Technology, Art, And Why The Future Of Branding Is Nonfiction

Ahead of his appearance at the art/tech event, Rhizome Seven on Seven, Douglas Rushkoff talks to us about the changing role of artists and technologists and how brands can no longer be abstract.

Author and futurist Douglas Rushkoff—in his books or, in this case, via Skype—is frequently the voice of unconventional wisdom. He has argued, for example, that employment is an obsolete economic indicator and, though he has long been a tech enthusiast, his latest book—Program or Be Programmed—is a technological cautionary tale. There he argues, via "Ten Commands for a Digital Age," that the technology that takes up more and more of our lives comes with built-in biases—toward simplification of complex issues, for example, and toward anonymity—and that in order to counteract these biases, we should learn how our programs work. We should all become programmers, in other words, a process Rushkoff now admits could be "harder than I might have made it sound, especially for an adult. It’s certainly as hard as learning Portuguese."

Next Saturday, April 14, at New York’s New Museum, he will deliver the keynote at the Rhizome Seven on Seven Conference, which pairs noted artists and technologists together and challenges them to develop a project in just 24 hours.

We asked Rushkoff some questions about Rhizome, branding, and the future of marketing. As you might expect, some of his answers are unconventional.

CO.CREATE: What is your keynote going to be about?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I think what I’m going to talk about is the history of the relationship of artsy to techy people, and how I feel like it’s reversed over the last 20 years. The artsiest people went into technology and it feels now like—especially when I go someplace like Rhizome and see these partnerships between technology people and arts people—that the arts people are the nerds. The technology people are the people coming up with wild ideas and going forward and building them and the arts people are the ones who say, "This is a sort of Schopenhauer-influenced post-modern blah, blah, blah." They’re the ones creating the documentation and the historical framework around projects that are pure imagination. So it looks to me like the nature of the partnerships between artists and technology people are the opposite of what they might have been back in the day, where the art boys were the crazy, wild people, pairing up with nerds to sort of envision this technological future. And now it’s wild-eyed technologists pairing up with educated, almost PhD-like artists, in order to contextualize what they’re doing more responsibly.

In your book, you argue that brands were necessary fictions that no longer make sense. What does that mean for the brand discourse that is so prevalent today?

It means people shifting their understanding of brand. Brand always had two functions. One of its functions was to mask the long-distance industrial-age reality behind a product because people’s personal relationships with producers were being replaced by the plain, brown-box relationship to mass-produced goods. That was one function: to humanize factory products.

The other function of the brand, though, was to create accountability. The difference between a branded product and an unbranded one, was a branded one, you knew who you could go to. They’re there. It’s their way of owning the product, both in the bad kind of way and the good way. We’re standing behind this. So the we’re-standing-behind-this aspect of branding I think still holds.

[But] it’s not about creating a mythology around the way a product was created, so it’s no longer "these were cookies made by elves in a hollow tree." That’s not the value of the brand. The value of the brand is where did this actually come from? What’s in this cookie? Who made it? Are Malaysian children losing their fingers in the cookie press or is this being made by happy cookie culture people? At that point, all these companies come to people like me saying, "We want to become transparent. We want a transparent communication strategy." And I’m like "Well, are you proud of what’s going on inside your company? Are you proud enough to pull up the shades and let people see inside?" It’s that easy.
Every company has a social media strategy whether they know it or not. You can have your dedicated social media person chasing down consumer complaints, but your real social media strategy is how are the people who work at your company and the people who buy from your company and people who supply to your company, how are they talking about you in social media? The way to make them talk about you [favorably] is by walking the walk of the thing that you do. And that’s so hard for so many of these companies because they’ve become so abstracted. They’ve become so distanced from the core competence of their industry. The job of a communicator—or someone like me—is to go in and say, well, just do something. Don’t outsource one thing and then make your company about that."

What will marketing organizations look like in the future?

