Digital Disruption and the Death of Storytelling

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May 6, 2015 by Bill Johnson


Professor and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff contends that social media, Big Data and digital technology, in general, are hampering rather than helping marketers’ abilities to connect with consumers.

The beginning of my conversation with Douglas Rushkoff happens as if it had been scripted: Rushkoff tries to answer my call while it’s being redirected from his phone through his laptop, through Google Voice and Skype, and the call doesn’t connect. “I don’t know what’s happening anymore,” he says. “Everything rings at once, and everything refers to something else.”

Rushkoff is an expert in analyzing missed connections. As a media theorist, professor, author and business consultant, he studies people’s inability to connect with another person or an ideology—or a phone call—while they’re immersed in this era of multitasking and digital chaos. He has bigger fish to fry than to pick on some marketers’ misguided use of Big Data or their focus on real-time responses rather than on meaningful message development. He researches how digital disruption interferes with social interactions and society’s value creation. He examines media and messaging disconnects from nations and governments, and assesses people’s cognitive responses to communications on macro and micro levels, but marketing features prominently in his research because, he says, “marketers are the ones who have been the most interested in how media is changing because, in some ways, they’re the ones with the most at stake.”

After a Yale education in filmmaking and theater direction, Rushkoff started his career as a media strategist in 1991 when he wrote Cyberia, his first book on cyber culture, which was quickly cancelled by his publisher, Bantam, because the editors thought that cyber culture would be “over” by 1993. The book was published in 1994. Rushkoff’s next book, Media Virus, discusses the viral nature of digital content, and soon after its publication, Rushkoff was invited to work as a media strategist for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Station.

In his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of direction because our culture has become too focused on the present. Today’s priorities take precedence, much to the detriment of long-term planning and cohesive communications strategies in marketing, advertising, politics and elsewhere.

Now a professor of media theory and digital economics at Queens College, part of City University of New York, Rushkoff recently helped start the school’s Center for Media Studies. Here, he discusses how the complex state of digital media is changing human interactions, and impeding marketers’ progress.

Q: Talk about the intersection of personal identities and our digital selves.

A: The most sweeping way of explaining it is that digital technology emerged as a set of new possibilities for people to express and experience themselves, and relate to others in new, highly creative and self-determined ways. It emerged as an extension of our human abilities to think, connect, create, exchange value and do all sorts of stuff, really—to design our own reality as we live it. We’ve ended up using digital technology mostly to preserve the market as we know it rather than invest in a new one. That’s led to some real problems. Rather than using technology to extend and expand on what it means to be human, we’ve used it to lock down a very 20th-century understanding of what it is to be a human being, and to prevent any kind of growth.

Read more: Digital Disruption and the Death of Storytelling

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