Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we're at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Corporate America benefits from an army of advertisers who work for free, such as teens on social media who click “Like” or Tweet about products to impress friends or win prizes. And smart phones have created an army of adults who work non-stop — in thrall to always-on devices. Tech Tuesday explores whether we use digital technology to promote the needs of the marketplace rather than the needs of people.
- Douglas Rushkoff Producer, Writer and Correspondent for FRONTLINE documentary "Generation Like" and author of "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now" (Current, 2013)
Douglas Rushkoff Explains “Present Shock”
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. Do you ever feel like the headlines are full of only scary stories about technology? The NSA is spying on us, teens are bullying each other on Facebook and Twitter, and we're all working 24/7 because we're slaves to devices we never turn off. Where are the stories about how technology has made us happier and more relaxed?
MS. JEN GOLBECKAbout how it's letting us work from home in out pajamas and spend more time with our families? One media analyst says the happy stories are scarce, because we've allowed technology to promote what's best for the marketplace rather than what's best for people. In a documentary airing tonight on "Frontline," he suggests that corporate America has turned teens on social media into an army of advertisers who work for free every time they click like. And his latest book says our always on devices make us prisoners of the present, who've lost the long view in business, politics and life.
MS. JEN GOLBECKMy guest is Douglas Rushkoff, producer, writer and correspondent for the "Frontline" documentary, "Generation Like," and author of the book, "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now." Douglas, it's good to have you with us.
MR. DOUGLAS RUSHKOFFHey, good to be with you.
GOLBECKYou've said you got the idea for your book, "Present Shock," while watching "Real Housewives of Orange County." How so?
RUSHKOFFYeah. It was a weird moment. You know, my wife watches the show, and, so I watch what she watches. I watch TV as a media theorist, so, when I looked at "Real Housewives Of Orange County," I'm looking at it thinking, you know, why are these women having such a hard time communicating? Right? I'm a communications person. And while they're from the same socio-economic background, they speak the same language, they live in the same place, they have the same culture.
RUSHKOFFWhy do they have so many misunderstandings? And then, as I looked more closely, I realized they had so much botox injected into their faces, and so much plastic surgery, they couldn't make facial expressions that were consonant with the emotions that they were trying to express. So, you know, one would say, oh, my daughter's going in for cancer testing, and the other one would say, oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, with her face, you know, frozen in a smile.
RUSHKOFFSo the first one thinks that the second one's not legitimately feeling anything. And what it made me realize is that there are these kind of two different notions of time, that in trying to lock down the kind of chronological time of their lives, trying to look, you know, 29 years old forever, they end up making themselves unavailable to the actual moment that they're in. And that's really what I'm calling "present shock." It's when we use technology to try to lock down a moment, or try to defeat time, rather than use it to free up time, for us to actually be human.
GOLBECKThe title of your book plays on Alvin Toffler's 1970 bestseller, "Future Shock." What did he say about our ability to handle the future, and why do you think we're now so stressed by the present?
RUSHKOFFWell, it's interesting. I mean, "Future Shock" was putting out the idea that things were changing so fast that most of us were feeling like immigrants, right? That we were -- that the future kept coming, that there was so much change, and we were going to have to adapt to this changing landscape. And it was a time, really, this was the 1970s. It was the beginning of the end of the millennium. And over the next 30 years, with the net and the Y2K bug and the millennium coming and 2012, the dot com boom, and the long boom. And everybody was sort of leaning into the future.
RUSHKOFFIt was a very speculative, kind of a frenzy, as we approached this omega point. We were kind of leaning forward. Everybody was a futurist. All the books were the next this and the next that, and the future of this and the future of that. Once it happened, once we hit the 21st century, everybody kind of became presentist. You know, the stock market fell, and I would argue for more than any other reason because we were no longer leaning into the future.
RUSHKOFFWe were less willing to speculate on what was going to happen, and we started to look at, well, what's actually happening right now? You know, in some sense, all the stuff that Toffler wrote about arrived. You know, we got these technologies, we got networking, we're all connected, and now we're in a kind of a ever present assault rather than something that's changing. It's just this culture of immediacy and always on access.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. Has technology made your life more relaxed or more stressed? Are you a victim of "present shock," always focused on what's happening this instant and unable to see the big picture? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you'd like to be very instant, you can send us a tweet to @kojoshow. So, speaking of tweets, how has the immediacy of tweets and texts and emails affected our appetite for narrative and good old fashioned storytelling? And what are the repercussions of that?
