Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (2023)

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (1)

Lieutenant Jake Yuzna

Walker Publishers

applied forgradient ·Part ofContent and its dissatisfaction

Illustration by Vance Wellenstein

Increasingly, terms like "storytelling" and "narrative" have become buzzwords in marketing, design, entertainment and other fields that create content for the evolving social media markets. Everything is storytelling today.

But if content can only exist in a container, who owns and shapes these containers? How do these powerful brokers control a world shaped by digital capitalism?

Explores the promise and problems of content and its containers,Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist who coined the term “viral media,” set out to discuss the dangers of storytelling in the wrong hands, whether content can be art, and how content can connect human souls.

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (2)

Jake Yuzna

How do you define the content?

Douglas Rushkoff

It's a squirrel, right? I started thinking deeply about the content after reading Marshall McLuhan for the first time as a youngster and traveling for a few years on his concept of "the medium is the message". In short, McLuhan's concept is that the medium that communicates a message or idea is more effective than the message itself.

It gets more complicated with content today. "What is the medium and what is the message?" it is less clear why something is usually considered content when a medium hits it. But content can also be a medium. For example, what is the content of a piece? The language. But then TV content is that play and internet content is that TV. So what is AI content? It's us.

What you think is content may be someone else's media. This is part of what postmodernists really did. Their warfare was: "I make you my content. No, I make you my content. And so on. More and more targets. Put content in one container and this container in another container. This is partly because of how digital tools have made it much easier to reuse messages and media How difficult is it to copy a TV clip or copy and paste an episode compared to a few decades ago?

However, this change started much earlier. For example, capitalism and finance also add value to other people's content. For example, artisans who make things and trade or sell them to each other use a direct peer-to-peer value system. Now if you are a great aristocrat and you want to make money and you don't want to work, you look around and say, "How can I get these people and all their worth to trade with the contents of my empire?"

How do you do it? By owning the operating system they deal with. You create a central currency that you control rather than letting the people who make things act directly. These manufacturers have to borrow money from their bank to make a transaction. This transaction will become part of my bank's portfolio. Trading became the content of my bank.

You then make all trades that do not use your currency illegal. You now own the container and control how content can exist within it. The container shapes the content.

This is exactly what happened in our history. Kings created accredited monopolies so the ruling power had to designate it as an official company so you could do any business. Before that, a craftsman made things and sold them directly, but now they are employed by Her Majesty's Royal Shoe Company or Her Majesty's Royal Jelly Company. When you are employed, you are the company's content.

"You have to get above that level to get rich."

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (3)


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It is crucial to always consider the container as much as its contents due to the potential for exploitation. Leverage can be good, like when someone distributes your content further than you. But still, it is important to consider this relationship.

Recently I was talking about this with someone and they said, "You're kind of famous, aren't you? So why aren't you rich? This person came from the world of finance, stocks, investing and that sort of thing. He said: “It's because you have a shtetl mentality. You make something and then sell it. You write a book and then try to sell it. You have to go to the level above that to get rich. You have to own the system that creates and puts the book out into the world.”

For me, content today is filled with questions of money, power and exploitation. On the bright side, content is also what system owners fear. It has a more humane power than commerce. Because what is content in the end? It is a connection between people. When you look at a Van Gogh painting, you think, "How does my retina react to the paint colors on this canvas?" No, of course not.

You relate to the person who created that painting. What were they thinking when they made the strange stars and haystacks? What did they go through in their lives? Do I have the same feelings? You relate to that person through their content.

"Content is the vessel for the human soul to transfer to another's human soul."

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (4)


I am currently re-reading James Joyce's Ulysses. As you read this book, there is a moment when you can feel James Joyce speaking directly to you. His soul can touch your soul through this content, right? That's what content is. It is the way to connect people with others.

Today everyone asks me about A.I. creating content, images created by ChatGPT and AI and all that. But what is A.I. really do? It may be neural stimulation, but it is not satisfied. The contents are the vessel for the human soul to transfer to another person's human soul. There is an attempt to make us believe that media is content, but that is not always the case. You need mediums to communicate ideas, energy or a soul from one human being to another.

"They're absolutely right that they don't make art."

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (5)


Do you think the contents can escape their containers? Can the humanistic connection between people avoid the exploitative relationship with its recipient?


Interactions between artists and audience can happen outside the container and are super vital. They are often detected by the container and quickly added by it. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, kids got guitars, formed bands in their garages, started playing for each other, and created a rock and roll revolution. They created their own spaces and festivals in the middle of nowhere.

All of this existed outside of record labels and corporations. You would go to a point on the map where you would find a bus that would take you to a concert in the desert. People weren't making money, or at least they weren't meant to be. In six months, it looks like a company will be selling a version of this phenomenon in the mall. This is how you end up at Coachella.