It will be companies that figure out how to communicate the non-fiction story of a company, so it’s going to look a lot more like a communications company than a creative branding agency. It’s going to look a little bit more like PR, in some sense. It’s going to be people who go and figure out what does your company do and how do we let the world know about that? There’s going to be a lot of psychology involved, except instead of it being psychologists turned against the consumer, it’s going to be psychologists going in and trying to convince companies that what they’re doing is worthy. It’s breaking down this false need in companies to hide from the public what they’re doing—except for the ones that do (need to hide).

The thesis of your book is that digital technology has built-in biases that limit choices and discard information. Do you think exercises like Seven on Seven can serve to overcome, or at least reveal some, of these limitations?

I think the artist, even more than government, has become the one who is doing long-term thinking about what’s happening, what are the implications, what are we doing to ourselves? And they’re some of the only ones, really. An artist’s job is to sit outside what’s happening and reflect back to us where the human is in this. I think it’s a very valuable exercise. It’s just the opposite exercise of what most people probably think it is. It’s not for technologists to realize the visions of artists. It feels much more like it’s for artists to contextualize the visions of technologists.

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  • Mark A Carbone

    I really liked the point that we need to get to know the logic/preset bias programmed into the software, apps, social networks, and search engines we rely on to conduct business and live our lives. 

    That Bias Is Usually: 
    Weak winnie priviladged brain washed anti-American, anti-Constitution leaning, not married 20-30 somethings struggling with their sexuality driven by lies from Hollywood, while worshiping their tragically lost and agenda driven college professors.  Those environmental and psychological biases of their lives leak into their programming.  Very deep.

    The first 8 years owning my company we were a 100% software shop and of the few hundred programmers I hired over those years, so many had strong biases exactly as I mentioned above. 

    Same goes true for Marketing - our company for the last 5 years has been a 100% marketing agency and the young talented people coming up with the commercials on TV and the prime time sitcom dribble are mostly 20-30 something single dopes with agendas. 

  • Penny Haywood Calder

    The great thing about stories in companies and brands and their culture is that it brings people back to the root vision and values, which are the engines of drive and enthusiasm. It's a virtuous circle and the stories are just as relevant to the techies as the arties. I think we all dip in and out of both technology and art to a greater or lesser degree at the extreme ends of these disciplines. 

  • Richard

    Just wondering how this relationship of artsy to techy people, will be adversely affected by the current state of the economy?

  • Mark @ Make Them Click

    Fascinating article.

    I've always said that the web/technology industry is the rock n roll of our current age.

    There are so many revolutionaries and stirrers in it.

    "I tip my hat to the new revolution, smile and grin at the change all around,..."


  • RTCunningham

    Mr. Hanas assumes consumers will make rational choices when presented with non-biased information. If that were the case, we'd all be using Macs. I agree with the concept of transparency, but I'm not sure large, successful corporations will be quick to embrace unproven techniques-especially with our 21st century fascination with shareholder value.

  • Ian_cross

    I agree with a few commentators who in their way cite the "Great OZ" effect in what tech brings to the table. "Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain."   I am not convinced that the tech side will offer up anything new for brands or clarity into company values. The digital landscape is fluid fast, and its sense of transparency if this is what is meant by something that can be  seen through, is more or less a dissimulated transparency. I agree with Barkingdog48 and Lipscombe Richard tech brings its own variables but these variables do not bring me closer to better information. The new conduits of information are more manipulated, but each one feigns simplicity.

  • Lipscombe Richard

    this article raises, again, a very pertinent question: what is the future of brands in a global digital economy?  it already seems clear that digital brands will be created, validated, and cremated by consumers not many ways this will be a return to the 1950s when the Tupperware brand was created by a social network of home-based parties..Tupperware was a 1950s analogue version of what a 2012 digital brand should be... it was grounded in the consumer experience that went had built-in transparency, it had direct sales/distribution at Tupperware parties, and it had no need for retail marketing spin...there are many other contemporary brands that are non-fictional, consumer experience based, transparent, global, and viral... those brands include Saddleback Church and Threadless (the T-shirt cooperative)...look them up and you instantly get a peek into the possible future of brands....  finally, Seven on Seven - this is simply more blah blah blah and while it may be entertaining to those who attend it has no meaning for the future of brands....

