John Brockman let me publish the following lengthy talk he had with Doug Rushkoff in my book, Follow for Now. As much fertile ground is covered and many prescient ideas are discussed, I’m reposting it here.
Until recently, media and technology guru Douglas Rushkoff believed that we should let technology develop at its own pace and in its own way. “I thought that this rapid acceleration of culture would allow us to achieve the kind of turbulence necessary to initiate a dynamical system,” he says. “And I saw everyone who called for us to put on the brakes, or to put new governors on the development of culture, as the enemy to our evolution forward. Their vigilance would prevent us from reaching the next level of complexity.”
Rushkoff abandoned his view of techno-utopianism when he began thinking that “when you eliminate fear and simply follow your bliss, you don’t always get the best results. In the worst case, it can even be a recipe for fascism. Over the past few years we just let the internet go, and we’ve got an electronic strip mall as a result. We thought government was the enemy, and kept them out of our network. That’s what gave market forces free reign.
“I started to explore whether there is a way to foster growth, new thought, cultural innovation, and even markets without getting absolutely carried away and losing all sense of purpose.”
Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media culture at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications program, is an author, lecturer, and social theorist. His books include Free Rides (Delta, 1991), Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (HarperCollins, 1994), The GenX Reader (editor) (Ballantine, 1994), Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (Ballantine, 1994), Ecstasy Club: A Novel (HarperEdge, 1997), Playing the Future (HarperCollins, 1996), and Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say (Riverhead Books, 1999).
As a journalist, Rushkoff is currently writing a monthly column for The Guardian, The Age, Silicon Alley Reporter, The Herald Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, The Fresno Bee, and dozens of other papers around the world through the New York Times Syndicate. He is also a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. He regularly contributes features about pop culture, media, and technology to magazines including Time, Esquire, Details, The Modern Review, GQ, Paper, and Magical Blend, as well as online publications from The Site to Nerve.
Douglas Rushkoff: Lately I’ve been asking myself, what is media? Or, more exactly, what is not media? I’ve been writing for quite a while about media as a conduit, media as a way of creating communities, media as a connection from one person to another. And it occurred to me that everything is media. Everything outside my own awareness — whatever it is I call “me” — is some mediation of me. That is, until it gets to you. Everything between the thing that I’m calling Doug and the thing that you’re calling John is media. Then I started to wonder, well, what is the thing that I call Doug? The best we know so far, what we call “Doug” is some distinct DNA pattern, or perhaps the vessel that’s carrying out that pattern. If I’m the vessel, then I’m just a medium for a set of genes. And if I’m the DNA itself? Well, what’s more media than DNA? It’s a medium for a code that goes back into history and right through to the future. Has there ever been a better broadcaster than DNA?
So that’s why I started wondering about what’s not media? And all I’ve found so far is intention. Intention is not media; it’s what we’re using to try to drive media, what we’re trying to express through our various media. As Hamlet asked, “what is a man” beyond his bestial, feeding existence? “Cause and will.”
And that pretty well gets us down to the very biggest questions people in this discussion and discussions like it for centuries have been asking. What is life? What is consciousness? And I’d answer it’s pure intention, and that studying media helps us distinguish between intentionality and its many manifestations.
As a child, I wrestled with this distinction by studying theatre and biology, which are both looking for answers to the same question: what is it to be alive? For biologists, it’s a matter of determining what animates matter into life. For dramatists, it’s the study of how to re-create life. And Aristotle arrived at the same conclusion: drama is a human will striving toward a goal. Life is the intention to maintain itself, to carry itself forward, and it does so through forms of media. Biologists define life as matter trying to sustain and replicate itself over time in some active fashion, just as a dramatist sees character as one trying to retain or even extend his sense of self — playing out his true nature.
What makes my inquiry unique, if anything, is the fact that these sorts of questions came out of the Twinkies television culture in which I was raised. It’s hard for a smart kid to watch television eight, ten, twelve hours a day, without eventually having to think.
John Brockman: Perhaps you’re not DNA . Maybe you’re television?
DR: Maybe I am! If anything is expressing itself through me, it’s TV.
JB: Who raised you?