With digital production making everything much faster, the major economic powers will quickly imitate this type of content or completely take it over. It's hard to escape. Rave culture and grunge were some of the last times things were allowed to escape the vessel in which they were supposed to exist. Nirvana became the biggest band in America, despite their best efforts not to be part of the system that container. Anyone can create content outside of their container, even if they don't realize they're doing it: Grab your own instruments and amps, find a club or other venue, and put on a show. The financial uncertainty of this endeavor keeps it off the radar of those controlling the containers.


Today, the term "content creator" may seem to describe those who use their resources to market other companies' products or market themselves as a product. The younger and younger generations are increasingly conditioned to pay for the opportunity to spend their energies on marketing for companies. Can content creators be anything else?


I think it comes down to your goal. What are you trying to achieve? Are you an artist or do you work in marketing or entertainment? These are all different and the difference is important.

Very few people who create entertainment on social media channels in hopes of gaining fame and influence see themselves as entertainers. They are absolutely right that they do not make art. An artist tries to reveal social constructions. That's not the point of something like TikTok, where the goal is to come up with a new dance move or joke that spreads to the widest possible audience. You're trying to grow your audience until a company like Taco Bell asks you to partner with them. There are no prerequisites for it not being a commercial medium. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. It's the market.

These are people competing to appear in self-made commercials for companies. I don't despise, but I don't confuse it with art. Artists are willing to sacrifice a lot to reveal people's souls, connect us and demystify the sacred truths of our sick culture.


Are the barriers between artists and marketers blurring?


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There has been a relationship between artists and advertising since at least the turn of the century. The tools we have today may have just made it more visible.

For example, when I was young, many of us worked in advertising agencies to earn money while making our art. I don't think I'm giving away any industry secrets here, but a community of 20 or 25 people in early to mid-1990s New York did freelance work for all the major advertising agencies. These ad agencies saw us as some kind of brain culture trust and hired us to help create a pitch for Dell Computers or something. One agency even printed a fake business card for me when I attended client meetings. I would be the chief strategy officer or something like that for about an hour during these meetings.

We used very similar skills to advertising that we use to create art. We leverage our understanding of culture – the emotional, political and psychological trigger points – and apply it to marketing.

It was the same type of vessel; the difference lies in the intention. Why are you adjusting or exposing a vulnerability in society? An artist usually has an educational or disruptive intent that reveals something about the human condition—to awaken the audience in one way or another. In contrast, the advertiser or marketer uses the same data or information about the audience to drive their behavior.

The funny thing is that many advertisers are frustrated filmmakers and artists. They try to convince themselves that advertising is art. They even created these prizes, the Clios. Usually people who are good at creating art are terrible at advertising. They will create these artistic ads that do not sell the product. But in the end you are right. The danger is fooling yourself into thinking that the message you're delivering on behalf of the artist is loud enough or effective enough to be worth pairing with the message they're delivering on behalf of the marketer. Take Dove Soap as an example. Dove Soap ads do more for capitalism than celebrating different body types.

"Marxists do not use metaphorical stories"

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (6)


Since we both have a film background, I was curious to know how you feel about this new trend in marketing and design to use terms like "storytelling" and "narratives". Is this something new or just buzzwords used to repackage what marketing always does?


Since I've been around, the term "storytelling" has come up a few times. Saying things like, "We need a new narrative." Usually this appears when all signs point to things going wrong in society. If reality doesn't work, just say, "We need a new story for what's going on here."

This kind of magical thinking is part of America's DNA. It's Frank Baum's [author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] philosophy of "just click your heels together." Prosperity Gospel from Norman Vincent Peale to [to] Trump. if you build it, they will come. If we can believe it, we can do it.

It is the American tradition to try to put a more optimistic spin on things. We do not see the end of the world; it feels like the end of the world. If you found a woman in labor and you didn't know what was going on, you might think she was dying. But she gives birth to life. Apply this to the state of ecology. It may seem that all these species are extinct, the topsoil is eroded and plastic is in every fish's stomach, but this is just a rebirth – a new age of humanity. We are just the larvae of the next stage of human evolution.

This is the tech-bro plot now, right? We are just the larvae of this species and the rich are sprouting wings and going to other planets. The death of you, your family and everything alive on Earth is repackaged into a new story - a story of a better future full of hope.

These stories use ideology to create a vessel for how people construct their reality and understanding of the world. Take fascist history where things were better in the past. They remove the negative aspects of history, like the lynching of black people, and focus on the parts of history that support the narrative they want to believe.

For all their problems, Marxists do not use metaphorical stories. Marxists use history, what really happened, to build their narratives. It can be limiting because you don't have what capitalism offers—opportunities we haven't even imagined yet. Capitalist history is about forward-looking innovation and does not use the past to judge the future.

