“The Light at the End of the Reality Tunnel”
by columnist Douglas Rushkoff
(Originally published in Arthur No. 25/Winter 02006)
This has been a very bizarre couple of weeks for me. I changed literary agents, did a bookstore discussion/debate with former Arthur columnist Daniel Pinchbeck, learned of Robert Anton Wilson’s dire end-of-life financial predicament, and then left my wife and 21-month-old daughter to fly to Germany (where I am right now, stuck in an airport thanks to a canceled flight) to give a talk to a big magazine conglomerate about what makes their publications relevant in a mediaspace fast migrating online.
And I’ve found myself alternatively inspired and unnerved, about each and every one of these events. I feel their connection on an emotional level —as if the microcosm in which I’m participating reflects a greater theme. Like an archipelago, this seemingly disconnected string of islands is all connected beneath the surface. And that connection is about how we make value—for ourselves and one another.
Take the Pinchbeck event. Now it’s no secret to Arthur readers that he and I come from different ends of the spiritual spectrum. When he was writing columns in these pages about channeling the wisdom of Quetzalcoatl, I was warning the same readers not to take any prophecy too seriously—and certainly not literally. Then, I ran into Daniel in a coffeeshop just a week after a particularly critical screed on him and the “psychedelic elite” came out in Rolling Stone—an article in which I was quoted on the value of communities over heroes.
We concluded that a face-to-face discussion was in order, and figured we might as well do it in public. So Daniel asked a bookstore where he was scheduled to speak if we could turn it into a two-man show. Almost as soon as the discussion was announced, email started coming in, asking how I was going to “take him on” or “take him out”—the assumption being that we’d have a take-no-prisoners debate. And while I’m certain we’ve pissed each other off over the years, I thought the point of mixing it up a bit would be to learn something from one another. Find common ground. Meanwhile, we’d end up bringing together a rather unlikely audience of media students, recent Burning Man returnees, psychedelics enthusiasts and comics readers. In business terms, we were “creating value” for one another and our separate readerships by introducing them to each other.
I’ll admit, the event both inspired and disturbed me. Sure, the assembled crowd was varied and eager. But the conversation itself was too competitive, no matter how I intended otherwise. All I meant to show was that we each have our own reality tunnels – and that no matter how spectacularly “real” something may appear, especially on super-strong shamanic entheogens, it’s just one metaphor for whatever it is that might really be going on. None of us knows what happens when we die, whether there’s anything or anyone else “out there,” or whether the connections we seem to perceive all around us are conspiring or coincidental.
Daniel tended to dismiss my points he disagreed with as “thoughts,” to which I finally snapped that “everything we’re saying is just thoughts, buddy.” I leave it to you to choose who of us is more Zen, but my lasting impression of the conversation was that we didn’t quite transcend the zero-sum game as I had imagined we would. It was still just two white guys with microphones, competing for mindshare and the marketshare that goes along with it. Had I been used simply to get more people to show up at his book signing? Was I seeing in him the qualities I dislike in myself? Why should such misgivings even arise?
Then came word from a truer pioneer of mind and cosmos than either of us, Robert Anton Wilson: his post-polio syndrome had gotten worse, and the attendant medical bills combined with some trouble with the IRS had tapped him out. He was three days away from not being able to make his rent.
Say what? Robert Anton Wilson, author of Cosmic Trigger and Prometheus Rising, the guy who put the number 23 on the map, and delightfully upgraded the minds of thousands if not millions, forever, could no longer support himself? For those who may be unfamiliar with his work, Wilson is the man who put the many insights of Sixties into perspective. By approaching the seeming interconnectedness of everything with a grain of salt and two grains of humor, he’s helped to demonstrate the value of seeing one’s own reality tunnel for what it is: a limited take on a much greater whole. Rather than getting lost in any particular tunnel (or, worse, pushing it on other people) the object of the game was to learn to move between them.
On learning of his predicament, I felt an anger welling up. I refused to be a member of a generation that could allow an author and philosopher of his caliber to die penniless in a state hospital, so I dashed out a blog post (http://www.rushkoff.com/2006/10/robert-anton-wilson-needs-our-help.php) alerting the “community,” along with Bob’s Paypal address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks to a link from BoingBoing.net, we raised over $68,000 dollars in just the first couple of days, along with a few hundred heartfelt testimonials in the comments section.