DR: I suppose it was June Lockhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and Lucille Ball who raised me. I took class in Room 222 and Dr. Smith was my pediatrician! Honestly, I don’t believe I was being raised or informed by these programs quite as they were intended. I wasn’t watching television shows as much as watching The Television. From four or five years old I remember looking at the sets of sitcoms and wondering why almost all of them had the door into the house on the right side of the set: All in the Family, I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, everyone came in from the right, even the Mary Tyler Moore show. What did this mean, especially when in the 1970s, it seemed that sitcoms about broken homes had the door on the left. Maude, One Day at a Time — shows about divorce, really, had their doors on the left. Even in the last season of Mary Tyler Moore, as she grew into a more desperate single woman, she moved to an apartment where the door was on the left instead of the right.
JB: But you were always looking straight ahead.
DR: No, I was looking at the stage set. I don’t know how many other kids were watching television in this way, but I certainly credit it with launching my inquiry into how media was put together. Why is it put together the way it is? You have to take it apart to find out.
JB: Let’s talk about the so-called “human communications revolution.”
DR: I don’t know that I believe in revolution as much as renaissance. So many people talk about this computer revolution where the individual user is empowered to express himself, break down obsolete institutions, or topple the corporate-industrial monoliths. It’s an unnecessarily polar and combative vision. And once it’s reduced to the idea of empowering individuals, all those individuals start looking a lot more like consumers beating the “system” than autonomous human beings. It devolves quickly into “one-to-one marketing.” I prefer to look at moments like the one we’re living through as renaissances, as rebirths of old ideas in a new context.
JB: Did you say “self” expression? How does a self express itself? Are you talking about “Just Do It”?
DR: In the best light, I suppose “Just Do It” is a renaissance of a sort, isn’t it? A great credo, reasserting the power of individual will. But I think “Just Do It” is a reductive and dangerous substitute for a philosophy of life. As far as Nike is concerned, “Just Do It” means just pressing the “buy” button. “No, kid, you don’t have to think. For God’s sake, don’t think about it. Just do it!”
The most dangerous thing about the immediacy of our terrific new media communications tools is that the idea of consideration has been taken out of the equation. We’re supposed to be able to have an instantaneous response. We take polls of public responses to Clinton’s speeches before they’re even over — as if we’re supposed to know how we feel before we’ve had time to think. When we get an email, we tend to feel we are obligated to respond to its query right away, without having time to think about it.
The most dangerous thing about a “Just Do It “society is that it compels us to act on reflex, not intention. We are led to believe we are acting from the gut. That we are somehow connecting with our emotions and bypassing our neuroses. But this isn’t true at all. We are merely moving impulsively. It’s not from the gut. And the more impulsively we act, the more easily we can be led where we might not truly want to go. People who act automatically are the easiest to control — by marketers, by anyone. There’s less intention and thus less life involvement.
I used to think this acceleration of human action was a great thing. I thought we’d simply bypass our restricting editorial voices, get our superegos out of the way, and behave in that purely spontaneous, wonderful fashion that all human beings would behave in if uncorrupted by social and institutional biases.
JB: Remind me . . . the superego?
DR: The internalized parent, the filter, the part of us that says, “oh, wait a minute, maybe you really shouldn’t do that.” When I was younger, I thought the superego was a restrictive force, amplified by those who sought control us — our churches, our bosses, our schools, those who want to keep us in a state of fear and shame. Timothy Leary saw things this way.
JB: You talk about forces trying to control us; in the same breath you use words like “fun,” and “renaissance.” Do you see a need to change things, or is everything just great the way it is?
DR: Until about three years ago, I thought that we should just let ’er rip. Let technology develop at its own pace and in its own way. I thought that this rapid acceleration of culture would allow us to achieve the kind of turbulence necessary to initiate a dynamical system. And I saw everyone who called for us to put on the brakes, or to put new governors on the development of culture, as the enemy to our evolution forward. Their vigilance would prevent us from reaching the next level of complexity.
I was buying the Wired line of techno-utopianism. I would read stuff by John Barlow and Terence McKenna and think, let’s just evolve. But something kept nagging at me. Maybe it’s because I am Jewish. I couldn’t help thinking that when you eliminate fear and simply follow your bliss, you don’t always get the best results. In the worst case, it can even be a recipe for fascism. Over the past few years we just let the internet go, and we’ve got an electronic strip mall as a result. We thought government was the enemy, and kept them out of our network. That’s what gave market forces free reign.
I started to explore whether there might be something in between reckless, unbridled enthusiasm and being a Marxist Jewish mother about things. There is a way to foster growth, new thought, cultural innovation, and even markets without getting absolutely carried away and losing all sense of purpose.