Fascists use the metaphor: "The cheetah killing the gazelle is just part of nature." This story is good for the cheetah and bad for the gazelle. Teach us to accept suffering as a normal part of the world. Metaphor can lead to some really dangerous places because you can use a metaphor to change the meaning of something to anything you want.


You have previously used the term "opinion makers" when discussing those trying to shape ideologies today. What are they?


Sensemaking is the process by which we create new narratives to disconnect ourselves from what is really happening.

There are some really smart white male cis intellectuals who, in their own well-intentioned ways, are trying to serve as the spiritual and intellectual leaders of humanity as we go through these momentous transitions. They say their understanding of systems theory and ability to perform pattern recognition gives them unique insight into the series of crises unfolding over humanity now, which they call the metacrisis.

Many blogs, webcasts, podcasts and other media are created today with the aim of helping to guide the confused and wandering towards meaning. I get upset with them because they don't do a rigorous job. (laughter)

Long, abstract fractal explanations often leave many people disoriented and confused. Instead, these sensationalists tell soothing stories: Buy these nutrients or sign up for my course. (laughter)

I don't think they realize it, but they follow the same business model as The Secret, several New Age gurus from the past few decades. Take [Jesuit priest and paleontologist] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Omega point, where everything in the cosmos moves toward singularity, where it becomes a unified whole. Atoms become molecules, molecules become cells, cells become organisms, and organisms become cultures. When cultures combine on a planetary level, the great collective mind of Gaia forms, an unimaginably different meta-organism.

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The problem with this kind of thinking is that it takes people's attention away from the conditions on earth and towards this Omega fractal fantasy. How am I treating this woman in my life right now? How am I involved in the planet? You don't have to worry about it because the ends justify the means.

"a kind of schizophrenia"

Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (7)


There is an argument that storytelling is inextricably linked to the human condition because storytelling is the stuff we use to construct reality. Do you agree with this line of thinking?


I don't know if we need a new story, but a new story structure. The narrative we learned at the American Film Institute, the three-act structure, is basically a male orgasm curve—arousal, climax, and sleep. It's based on the idea that everyone longs to climax so we can sleep.

The search for new story structures is what first got me interested in the internet and fantasy RPGs. Fantasy RPG is what James Carse would call an infinite game where there is no end. This is the opposite of a finite game that requires an end game where there are winners and losers. This is a very capitalist story: the enlightened and the vanquished. This is a narrative structure that we need to break. It is not a new story. It is a new way of relating to history and narrative.


Is there also danger in dealing with these infinite games? I think of examples like QAnon where LARPing [Live Action Role Playing Games] and ARGs [Alternate Reality Games] strategies are used for political and social power.


That's what I wrote about in Present Shock, how the entire Internet works like a video game. The Internet is not like television or movies that depend on the traditional story arc. Instead, these media rely on the audience to be active and connect the dots. The Internet allows us to track bits of information and then connect them through meaning, just like in video games where you have to find something that allows you to move on to the next goal. Find the key to open the door and proceed to the next level. You play the same game when you use the Internet. It conditions you to keep making cause-and-effect connections with whatever you encounter, regardless of whether there really was a connection in the first place.

I called it factual noise, a kind of schizophrenia where we look for similarities in different things and then create meanings that don't exist. This has always been part of how conspiracy theories work. You try to make sense of a scary and senseless world by building a narrative that makes sense.

For example, maybe on the same day that a cell tower exploded in Atlanta, someone set their car on fire in Texas. Are these two events connected other than happening at the same time? None. But when you're conditioned to find patterns among random pieces of information, like in a video game or the Internet, you construct a narrative of causality. Take the conspiracy theory that 5G towers created Covid-19. The Covid crisis and 5G towers happened around the same time, so there must be a cause and effect relationship, right? It's player behavior.

Don't forget who created these games, mostly white cis men. When video games and the internet started, they were havens for white and cis straight men. As this group saw the game becoming more populated by women, trans people, and others, they went berserk. We have Gamergate. Steve Bannon saw in Gamergate a ready-made populace, an army of Internet trolls that he could easily redirect from Gamergate misogyny to Trump misogyny. It was a pretty brilliant move by [Joseph] Goebbels, to use an army of content creators who would produce and disseminate propaganda for free. He exploited the factual noise to create a new narrative that suited his purpose.

It worked and still works today. See Elon Musk and others. They use storytelling to create meaning from unrelated phenomena to exploit and accumulate power. By letting the person create this story on their own, using the video game mindset, that person becomes more interested in the story being true.


