the Internet—not that this bothered any of the Internet’s actual users, but families with Internet connections were watching three or four hours less TV a week, seeing fewer commercials, and buying less TV-advertised products. Further, people who are having fun and feeling connected to other people are less easily coerced into purchases. So the effects of the remote control, the mouse and the joystick had to be undone. In the interests of the investment community, the Internet was restyled as an online mall.

First, the media space deconstructed by the remote control had to be put back together. Companies developed concepts such as “stickiness,” “attention economy,” and “eyeball hours” in an effort to keep people glued to websites as they were once glued to TV stations. In response to panicked articles from the mainstream media about a channel-surfing culture and decreasing attention spans, attention deficit disorder diagnoses and Ritalin prescriptions went up over 100%. Children’s ability to enact renaissance was curtailed through drugs.
In order to regain control of the pixel, first liberated by the joystick, professional designers re-mystified the computer’s interface so that it was no longer two-way.

Users were forced to rely on the “wizards” built into their software programs to work magic they didn't understand. Consider the increasing opacity from DOS to the Macintosh, and Macintosh to Windows 2000. Look at the colorful and confusing interfaces used on the World Wide Web compared with the text-only bulletin boards of the early Internet. The only way to participate on the web is through the mouse; the only opportunity to use the keyboard is to enter one’s credit card information. The increasing and deliberate opacity of new interfaces is designed to keep us out.

Finally, in order to undo the DIY culture that had grown out of the keyboard and the mouse, commerce replaced community, and content replaced people as the soul of the net. It was announced that we were in an “Information Age” rather than a communication age because information is data that can be bought and sold.
No longer able to deconstruct, demystify, or do our own media, we ended up succumbing to an entirely new story about the promise of new media: money.
The new story competing for consensus approval was based on the idea of a pyramid. Some young person comes up with an idea—a business plan. Then a pyramid with different levels of investors fills in beneath him. Angel investors take the top position, then, lower down, a few rounds of “qualified” investors, investment banks and, finally, at the very bottom, an Initial Price Offering (IPO) on NASDAQ. This final ground level is called “going public.” Of course, by the time the general public was buying shares online, the people at the top of the pyramid had executed an “exit strategy” and disappeared—taking away their money as the pyramid collapsed beneath them.

In the flux generated by our technological renaissance, e-commerce and the dot-com speculative market were reduced to a business fantasy: NASDAQ’s claim to the meta-narrative. The pyramid schemes eventually failed, because all pyramid schemes eventually run out of money. Its collapse was aided, in part, by the Internet’s own structure and function. It is so organic and interactive in its makeup that it shrugs off interventionist government controls and, with a bit more effort, the corporate attacks that have followed.

So, now that the dot.com pyramid scheme has failed to establish itself as the overarching metaphor of the digital age, digital reality—and perhaps our social reality—is once again up for grabs.

As long as we can maintain our renaissance sensibility and our awareness of the implications of the open source reality in which we live, we have access to enormous opportunities for cultural progress. These opportunities suggest profound implications for any of us who have become conscious of how to hack the borders of reality.

People who have been exposed to the Internet and to interactive and virtual systems are more aware of how any system is designed and constructed. We understand that our world is made up of intentionally designed interfaces. Spending so much time in virtual space, we are more aware of real space, political space, and ideological space, and the way it shapes interaction. We are more sensitive to power, and the way it is exploited.
Right now, as a result of our renaissance sensibility, the definitions and conventions of our reality are becoming the component parts of a new language. Nothing is just itself, because its identifying characteristics become a self-conscious manifestation of its underlying essence. An ironic distance. A self-conscious reframing of almost everything.

It’s a form of self-protection, really. A defense. We are trying to focus on the mediated feeling of things. We want to stay awake in renaissance awareness as long as possible before the next reality template concretizes and the self-conscious similes become tight metaphors. We now see that “this is like that,” sort of like that—it is, as if. But we know that eventually “it is like” and “it is as if” will collapse into “it is.” The world is that. Reality’s transparency and accessibility are lost yet again.

At the same time, however, there is great longing to let go, to trust that the world is not trying to do something to us—to engage in an experience without fear and suspicion. Artists and writers have been working on this problem for centuries. Shakespeare often wrote prologues for his plays in which a character allows the audience in on the metaphor: “oh pardon gentles all, that we would presume that the stage would represent…” It’s a modesty and honesty that gives your audience permission to relax. They are not going to be fucked with. If we can communicate this sort of goodwill in ritualized contexts, we should be able to do it in the real world of communication, as well.

It is the responsibility of programmers and designers, in particular, to realize that genuine social engagement and genuine discourse is what will keep people out of the traps and trances they are now at pains to avoid. If we can create online and mediated experiences that foster this kind of interaction and discourse—experiences that facilitate people as people, rather than subjugating them to other intentions—it will prolong our sense of freedom, as well as our ability to hack even more of the world’s imaginary borders.