As part of the run-up to PSFK CONFERENCE 2013 in New York this April, PSFK will be publishing a series of short interviews with speakers to give a taste of what will be discussed in this meeting of creative minds. Douglas Rushkoff is the author of several inspiring publications, most recently, ‘Present Shock.’ He shared his thoughts on today’s type of ‘active’ narrative, brought about through the immediacy of communication.
You discuss the art of narrative in your book, ‘Present Shock.’ How important is it to preserve an arc given that the social media tools and need for immediacy can often cut thoughts and stories short?
I guess it depends who is doing the preserving. I’d say it’s still important for the director of a traditional narrative film to be able to maintain the narrative arc of his project. But I’m not sure anyone else needs to be worrying about that so much right now, as new forms of communication undermine the authority of traditional arcs.
Political campaigns are becoming less about following a path or realizing a dream than enacting things in the present. Branding is less about telling stories about elves in hollow trees and more about sharing the true facts about where the ingredients come from, how the company treats its works, and so on. Even television is becoming less episodic and more continuous in nature – less about individual stories and more about the never-ending soap opera.
It’s hard to say whether technology – from the remote control and DVR to social media – have caused this aversion to traditional narrative arcs or simply arisen to engage with those who are already fed up. We have had a good thousand or so years of traditional narrative arcs, and they have been exploited by everyone from priests to advertisers to financial advisors. That’s part of why people are less interested in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow than they are in what is happening right now.
Do you see a movement back towards creating a ‘story’ as opposed to the constant shortening of information through social media tools like Twitter?
I do, but not so much as passive spectators as active participants. I think people – especially younger people – are beginning to see the value in participatory narrative, from computer games to Occupy. Video games occur in the present tense. We don’t sit and watch some character go through his or her story. We make the story through our choices in real time. Massive online games, like World of Warcraft, have no ending or winner. To win the game would end the play. Instead, thousands of people engage in storytelling play together, as a way of keeping the game going. That’s a style of entertainment much more consonant with a world in which sustainability is primary goal.
How can a business or start-up thrive in today’s digital landscape?
Well, the big answer they don’t want to hear: don’t exit. If you’re starting up a business just to flip it, I don’t really have any advice for you. You’re basically enacting a Ponzie scheme. If you’re a big business sitting on a ton of cash, you’ve got a problem, too. As we all know by now, corporate profit over net worth has been shrinking for decades now. It’s easier to collect cash than it is to find productive assets through which to invest it.
So my advice is to find the thing you actually want to do, and then build your business around that. Take as little money as possible, so that your business can be about your relationships to your customers and employees rather to your investors. Because your investors don’t care about your business; their goals are very different from yours.
In Present Shock, I explain how the money we use – debt-based currency – has a clock built into it. It was great for the 13th century, when European nations wanted to expand, and there were plenty of territories to take and people to conquer. But it’s not so great for the steady-state economy where we are finding ourselves. It requires businesses to grow at the rate of their debt structure rather than at the rate of demand. That’s why Michael Dell is buying back his computer company; it’s why GE is leaving the banking business and learning how to make stuff again. They finally get it.
We have to communicate to people in this new, present tense.