JB: Let’s talk about your writing.
DR: Well, I wrote three loud books about the promise of new media. I honestly believed I was writing them for what I conceived of as the “counterculture,” or at least for people who sought to use these technologies for positive, thoughtful cultural evolution. I told the story of how our tightly controlled media was giving way to a more organic, natural mediaspace. Media used to obey only the laws of Newtonian physics. It was a top-down affair where gravity ruled. People like William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch could make decisions from the tops of glass buildings, and then their messages would trickle down to the rest of us through one-way media.
But now, thanks to computers and camcorders and the internet and modems, the media has been forced to incorporate feedback and iteration. It has become a truly chaotic space — a dynamical system. Remember the famous example of chaos, the butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil causing a hurricane in New York? To me, that butterfly was Rodney King, whose beating by LA cops, captured on a camcorder tape and iterated throughout the datasphere, led to riots in a dozen American cities. I wrote Media Virus! to announce that the time had come where we could launch any idea we want, whether it’s as a media virus, or in a usenet group — the power is in our hands again, let’s go for it. I wrote books about how young people understand media better than adults, and are already using it in new, exciting ways.
JB: And then you found out that all the kids were filing for their IPOs. And you find out there is no counterculture. And you can’t buy a real cotton shirt in Palo Alto.
DR: Yeah, I learned all those things, and I learned them most frighteningly when I was invited to a convention sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the 4 A’s. They wanted me to talk to them about media viruses and youth culture. I was thrilled. I prepared a talk about how advertising is over, and that their tyranny over young people had come to an end. They should give up their coercive ways. When I arrived, there were signs and hand outs: “How to use Media Viruses to Capture New Audiences” — that sort of thing. People were coming up to me and congratulating me about my role in launching controversial Calvin Klein ads that I had nothing to do with. Or so I thought.
I suddenly realized that the people who had put my books on best-seller lists were not those Mondo 2000-era hackers and internet homesteaders I so admired, but rather the public relations and advertising industries. I had been selling “cool” to corporate America. My books were primers, required texts for young executives on how to take advantage of new media to do the same old thing they were doing before. That’s when I realized that we were in an arms race, and that I was just as caught up in it as everyone else.
So I decided to write a book about the war. I spent two years taking a look at many different styles of coercion, their histories, and how these techniques have been retooled for modern times. I concluded that most of them are based on a simple phenomenon known as regression and transference. It’s used in a positive way by therapists, and a dangerous way by salespeople and marketers. Basically, if people can be made to feel disoriented or helpless, they will seek out someone to act as a parent. When people are confused, they want parents who can tell them what to do, and reassure them. Once you create a situation where people feel that they can trust you, that you understand them, that you’ll take care of them, or that you’ll lead them, they will submit.
The other main set of techniques that are being used in coercion today are taken from neurolinguistic programming. They are really just simple hypnosis techniques, like Milton Erickson’s “pacing and leading.” If you’re sitting in a room with someone, what you would do is subtly assume the same position as your target, and adopt some of the same breathing and speech patterns — that’s pacing. Then, amazingly, you can slowly lead the person by changing your posture, breathing rate, or speech pattern. You’re subject will change his posture too, to conform to yours. Then you begin to work on his thinking, as well.
This same technique plays itself out in the sales world through the sciences of demographics and target marketing. You pace your target market — listen to the language of it, “target market” — it’s a war metaphor. If you’re in the target market you are in the crosshairs of a marketer’s rifle! To pace the target demographic, the marketer studies buying motives and propensities through focus groups, then creates messages that perfectly reflect their existing emotional states. Marketers pace our behaviors and feelings in order to lead us where they want us to go.
When this process gets automated through a technology like the World Wide Web, watch out. An e-commerce site watches and records each user’s interactions with it. What screens did the user look at and in what order? Where did he click? When did he buy? Did he buy when the background was red or blue? Did he buy when the offer was in the top left or the top right? And the computer can then dynamically reconfigure itself to make a website that identifies and then paces each individual exactly. Meanwhile, the user thinks he’s “just doing it.”
Once the customer is properly paced, then you work on leading the person toward a greater frequency of purchases, greater allegiance. So-called sticky websites are really just trying to create an inexorable pull on the user toward greater and greater interaction with and loyalty to the particular brand being offered. The user is a fly, and the branded website is the flypaper.
JB: Do you feel loyal to brands?
