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Doug Rushkoff on the Technologies of Persuasion
Jon Lebkowsky, 28 Sep 07
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Doug Rushkoff is a leading author and teacher on the intersections of media technologies with how people communicate, create, and learn. When I read (via boingboing.net) that Doug would be teaching an online course about "Technologies of Persuasion" at the distance learning site Maybe Logic Academy, I invited him to stop by and tell us what he's up to. The result was a truly Worldchanging conversation:

Jon: Tell us about Maybe Logic Academy and the "Technologies of Persuasion" course you're going to teach there. Persuade us!

Doug: Well, I wouldn't want to persuade you of anything! If you were in there I'd have to really work.

Seriously, I wouldn't want to use any tactic to get someone to take my course, or to do anything at all. Once a person has been cajoled, there's almost always a negative effect later on. Chairman Mao used to talk about this – how people can't be inspired to foist a revolution, but that it has to come from them. (Not that he lived or led true to this dictum.)

I get asked all the time, "how can we get people to be more this or more that?" Usually by Jewish groups looking to get kids to be more Jewish, progressive groups looking to get people to be more politically active (or at least to contribute money to the right PAC), or my editors asking me to get more people to buy my books. And I think the object of the game is to get out of the mindset of "getting people to do something" and instead just create a really nice, really open invitation. No one wants to do something that someone else has to expend effort to get them to do – if that makes any sense. If the Jews, for example, are busy trying to get people to be Jewish, and particularly if they do it in an alarmist "Judaism is dying!" way, then who wants to go be Jewish?

Likewise, if I expend effort to persuade people to pay 145 bucks to take an online course with me through the Maybe Logic Academy, then I'm already on the wrong side of the equation.

What I will tell you is that Robert Anton Wilson's online school, Maybe Logic Academy, asked me three or four years ago to do a course for them, and I kept delaying because I just haven't had time. But then when RAW went and died, I figured a few of us really had to step up and take the torch – provoke inquiry, lead discussions, help people see the underlying assumptions shaping our reality. And these Maybe Logic folks are good people, with real integrity, who care about the kinds of issues that Bob cared about.

And so I put together a course loosely based on a NYU course I did a year ago that proved unexpectedly successful. It's called "Technologies of Persuasion," and it will give us an opportunity to explore the relationship of media, technology, and human agency. Did the inventions of text, the printing press, the television, or the Internet improve our access to the laws and values by which we live? Who gains more power when a new medium surfaces – the audience or the advertisers? Why do we seem never to be able to capitalize on renaissance?

They asked me to assign at least one of my own books, which I did, but I've also got some great readings in there by everyone from Adorno to Genesis P- Orridge. So I think we'll have a good time. And I'm really looking to be swayed, myself. I haven't been too hopeful lately about the potential of new media to liberate us from the darker effects of corporate capitalism. Maybe some enlightened souls will show up and make me a bit more optimistic again.

Jon: I figured you would be teaching critical thinking about media. I think that's easier to do now than before the Internet appeared, because that 'net-driven explosion in the number and diversity of microchannels for communication, stewing in an environment for many media, has been a sort of Krell mind amplification for the masses, where we could suddenly, readily see the men behind the curtain. Now we have guys like the Eisenbergs (in "Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?: Persuading Customers When They Ignore Marketing") saying that traditional marketing is dysfunctional, and coming up with a "persuasion architecture" to define and address various personae.

Do you get consulting gigs with a lot of post-broadcast questions? "How can we make them buy our widget when adverts mean nothing to them?" (And when the widget market is generally Open Source!)

Doug: Well, I don't do any consulting. Never really have, except to Dell back when. My "gigs" as such are always just talks. Sometimes they'll ask me to come back and ask me questions, but nine times out of ten those are VPs looking for a more rewarding career path, and using me as more of a spiritual counselor or shrink. So I give them permission to quit.

Don't hire me as a consultant unless you're truly ready to leave your job.

My whole pitch on marketing and communications is for companies to stop creating mythologies and persuasion campaigns around the products that they're disconnected with, and to start getting involved in some aspect of the thing they're selling.

The easiest tactic is to become involved in at least one area of the design or manufacturing of the product you're selling. So, if you're making shoes, you should have someone on the staff who is connected not only with the shoe industry, but with the particular shoes you're selling. Ideally, your company actually designs and makes the shoes. This way, instead of creating a marketing myth (our shoes are made by elves who live in a hollow tree) you can actually develop a culture around the shoe itself. The employees and customers end up becoming part of the same culture of shoe design, manufacture, and appreciation.

So I go and talk at lots of companies, and try to help them figure out whether there's anyone on their staff who is connected to the industry that the company is a part of. And then, to look at how to make that person or persons more central to what the company says about itself.

All the rest of it – this Blink/LizardBrain/CultureOfPropaganda nonsense is just a way for sold-out intellectuals to sell books to cynical marketers. It's all based on the faulty observation that human beings make all of their choices in the same reptilian fashion. Just because a person's brain may light up in certain way when the see a blue Pepsi can doesn't mean that they'll make important life choices that way – or even trivial choices at the grocery store.

The kind of marketing you're talking about is an effort to fill in where advertising has failed. And while it doesn't really work to sell particular products, it does have a major and deleterious effect on our society. The underlying communication still gets through. And that communication is: you are not worthy, you are in need, you need to buy something to fill that hole in your soul. Mommy doesn't love you, but the corporation does.

