Douglas Rushkoff Interview – “Get Back in the Box”

Douglas Rushkoff InterviewDouglas Rushkoff has been a longtime hero and inspiration to me. He is a writer, professor, and ‘ultra-hip‘ cultural quasi-sage who I first read in college and have known online for 7 or 8 years now since the *spark-online days. Here’s his fancy bio from his site.

“His ten best-selling books on new media and popular culture have been translated to over thirty languages. They include Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the Future, Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism, and Coercion, winner of the Marshall Mcluhan Award for best media book. Rushkoff also wrote the acclaimed novels Ecstasy Club and Exit Strategy and graphic novel, Club Zero-G. He is currently at work on a book for HarperBusiness, applying renaissance principles to today’s complex economic landscape, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. ”

He just wrapped-up the writing of his latest book, “Get Back in the Box“, and I had a chance to ask him a few question about what he’s thinking about these days. Thanks so much Douglas… I look forward to reading your book and thanks for helping me get my head around these new ideas.

So you just finished up your most recent book, “Get Back in the Box”. What’s it about?

In the most surface sense, it’s about how to innovate from the inside out
rather than the outside in. It’s aimed at business people and anyone engaged
in an enterprise. Too many of them tend to think they need to get “outside
the box” in order to make new strides, when in more cases than we might
suspect, real innovation comes from developing a true core competency and
then working out from there. No one seems to have faith in what it is
they’re doing, and they are scared to learn the codes underlying the
processes they’re using. As if everything will fall apart.

On a deeper level, the book is about renaissance, and the unique moment
we’re in as a society. A renaissance allows for a profound shift in
perspective. While the original Renaissance invented the individual, as well
as competition, this renaissance has really brought us new possibilities for
collaborative action – networked collectivism and a society of authorship.
We’ve been wrestling since the Renaissance – and some would say since high
Greek culture – with the seeming contradiction between the agency of
individuals and their power as a collective. I mean to show that we have new
ways of contending with dimension that let us see how individuality is
itself defined by connections to other people, and that agency is really a
group activity.

How did we get to this unique moment? What factors have made this age so special? Are you talking purely technology here?

Well, it’s a combination of things. Technology is a big part of it, sure. We’ve been using technology in basically one way since the original Renaissance: to allow for command and control. Everything from the steam engine to Ford’s assembly lines helped reinforce a mechanistic model where a manager controls machinery – or people through machinery.

Networking changed things, and allowed complexity to emerge through technology instead of simply being quelled all the time.

But other changes abound. The original Renaissance brought us perspective painting, the extended metaphor, calculus, circumnavigation of the globe, and the printing press. Our renaissance brings hypertext, chaos math, orbiting the globe, and the internet. We’re experiencing a shift in our ability to contend with dimension that is profound as the shift experienced back in the 1500’s. And the same kind of shift is happening across all the disciplines, not just technology. In fact, it’s rupturing the notion of separated disciplines, itself.

How will this Renaissance change how we understand ourselves and our place in society?

I think the “renaissance man” is obsolete. There’s only collectives. The individual – which was actually invented during the Renaissance, and then celebrated during the Enlightenment – no longer exists. At least not in isolation. The individual is defined by his or her connections. We are our connection to other people. And the failed experiments of the 20th Century, in collective action, give way to a much more emergent sense of group cohesion.

Who did you work with while writing and researching this book?

Well, I had some interns doing research for me – students from the
Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. But I guess I did the writing
alone. Books kind of work that way. The ideas are the culmination of the
work and play I’ve been doing for the past ten years with hackers, cultural
change agents, non-profit organizations, religious groups, and businesses.

How do you think business and corporations will receive your ideas? Do you really think they will really be able to cast old models aside and get their heads around the concepts surrounding collaboration? After all, the real players have much more of a vested interest in maintaining the status quo than in innovation.

I think they’re ready to be told what I have to tell them. I think they’ll
find it a great relief that they can quit searching. They don’t need to hire
any more consultants, or get any more involved in the world of investment
capital and stock markets. They can instead take delight in what they’re
actually doing, rather than their quarterly report. And they’ll ultimately
make more money and have more fun.

The “real players,” as you put it, are not those market-addicted suits
writing shareholder reports and cashing in options. The real players are the
people who have figured out how to provide that people really need, and who
have a great time doing it.

I’m asking these people to abandon the Industrial Age models that require
massive oversimplification and reduction of human beings to mere cogs. I’m
asking they stop looking at their customers and clients as “consumers” to be
manipulated. And, believe me, if a person has an iota of comfort doing the
thing they say they are doing, they’ll jump at the chance to let go of the
anxiety and misery of meeting Powerpoint objectives.

Douglas Rushkoff InterviewWhat do copyright and intellectual property look like in this new collaborative model? How do those notions fit in and how will they evolve? How will the institutions and precedents that are currently in place help or hinder this cultural transformation?

I’m not that concerned with maintaining copyright, since my main income comes from teaching and speaking. The books are more like calling cards. Still, the distribution system is paid for, at least in part, by the copyright protection enjoyed by publishers. I think people have to learn to get paid in other ways. I’m more interested in bottom-up local currencies than these giant centralized ones.

Currently, we innovate for patents, and create for copyrights. These are the only ways we have come up with so far to reward innovation. And it eventually requires that some form of artificial protection be enforced. That’s because we have an economic reality based on scarcity rather than abundance.

The problem is that we look at books and music the same way we look at oil and food. They are very different, and require different economic models. So the first step is simply to help people see that the fiscal model we’re using – money ‘created’ by the central bank – is itself only one model for currency. It is an enforced monopoly right now, because the development of local currencies would pose such a challenge to forces from Wal-Mart to Citibank.

That sounds utopian and wonderful, but what do businesses have to gain from collaboration and throwing out the models they have used to reap huge and ever-increasing profits? How are they going to make more money and have more fun ditching quarterly reporting and corporate objectives?

It’s the adherence to quarterly, short-term goals and shareholder expectations that have led corporations down their profitless, innovation-lacking paths. They look to decrease the bottom line without expanding the top line. So they can’t make investments in long term strategies like real research and development, or creating a culture for their products. They can’t look to the longterm impact of their products without sacrificing what shareholders believe are their own short-term interests. Shareholders want the stock to go up, now. That’s all they understand. And the stock only goes up if revenues go up that quarter.

Where your question is off is that corporations are not reaping huge and ever-increasing profits. They are compensating for a lack of innovation by creating new efficiencies. But every process they throw off-shore is another competency removed from their own arsenal. They become management companies, capable of nothing. Then they lose their ‘competitive’ advantage, as well.