DR: It’s funny, I went to the Foot Locker to get sneakers a month or so ago. There was a wall of sneakers: Nikes and Adidas and Reeboks — the major brands — and then cool brands like Airwalk and Simple, the so-called counterculture brands that you’re supposed to believe aren’t being assembled by underage Singhalese prostitutes. I looked at that wall and I actually did have a crisis — a consumer crisis — as I thought, “What sneaker is me? Which one is the thing I call Doug? Which reflects me? How do I want to express the thing I call Doug with my purchase?”
The way kids express who they are today, and the way we are supposed to vote in a libertarian universe is with our dollars, right? But we can never really express who we are through consumption. It’s a pity that it’s the main option left to us. It’s not empowerment at all. It’s the power to be a consumer.
JB: Do you think the self-conscious option is enough? John Cage would say that in order to change ourselves we need to forget interiority and change the world — and we’ll all change with it. The inter life is over; everything is an objectification, including the names of the body — “the thing that I call Doug.”
DR: At one time I used to believe something like that. My prescription for getting more conscious was for everyone to admit that we’re all flailing around in the same dynamical system and everything is arbitrary. What I call Doug, what you call Doug, what we call a word — everything is arbitrary. It’s that seemingly profound insight you have in your dorm room on a little too much acid, where you can’t hold onto anything. So let it all go, and realize that the reality templates are up for grabs. It’s a consensual hallucination, as William Gibson would say. But I don’t think that’s true anymore.
JB: I think we need a new word for this.
DR: Maybe postontological relativism? I haven’t turned into an absolutist, either, though. I don’t think there’s something called evil, but I do think there’s a force called good. Like heat — heat is a force. Cold is not a force; cold is just the absence of heat. It doesn’t exist. Ask any physicist. But there is heat, and I think there is something called good. And that implies a certain polarity, for sure. Or at least a spectrum or scale.
My problem with John Cage’s reliance on the external is that it gives too much room to the libertarians or even the fascists, who will claim that we live in a downright competitive universe, so anything goes. Anything doesn’t go in my book.
I started to have this realization when I was watching the Clinton/Lewinksy debacle on TV. Everyone from Dan Rather to Louis Rukeyser said, “well the economy is good, and the American public is going to support this president as long as the economy is good.” As far as I’m concerned, a good economy is not good enough. The bottom line isn’t the bottom line.
JB: Then what is?
DR: That’s for us to figure out. The Bible gives a few hints. There is something to be said for a bit of Platonic idealization in all this. Growing up and saying “look, that doesn’t go in my house; this will not go.” Being an adult. Originally the internet made me think the only thing we have to learn is tolerance. If we can be tolerant of everything and everyone, we’ll all be okay. But I’m not tolerant of everything and everyone. And I certainly see the value in realizing that we’re starting to go in directions that we’ve been before. We should learn from those experiences rather than repeat them with new gadgets that we have even less control over.
The problem with Cage’s idea is that if everything is external and there’s no internal life anymore, then this is the only moment that matters. However I feel is right, and I’m going to go with that. A New Age guru might tell us this is fine. But I’m beginning to think this is not the only moment that matters. Part of growing up is realizing that my father and his father and his father, too, were working on projects that span generations, and I want to know what those projects are. And when I have children, I’m sure I’ll feel this way even more.
JB: A lot of your writing is concerned with the effects of science and technology.
DR: I tend to think of technologies as expressions rather than things that force us into new behaviors. I’m not a technodeterminist. I believe we are in charge. When we’re developing technologies like computers, networks, or nano we are designing reality, and doing it at a pace unimagined before. We are greatly enhancing our ability to exercise our intention.
What I’m asking is: What is our intention? What are we going to do with it? We better figure that out, and fast. When you look at some of the people who have been most successful at expressing their intention through technology, they aren’t the scientists, but the technologists and marketers. And what are they doing with it? They’re getting very rich and succumbing to what you would call toxic wealth.
JB: Toxic wealth?
DR: There are certain aspects of youth that are valuable to retain as an adult. And there are other aspects of youth that are dangerous to retain as an adult. When I look at our so-called adult society today, it looks to me a lot like a fetus that stayed in the womb too long and became toxic to its mother and itself. There’s a great deal of thumb sucking going on in Silicon Valley. We’ve done the opposite of what we should have. We live in a culture that is obsessed with youth but has lost the ability to think with the elasticity of youth — so we’ve traded in the best and we’ve gotten the worst as a result. We think like grumpy old men, and act out like two-year olds.
