Known for coining the terms “viral media,” “digital native,” and “social currency,” media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff has dedicated his career to unraveling the relationship between technology and society. Hailing from New York City, he was heavily involved in the early 90s cyberpunk movement and wrote the New York Times’ first syndicated column on cyberculture.
Rushkoff rose to prominence with the seminal 1994 book Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, which critically explored the viral nature of media and its ability to shape collective narratives. He gained further recognition with 2010’s Program or Be Programmed, urging readers to grasp the mechanics of programming in the digital age.
A prescient observer of social trends, Rushkoff often dissects the consequences of a relentlessly connected world. His concepts, such as “present shock,” shed light on the cognitive challenges posed by the real-time nature of the digital realm. By encouraging digital literacy and advocating for a human-centric approach to technology, he champions the idea that individuals should be empowered by their tools rather than subjugated by them.
In a reading list for NY-based bookstore One Grand, Rushkoff shared ten reads that have most impacted his life and work. From the Torah to Tom Wolfe’s counterculture classic, explore his recommendations below.
Douglas Rushkoff’s Reading List
“This is a novel, but it’s all basically the true story of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It describes the LSD experience as well as its cultural implications in a way that anyone can grasp and feel. It’s also a contemporary novelist at the height of his powers. It was crucial for my own development, showing me how to find and chronicle a seemingly esoteric movement. It was my model for my first real book, Cyberia.” -DR
“He realized that our problems are not innate to existence, but problems of design. This book is by far the most accessible of what he has written, and took maybe two hours to read. But it encapsulates the notion that ‘specialization’ wasn’t necessarily about getting better at stuff; it was about preventing any one person from knowing too much.” -DR
Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga
“Huizinga says that we aren’t homo sapiens (man the knower) but homo ludens – man the player. Dogs don’t play as practice for the hunt, they hunt to have energy to play.” -DR
Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan
“Just read this instead of reading about it. Almost nobody gets how simple it is. It’s not about TV or radio. McLuhan’s saying that everything is a medium. We keep looking at subjects, but we miss the field or medium in which the subject is operating. We see the ‘figure’ but not the ‘ground.’ He’s trying to teach pattern recognition, lateral thinking, and to bring people into a peer-to-peer, Medieval, Burning Man sensibility. It’s nothing like Wired magazine in there.” -DR
Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse
“This is a super important little book that explains net culture and more. It’s basically differentiating between games that you win, and games that you play in order to keep playing. And, of course, it favors infinite games because they are about sustainability, collaboration, and never-ending fun. My ideas about breaking open what I now see as the game of money came from this book.” -DR
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
“It doesn’t count because it’s a play, but it did the same thing to me as Jude the Obscure. It’s basically a well-made play that suddenly stops. The characters, in character, just stop and talk. Most people don’t realize it’s even happening, but the play becomes a conversation. People went nuts back in the day when the play came out, but people today watch it and think it’s just psychologized drama. They don’t realize how powerful it is to stop the narrative and suddenly just discuss what should happen.” -DR
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
“The first novel I read that held together on a regular plane as well as thematic one – as story as well as a symbolic journey. There could be others that work like Jude, but something about this book – the way the author is dealing with ideas like evolution along with the collapse of class culture – made it feel like a precursor to modernism. Like the birth of modernism.” -DR
Go Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman
“The kids’ book. You have to read it again to get what I’m talking about, but to the whole thing is an explanation of how language breeds duality, which then creates preference. Do you like my hat? The object of life is to break through that and get the party, which means transcending preference. The dogs finds it up the tree, which is a little too Christian for my taste, but they do get there.” -DR
“Sorry, but Torah really is all that. I think it has less to do with being written by God than the fact that the stories were developed over such a long period by so many people that the narratives take on the quality of rock cut by water over millennia. The thing about Torah is that the text can be analyzed from almost any vantage point and still yield massive fruit.” -DR
Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson
“Because I read this relatively late in life, it ended up more a confirmation and articulation of things I was thinking than it was totally new material. But Wilson’s description of the way people end up in ‘reality tunnels’ was so spot on for me, it’s ended up the main metaphor through which I see the world, myself. My reality tunnel is reality tunnels.” -DR
(via One Grand Books; photo by Rachael Gorrie)
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