RUSHKOFFWell, it's interesting. You know, I originally thought, you know, like you were saying in the intro, that these technologies would make more time for us, you know, give us more time to sit and read and think have sustained conversations. The internet was a very asynchronous medium, so you would log in at night, and you'd download a conversation, and you would take all this time to respond. And I thought, yeah, you know, we're all gonna be working in our own time, from home, in our pj's or underwear, selling stuff in a peer to peer fashion on Etsy.
RUSHKOFFBut, we ended up sort of seeing that the needs of the marketplace outweigh the needs of humans. We turned our time into this commodity and end up creating these always on devices that we strap on to our bodies and have them vibrate every time someone tweets about us or updates their Facebook profile, or sends a message. And we live in this state of, sort of, perpetual emergency interruption, where the only people who lived like this before were 9-1-1 operators or air traffic controllers.
RUSHKOFFAnd they had medications to take for it. We just have to live like this. And one of the first impacts of this is that we don't really have time or tolerance for narrative. We don't sit through a story, you know, particularly our kids. We have remote controls to dash away from things. We have DVRs to fast forward. You know, we don't even respond to television shows that have traditional stories with beginnings, middles and ends. We're watching things like, you know, and I think they're great programs, they're just different.
RUSHKOFFLike, you know, "Game of Thrones," which is this kind of epic narrative. It's not a beginning, middle and end aristotelian narrative with a climax and a conclusion that we can all then, you know, go to sleep. It's more like a fantasy role playing game that just sort of keeps on going, which, in some ways, I like. You know, it's a wonderful model for a culture that's no longer looking for a conquest or what's our ending. But, rather, how do we sustain ourselves over time?
RUSHKOFFSo, in some sense, I like it.
GOLBECKYeah, it's interesting that you mention games in this context, because in one sense, for video games, narrative has actually become increasingly important. So games like "Silent Hill" or "Gods of War," "Call of Duty," even "Grand Theft Auto." These are series that are bestsellers. They have really clear and deep narrative structures with beginnings and middles and ends. And sometimes this take dozens of hours of game play to complete. So how does that kind of narrative engagement with games relate to these trends that you're seeing?
RUSHKOFFIt's interesting. I mean, this is, you know, what I've been teaching about or learning about, as the case may be, for the last, you know, 10 or 15 years. And the -- I feel like, you know, we maybe finally have gotten to this moment where sort of cinematic narrative and game play aren't quite as opposed as they used to be. I mean, remember those video games where it used to be, you know, you'd play the game for a while, and then they'd play a three minute movie. And then you'd play the game for a while. And it was really interruptive and strange. They were like two different worlds that seemed in conflict.
RUSHKOFFAnd now, really, I guess "Mist" was sort of the first game that did this where you're exploring this island and discovering things. And there is a narrative to it, even though you move through in your own order. There -- definitely, games like this are leading the charge, where television shows like "Lost" or "Game of Thrones" are more following suit. You know, I feel like they're trying to keep up with a narrative style that's really being much more defined by real time participation. Where the player is the protagonist, so rather than watching "Oedipus" or "Hamlet," which is basically a story told in the past tense.
RUSHKOFFIt's something that happened to someone else, and you either identify with it or not. And you see his series of choices as he got to some conclusion. Now, you know, you are, at least they give you the illusion that you are the person making choices, going from choice to choice to choice in real time. And discovering things as you go, rather than getting to some necessarily inevitable single pointed outcome.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from John in Silver Spring, Maryland. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi there. I just wanted to point out that while these new technologies are ostensibly more entertaining and socially connected, I teach online. So I have direct experience with this. It also has the paradoxical kind of isolating effect in that, you know, it's you and your computer. It is you and the television. It is you and the iPad. But it's not anybody else, you know, unless you're talking to somebody online. But physically, you're sitting by yourself, at a machine. It kind of reminds me of that movie, "Her," where the person is having a relationship with a machine.
JOHNAnd that's kind of what we're talking about, is that we are forming relationships with machines rather than people.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, John. Douglas, what are your thoughts on that?
RUSHKOFFYeah. I mean, in a powerful sense, we're very much alone, but we're doing it together online. You know, there is a million of us alone in the same virtual space. And that's really -- it has to do with our choice of when and how we use these things. You know, if the platforms themselves, at this point, I mean, there's so much money behind them. The entire NASDAQ stock exchange is depending on keeping us online and engaged with our devices. Whether there's a person on the other end or at -- on the other side of that engagement, or just a game or an algorithm is sort of immaterial to them.