Look at Hollywood. Who are our movie stars today? Not men, but boys. Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon, who look even younger than they are. Who are the great adult men of Hollywood? Jack Nicholson, who’s an adult baby. His entire show-biz image is of an overgrown child going to Lakers games in dark glasses. Or Robin Williams — however talented — still a version of the adult child. Our president is a baby. He treats the nation as his scolding parent, from whom he must hide his naughty deeds, and to whom he must occasionally apologize.
Look at what a lot of our internet heroes do with their money: they buy planes, fighter jets for that matter, or build castles they can live in as if they were wombs — it’s an extension of childhood.
JB: And how do you think we got this way?
DR: By design. In the late ’40s after World War II, we needed a way for the economy to expand, so what we did was create a consumer culture. Men returned to the factories and worked, while women returned to the home to take care of the children. Advertising and marketing catered to the needs of women and children. When they couldn’t cater to a need, they created one. By the 1970s, when women went to work themselves, consumer culture became all about kids — rock music and records and toys and electronics — all items and lifestyles that appealed to either children or the child in the man or woman. We’ve succeeded at that. Now when a person becomes successful, what they want to do is buy into childhood and get some expensive toys in order to fulfill those same, media-generated childhood urges. Our commercials make this explicit.
We also live in a culture where we want to be infantilized. I was recently in a state where people buy their liquor in “package stores” — from state cops. Okay, why is that? Because in America we have laws to protect us from our own vices. We feel we can be trusted to behave as adults. But what does this really accomplish? When you buy your liquor from a cop, and you have restrictions about how you’re supposed to use it, then you are relieved of all responsibility for how you behave. That’s why we have a nation filled with drunks. Watch COPS and you can see one result of infantilizing policies.
We still yearn for parents as we always have. The movie Elizabeth, about Queen Elizabeth, reminded me about Western civilization’s transition from looking at God and Virgin Mary and Jesus and as our parent figures, to looking toward the monarchy for this same comfort. Elizabeth enacted this transition. What we did in America was to enact a new transition, which was from the monarchy, or the presidency, as our parental figure, to corporations and brands. Our transference is now projected onto brands — we look to them and to companies to provide the reassurance we want.
The strained effort by America to mourn for Kennedy in the fashion that England mourned for Diana looks like an effort to regain some of what felt like a healthier form of transference than what we have now — transference to nonpersonified entities — which I think is more frightening because we suspect that these entities don’t have our best interest at heart. They don’t even have hearts.
JB: And the nonpersonified entities are treated a lot better than people.
DR: If a corporation releases tons and tons of pollutants somewhere, killing thousands of people, no human being is going to be held accountable, and the corporation is going to pay fines that actually mean nothing to it as an entity. Meanwhile kids are tattooing the Nike Swoosh onto their arms because it gives them a feeling of kinship and identity. It gives them such a sense of belonging.
JB: I have never met a corporate logo I liked. The “brand” is one of the worst ideas of the twentieth century.
DR: It’s about metaphor. At every stage of the development of language we create a metaphor. When that metaphor dies — when we forget its original meaning — it becomes the component part of a new language system. Ancient people developed little symbols, glyphs — like a picture of a bull, or a picture of a house, or a picture of water — and that’s the way our written languages developed. Eventually we stopped seeing glyphs as representational pictures and saw them as symbols for noises.
So the aleph, which is the picture of the bull, becomes the letter A. Or beta, which is the picture of a house, becomes a B — we use it for the sound b, and then we create new words out of it. So our new words are really collections of dead metaphors. I think our language and our symbol systems end up swallowing up the old ones so that we can conduct a denser style of communication.
Talk to teachers about the way kids are doing math now in school. Instead of doing arithmetic, they use a calculator for doing arithmetic and then, hopefully, do a more complex set of equations over it. But arithmetic as something they relate to directly disappears. Arithmetic is this thing the calculator does while they work with a larger system. Or look at the way young people watch television or listen to music. Songs become “samples” in new compositions, and scenes become “cuts” in an MTV video. The juxtaposition of images or sounds tells what we can call a kind of a metastory on top of the original component parts.
In today’s culture, brands become iconic ways of representing an entire set of metaphors. Through its corporate communications, a company like Nike will represent, or broadcast, an entire range of images which are then signified by that single Swoosh. And because we’re looking for anchors in this relativistic haze that we were talking about before, because we’re looking for symbols to represent what are now really immense thought structures, we grab onto the icons of Airwalk and Nike. That’s why it’s so satisfying, but it’s also why it’s so dangerous.
