James Jackson Toth spoke with Douglas Rushkoff about the disconnect between knowledge and information, the illusion of expertise with pocket-sized supercomputers, how media shifts the goals of youth and what is truly lost by disposing of face-to-face chatter.
I think we bonded over our shared amusement and dismay about how normal and boring and mundane our real life problems were in comparison to so much of what we talked about.
James Jackson Toth
I have been an admirer of your work for a decade or so, and have been a fan of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge for nearly twice that, and yet it somehow escaped me until fairly recently that you and Genesis are good friends and occasional collaborators. How did you meet? Has his work influenced you in any way?
Gosh, I first met Genesis back in the early ’90s when he had been banished from the UK. He wanted to meet Timothy Leary, to get some advice about how to live or even thrive as a “national enemy #1.” Tim knew I was about to drive down to LA from SF, and asked if I would give Gen a ride. Only it was Gen and his two daughters, who were like 10 and 12 then. It was quite a ride, with Gen and I talking about British royal sex conspiracies and the two kids fighting in the back.
I think we bonded over our shared amusement and dismay about how normal and boring and mundane our real life problems were in comparison to so much of what we talked about. He was glad to have someone to be so real and normal with, and I was glad to have someone I could be totally honest with, as well. People get threatened by honesty. Or they want to believe that the people whose books they read have gotten to some other level of engagement with life.
I ended up joining PsychicTV. I was originally going to go on a big tour with his poetry/band project TheeMajesty, but then PsychicTV reformed and they wanted it to be more musical than noisy, and I started playing keyboards — pushing things a bit more toward rock than weird. We had great fun and toured a bit. But then my wife and I had a baby just as they were planning a giant tour through Eastern Europe, so I just had to stop. Plus, I had my own books to write, and Gen’s projects — while highly collaborative — are really Gen’s projects.
Gen and I became what you might call “best friends,” and once he moved to NYC, he and Jackie were really the only couple that my wife and I could go out with and experience no tension. Most of my friends by then had gotten more interested in my career and ideas than me as a person, and that was particularly difficult when we were out as a couple. Gen and Jackie were just as sick of having to explain or defend their art and ideas, and welcomed the chance to be mundane. So it was a bit like going out in drag, except drag was normal bourgeois activity. Mostly to an Indian place on First Avenue.
Gen would stay over at my apartment when he and Jackie were having a fight, and we just were buddies in the very conventional sense. And, of course, now that he’s got leukemia, I’m trying to help him raise funds and maybe sell a book.
He’s been a big influence, too — mostly in the more occult areas, but also in maintaining my commitment to the weird. And in seeing the beauty in adversity.
The problem with information being a click away is less that we’ll become dilettantes than that we’ll look at information and knowledge as some sort of check mark or quiz answer.
You have an anecdote in Present Shock about an elementary school that places “a leaf on the wall for every book a child reads, yet has no way of measuring or rewarding the depth of understanding or thought that took place — or didn’t.” There’s obviously a larger disconnect than ever between knowledge and information. Do you think that, at a time when the illusion of expertise on any topic is ostensibly a Google click away, we have become a nation of dilettantes? What is the ultimate danger of this?
I don’t know if we’re dilettantish so much as quantized. We tend to think of everything in terms of numbers and metrics. How many books did you read this month? How much money do you have? And even the metrics we use are stupid. GDP? How much money is spent is a stupid gauge of public health. What if we’re spending all that money on cancer treatments? That’s a good economy?
The problem with information being a click away is less that we’ll become dilettantes than that we’ll look at information and knowledge as some sort of check mark or quiz answer. At least a dilettante enjoys what they do. It’s a gateway to some higher level of commitment. I prefer that to some robotic fakery.
My wife teaches at a small liberal arts college. One day, she had her students discuss the “work” of certain contemporary recording artists and was shocked to find that most of her students defined the work as everything but the art: the students’ admiration for these figures centered more on branding, investing, and diversifying than any art that person put into the world, which seemed, to the students, almost ancillary to the feat of making tons and tons of money. Is the media in some way responsible for shifting the goals of young people away from value creation and toward value extraction?
Yeah. I see reality TV and social media as the main culprits here. For me, it all became clear when I was watching a Paris Hilton reality show, in which she and her friend demonstrated their inability to do any sort of job, every week. It was positioning her as the ultimate celebrity: she was unable to actually do anything, perform any useful service, or even create art. Her celebrity was based on nothing but her celebrity.
And this is seen as somehow winning the game. Kardashian style. And that family was born out of the O.J. trial, which was itself one of the original “reality” spectacles.
So, kids understanding pop culture in terms of pop rather than culture is not surprising. Again, it’s metrics; numbers of likes mattering more than whatever it is being liked. Medium becomes message.
One of the qualities about your work I admire is your refusal to disguise your anxiety about what you call “digitally accelerated capitalism.” I find the tone of many theorists and economists almost giddy about the prospect of a utopia that seems to me profoundly dehumanizing and suffocating. I experience a similar cognitive dissonance, as a musician, when I discover how many of my professional peers have so readily embraced Spotify, which seems a little like John Henry embracing the steam-powered hammer. Why are we so quick to equate technology with progress?