It often feels like we are living in a 20th century hangover. It is clear that the world has changed dramatically since the last century, but we lack the language to communicate these changes. In a way, people in Bannon and Musk circles were smart to develop new stories that resonate with life now.


Exactly. If you live in a shopping centre, the anchor shop will be your way of finding your way around. Restrooms are to the right of Macy's. (laughter)


This perspective becomes more than just second nature; it is the framework through which everything is understood.


Right. The maps are not the territory. All of these things are social constructs that are not real. We throw ourselves off a cliff because we show our loyalty to them instead of each other. Art must wake people up from this.

"Keynote speaker." What the hell is that?"

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Break the Story and Escape the Container: Douglas Rushkoff on the promise and pitfalls of content (8)


Do you think that younger generations who have grown up with social media and digital production have a harder time separating their sense of self from capitalism? Children and teenagers acquire an understanding of branding at an earlier age. They are taught how to build personal brands through the content they create. Has the capitalist marketing mentality entered our water supply?


It probably all started around the time when Abraham Lincoln was president, when corporations got human rights. From that moment on, people also started to behave more like businesses.

I'm thinking of the 1970s musical A Chorus Line, which begins with the actors lining up on stage for an audition. Each actor holds their blank 8-x10 photo in front of their face as they sing "Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?" Back then, it was a new idea to consider what an actor looks like. Is that your list of professional achievements? The mediated image they created to present who they think people want them to be? And the person behind all?

This is everyone's experience today. When you use Instagram or LinkedIn, you ask yourself, "Which job do I put first? What's my name? Global strategist? Keynote speaker? People on LinkedIn list your job as "Keynote Speaker". What the hell is that? What are you really ?

We went from subjects of monarchy to citizens of democracy, consumers of capitalism and brands of current digital capitalism.


What caused this change?


I think Facebook was the turning point because Facebook was the first place that made you define yourself by the books and movies and other products that you liked. That's because Facebook's business model was selling its consumer profile to brands. That was the original purpose. Facebook has put a lot of effort into turning people from friends and communities into affinity groups because affinity groups are easier for marketing purposes. Ford Motors or McDonald's know how to market to an affinity group.

Another change happened when Facebook and Instagram started focusing on the number of followers and likes you had. They turned their social activity into an engagement metric. It made perfect sense from a marketing and capitalism standpoint. Your identity was now formed by the products you liked, but your value was based on your success as a marketing tool. It was the transformation from consumer to influencer.

That's the insidious thing about it. The container controls your ability to live in digital capitalism. You are required to become a product or a brand to get a job, make money and live.


I tend to look at the root of the words we use to name something. "Content" comes from the Latin contentus, which means to be contained or enclosed in something. In the fourteenth century, content also developed the second meaning of a sense of contentment—having the desire confined to present pleasures. Be satisfied.

Much of what is called content today is like cultural chips. It looks like food, but it doesn't really provide nourishment. Instead, it's designed with just the right balance of fat, sugar and salt to keep you eating endlessly, like an endless roll. Information seems to be consuming, but we are still hungry. If we were happy, we would no longer need to consume.


They would not become addicted to it because they would be satisfied. In some, infinite scrolling is anti-content because there really isn't anything there.


Is there any hope?


The hope I have comes from how humans have souls and how we love. When the time comes, we find a way to use every means at our disposal to connect and find love. The content can be any message or idea. It can be friendship, solidarity and reciprocity.

The sumac tree finds a way to cross the sidewalk in New York and climb up the sidewalk. Humans are so social. We have such a deep need to connect with each other that we can fight off any intrusion. We always need to share our souls with each other. All media can do this.▪︎

This article is part of the seriesContent and its dissatisfaction which explores what content is and who controls the containers.

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Named one of the "ten most influential intellectuals in the world" by MIT, Douglas Rushkoff is a writer and documentary filmmaker who studies human autonomy in the digital age. His twenty books include those recently publishedSurvival of the Richest: Escape the Fantasies of Tech Billionaires, as well as the latestHuman Team, based on his podcast, and the bestsellerscurrent shock,Throwing stones at the Google Bus,Program or be programmed,Life Incemedievirus. He also made the PBS Frontline documentaryAs a generation,Persuasive moutheCool merchants. his bookCompulsionganhou o Marshall McLuhan Award, e en Media Ecology Association eller hjemlig com o primeiro Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity.

Rushkoff's work explores how different technological environments change our relationships with narrative, money, power and each other. He coined terms such as "viral media", "screenagers" and "social currency" and has been a leading voice in the use of digital media for social and economic justice. He works as a research fellow atInstitute for the Future, and founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism at CUNY/Queens, where he is a professor of media theory and digital economics. He is a columnist for Medium, and his novels and comics,Ecstasy Club,TO ADDeAleister and Adolf, are all being developed for the screen.


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