JB: Can an individual become a brand?
DR: John, you are a brand.
JB: It’s interesting that AOL distributes millions of AOL floppy disks it’s called “marketing”; and Amazon runs a multimillion-dollar ad campaign it’s called “branding.” And Steve Case and Jeff Bezos are proclaimed geniuses. But if creative individuals take responsibility for their own work and ideas and let the world know what they’ve done, it’s called “self-promotion.” Can an individual ever enjoy the same authority and status in the culture that a brand attains?
DR: Do individuals really want to? Human beings, for the time being anyway, exist in a different space than brands. I suppose those of us who are trying to establish a “name” for ourselves in an industry or in the media — like you or I have, to some extent, or Madonna has to a much greater extent — have franchises independent of our real-life identities. There’s crossover, to be sure, but it’s probably healthy to realize these are separate things. But living as a human being and a brand in the same mediaspace is a dangerous game.
As far as a strategy for becoming a person-brand, I’d suggest steering clear of any particular institution or company because the minute you go to work for Microsoft or Oracle or NBC or any company at all, you’re spending your energy on someone else’s brand rather than your own. The only thing you have to do to be a brand is to function as an independent — and sign your work, taking both the credit and the blame for what you’re doing. That, and make sure you’ve got a great sense of humor, because the inevitable attacks will feel like they’re directed at you personally.
A lot of people talk about the internet as this great place to be anonymous. Why the hell do you want to be anonymous? One, if it’s an idea that you had, then put your name on it — let people know it’s yours. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth standing up for. I’ve never done an anonymous piece of email or BBS posting — not because I want to self-promote, but because I don’t want to get in the habit of being afraid to say what I believe. That’s a dangerous precedent, especially if we fear that our society might become more repressive at some point in the future.
So signing your work as an artist would is the first step. Second, it’s realizing that the image that other people have of you has nothing to do with who you really are. It took me a while to get used to that one. You know, that this thing out there called Douglas Rushkoff — the thing that you call Doug — the thing that The New York Times calls Doug. It really hurt me for a long time that people believed reports that I make $7,500 an hour, that I’m selling out the counterculture, or I’ve single-handedly killed the grunge or rave movements. It really bothered me until I realized that they’re not relating to me or my work at all, they’re relating to the Douglas Rushkoff brand, and how it was mishandled by me or misrepresented by some journalist. And I have no right to complain because that thing called Douglas is what pays my bills.
But the bigger the person-brand gets, the more tempting the offers to surrender it to someone else. My franchise — the way it’s perceived — becomes valuable to others. I’m on the Doug Rushkoff bus, and I’m going along, and the better my bus is doing, the bigger and flashier and more attractive the offers are for me to pull over, stop the bus, and get on someone else’s. And I’ve tried that a few times for a short stint. But the minute I do that is when I feel like I’m dying. That I’m gone. And not just from a business perspective, I mean literally dying — becoming separated from my own sense of purpose.
JB: Aren’t you a bit young to have such war stories? You sound almost cynical.
DR: I’ve gotten my first dose of life experience. My first run around the block. Over the past decade of new media, I’ve got to witness one cycle of something you’ve probably seen iterate three or four times by now. In 1985, ’86, I watched the emergence of computer technologies, personal computers, networking, fidonet, bulletin boards, and I thought, “wow, the world is going to change.” And people who had lived through the ’60s were saying, “look, we’ve been through one of these before, and it looks bright from the beginning, but there’s all these things to watch out for.”
Howard Rheingold told me, essentially, “your optimism is really sweet, but we’ve watched this happen before, and we have to be careful and thoughtful if we want it to work out.” My response was: “Nonsense! This is it! Renaissance is upon us! We’re off and running!”
And then I watched the process by which those ten rules of the networked economy really function. And I watched the way the internet was turned into an electronic strip mall, and communities were turned into markets. And I watched the way the law of network externalities, which I thought was just going to get everyone online and communicating with each other, actually made things worse.