Well, technology is progress. I think our bigger mistake is equating progress itself with moral, collective or personal good. We’ve gone from the more indigenous sensibility of time being circular to thinking about it as more of a line. We like to think of ourselves building, improving and getting somewhere. That’s great, as far as developing ethics and striving for social good. But it also leads to some ends-justify-the-means repression and destruction. The exhaust is in the tailpipe — forever behind us. But it’s not really behind us. There are other people living in the wake of our destruction and extraction.
As for musicians jumping on Spotify, well, what else are they to do? These streaming services look like the only game in town. The barrier to entry today is so much lower than it was twenty years ago. But the barrier to success is way way higher. Many fewer artists can make a living in the current “winner takes all” environment.
If we’re all just consumers, rather than producers, then the new scheme is great. The thing is, the system treats most musicians as consumers. Or, at best, prosumers. Guitar Center makes the money.
Very soon, if you don’t like the ending of The Shining, you might be able to just “remix” it so that Jack Torrance comes to his senses, apologizes for his foul mood and takes everyone out for frosty milkshakes. Does this portend the Death of the Artist? How does the ability to write our own endings affect the way we value works of art?
There’s a difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is meant to satisfy you with closure. So it makes sense that if the original ending didn’t provide you with enough closure, you’d want to have the ability to rewrite it and make it even more conclusive. So you can get to sleep.
Art is about creating questions. Opening up the gaps and ambiguities. Even the “plot” of The Shining was meant as a sarcastic nod to the people who demand a traditional narrative for their ticket price. The movie is about Western domination of indigenous cultures, and the realities that our ways of seeing leave behind. You can’t solve that with a different plot ending.
My courses at CUNY/Queens are largely about the question you raise: what happens to the authority of the author in an interactive storytelling space? The best I can answer that so far is that you have to choose whether you, the artist, are going to tell a story or whether you want to create tools for your audience to tell stories. Both are highly creative endeavors, but we can’t confuse one with the other. There are some promising hybrids emerging, though. You can be a dungeon master, of sorts, like the kid who leads a Dungeons and Dragons narrative. But that requires players who understand they have to contribute, and respect the contributions of others. It’s more like “Yes, and…” improvisation than going to a movie and clicking on an alternate ending.
Focus on the physical, the breathing together, the solidarity, the bodies in space. It helps you understand the screen is just pixels, put together by some company that hopes to take your money while making you feel awful about yourself.
Nobel Prize-winning social scientist Herbert Simon said “the wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This sounds a bit like Clay Shirky’s notion of “filter failure,” and I wonder what we can do to avoid this. I recently wrote a piece for NPR about an experiment I conducted in which I tried to listen to only one album a week, and made it about three days. I like your idea of a “digital Sabbath,” but short of committing myself to the life of a hermit, I’m not sure it’s possible. There are televisions at gas pumps now.
I think the coherence you long for is less a matter of denying yourself (or extracting yourself from) the digital than it is one of enhancing the lived, analog, person-to-person aspects of life. The screen has less power if you’ve just had a great orgasm, looking into your lover’s eyes.
Focus on the physical, the breathing together, the solidarity, the bodies in space. It helps you understand the screen is just pixels, put together by some company that hopes to take your money while making you feel awful about yourself. That’s the profit model of those machines.
I recall days of waiting at bus stops or in doctor’s office waiting rooms and making small talk with strangers. This now seems, with the ubiquity of the smart phone, almost impossible. Why do I miss mundane chit-chat? Is there something about interfacing with a total stranger that fosters empathy?
Of course there is. You should speak with as many strangers as possible. Strangers turn out to be people, for the most part. I actually haven’t spoken with a stranger who turned out not to be a person. Maybe once, with a mannequin, but I was probably high at the time, or in an airport and disoriented.
Humans are deeply social creatures. That’s what defines us as a species: our enhanced social abilities. It’s why our brains got bigger and more neurons connected. It was our evolutionary advantage.
So yeah, it’s really weird to be somewhere and see everyone on their phones. Even the subway used to be a place to make eye contact. Now, if you go to Paris and ride on the subway, it feels totally weird that everyone is checking you out. People-watching will likely have to become a discreet activity in order to stay alive. Maybe others will parade through certain areas because they know they will be watched.
But you can go to most poorer areas of a city and find people socializing in real life. I was just walking on Mission Street in San Francisco, and saw people playing guitar with others gathered around, kids playing in front of their grandmothers. Not to romanticize poverty. But some of the ungentrified areas of our cities still maintain pockets of human civilization.
Is there a historical period in which you’d have preferred to live?
Too late for that now. I’m already myself. If I lived in some other period, I’d be someone else and not know why Rushkoff thought it would be cool to live then.
Even if now sucks, we have front row seats on a potential extinction event. That’s not a great thing, but if it’s going to happen, I want to be there to bear witness.
Curated by: James Jackson Toth
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: March 7, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2150
Reading time: Eight minutes
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