Douglas Rushkoff And WashPo On Reorganizing Media With The Right Priorities

A focus on profitability to the exclusion of all else cheapens the great potential of technology to foster human innovation.

In the early ’90s, there was an “explosion of collaborative, collective human potential” that started to materialize into a technological renaissance, said media theorist and professor Douglas Rushkoff, kicking off AdExchanger’s Industry Preview event in New York City last week.

But it didn’t take long for businesses to come in and turn that potential into a moneymaking opportunity.

Industries often “[reduce] the infinite possibilities of technology down to the probability of a profitable outcome, rather than using tech to foster creativity,” Rushkoff said.

And if companies can’t compete, they lose their value propositions.

This unfortunate dynamic is partly due to a broken business model “and partly in the tech itself,” Rushkoff added.

Which is why it’s time for media companies to rethink their organization and strategy to avoid putting tech and profit before people.

“Technology is never neutral

Rushkoff compared technology’s current place in the world to the “dark fantasies” of sixteenth-century economist Francis Bacon who believed “science will allow us to hold down nature, contain it and control it.”

“Right now, we’re only using the tech in the most limiting way possible,” Rushkoff said, noting that when businesses do the same, it restricts possibilities for consumers.

The current state of social media is a good example.

“The function of Facebook is to monetize its social graph,” Rushkoff said. Facebook uses software to track people and sort them into groups based on the statistical probability that they’ll perform a certain action like, say, going on a diet.

The platform then focuses on converting these cohorts of probability into business outcomes.

Say someone is 80% likely to go on a diet, and there’s an advertiser with a vested interest in making that happen. It’s the social platform’s goal to increase the probability, which is why that person will no doubt be inundated with ads about going on a diet and needing to hit the gym. The end result: the person conforms, having been subtly bullied by the algorithm’s ability to both predict and push a certain behavior.

“The algorithms are there to force [people] into their statistical predictions by making the humans ‘better,’ by autotuning them into conforming into who they’re supposed to be,” Rushkoff said. “And it’s obvious what’s going on – it’s why “technology is never neutral” (original emphasis).

But it’s also why digital technology can be so profitable. Wall Street has reduced the potential of the internet down to one long economic boom.

“They’ve said, ‘Thanks to the internet, the stock market will grow … forever. Uninhibited,’” Rushkoff said. “It might be good for a quarter, but it’s a terrible long-term business strategy.”

Because it’s a short road from there to commodifying one’s business and losing its true competitive advantage: people.

“Anyone else can use the same tech,” Rushkoff said. “An algorithm, a cash register — that’s not a business. Those are [just] the basics. [It’s] the humans who truly care about what a company does [that] should be at the center of that company.”

But modern businesses are getting that backward.

“There’s an intelligence and delightful weirdness in human beings that can be rendered inaccessible [and obsolete] by technology if we’re intent on using it to categorize and control humans and creating businesses that require that predictability,” Rushkoff said.

But companies can save themselves by reprioritizing.

“We have to put the geeks, the enthusiasts, the true lovers of whatever it is the company does at the middle of the business,” Rushkoff said. “The tech and administration should circle around them.”

What can that look like in practice?

The Washington Post is a good example of a media company taking a human-centered approach to technology.

Kat Downs Mulder is managing editor of The Washington Post – and she’s also its chief product officer.

Reporting to both The Post’s executive editor and the chief information officer makes more sense than it seems, Downs Mulder said on stage at the show.

Media and tech may be disciplines that speak different languages, but it’s important to bridge the gap between them.

Success comes from putting “engineering and news together and giving product a seat at the [editorial] table,” Downs Mulder said. “Our home page is an example. It requires journalists to create and curate the content, but it also requires tools, engineering, product development and user testing.”

A/B testing plays a huge role in helping create useful publishing products, Downs Mulder added, from the length of an article and paywalled content down to the placement of a button.

“To compete as a modern media organization,” Downs Mulder said, “you have to compete as a product producer, too.”

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