RUSHKOFFAs long as we're on there clicking, creating data that they can data mine to use to try to sell us stuff, or bring us ads. And I think people do need to be aware of that, that it's not the technology itself that -- I don't think anyway, it's not the technology that's doing anything to us. It's a whole lot of money and corporate power working through technology. So, what I'm trying to do is to at least bring people into awareness that these platforms aren't free. You know, we may not pay for them with money, but there's still a cost for our engagement with them.
GOLBECKSure. So, how would you say that the rise of these technologies has affected our sense of time and who controls it?
RUSHKOFFWell, it's interesting. Every single major media era leads to a different perception of time, a different kind of quality of time. And so, in "Present Shock," I look back at the invention of text as really the way we invented history. You know, before we had text, we had no way of writing down our stories. We had an oral history of sorts, but we didn't really have a sense of time. It wasn't until we had text that we could write down what happened to us, and that we could create contracts through which we could not just predict, but be accountable to a future.
RUSHKOFFSo, with text, we got the Bible, which told our story, and which gave us the promise for what was gonna happen. With text, we got, you know, Moshiach, the messianic age to look forward to. We ended up, really -- text allowed us to have a sense of progress, and those next thousand or so years were really about progress and progression toward something. Then, the next great time technology was the clock. And once we got the clock, you know, that's when we got The Renaissance. That's when people, instead of making stuff and trading it, or getting money for the value they created, we ended up with people working by the hour.
RUSHKOFFThere was a clock in the middle of the town square, and that was how people knew how much time they had given. How much time they had put in to the employer, and then how much they would get back. It's what created a kind of accountability for time, so that you would know, oh, I'm not overworking or under working. And then, the sort of the underlining ethos of the age became efficiency. And that's how we got the industrial age. To maximize, have efficiency and expansion. How much more can we do for each second? You know, now that we have a digital clock, it's really fundamentally different.
RUSHKOFFThe analogue clock had this sort of sweep second hand that created almost a narrative or a sense of continuity between each moment. It was part of the day. It was kind of an analogue for the earth going around the sun. You know, when my dad replaced my analogue clock with a digital clock, I was 11 or 12 years old, it was actually somewhat traumatizing, cause now time became this other thing. It wasn't this continuous motion. It was a sudden -- it was the sort of gasps or pulses. It would just -- the clock would just sit there, you know, 9:01, 9:01, 9:01, then flap.
RUSHKOFFSuddenly, there were those little, you remember those little like railroad sign clocks, was the first one I had. It would then flap, then be 9:02. Or flap, and then be 9:03. You know, and what it does is create a kind of a temporal landscape of sequences, of this moment to that moment to this moment to that. You know, the digital age that we're in is really an age that's characterized by choice. We all want more choices, more consumer choices, more websites, more places, more things. What's my favorite? What's his favorite?
RUSHKOFFWho am I gonna follow? Everything is choice to choice to choice to choice to choice. Which isn't necessarily bad, it's just different. And we have to then acknowledge that if we're going to live in a world where we hop from choice to choice to choice to choice, where our technologies and our -- the software and the interfaces that we use are going to be very sequential, then how do we find the continuous, you know? And how do we nourish that part of ourselves? How do we pay attention to where's the sun?
RUSHKOFFWhere is the moon? You know, what's going on with my day, rather than getting lost in the kind of the cracks between these pulses.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Douglas Rushkoff about the role of technology in our lives. Please join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Or, get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow. Douglas, what impact is our preoccupation with the present have on politics today?
RUSHKOFFI mean, that's an interesting one. You know, I kind of go from arena to arena, thinking well, what's the present shock of business? What's the present shock of child rearing? What's the present shock of the church? The present shock of politics is interesting, because, you know, what it does is it puts, especially when they don't have -- they love talking about narrative, right? Oh, is Obama controlling the narrative or not? Well, there's no narrative to control, even if you could control it. It's kind of irrelevant to people now.
RUSHKOFFWhat you end up in is a kind of a perpetual state of crisis management, where they're just -- all they can really do is respond to each bump in the road as it happens. There's really no way to create a compelling vision or a mission. And partly, I guess, as a, I don't know what I am, a little bit of an anarchist or something at heart, I guess, I kind of -- I like the idea that there are no long term goals, because the 20th century got so many people in trouble, you know? We'd find a charismatic leader and they would tell us where they want things to be.
RUSHKOFFI mean, if it was a great leader, like Martin Luther King, then he could kind of -- you know, we could march with him down the road and go towards that goal. But if he wasn't, then it became an ends justified the means, you know, journey into pain and suffering of a lot of people. You know, we always said, you know, as long as we keep our eyes on the prize and go to that thing, we'll do almost anything to get there. In capitalism, and communism and everything else were one of those journeys.
