I became fascinated and inspired by the organic and responsive qualities of this new mediaspace. Just as our chaos mathematicians and quantum physicists had suggested, we were venturing into uncharted cultural turf, where huge systemwide changes could be provoked by the tiniest actions. In a system as dynamic as the weather, we learned, a single butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could lead to a hurricane in New York. So, too, was the awesome power that "feedback and iteration" offered every member of a networked whole. Now that the media had become such a system, the beating of a black man by white policemen in Los Angeles, amplified throughout our mediated culture via a single, replicated, and endlessly broadcast camcorder tape, could lead to rioting in a dozen American cities.
Spurred on by these developments, in the early nineties I wrote an optimistic treatise on the new possibilities of an organic mediaspace. I proposed that provocative ideas could be launched in the form of mutant media packages--or "viruses"--by anyone who had a video camera or Internet connection. Thanks to the spread of commercial broadcasting, almost everyone in the world had been given access to the media in one form or another. What the people who put all those wires and TV satellites in place didn't realize was that electrons travel in both directions. Home media like camcorders, faxes, and Internet connections were empowering all of us to launch our ideas into the mediaspace.
Huge, well-funded, mainstream publicity campaigns were becoming obsolete. Now, anyone could launch an idea that would spread by itself if it were packaged in a new, unrecognizable form of media. Mutant media got attention because it was strange. And there's nothing the media likes more than to cover new forms of itself. The Rodney King tape proliferated as much because it demonstrated the power of a new technology--the camcorder--as for the image contained within it. One of the reasons why the O. J. Simpson story became the biggest trial in history was because it began with a mutant media event: the nationally televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, during which Los Angeles TV viewers ran outside and literally onto their own TV screens as the motorcade drove by. Similarly, the media stunts of ACT UP activists, Earth First "eco-terrorists," Greenpeace, and even unorthodox political candidates received worldwide attention simply by launching their campaigns through media viruses.
The hegemony of Hearst and Murdoch were over. We had entered an age where the only limiting factor was an idea's ability to provoke us through its novel dissemination. An idea no longer depended on the authority of its originator--it would spread and replicate if it challenged our faulty assumptions. In an almost Darwinian battle for survival, only the fittest ideas would win out. These new, mutated forms of media were promoting our cultural evolution, empowering real people, and giving a voice to those who never before had access to the global stage.
Best of all, young people were the ones leading the charge. Adults were immigrants to the new realm of interactive media, but kids raised with joysticks in their hands were natives. They spoke the language of new media and public relations better than the adults who were attempting to coerce them. What media can you use to manipulate a kid when he is already more media literate than you are? He will see through any clunky attempt to persuade him with meaningless associations and hired role models. By the time this generation came into adulthood, I believed, the age of manipulation would be over.
Once I'd published a book announcing that we'd entered the final days of the marketing wars, I began to get phone calls from politicians, media companies, advertisers, and even the United Nations, anxious for me to explain the new rules of the interactive age. I saw little harm in taking their money just to tell them that the genie was out of the bottle. I felt like an evangelist, spreading the news that the public had grown too media savvy to be fleeced any further. The only alternative left for public-relations people and advertisers was to tell the truth. Those promoting good ideas or making useful products would succeed; the rest would perish.
Reprinted from Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Douglas Rushkoff. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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