Winner of the Media Ecology Association’s first Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Dr. Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures and institutions create, share and influence each other’s values. His new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013), explores the always-on, simultaneous society in which we live. His previous bestselling books on media and popular culture have been translated into more than 30 languages. They include Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2010), Media Virus (1996), the novel Ecstasy Club (1997) and the graphic novel A.D.D. (2012).
Rushkoff has written and hosted three award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries including The Merchants of Cool, which looks at the influence of corporations on youth culture, The Persuaders, about the cluttered landscape of marketing and new efforts to overcome consumer resistance, and Digital Nation, about life on the virtual frontier. Most recently, he made Generation Like, an exploration of teens, marketers and social media. His commentaries have aired on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered and have been published in The New York Times and Time magazine. He regularly appears on TV shows including NBC Nightly News, Larry King Live and The Colbert Report.
Rushkoff has taught for New York University’s interactive telecommunications program, The New School, Maybe Logic Academy and the Esalen Institute. He has also served as an advisor to the United Nations Commission on World Culture. Rushkoff earned his Ph.D. in new media and digital culture from Utrecht University and graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University. He received an M.F.A. in directing from California Institute of the Arts and completed a post-graduate fellowship at The American Film Institute.
An interview with Douglas Rushkoff
You don’t have a classic design background, yet your education and work are deeply design-informed. How can designers improve businesses, organizations and their communities?
I think it’s simply a matter of serving people, rather than serving abstract business plans. Design has too long been in the service of industrialism, which is disconnecting workers from their craft, consumers from producers and people from one another. If products really brought people together, then people wouldn’t have to keep spending so much money. So, in a sense, great design is bad for the economy.
How do you use design?
Everything is design. I have to design a book—it’s an experience that has a beginning, middle and end. I have to design a talk, a lesson...even a theory. The future of our species is itself a design challenge, no?
What advice do you give designers who want their work to make a real impact, and what skills do they need?
I’d have to ask the designer what is it she wants to change. That’s a prerequisite for good design: intention. All designs have embedded purpose—an intention of the human being who did the design. It’s why design by computers is so… well, empty. Like House of Cards, which was planned by big data. It’s engaging, but in a synthetic, empty sort of way.
The beauty of design, fundamentally, is the assertion of human intervention. So many designers try to make their designs look like no one was involved. I don’t think that’s necessary anymore—certainly not in a world where humans are looked at as inferior to computers. Or when we still have distaste, lingering from the Industrial Age, for signs of human involvement.
What is the future of design’s role in business, government and society?
Design doesn’t have a role, but designers certainly do. It’s their job to design us out of this mess. They’re the only ones who can. Read some Buckminster Fuller. The problems we’re facing are not real—they’re just bad design.
What does the landscape look like over the next 10–15 years?
I just hope there is a landscape in the next ten or fifteen years. We’re playing with nature and technology in ways designed to stoke the markets, but have little regard to making the world a better, healthier place. Even our “green” practices are designed more for marketers than genuine effect.
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