RUSHKOFFYou know, now, you kind of can't really do that. So, I look on the one hand, the kind of present shock reaction would be something like the Tea Party, which is kind of an impatient movement. It's a movement that's saying, look, enough of this legacy. Let's just go now. You know, what do we want now? We want lower taxes, less government, we want this all now. That's very present shockian. On the other side of the coin, the other sort of presentist reaction to this new political landscape would be the Occupy Movement, which, you know, they sat there, and people would ask, what do you want?
RUSHKOFFWhat are your goals? Well, you know, we don't really have goals as such. It's not demands. We're doing this thing. It's like, well, what are you saying? You know, CNN and MSNBC would come down and they couldn't understand, what are these kids saying? You know, they would ask them, when is this movement going to end? And they'd say, well, why does it have to end? They didn't understand it in the sort of traditional campaign rhetoric. It was much more about almost creating a new normative state.
RUSHKOFFIt was much more like, you know, a video game than it was like a book in that sense. It was more something that you play more as a never ending game, as an infinite game, than some kind of a game that you're supposed to win. Because if you win, then it's over. Then you've ended the play. And in a world where we have problems which really aren't problems that you win definitively, you know, whether it's terrorism or climate change or hunger. You know, these are not things you declare a war against and then you've won.
RUSHKOFFThese are more, I hate to say it on a certain level, but these are more steady state issues that we need a more sustainable, less of a conquest approach. So, I'm hopeful that a new politic can emerge, even out of this seeming dysfunction, that acknowledges that we're not in a place where we get done with a problem. But we need to mature to the point where we realize that we need sustainable ongoing approaches to our challenges.
GOLBECKSo, you're just saying that you think about present shock in a lot of different contexts, including business, and so that's my next question for you. How does our desire for this instant gratification affect business decisions, like stock trading, for instance?
RUSHKOFFWell, it's weird. You know, I feel like what we've done, you know, to make a really long story short, I feel like what we've done is we've brought the values of the industrial age into the digital age. And rather than kind of embracing the possibilities of whatever a digital economy might look like, a sustainable digital economy, we're still in the kind of growth by any means necessary mindset of the industrial age. And that's largely because, you know, we haven't really come to grips with the fact that the economy that -- the operating system that we're trying to run our economy on is a 13th century printing press era economic operating system.
RUSHKOFFThat was developed originally by feudal lords who were afraid of losing their power to the rising middle class. You know, the currency we use. It's fine and good. I'm not saying anybody's bad. But, the currency we use was invented by, you know, these very early kings as a way for them to make money, simply by having money. You know, they weren't creating value anymore. They were losing power. Feudalism was over, so they made all the kinds of money that people were using.
RUSHKOFFAll of these peer to peer currencies and peer to peer business activities, they made them illegal and they invented coin of the realm. And it was a smart idea, because the coin that they invented is lent out at interest, and then you have to pay it back, you know, in a certain amount of time. But you have to pay back more than you borrowed. That's literally, that's money with a clock built into it. It's money that -- it's time based money. But, how do you pay back more than you borrowed? Well, the economy has to grow.
RUSHKOFFAnd this worked really well for expanding monarchies. It worked well for colonialism and the sort of the European imperialism. But it doesn't really work so well in a world where we're looking at, well, wait a minute, do we really need to dig more resources out of the ground? Do we really need now to just find jobs for people so that we have some excuse to share the stuff that's in abundance with them? Our growth mandate is not something that's required for the betterment of humans. The growth mandate is just the equations that are -- kind of artifacts of this money system.
RUSHKOFFSo, present shock really is us coming up against the limits of that system, and seeing whether or not we're willing to consider or to negotiate a more steady state economy, a more sustainable economy, rather than one that's really strapped to this industrial age requirement of growth and expansion.
GOLBECKSo, what do you think that kind of steady state economy would look like?
RUSHKOFFWell, you know, I think it might be a bit more locally biased than the one we're in today. You know, this is not to say anything particularly bad about corporations, because I know many of them underwrite the very stations that we're using to talk. God bless them. But, you know, corporatism, as a system, is much more about the extraction of value in the limited time rather than, I'm helping people create value for one another. You know, it's much more about de-localizing peoples' commerce so that you can sell them things from big factories far away.
RUSHKOFFAnd that you can more control over their territories when you look at, even the international trade agreements that are going on today, they're always about, well, along with this international trade agreement will come the regulation making it impossible for any locality to regulate against fracking, or against GMO food, or whatever. So, it's constantly about that. So, when I think about the alternatives, it seems to me we end up with a more local kind of economy where not everything happens locally.
