Commentary

Rushkoff On 'Generation Like,' Big Data and 'Team Human'

Media theorist, author and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff will be one of the speakers at a Digital Citizenship Night my school district is holding this coming Tuesday.

In advance of that program, Rushkoff showed his three-year-old Frontline documentary “Generation Like” at the Hastings on Hudson (N.Y.) Library this week and then fielded some thought-provoking questions.

Rushkoff sees “Generation Like” as a follow-up to his earlier doc, “Merchants of Cool,” which was made when MTV was holding its own as an arbiter of teen taste, Insane Clown Posse was hot -- and Mark Zuckerberg, who grew up one village to the north of Hastings, was still in high school. Back then, marketers were “chasing kids down, taking teen culture and selling it back to them,” as Rushkoff says in “Generation Like.”

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That’s changed. “Today’s teens are putting themselves out there for anyone to see.” Often it’s in the service of a brand or band or film such as “The Hunger Games.” The latter serves Rushkoff well as a metaphor for teens’ role in the new media ecology as they unwittingly enrich corporate coffers in the pursuit of likes. 

“When I go to a high school to talk, I’ll ask kids, ‘What is Facebook for?’ And most kids will say, ‘Facebook is here to help you make friends and find out about the world.’ And I’ll ask, ‘What do you think Mark Zuckerberg and the board are talking about in the board room?'” Rushkoff said the other night. “Are they asking, ‘How are we going to help Little Johnny make more enduring friendships?’ No, they are asking the question: ‘How are we going to monetize Johnny’s social graf?’ In other words, Johnny is not the customer of Facebook, Johnny is the product of Facebook.”

Not news to you, of course, but as Rushkoff brings to life in a “Generation Like” sequence featuring a bunch of teens who have no idea what the phrase “selling out” means, young people are often unaware of what they’re giving up in order to get those likes and follows.

Those likes not only can make an influencer out of a kid with a quirk, twerk or moxie, they also have become the currency of entertainers.

“You make more money selling your social media followers to marketers than you do selling your music to listeners. That's true for most forms of content now,” Rushkoff said during the Q&A.

One mother in the audience pointed out that social media can be enabling, too, giving talented young people access to an audience that they’d not otherwise have. She compared it to the way Andy Warhol would find the most famous person in the room to cozy up to at a party: those people, in turn, propelled Warhol to fame.

“I'm not suggesting … kids should stay away from social media,” Rushkoff replied — one of several times, in fact, he made it clear he is not anti-technology. “But I am suggesting that they should use it consciously, rather than blindly. These kids were oblivious to how this landscape worked, and the people I found who are constructing this landscape are doing it much, much more cynically than I'd imagined.”

And that was circa 2013-2014. The woman’s 13-year-old daughter later confirmed that Facebook is passé in eighth grade, replaced by Instagram and Snapchat. That introduces a new level of anxiety on the parental angst meter.

As for Big Data, the analytics in the doc look “almost quaint” when you consider what Cambridge Analytica, working for the Brexit campaigns, was able to do.“They've got 200 million separate, individual profiles of 5,000 data points each on pretty much every American and now they can do psychological profiling. So they're not just hitting you with ‘Oh, you like Doug or Fritos.’ They understand pretty intensely what kinds of pitches and manipulation works on you,” Rushkoff said.

Rushkoff’s own interests have moved on to artificial intelligence and “guys like Ray Kurzweil, who believes that computers are our evolutionary successors.”

That would, among other things, certainly put a damper in the marketing plans of Coke, McDonald’s and Kraft Heinz.

“While computers may have faster processing speeds than humans, I don't believe they're truly conscious … and I think human beings are special,” Rushkoff said. “When I made that argument in Silicon Valley, folks like Kurzweil, Kevin Kelly and all said to me, ‘Oh, you only say that because you're human.’ As if it’s an act of hubris.”

Check out his Team Human podcast for ongoing updates on how we’re faring in the resistance.

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