I call it the MovieFone syndrome. When MovieFone started, you could find out when movies were playing. You listened to an ad and they’d give you movie times, and then you hang up. A little later they added a feature through which you could order your tickets, for a $1.50 service charge. No one’s twisting our arm, though; we don’t have to buy our tickets over the phone. But once the law of network externalities comes into play and enough people are using the service, MovieFone changes from a convenience into something you have to do. If you have a date on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night in New York City and you’re going to see a movie, you’d damn well better use MovieFone and pay that $1.50 extra per ticket, or you’re not going to get into that movie. So is MovieFone still a convenience? Or is it simply a way to charge an extra $1.50 for each movie? To reign in another “externality”?
JB: What about people that don’t have the eleven dollars, or don’t have the touch-tone phone?
DR: Well, they lose out, don’t they? People who want free email or ISP service have to submit to advertising. It’s as if they are required to get remedial education in marketing. Only the poor must submit to the ads until they figure out how to participate in the market.
When new networking technologies become ubiquitous to the wealthy, those who aren’t hooked up end up being at a disadvantage. The irony is we all end up paying more, not less, for the very same thing. Once a service like Amazon.milk.com is around, the milk companies will save a lot of money because they’re only going to have to ship as much milk as is ordered. And maybe we’ll even pay a little extra service charge to have that milk ready for us, or delivered in refrigerated kegs. It all looks like a harmless luxury until everyone’s doing it. Then if you want to get your milk at the corner bodega and you haven’t planned in advance, you’re going to pay $4 a quart instead of $1.50. You’ll pay a premium for the added convenience of simply buying milk the old fashioned way! And who’s going to have to pay that premium? The people who don’t have newest Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.5 and the chip that can run it.
I started looking at all these downsides. I’ve lived through fifteen years of one brief cycle. And the internet cycle happened faster than most. But gosh, look at the difference between Cyberia and Coercion as books. Cyberia announced a utopian vision. And while Coercion is not pessimism or conspiracy theory, it does contain a few warnings. It calls for us to employ a certain ethical restraint, and to develop our innate ability to evaluate our actions against our sense of purpose.
In the book, I propose that we all have clear moments of buyer’s remorse, and sometimes they happen before we even make the purchase, or take whatever action we’ll later regret. Sometimes it happens when you walk into a mall, or when you go to an online site, or when you’re thinking about getting the new browser, or the new computer, or taking that job, or worse, coercing someone else. If you’re an employee at the Gap, you experience that same moment of hesitation, of fear, that the customer does. Do I want to use a coercive sales technique that I learned watching the Gap’s instructional videos? I’ll win a bonus or a T-shirt if I can make this person buy a belt along with his jeans, and I’ll get in trouble if I don’t make enough three-item sales . . . but I can tell he doesn’t have that much money. We all experience these moments of doubt, these moments of hesitation when our true sensibility emerges. And then we all try to squash it because we want to make the extra buck, get that MIG jet, get the sale, buy the item, or promote our brand.
JB: What do you tell companies that hire you? What do they want to know?
DR: Well, actually, I’ve sworn off all consulting. I started doing it as research for my Coercion book, and then got a bit carried away by the income. I stopped “cold turkey” a few months ago in favor of teaching at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program, and am lot happier as a result.
When I did consult, I tried to use my “guru” position as a leverage point to subvert the more ruthless marketing techniques. Most companies simply want to know how to sell more stuff in less time — either by selling the same goods to more people, or more goods to the people they’re already selling to. I argued that customer loyalty begins with genuinely good treatment and not simply more camouflaged sales pitches. Some companies want to know how to sell online, and I usually showed them how to get out of the way. Don’t try to create a sticky site that sucks people in; people don’t want to be on flypaper. They don’t want sticky experiences. Stickiness may be working in the short run; companies are having success with sites that you can only go in one way and that throw up windows all over the place and then send you lots of email and ask your permission to send you more email, infect you with cookies, and so on. But in the end people will react against these intrusions, and they’ll react against the companies who did it to them.
I tried to give companies what I consider to be a more long-term strategy, which is give customers the most direct access to the thing they want — at the best price, with information about what it does, how much it costs, how much is it going to cost to ship it — and get out of the way. Create tools that make it easier to figure out what computer or product or upgrade is best for the individual user. Let the customer up-sell himself in good time. The best competitive advantage is going to be to offer either the best item, the best price, or the best service. Become transparent.
As far as marketing to youth culture, I tried to make companies aware of the destructive power of coercive marketing, and to see how expensive the arms race is getting for everyone. Young people eventually get wise to a company that offers nothing more than a brand strategy. Then the company has to spend millions retooling. I told them to “play nice.”
