It’s the End of the Storytelling World as we Know it: My Interview with Doug Rushkoff

I am a big fan of author Doug Rushkoff, and have read many of his books, starting with Media Virus back in
Ps the late 90s..

Doug has a knack for being the first to spot and describe
things which in retrospect seem pretty obvious. In particular, he likes
to hone in on topics related to media, information, technology, how they are changing, and what this means for our culture.

I met Doug at a NY Tech Meetup a couple of years ago, where he spoke about his book Program or be Programmed, He agreed to an interview, which I posted back then.

More recently I learned of Doug’s new book Present Shock after seeing reviews of it it in the NY Times and WSJ. The title is an ironic twist on Alvin Toffler’s classic Future Shock (classic Future, sounds like oxymoron, doesn’t it?!).

Well, Doug has nailed it once again.  His new book eloquently describes what happens when we are eternally stuck in the present, a social media, 24 hour cable news, sensory overload-driven Groundhog Day kind of reality. He says, essentially, that we are llosing the capacity to put things in context and take the time to smell the roses, so-to-speak.

One of the most dramatic conclusions relates to something Doug calls Narrative Collapse. In marketing  and PR, one of the first things you hear  is that “you need to tell a good story…”  It is the mantra we repeat endlessly to clients and each other.

It seemed to me that this was something that should be explored further, and would be of interest to Flack’s Revenge readers.  So I asked Doug for another interview, and he agreed.  Here  it is:

You seem to soak up lots of pop culture as you observe and write about the impactof tech on society; the first chapter alone refers to scores of movies and TV shows, ranging from Mary Poppins, Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead on up through to Sopranos, Real Housewives, etc. – do you really watch all this stuff (either not such a bad gig or torture, depending on what you like)?   

Well I don’t watch it all at once, but I have been alive 50 years so there has been
a lot of time. I saw Mary Poppins in the late 60’s. Simpsons and Beavis and
Butt-head in the 80’s, Sopranos in the 90’s, and bit of reality TV over the
past decade. You don’t’ have to watch every episode of every TV show to get a
good sense of what they are about and how they work. You can’t help but soak up
pop culture if you are alive these days. But there’s plenty of shows I’ve just
missed completely. Or watched maybe one of, like CSI or something.

In light of Narrative Collapse, why
bother with your book – are long form
content creators doomed to irrelevancy?

No, just because we are transitioning from a culture based in narrative to one
based in more open-ended styles of media doesn’t mean long form content
creators are doomed. I’m not looking so much at the length of experiences as
the quality. A fantasy-role-playing game lasts a whole lot longer than a game
of Monopoly. And it is still narrative – just not in the closed-ended
Aristotelian way. It doesn’t have a simple crisis and conclusion. It just keeps

So presentist entertainment can collapse narrative by being as short as a YoutTube
video, or by simply refusing to drive towards a single endpoint.

Don’t we need stories and story frames to understand the world?

We need stories when we want to understand the world as a story. Many of us still
want to believe God is coming to save us at the end, or that the world is going
to end in a zombie apocalypse.  In order to maintain the belief that
there’s a plan with a beginning, a middle and an end, then it sure helps to
have a story.

If we are ready to believe that the world keeps going – that there could even be
sustainable solutions to the world’s problems rather than wars we win and bad
people we vanquish, then we might want to look at forms of context that go
beyond the simple story. 

“You Need to Tell a Good Story” is one of the mantras of advertising and
PR.  Do these trends portend the decline of marketing as we know it?

Yeah. But anyone half-way intelligent in advertising has known this for a long while.
I’m not saying anything new here. They all know that the creative storytelling
in advertising works better for winning Cleos than selling products.

Brand mythologies were created to shield consumers from the realities of mass
production. We don’t want to know our cookies are made in horrible factories,
so companies invent brand myths like Keebler Elves and the Snackwell’s Cookie
Man. Today, we care less about whether the cookies were made by elves in a
hollow tree than what is really happening: are kids losing their fingers in a
cookie machine? Is this made with corn syrup? Organic flour?

Marketers these days have to convince companies to tell the truth about their products
and processes. And if they’re not proud of those things, then they have to
change them. It’s very very simple, but very hard: companies have to actually
do stuff that’s worth talking about. Then people will Tweet it all over the
place. What’s worth talking about? These days, it’s as simple as not being
totally incompetent. Just find one little area in which the company is not
completely screwing things up and hurting people, and then trumpet that

Does this mean we have to produce “Now-ist”
content like much TV has become these days?

You don’t “produce content” so much as help the company communicate its
non-fiction, real creation of value. Surely the company is doing something for
someone. It’s asking for money for its stuff, right? How does buying from this
company reflect my values? How does it extend my intention?


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2 Responses to It’s the End of the Storytelling World as we Know it: My Interview with Doug Rushkoff

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