RUSHKOFFWe're not gonna buy our iPhones locally. Those things require these giant international supply chains, but you know, things like, you know, food and clothing and shelter and services might actually be provided, on a certain level, more efficiently by us to one another, than by, ultimately by factories borrowing money from banks, which are getting money from investors, and paying back this giant supply side of capitalists every time you just want to buy a muffin at the grocery store.
RUSHKOFFYou know, there are more efficient ways to make this happen that don't have that same drag. So, I do see local currencies, favor banks, community supported agriculture, local investment and reinvestment in communities, people doing services for one another. And maybe 60, 70, 80 percent of our goods and services being supplied more locally for one another, and then the other 20 percent of, you know, Samsung televisions that we just can't make locally, you know, buying those kinds of things on an international marketplace.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Nate in Alexandria, Virginia. Nate, you're on the air. Go ahead.
NATEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a comment about a paradox that I see with technology. It seems that the promise of technology was supposed to make our lives simpler, but as technology has progressed, it seems -- it necessitates that our lives become more complicated in order to use the technology. And I was wondering if you might be able to comment on at what point in the future do we pass a threshold where technology truly does make our lives simpler, rather than more complicated?
GOLBECKThanks, Nate. Douglas, what are your thoughts?
RUSHKOFFWell, I feel like there's two issues here. I mean, one is, you know, technologies get more and more complex until they suddenly get simple again. And usually, that's because some number of people develop an interface of some kind that hides that whole complex layer from us. So, you know, computers seemed difficult to people -- I thought they were simpler, but I understand, to most people, they seemed more complicated in the early days when you had to type commands into a -- at a DOS prompt in order to make things happen.
RUSHKOFFAnd you'd configure everything yourself. And then, they reached a point where, you know, most people couldn't work them. They looked -- oh my God, this is really hard. And then, all of a sudden, you know, the MacIntosh and Windows and this nice sort of what you see is what you get drag and drop interface comes around that made computing a whole lot simpler. And, you know, that's all fine and good. The issue here, then, is who is it that builds that interface and who have we trusted to that layer below that which we don't see anymore?
RUSHKOFFYou know, the web was very complicated, and people used to be able to make a website in basic HTML, and then there were tables and charts and Java and all these flash things moving around, and then, along comes WordPress, right, which helps you make a website without knowing web programming. But again, what are the biases of WordPress? What is WordPress for? What does it promote versus what does it discourage? After, you know, simpler than that, you get Facebook is the simplest of all.
RUSHKOFFYou can have something that looks like a webpage, you know, without knowing any programming in the slightest. It's totally easy, but you also surrender a whole lot of your autonomy, because Facebook's -- your page on Facebook is -- amounts to little more than a consumer profile. So, you know, you've ended up saving the time, but you end up, if you're not aware of what does this company want from me? What am I giving in return? You end up without the potential of the internet or technology to do whatever you want.
RUSHKOFFAnd instead, you're, you know, in this case, you'd be creating a data profile for big data companies to exploit and market to you.
GOLBECKThis is an interesting point, because you talk about how, I think, very correctly, putting content on the web was something, kind of, restricted to a technically capable elite in the early days of the web. And with the evolution of social media, which is something close to my heart, suddenly it was popularized, and anyone could put something online at any time. And this has brought us into an age where now social media is responsible for the vast majority of content. And a lot of our interactions, and has really augmented the way that people are interacting.
GOLBECKSo, this is a nice lead in to your documentary that's airing on "Frontline" tonight, called "Generation Like." And in that, you explore how marketers use teens as unpaid, and sometimes unwitting, advertisers. Can you talk about the relationship between teens on social media and corporate America?
RUSHKOFFYeah, I mean, they're kind of one and the same. Teens, you know, like teens always, teens want to be liked. They want to be popular, they want to be noticed. And now they have a platform on which to do that, in a way that none of us did growing up. You know, now they can do it in a public sphere. And corporations understand this teen desire to be liked, to win likes. They understand that this is a social currency for young people.
RUSHKOFFAnd they are creating opportunities for kids to earn likes by liking a company, or a product. So, if you, you know, retweet Beyonce or Oreo cookies or Coca Cola, you know, you have a chance that that brand or celebrity will then tweet you or favor you. You know, the implied promise in any of these sort of online promotions is that you stand a chance to get noticed. You stand a chance to earn more followers, to earn more favorites and more likes and more follows. And that's compelling.
