Rushkoff was born in New York City, New York, and is the son of Sheila, a psychiatric social worker, and Marvin Rushkoff, a hospital administrator. He graduated from Princeton University in 1983. He moved to Los Angeles and completed a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the California Institute of the Arts. Later he took up a post-graduate fellowship from the American Film Institute. He was a PhD candidate at Utrecht University's New Media Program, writing a dissertation on new media literacies, which was approved in June, 2012.
Rushkoff emerged in the early 1990s as an active member of the cyberpunk movement, developing friendships and collaborations with people including Timothy Leary, RU Sirius, Paul Krassner, Robert Anton Wilson, Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna, Genesis P-Orridge, Ralph Metzner, Grant Morrison, Mark Pesce, Erik Davis, and other writers, artists and philosophers interested in the intersection of technology, society and culture.
Cyberia, his first book on cyberculture, was inspired by the San Francisco rave scene of the early 1990s. The initially planned publication was scrapped, however; in Rushkoff's words, "in 1992 Bantam canceled the book because they thought by 1993 the internet would be over." It was eventually published in 1994.
As his books became more accepted, and his concepts of the "media virus" and "social contagion" became mainstream ideas, Rushkoff was invited to deliver commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and to make documentaries for the PBS series Frontline.
In 2002, Rushkoff was awarded the Marshall McLuhan Award by the Media Ecology Association for his book Coercion, and became a member and sat on the board of directors of that organization. This allied him with the "media ecologists", a continuation of what is known as the Toronto School of media theorists including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman.
Rushkoff was invited to participate as a consultant ranging to the United Nations Commission on World Culture and the US Department of State.
Simultaneously, Rushkoff continued to develop his relationship with counterculture figures, collaborating with Genesis P-Orridge as a keyboardist for Psychic TV, and credited with composing music for the album Hell is Invisible Heaven is Her/e. Rushkoff taught classes in media theory and in media subversion for New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, participated in activist pranks with the Yes Men and eToy, contributed to numerous books and documentaries on psychedelics, and spoke or appeared at many events sponsored by counterculture publisher Disinformation.
References to media ecologist and Toronto School of Communication founder Marshall McLuhan appear throughout Rushkoff's work as a focus on media over content, the effects of media on popular culture and the level at which people participate when consuming media.
Rushkoff worked with both Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary on developing philosophical systems to explain consciousness, its interaction with technology, and social evolution of the human species, and references both consistently in his work.
Leary, along with John Barlow and Terence McKenna characterized the mid-1990s as techno-utopian, and saw the rapid acceleration of culture, emerging media and the unchecked advancement of technology as completely positive.
Rushkoff's own unbridled enthusiasm for cyberculture was tempered by the dotcom boom, when the non-profit character of the Internet was rapidly overtaken by corporations and venture capital. Rushkoff often cites two events in particular – the day Netscape became a public company in 1995, and the day AOL bought Time Warner in 2000 – as pivotal moments in his understanding of the forces at work in the evolution of new media.
Rushkoff spent several years exploring Judaism as a primer for media literacy, going so far as to publish a book inviting Jews to restore the religion to its "open source" roots. He founded a movement for progressive Judaism called Reboot, but subsequently left when he felt its funders had become more concerned with marketing and publicity of Judaism than its actual improvement and evolution.
Disillusioned by the failure of the open source model to challenge entrenched and institutional hierarchies from religion to finance, he became a colleague of Mark Crispin Miller and Naomi Klein, appearing with them at Smith College as well as in numerous documentaries decrying the corporatization of public space and consciousness.
He has dedicated himself most recently to the issues of media literacy, participatory government, and the development of local and complementary currencies. He wrote a book and film called Life Inc., which traces the development of corporatism and centralized currency from the Renaissance to today, and hosts a radio show called MediaSquat on WFMU, concerned with reclaiming commerce and culture from corporate domination.
Awards and appointments
Douglas Rushkoff has served on the Board of Directors of the Media Ecology Association, The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, and is a founding member of Technorealism, as well as of the Advisory Board of The National Association for Media Literacy Education, MeetUp.com and HyperWords
He is the winner of the first Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, given by the Media Ecology Association, in 2004.