  • Barkingdog48

    "Artsy-techy" has been a long journey through the ghetto of discarded tech and discarded people. As a photographer educated in the late 60's, "techy" stole my film based media rendering cameras not only obsolete but junk. The digital age gave us crap audio and rough-edged visual media and sold it to humanity as the only valid imaging to use. It has sucked. Now, Nikon finally has evolved a camera that, yes, uses, converges and increases the value and usability of old lens which now work on the latest Nikon digital cameras giving us what we had in 1968, the full 24x36 frame we had and now is a digital image capture device. It literally has come full circle. Problem is people squinted at digital images trying to convince themselves that they could create great images, only to produce low resolution crap and sell it as "artsy-techy" imaging.

  • Antoinette Hoes

    Thought starters. But had we not also established a short while ago that people don not make rational decision making animals?! How come we think we can persuade them to do the right thing by just giving them information?

  • Jessica Durivage

    Amazing article and hits on some pretty heated disucssions I have been having lately about social media vs pr vs marketing. Love it. Love it. The lines are getting more and more subtle and hopefully some are realizing that we made them up, anyway.

  • Promotional_Imprinted_Products

    Great article! Branding is becoming more personal. It's about developing a personal relationship with consumers. They want to know who you are. 

  • Corbet Curfman

    I could not agree more with the role reversal of artists and technologists. When we think of innovative artists that have made an impact on the world, it has not been through looking at the future (technologist role). They have made us look at ourselves and the way we perceive the world around us; Picasso, Manet, Modrian, etc... This is the artist role. This typically has included some form of abstraction reflected in perception. What I find really interesting about this article, is that as we look at branding becoming non-fiction, there will probably be another level of abstraction that happens after we reach that plateau. The challenge of the artist will come back again.

  • Shelly Lucas

    Well said, Corbet! Companies who open the kimono to consumers will inevitably receive more feedback  on their nonfiction brands. Looking/listening through the lens/filters of real-time customers, will businesses need to see themselves—and their brands—differently? How will nonfiction brands keep pace with evolving customers? And how will they manage to tell their story on a continuum, via the many social tentacles of brand advocates (including employees)?

  • Kevin W. McCarthy

    Truth in advertising!  Now there's a "novel" concept for the Digital Age.

  • Andrew Simms

    Good Creatives and good Suits in the advertising world have always sought to uncover the gems of truth about a product. 
    And to put them on loudspeaker in the advertising. But often the client's idea of the kind of image it should project gets in the way. And the truth is buried in hyperbole and wishful thinking.The big shift Jim's pointing to here is that the idea of expressing the truth is becoming inescapable. Mandatory. And that's a good thing. This might be the catalyst for the next great age of advertising.

  • kfalter

    Awesome article. Totally agree that companies, brands, and "makers" are going to be opening up the kimono to have a very real and frank discussion with their users, customers, and passionate fans. 

    The creation process is not about elves in a workshop producing something and debuting it. The future of it is about a collective contribution and clarity of understanding around the process. This will help grow even deeper, truer connections between people who love a brand/product and the actual brand/product itself

  • jonathansalembaskin

    Douglas is spot on! The idea that brands are narratives of experience vs. stories or overlays is very powerful and keyed to the reality of p2p communities. My co-author Sue Unerman and I wrote an entire book about it, just out, entitled "Tell The Truth," in which we explore brands that have figured out how to deliver the qualities and dimensions of truth into the mediasphere (as Douglas suggests, enabling people to talk ABOUT brands and what they know vs. trying to talk TO them).

  • Addison Whitney

    What an interesting interview, thanks so much for posting this. I've always enjoyed Douglas' unconventional wisdom and outlook on the industry. Good luck at 7 on 7!