But there was a second thread in the comments section that disturbed me. “How do we know this is not a hoax?” some people were asking. Indeed, I wondered. How do I prove I’m not a scam artist of some kind, putting up my own Paypal address? This is the Internet, after all. Further down in the comments, someone had posted the response I might have been embarrassed to make for myself: “just look at Rushkoff’s site and his work.”
And that’s when the value of “reputation”—what business folks call “brand”—actually made sense to me as a good thing rather than just some ego trip. The fact that I’ve been writing books for 15 years and have been hosting an online community of one sort or another for nearly as long has earned me the trust required to communicate an urgent fact and have it believed. At least by enough people to make a difference.
While by far the majority of comments and email since then have been very positive both towards Bob and about the effort to keep him solvent and cared for, there’s plenty of cynicism out there, too. “Why should he get cared for over some other sick and poor person?” one egalitarian asked. “He should have managed his money better,” another complained to me (like I have time to read emails from people who have decided not to help Bob when I can barely process the ones from people looking to help). “I already paid him when I bought his book,” explained another, who best exemplified the trend. It’s the logic of a perverted sort of libertarianism —one that can’t see beyond its own very limited notion of the competitive marketplace.
For even if we use the raw logic of the market, Bob is simply being paid back for the value he created. Those of us who are contributing to Robert Anton Wilson now are still, in effect, paying residuals on what we got from him. We’ve all bought plenty of twenty-dollar books—but few have been worth as much to us as Bob’s. The works generated value for us over time, and we see fit to share this wealth in the form of cash energy with the person who created it for us. This is not the order of a free market economy, but of what might better be called a free market ecology.
“Economics” is based on the assumption that people act in ways that maximize their wealth as individuals. It holds true for many situations. All else being equal, we’ll buy products at the best price we can get them and take the highest wage we can find. The assumption is that we act out of selfishness—and economics is just its rational application. Under the laws of economics, we wouldn’t pay for the same book twice.
An ecology, on the other hand, though wildly competitive and occasionally just as cruel as any economy, is based on interdependency. The members of a coral reef or slime mold know how to take coordinated action when it’s called for. The shit of one organism is fertilizer for another. An ecology still operates under the assumption of maximizing wealth, but of the whole collective organism —and over time.
By refusing to let Robert Anton Wilson die penniless, we—as a culture, or at least part of a culture—are caring for a certain kind of thinking and activity, even if this is after the fact. By doing so, we not only acknowledge to Robert Anton Wilson the tremendous contributions he made to our lives, but we have the opportunity to reaffirm the same thing to ourselves. Like college alumni who reinforce their own positive feelings about their alma maters when they make donations to keep the institution going, we publicly affirm the value of Bob’s legacy —thus making it more valuable or at least less dismissible for a society bent on recontextualizing the Sixties, psychedelia and mental adventurousness as an embarrassing phase.
Just look at the recent spate of articles accompanying the tenth anniversary of Timothy Leary’s death, as well as Bob Greenfield’s recent biography. These writers are all-too ready to condemn Leary for his undeniably self-centered personality, but all-too reluctant to acknowledge his even more powerfully compassionate, activist nature that spurred him to sacrifice pretty much everything for his vision of an intelligent human species that needn’t destroy itself. It’s as if embracing our inner “hope fiend” is as uncool today as, I dunno, believing that anyone who sets pen to paper or text to a blog is doing it for an ulterior, profit-based motive.
And all this is what I attempted to explain to the magazine executives in Germany yesterday. At their best, magazines —like any cultural product—serve their audiences not merely through their own value, but by allowing their readers to create value for themselves and one another. Sure, this means understanding that a magazine’s true customers are the readers, not the advertisers—a lesson that quality pay-TV is fast teaching their ad-based broadcast counterparts.
It’s also why I changed agents. Not because the first one was bad in any way, but because I met one who challenged me to consider what I thought was the most significant contribution to the world, rather than what might be expected to sell the most out of the gate. This is not the way most people who call themselves “literary agents” speak. It’s economics in reverse; not “how can I get the most value from my efforts,” but “how can I create the most value for everyone through them?”
Those of us dedicated to keeping Robert Anton Wilson’s flesh and finale as dignified as possible are rewarding a great writer for never selling out. But this ethos must not end with the passage of this individual, however heroic—not when he’s given us so many of the tools required to turn this society’s notion of value inside-out. If we’ve learned anything through all this, it’s that the universe we’re creating together needn’t be one where no good deed is left unpunished.