RUSHKOFFAnd corporations, it's interesting, corporations get more than one thing out of it. On the one hand, yeah, they get thousands of kids, or millions of kids tweeting something, creating a publicity campaign, you know, that's better than advertising. If you've got a move like "Hunger Games," or a pop star, there's nothing better than having hundreds of thousands of teens favoriting and tweeting and talking about it, because then it looks, to everyone, like this is just a grass roots, natural, transparent wonderful thing.
RUSHKOFFLike, you're not really advertising. You're just letting people talk about what you're doing to their friends. And that's a great thing, that's publicity, but on the second layer, what they're really getting is a kind of a real time portrait of the social communications landscape. They want to know who's influencing whom. You know, what sorts of messaging spreads fastest and to where, so that they can have a portrait, a data portrait, which is really even more valuable than any individual campaign.
RUSHKOFFSo, they know where to go and what to do, and they can really finely tune pretty much everything about their business based on this kind of data exchange between young people.
GOLBECKYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about how technology impacts our lives in a moment. Stay with us.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Douglas Rushkoff about the impact of technology on our lives. How often do you or your teenagers use Facebook to like a product or a performer? Do you worry about how much companies are learning about you based on the things you post or say online? Join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or sending us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Douglas, tell us exactly how companies make money from people's tweets and Facebook likes.
RUSHKOFFThat's interesting. Exactly is the tricky word. The honest -- God's honest truth is companies -- the companies that make the most money off kids' tweets and likes do it by having stock valuations that are directly related to how many likes and follows in things they have. And there's a ton of companies, big multi-billion-dollar companies out there that really don't make a profit.
RUSHKOFFAll right. They don't make money, but they can get investment dollars. They can get high stock valuations by showing, oh, look how many likes, look how many follows, look how much traffic there is, you know, so a company like Instagram or Tumblr gets bought for a billion or $2 billion, you know, not because they make money but because they have these audiences that people think or hope they're going to be able to make money off in the future.
RUSHKOFFBut it is interesting that we do have an economy now that's almost depending on the traffic itself. We need teens tweeting and clicking and doing more than we need them buying at this point because it's -- those likes are money in itself. You know, in the real way, I guess, you know, companies who do make money in this space, you know, either make it by, you know, Oreos, say, you know, they do different kinds of tweets. They have these, you know, campaigns where -- you know, when gay marriages passed, they put out an Instagram picture of an Oreo cookie with rainbow-colored filling.
RUSHKOFFYou know, and they -- in theory, that leads eventually to sales because so many people retweet that and identify with it and feel good about Oreos. And it expands their market from just kids to the 20-somethings who have been fighting for that. But I think that almost pales in comparison to the kind of money that's made, you know, by Facebook or, you know, Twitter or someone based really mainly on the sense that this is the future of communication.
GOLBECKThis grassroots movement, these are sometimes judged to be so worthwhile that we actually see it faked where we have Astroturfing, fake grassroots movements, particularly with political campaigns where they'll have bots or they'll pay people to tweet to make it look like there's a big grassroots amount of support for them online, even though there isn't.
RUSHKOFFYeah. It's interesting. You know, and I have a feeling that the main people that fools is those of us in the media who are looking for a metric, you know, to put in our story. And so you're looking. Oh, look. Oh, look at. There's a million people like this thing. OK. I guess this is something. And you put it in the article. And, you know, it's tricky to know, what does that million likes or a million follows, you know, really mean?
RUSHKOFFYou know, on the other hand, you know, if you can prove that you've got engagement -- you know, there's a guy who's got a new kind of talent agency in California called theAudience, a guy named Oliver Luckett. And it's kind of a, in some ways, almost a spinoff of William Morris for the social media era. And what he does is proves sort of consumer engagement versus fan engagement.
RUSHKOFFSo he'll have a star in his stable, like Ian Somerhalder who's one of the stars of this show "Vampire Diaries." He's got, you know, 4 million followers on Twitter. And then what Luckett can do is use big data analysis to say, well, look, you know, 7 percent of my stars' followers on Twitter also happen to have engaged with the brand Origins online or with Democratic candidates online.
RUSHKOFFAnd then therefore my, you know, my star is someone that the Democratic Party or a PAC should advertise with. Or you should get him to promote, you know, your political cause to his network because his network is, you know, you're proven target audience.
GOLBECKYou've said teens are letting themselves be used by marketers, and they don't care. Should they?
RUSHKOFFWell, I like to think they should. You know, it's funny. You know, I did a documentary 10 or 15 years ago called "The Merchants of Cool." And that was really looking at the sort of cat-and-mouse game between teens and marketers and how teens would hop from one thing to another. As soon as the marketers found it, they would try to go then to another sort of unspoiled area, you know, that once something actually showed up on MTV, it meant it was no longer cool.
