Douglas Rushkoff and Life, Inc.

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“For me, the idea of selling out was the worst possible thing,” says Douglas Rushkoff during a discussion with friend and fellow writer Walter Kirn one recent evening at an independent bookstore in SoHo Manhattan. Still, having risen to be something of an icon in the digital world, Rushkoff, the progenitor of such phrases as viral media and social currency, concedes that “there’s really no way to prosper in today’s world, without selling out.”

This contradiction, and inherent irony, is at the heart of Rushkoff’s body of work. A self-described media critic, he has become the spokesman for the counter-culture movement in the digital age, having written widely on the subject over the last twenty years. He has emerged—and since matured—as an advocate of expanding consciousness and awareness through what he, the likes of Kirn and others call an “open-source world.”

With his new book, Life, Inc., Rushkoff set his sights on those corporate monsters that constantly undermine and consume our naturally individualistic tendencies. Having wrested on corporatism, he observed that the constructs of corporations and the protocols by which they operate are merely a set of rules—set to generate profits. Getting lost within the complex hierarchy that is the corporate structure, whose main mission is supposedly to make our lives easier, Rushkoff points out that the lives that we actually want to lead—while acceding to this structure and accepting it as a part of our daily life—get lost somewhere in the muddle.

With the assurances of supreme convenience, savings and peace of mind that conglomerations hand on down, the only caveat, he realized, is that these bargains we so easily buy in to are merely empty promises. Offering nothing more and with no other personable aims, corporations have so completely consumed our sense of selfhood, much as we eagerly consume the products they try to cram down throats—with their bottom line of cold, hard cash. As the individuals we purport ourselves to be, we have obligingly taken part in our own demise, according to Rushkoff, creating a vicious cycle stemming from what he refers to in his book as an “overt call to Renaissance values.”

Life, Inc., emerges into what Rushkoff sees as the second leg of the dot-com boom. Following the initial burst of the bubble, when the multitude of tech companies began to fall by the wayside (and only the strong would survive), it appeared the economy was leveling off. But that was only an illusion, he says. From here, the real estate market surged, creating a time of splendor and then inevitable downturn—what we were toying with, and ultimately toiling with over the last year as our resources dwindled.

“Crisis is opportunity,” Rushkoff told The Rumpus. “While the banks are struggling, now is the ideal time to figure out a way to restructure [the economy and corporate ideal so as] to work alongside it.”

“The book is designed for people trying to make the tiniest changes in your life,” he says, with nary a cure, but merely suggestions on how to better anything from weightlessness to consumption—striving to see that all in life is secure and sustainable in this information age. His mission is to “articulate people’s suspicions… suspicions that we’ve gone off track” as a society. Yet it is this sustainability that drives Rushkoff-professionally, and personally, in what he sees in the world around him… this is his lasting hope.

Rushkoff wants to take life away from this fiscal cycle, and get “back to community… back to a real, social landscape,” of people interacting with one another—in the truest sense of acting locally (while thinking globally). Approaching the financial crisis and its impacts on our daily lives from a deconstructionist’s point of view, he was able to observe that from all the splendor and naïveté of the tech bubble, with the economy faltering in disillusionment from its burst—”now that it’s all crumbling, [can we strive to] reclaim how we’re living.”

“It isn’t that the sky is falling,” he told me, and later the crowd at the discussion that night, “but rather that the dome is falling.” This self-protective ceiling that we have created for ourselves, he suggests, has crashed down on us and become our own worst enemy—as now we’re left only to contend with it as delicately (or aggressively) as necessary, to right our local communities and bring this global society back onto some kind of an even keel.

Rushkoff hardly sees himself as a cynic, nor is he one to set himself above the rest of us, mind you. At the heart of his argument has always been the plight of the individual, and whatever mass obstruction it must work against. As the individual’s desire to remain independent becomes consumed, Rushkoff offers up strategies to “improve the quality of your own and other people’s lives” by working with one another. Thinking locally, and branching out from there, Rushkoff yearns to reach a global consciousness—not just creating a bigger insular bubble, but rather something “broader… living on a human scale.”

That evening in SoHo, Kirn aptly tossed out the word ‘arbitrage’ to describe the global scene right now. By “capitaliz[ing] upon the imbalance” (thanks, Wikipedia) of two warring or disparate entities—seeking some kind of financial or practical profit—Rushkoff has made himself, whether he intended to or not, into a kind of digital-age arbitrageur all his own… and the book therein, one could say, a measure of meta-philosophical arbitrage unto itself.


Richard Meyers is a writer, and a bit of a malcontent, currently living under duress in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League institution, and enjoys riding his bicycle. He may or may not be twenty-nine years old ("depending on which realtor you ask"). More from this author →