Ballantine, 1996, 344 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-39774-6
As someone who started reading Adbusters! magazine in high-school during the early nineties, media jamming and memetic theory aren’t much of a discovery at this point in time. Still, “Hidden agendas in popular culture” is a tagline that’ll get me every time, so it’s no surprise if I picked up Media Virus.
Culture commentator Douglas Rushkoff wants to do two thing with this book. First, to show how media, far from being a fearsome monolithic entity that that tells everyone what to do, is in fact controlled by the public. Second, to give specific examples of how individuals can manipulate media to transmit ideas they have created and optimized for maximum impact.
At least, that’s what I was able to gather. Media Virus is so scattered, so free-wheeling that it’s hard to constrain. Like a channel-hopping teen wired on Jolt Cola, Rushkoff switches from one theme to another with a breathless energy, telling good stories but seldom bothering to pull them together. “Media Virus! Media Virus!” he shouts here and there. Well, okay: ideas can be propagated through the mindspace like their biological counterparts, but what happens then?
To be fair, though, you won’t spend too much time worrying about the unity of the book as you rush through it, thrown from one field of interest to another with scarcely a moment’s pause. Media Virus! is an exhilarating read even six years (and a full Internet revolution) after publication. (Unfortunately, some cultural references now need a footnote or two, and this caveat will only grow worse with time.) Highlights include a wonderful analysis of the 1992 presidential election and explanations of the cultural significance of Ren and Stimpy, Peewee’s Playhouse and The Simpsons. Rushkoff shows us a television rushing toward greater realism fully four years before the reality show craze. (What did he write about “Survivor”?)
From a certain perspective, Rushkoff also shows us a society ready for the Internet. His forays on the Internet circa 1994 take on a nostalgic quality, but clearly show a society only a click away from Kazaa, ICQ and virulent political chat boards.
Oh, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second—mostly because after reading “Media Virus!” so many times, it’s easy to be bored. (We’re the MTV generation, Rushkoff. Our brain assimilates information more quickly. Don’t you forget it.) It’s also an unfortunate effect of his chosen field of study -media theory- that he has to rely on anecdotal “evidence” and personal interpretation of facts rather than harder numerical data in the form of, say statistics and survey. Media theorists have to apply, essentially, the tools of historians to subjects that haven’t even had time to cool down. This makes his speculations fun and interesting to read, but rather less than convincing from a purely objective perspective.
But it may be a mistake to apply scientific thought to this subject. Maybe it’s more accurate to consider Media Virus! as a bunch of ideas and thoughts half-way corralled in book form. That a lot of them are obvious would only mean that Rushkoff either did his research or was dead-on in predicting the prevalent Media Viruses of 1995-2002.
In any case, Media Virus! is great good fun. Even limiting itself to anecdotal evidence, it manages to explain (and defuse) the success of such latter pop icons as Eminem, Teletubbies, Survivor and a whole bunch of other things. As maybe the last book about the pre-Internet media, it may even be a historical curio of sort. In any case, this is a splendid thought-piece, a book to read whenever the success of the latest pop sensation looks too bizarre to be believed.