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Social Media: What can we possibly share with our peers in Life Inc.?

June 15th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back starts with a telling anecdote: the author, Douglas Rushkoff got mugged on Christmas Eve in from of his Brooklyn apartment, and instead of getting sympathy, he was basically urged to shut up by local residents, afraid as they were that the incident would damage the reputation of their neighborhood, i.e. reduce the value of their home. “When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people,” Rushkoff writes. The anecdote is Rushkoff’s starting point to analyze how, since the Renaissance, “the market and its logic have insinuated themselves into every area of our lives.” He argues that they mediate every single aspect of our existence, disconnecting us from everything that surrounds us. The book is quite expectedly somewhat controversial — yet may also be one of the most inspiring recent books for entrepreneurs and innovative marketers.

The Age of Simulacra: Chapter after chapter, the author recounts how charters disconnected us from commerce, how by mistaking the map for the territory, we got disconnected from place, how the real estate business disconnected us from home, public relations from one another, consumer empowerment from choice, a unified financial architecture from the meaning of currency, big business from the creation of value – and how many of our attempts to combat corporate power are likely to disconnect us even more. “Brands were invented to substitute for the real connections we had to people, places and values.”

The system that we have created for ourselves through a “six-hundred-year-old-business-deal” is a “progress” that translates into a loss. The book reads like an inexorable dispossession of connectedness to people and our environment, and like a sobering appendix to the five ages of man that Hesiod outlined in Works and Days in 700 BC. From one tectonic shift to the other, we have landed ourselves in the Age of Simulacra: “Step by step, place became property, property became a mortgage, and mortgages became derivative instruments;” we depend on brands and ad-agencies for our self-presentation and identity; our “positive thinking” and self-confidence result from intense packaging efforts and “corporate-enabled self-improvement.” We can buy Disneyland souvenirs in any shopping mall without ever having been to LA. Spiritual centers, from Esalen to the Omega Institute, are well-oiled businesses, and our speculative economy has deprived us from the ability to perceive the value we create or to even create value. Even the buzz and word-of-mouth is now mediated: “In Apple’s earlier days, Macintosh enthusiasts could be counted on to go into CompUSA stores when new products were released and demonstrate their benefits to consumers. But today’s brand enthusiasts are paid spokespeople, faking their loyalty for money. It’s big economy. New firms such as Buzz Marketing and industry groups like WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association now conduct word-of-mouth campaigns on a scale unimaginable before. A study by PQ Media, which collects econometric data and researches alternative media, estimates that companies paid outside agencies $1.4 billlion for word-of-mouth marketing in 2007, up from less than $100 million in 2001.” So much for our friendly social sites — also an ideal arena for marketers to leverage the advice of scholars, marketers themselves! Rushkoff appropriately reminds us that in 1923, a group of academic psychologists formed the Psychological Corporation to apply their behavioral research to American business interests: “Like the newly-minted George Gallup and Elmo Roper, they used ‘electronic tabulating machines’ to record and analyze the purchasing behavior of individuals.”

An inspiring book for entrepreneurs and … marketersThe book is phenomenally well documented and provides fantastic insights into some of the roots of the current financial debacle. The way the story is recounted is fascinating — even if you may have questions about the angle taken by Rushkoff. One can argue that while it may be true that local trade using local currencies did foster more interactions between people and a thriving economy between the eleventh and thirteenth century, and that “real people did the best when prosperity was a bottom-up approach,” the idea that the corporatist economy initiated by the Renaissance also initiated a downward spiral that all subsequent innovations only enhanced feels somewhat simplistic at times — along with the assumption that mankind has somehow strayed from a better stage to a worse one. After all, the fact that Paris Hilton is a highly successful brand today does not mean that she would have been more than that in the Antiquity or Medieval times. In the end, the evaluation of what connected/disconnectedness may depend on the frame of reference. Plato/Socrates fought the Sophists’s ability to brand anything as a result of their disconnectedness from the essential, the realm of Forms and Ideas.

The book is also an insightful approach to the history of the United States, full of interesting reminders. Mirroring the techniques of the railroad barons of the century before, GM crafted the legislation that made highways federally funded and controlled – and idealized suburbs. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt, fighting corporations, may have been more progressive than FDR when the latter endorsed the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) that changed the perception of mortgages (from a stigma to a plus), but ended up empowering appraisers as they assessed the quality of neighborhoods (and this to the detriment of Jews and blacks). The magic of PRs in the country has a unique ability to reframe or gloss over history. PR artists such as George Creel and Edward Bernays enabled Woodrow Wilson, who had run for reelection in 1916 on the platform that “he kept us out of the war,” to persuade everybody “to make the world safe for democracy” a year later. In the same fashion, it’s stunning how fast we forgot that IBM sold punch-card tabulators to the Nazis, that GE partnered with Krupp (a German munition firm) and that GM and Ford, which already controlled 70 percent of the German automobile market, retooled their factories to supply Nazis with war vehicles. As I say that, I can only suggest that you read a few foundational books in the history of marketing persuasion (of which many currently successful marketing books are spin derivatives), mentioned by Rushkoff, especially Edward Bernays’s Crystallizing Public Opinion, Public Relations or Propaganda. While at it, also read Larry Tye’s book, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. Also consider another classic: Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders or The Status Seekers. Also, Douglas Rushkoff has written several other interesting books. One of them,MEDIA VIRUS – Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, is the origin of the expression “viral marketing.”

The last chapter of the book, “Here and Now,” subtitled “The Opportunity to Reconnect,” is in fact better than any marketing book, and may give you great ideas of companies that can make a difference. As the author reminds us in the previous chapter, PayPal’s original plan was to offer an alternative payment service. True, the business model changed as Paypal activity was perceived as a violation of the banking laws. But you may have other ideas… and it’s when they read scouring, abrasive books that entrepreneurs invent new rules — and eventually might pave the way towards a new economy, or creatively revisit Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. “Like the founders of America, who may have differed on almost everything else but this,” notes Rushkoff, “Smith saw economics as characterized by small, scaled, local economies working in interaction with one another.”

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

More information

About Douglas Rushkoff and his other books:,

Hesiod:  Theogony, Works and Days (Oxford World’s Classics)

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