I still like speaking to organizations who are nervous about the rapid development of the internet, and executives who can’t understand the market valuations of all these new internet ventures. I’ve been telling them that the internet is really just a Ponzi scheme. It’s being driven by the needs of the investment community. The money needs a place to go. That’s why the only companies actually making anything resembling earnings are online trading companies. They’re simply conduits for more people at lower levels of the pyramid to buy in. I mean, what other industry besides a Ponzi scheme requires businesses to demonstrate an “exit strategy”? When they ask me what the ultimate internet experience will look like, I tell them that they’re already engaged in it: the frantic search for the next big internet company to invest in is the ultimate internet experience. The investors are the customers.
But the most interesting work was helping advertising agencies figure out what comes after advertising. They know their industry is almost obsolete. I think what will replace ads are sponsored media and applications. Rather than using advertisements to create brand images for products, we’re going to have brands sponsoring media that is the entertainment or utility that reflects the brand attributes. I’ve helped an airline develop a Palm Pilot application for the global traveler, and a global phone company develop a world clock map on the web. Instead of paying for advertisements, they can give things directly to their customers.
JB: Are you talking about things like corporate baseball parks?
DR: Right, and if it’s a Nike ballpark, and you go there, and make that one concession to corporate America, then maybe you don’t have to have marketing blasting at you through the loudspeakers during every break: “This touchdown brought to you by blah blah airlines.” They actually pay for the touchdowns, you know. It would make for a better game. And it would separate the emotional vulnerability we experience at a sporting event from the coercive techniques of marketers.
A sports spectacle is a great engine for generating the sort of unbridled optimism and enthusiasm we were talking about earlier. The Roman games were so good at generating support for politicians that it was illegal to have a gladiatorial contest within three months of an election. They were aware of just how much that dictator’s thumb, up or down, could affect the entire crowd, and its relationship to the leader. Hitler used the spectacle, Farrakhan uses the spectacle. Promise Keepers use the spectacle; they craft their events around the tested emotional responses of their target market.
The role of any coercive technique is to suspend someone’s ability to think rationally, so that they can be made to act on their emotions. It’s a simple formula used by Hitler, Farrakhan, and Promise Keepers alike, as well as many multilevel marketers at their rallies. Exploit the anonymity of the mob so that everyone expresses long-repressed emotions. Label the oppressive force as a common enemy, stoke the crowd’s rage and, once it’s reached a peak, entreat the assembled mass to take an oath. They all must promise to sustain this righteous rage after they’ve left the rally. It’s locked in, like a posthypnotic suggestion.
Sports spectacles today are rallies designed to promote our allegiance to corporations. I went to a Jets game where Outback steak houses handed out small signs to every fan. When the Jets sacked the opposing team’s quarterback we were supposed to hold up the sign, which read “Sack Attack.” On the back of the sign, however, facing each fan it read “Outback Steak House.” They took the most aggressive, most carnivorous moment of a football game, where we sack the opposing quarterback, and used it as an opportunity to program us with Outback Steak House, So now we’re going to associate the steakhouse with “Ah, we killed them!”
Meanwhile, everything else going on at a sports game is still based on ancient Roman techniques. The Roman games were intended to demonstrate class mobility by showing that slaves could become regular citizens. If a slave really won enough gladiatorial contests, he would be elevated to the status of citizen. What’s happening in sports today is very similar, except it is an inner-city kid who gets out of the ghetto because he has talent, and has chosen to spend his energy on entertaining, rather than mugging us. Successful gladiators were permitted to commit terrible crimes, even rape, without fear of being punished — and without damaging their images among the fans. Same way here. No matter how many times a sports hero is arrested, we’ll still forgive him. He has license to do these terrible things so that we can vicariously experience his outrage and pain, as well as our own safety and control.
And in the end, who’s paying for it all? Look at the scoreboard. It’s not the emperor anymore; it’s whatever corporation has paid for that scoreboard to be there. Its name is right on top.
In a sense, nothing has changed: the same kinds of techniques that have been used for centuries by emperors, kings, popes, and priests, are now being used in service of the corporation. Where it’s different is that we have technologies in place that make these coercive techniques automatic. There are machines doing this now — machines are doing the research, machines are adjusting the commercials and configuring the websites. What I’m trying to do is to insert some human control, some human thought, and some real human intention back into what we’re doing.
[Originally published on Edge.org. Reprinted by kind permission.]