RUSHKOFFAnd kids today, I mean, they're not hiding from the marketers. They're delivering their consumer profiles to the marketers on Facebook. They're spending time and energy doing it. They want it to be noticed, and they want to be engaged with directly. You know, toward the end of this documentary, I started asking kids, you know, what to you is selling out or what does selling out mean?
RUSHKOFFAnd none of them even knew what selling out meant anymore. They thought, oh, you mean, like, selling out a concert, you know, there's no more tickets left? None of them, not one of, you know, 50 or 100 kids that we asked this question to were able to say, you know, what selling out meant in the sense that I understood it when certainly when I was their age or in college. And I think that's -- it's because they don't really draw a distinction anymore. There really is no culture and counterculture. There's just this one thing.
RUSHKOFFThere's this one social media swirl. Everything is kind of at the same level. And that's -- I don't know. That's concerning to me only because it means that everything goes to the least common denominator. You don't have these little pockets where you can develop stuff. You know, if you're not getting a zillion likes, then you may as well not exist. And the kids who aren't getting a zillion likes, they change what they're doing in order to get the likes rather than changing what they're doing because it's meeting some higher standard or anybody's developing them.
RUSHKOFFYou know, and when you're doing it all for the likes, you end up going toward the mean. Your entertainment ends up looking more like a car crash. You know, the kids who are skateboarders end up becoming more like pranksters on whatever that show was, you know, where you just -- they had things like fart masks and kids crashing and whatever.
GOLBECKI think I missed that one.
RUSHKOFF"Jackass," it was a big show. It's sort of like that. Or girls who start as singers -- there's a girl on our show. She wanted to be a singer, and then she realized she got more likes when she posed in a bathing suit, you know. So what is she doing? She's not singing. She's posing in her bathing suit or doing kind of sexy stuff in her bedroom because that's going to get her more likes, and that's what you want, is to get more likes, not just socially but career-wise.
RUSHKOFFYou have more likes, you have more of a chance of getting sponsor, of getting a job, of getting noticed by a company who will then sponsor you in return for access to your social network. You know, it's not about the art. It's not about the music. I mean, you can say it never was, but I think it was. I think there were -- people had time to develop an audience slowly and based on what they did.
RUSHKOFFAnd the thing they actually sold was their music, was their writing, was their performance. Now they're not selling that anymore. You know, you give that away for free, and what you amass is a social network. What you amass is a million followers. And that's what you can sell to a brand. That's what you can make money off.
GOLBECKWe have an email from Maura that says, "I'm 27 years old. And I was really excited when Facebook came out when I was freshman in college. Now, I continually think about deactivating my account because I feel like it's become more of a keeping up with the Joneses kind of platform.
GOLBECK"But my job makes me feel pressure to delve into social media to communicate with the younger generation. I feel very much like my 62-year-old father when I say this, but I often just want to unplug. Needing to be connected and know everything that's going on as it happens is stressful. What kind of suggestions do you have for maintaining a bit of sanity amid this information overload?"
RUSHKOFFWell, I actually got off Facebook. I mean, and partly I did it just to prove that one can, even a person who's plugged into media and writing about all this stuff. You don't have to have a Facebook account. You know, I didn't want one. Also, I didn't want to set that example. I didn't want to be inviting people to like my page and then making them vulnerable to all of the stuff I know is actually going on behind the scenes. It's just not fair for me as somebody who's kind of preaching good digital hygiene.
RUSHKOFFYou know, what I would tell Maura is understand the difference between work and life. You know, if you need to have an account for work, then that's what that is, and that's work. It's not fair for you to have to be working all the time. You know, no, Facebook is not a requirement. None of these things are requirements to anybody living a good life, you know, especially when you realize that 93 percent of human communication happens nonverbally in real spaces with real people. You know, that's the only stuff that nourishes you on a deep level.
RUSHKOFFSo, you know, these technologies, they really can be a great way to do some stuff without driving to work. But they can also trickle into your entire life where you feel obligated to be kind of always on, not just for your family, not just for your friends, not just for your school, but also for your job, that's not -- it's really not appropriate.
RUSHKOFFYou know, the beauty of a digital age is that it gives us more choice, not less. And if your only choice is whether to be on Twitter or on Facebook, that's not a choice. That's the same as the choice of consumer culture where you could buy Tide or All or Cheer, as long as you buy one of them. You know, the fact is you also have the choice to be off. You know, I'm not saying don't use these technology. I'm saying, use them when you want to.