Jon: In the anti-marketing school of thought, they talk about creating great customer experiences and triggering word of mouth. In all this, I suppose the "customer" or "consumer" is just another statistic. Hard to be authentic with people you're seeing as aggregate numbers, and not as human beings.

I've been hanging out with people who want to transform economic thinking – build an economy based on sustainability... "economics as if people mattered," as Schumacher said. How do we get to that kind of transformation? It feels like we have to sell, but selling it is sort of antithetical to the intention.

Doug: I don't think you can do it without first revealing the underlying biases and false assumptions of the money we're using.

Centralized currency -- invented during the Renaissance, really -- favors the kinds of business practices and centralization of power that actually works against good, honest, local commerce. In short, it favors Wal-Mart over, say, Community Supported Agriculture.

There are other kinds of money – and they were in existence until they were outlawed by kings and queens looking to centralize authority. Money that is lent into existence by a central bank will tend towards scarcity and competition. Money that is earned into existence by people in a specific place has very different properties, and works on a model of abundance.

Even sacred economic doctrines, like the law of competitive advantage, are based on a series of assumptions. The models that prove their effectiveness, for example, assume 100 percent employment. And that just isn't the case in the nations that signed onto NAFTA and other open-market agreements.

So the first step is to separate commerce from the very specific commercial and economic architecture created specifically to favor corporations and promote competition for scarce resources.

Jon: So should we promote and focus on, for instance, complementary currencies? Barter? These strategies seem to be gaining adherents.

Doug: Not barter necessarily, which doesn't utilize any form of currency at all. It's not very efficient. But local currencies can be tremendously efficient – and they certainly cost less than artificially scarce centralized currency.

Currency is just one very tangible way of confronting the problems I'm talking about. It's one way of reclaiming the right to create value, rather than to have all value created by or (at best) through corporations. I can't sell you my book without involving the Fed. But I don't want to give you my book and then have you have to get over here and wash my car. So currency has a great purpose. But so does looking at why a book I just write and post online won't earn me the same compensation as one I sell through Rupert Murdoch. Or why Wikipedia – perhaps the most utilized online resource – is incapable of paying for its bandwidth.

What we're looking at, on a more fundamental level, is how to challenge the rules of the game. And that means first learning to see that these social conventions are games at all. They are not pre-existing conditions, they are agreements or impositions of laws that favor the people who put them in place. The landscape itself is tilted towards certain players and away from others. Instead of simply strategizing how to "win" in the given rule set, we must take charge of the game and rewrite the rules themselves.

Jon: In my recent Worldchanging interview with Paul Hawken and Bill McKibben, we were talking about how to transform the way people think. Some want to do this through policy, others through culture. I think the idea of "rewriting the rules" is what we were getting at, what a lot of us are thinking about, and an important theme here at Worldchanging. It's hard to change the rules when they both emerge from and reinforce a particular context – we assume a real and inflexible reality and don't necessary see, past our blinders, what we can transform. In closing, can you point to any successful instances of transformation by "changing the rules"?

Doug: The Israelites vanquishing the Egyptian gods, escaping a death cult, and using the new medium of text to write their own laws. That was a great example. It worked really well for a while, too, but literacy was much too limited, and its implications didn't really trickle down to the entirety of the people.

Reality Hackers (the early Mondo 2000) attempted to show people how tools like computers, networks, and plant hallucinogens are also capable of opening the rule sets to tinkering. Even just recognizing that there are rules in place is a huge step in the right direction.

But then the object of the game is not simply to scrawl graffiti on the existing rules (Adbusters style) but to get in there and change the very premise of the game. And this takes some myth-smashing.

The easiest way to start is to socialize with real people in real spaces. When it's just you and other people, many of the existing rules no longer apply. It's not about buying and selling, or "getting what you need" from someone. It's a real encounter from which an entirely new awareness can emerge.

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Comments

Wow, a tilt of my hat for the ambition.

I live and work in Taiwan, the center of most of the world's high-tech manufacturing. I like the analogy of getting closer to the manufacturing process.

Doug said:

"My whole pitch on marketing and communications is for companies to stop creating mythologies and persuasion campaigns around the products that they're disconnected with, and to start getting involved in some aspect of the thing they're selling."

Here's my take: most companies have lost touch with the products they sell through a combination of outsourcing and branding.

Outsourcing = A company no longer has the attachment and personal pride that comes from making the product.

Branding = It is the false shine that we try and paint on. This is the reason why people see right through the transparent messages corporations emit.

It's easy to point out the problems with a system like I have done, plus I have to get back to work.

Just wanted to say good luck with your project and efforts in promoting intelligent dialogue.


Posted by: spencer on 2 Oct 07

Wow, a tilt of my hat for the ambition.

I live and work in Taiwan, the center of most of the world's high-tech manufacturing. I like the analogy of getting closer to the manufacturing process.

Doug said:

"My whole pitch on marketing and communications is for companies to stop creating mythologies and persuasion campaigns around the products that they're disconnected with, and to start getting involved in some aspect of the thing they're selling."

Here's my take: most companies have lost touch with the products they sell through a combination of outsourcing and branding.

Outsourcing = A company no longer has the attachment and personal pride that comes from making the product.

Branding = It is the false shine that we try and paint on. This is the reason why people see right through the transparent messages corporations emit.

It's easy to point out the problems with a system, and I'd like to try and come up with solutions, but I have to get back to work.

Just wanted to say good luck with your efforts in promoting intelligent dialogue.


Posted by: spencer on 2 Oct 07



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