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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