A Bit More Context

I threw out a disparaging reference to Media Virus yesterday without proper grounding. While the following explanation is based on my unreliable memories of a pretty hasty reading from three years ago, it should make the point of my reference a little clearer. In that volume, Douglas Rushkoff uses an extended metaphor from immunology to talk about the spread of ideas through various media and the way in which "stories" acquire lives of their own, often against the desires of those who originally released those stories. The discussions about the ebb and flow of ideas are similar to memetic arguments, but with a very different slant, one that plays up the chaos and unpredictability in the spread of real-life virii. Rushkoff focuses on rumors, on fads, on subversive messages that stick in the brain and ride piggy-back on other, more officially-sanctioned messages. Rushkoff's focus is on "infection" as a methodology for social change.

What's to like? He has some very good examples of the spread of ideas, of the ways that they jump from one medium of transmission to another (although I forget the specific examples, the first half of the book is all examples, and I remember it as being prettygood). I liked also his willingness to discuss the interrelationship between different media and how these relationships affect the diffusion of thoughts along and between channels. And on a very high level, I agree very strongly with the basic methodology: look, analyze, understand, use. If you want to influence a major corporation, you need to be able to exploit various media, to take advantage of large and strange cultural forces to do your heavy lifting for you. Social change as jujitsu is a neat idea.

And what's not to like? Basically, that having said this much, Rushkoff then says nothing more of interest, but takes a long time not to say it. The second half of the book purports to be something of a primer on creating media virii for fun and non-profit (if my memory serves correctly), but is really quite short on the specifics. All of his suggestions are along the lines of "say something really clever in an untraceable medium in such a way that your clever saying will be propagated along with your adversary's message, wherever it goes." Which is perhaps a great goal, but perhaps not also something you can just go out and do. And, more importantly for my current thoughts, Rushkoff never really goes up against the self-reflective aspects of contemporary media, never properly discusses the perpetual-motion publicity machines the attention loops create. It's one thing to send out humorous fake press releases; it's something else to create a story which will continue to work to your benefit once it gets caught up in a vortex of attention, once the story itself becomes the story. These vortices are like IMP-loops in Corewars: they subsume the identity of anything which crosses their path -- the real challenge is to make that endless instruction loop branch off to an address of your choosing.