RUSHKOFFAnd if more of us stood up to it and said, you know, no, I don't have to be on for every call and every tweet and every update all the time for every moment of my life, you start to breathe. You know, you start to feel. You start to engage with other people. So we can. You know, it's not a war. We don't have to -- resistance is not futile, and resistance is not difficult. It just is a matter of getting over the almost -- well, the actually obsessive compulsive need to keep checking.
RUSHKOFFWhat's on there? What's happened? What's on there? These interfaces are being designed by the smartest kids out of Stanford, the ones who aren't doing algorithms for the stock market, which is something I should have talked about in that business part, who aren't automating the stock market to extract value from the entire economy. They're going to Facebook and Twitter and Google, trying to make interfaces that compel us to stay connected all the time with every second of our lives.
RUSHKOFFIf you understand that you are up against a multi-billion-dollar industry trying to convince you and persuade you to stay engaged, you'll feel a little bit better about turning the thing off 'cause you realize you're not -- it's not the thing that's after you. It's not even the people on the other end of that thing that are after you. It's a business that's looking to extract more value from you in the terms of, you know, human time.
GOLBECKWhat surprised you most in your reporting for the documentary "Generation Like"?
RUSHKOFFI guess the thing that surprised me most was that these platforms have values embedded in them. And you kind of -- you can't use them without beginning to live by some of those values yourself. You can't have a Facebook page without starting to worry about how many numbers are there, you know, and how many likes you got, how noticed are you, you know, that kids and adults alike, on Linkedin and everything else, you know, you use the values of the platform. They become yours if you use the platform.
RUSHKOFFThose numbers are there. You can feel those values really becoming your own. And I was surprised by how unconscious most people seemed of how much they had changed by using them, of how ready and willing they were to change what they did in order to make the platforms happy rather than trying to find a platform or devices or technologies that helped them do what it was they actually wanted to do.
GOLBECKAfter reporting this documentary, what advice do you have for parents of the teens that are using this technology?
RUSHKOFFWell, I mean, I made the documentary for those kids and parents, I mean, to really expose this is who you're working for. I would suggest that parents, rather than trying to say, oh, this technology's bad, or, oh, you should stay away, or, look what it's doing to you, and, you know, all that kind of stuff that parents normally do, is, instead, help them see what's underneath it.
RUSHKOFFYou know, ask them the right kinds of questions. Who owns this platform? Who's the customer of this platform? Oh, you think you're the customer? What are you paying them? Or who is paying them? And what is the person paying them? What are they getting?
RUSHKOFFYou know, asking the right kinds of questions help them see that their parents aren't the only horrible grownups in this equation, that there's equally horrible grownups at the companies that are trying to extract value from them and to try to help them understand -- or to at least look at whether or not they're the ones who hold the power in these landscapes.
GOLBECKSo you've said teenagers today don't really have this notion of selling out. Can you talk briefly about how much value they place on their own personal brand and then also how that's balanced against privacy concerns?
RUSHKOFFWell, they have no assumption of privacy anymore. They don't -- you hear all the NSA stuff. And if you're a kid, it's just telling you, oh, nothing's private, ever, period. So they've grown up in a world where nothing's private. They've grown up in a world where there's all these pictures taken of them from the time they're a little kid, even put online by their parents in their -- those old, you know, Flickr accounts. They've never had an expectation of privacy, so they don't value that. They don't see that as something that they need.
RUSHKOFFI mean, some of them, you know, trash their own Facebook accounts when they graduate college before they start their jobs as a way of saying, oh, now I'm going to, you know, live more clean. But they know. They know it's all there. And that's not even -- you know, that's not even a point of warning. That's nothing that even concerns them anymore. I think it -- you know, the -- almost the only tact that seems to matter with them is, are they getting to be themselves? You know, who are they?
RUSHKOFFAre they willing to dance for the man, you know, and to become a class clown or a stripper or a fool in order to get more numbers and feed these corporate coffers? Or do they want to take more time to figure out if there's a more substantive contribution that they can make to their society?
GOLBECK"Generation Like" airs tonight at 10 p.m. on PBS. We've been talking with Douglas Rushkoff, producer, writer, and correspondent for the FRONTLINE documentary "Generation Like," and author of the book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now." Douglas, thanks for being with us.
RUSHKOFFOh, thanks so much for having me.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
The author talks about writing, his ties to the region and literacy advocacy.
Kojo explores how much input the public should have in public art projects and how that squares with the visions of the artists who do the work.
The Arlington County Board halted two long-planned, but long-controversial streetcar projects, saying voters had spoken this month against moving forward. We examine the implications of the decision.