It's All Conjecture

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 May 2008

All it took was one big flashy article calling me a “high-paid futurist” in the New York Times Business section to spoil my last week of 1996.

Sure, the “$7500 per hour” rate they seem to think I earn has become the source of endless jokes from even my best friends. “Why don’t you pay for dinner, Doug, out of that $7500 per hour?” There was even a political cartoon in the Times ridiculing me for demanding and receiving such fees - fees that they saw fit to put in that painfully embarrassing banner headline the week before - just because I’m not an officially sanctioned social scientist or doctor of psychology.

But worse, the booking producers of television news shows here in the United States, desperate to schedule even third-rate futurists to fill their “predictions for 1997” panels have been ringing my phone off the hook. So much for New Year’s celebrations. I can’t go to the parties when I’m supposed to play a pundit on TV.

So off I go to the TV studios, shuttled around Manhattan in giant limos, covered with make-up, and asked by sorely under-prepared anchorpeople to shed some light on the seemingly dismal state of music, technology, television, and literature.

“Record sales are down!” they announce, and ask me how this could be. I tell them that record sales as a whole are not down. If they look at the sales figures more carefully, they would see that only the sales of the so-called “supergroups” are down. There have been fewer platinum and double-platinum albums every year. Record companies aren’t making as much money this year because the mega-groups of the past, like The Who or The Rolling Stones have been replaced by groups like Pearl Jam. Now I like Pearl Jam as much as anyone, but they don’t have the draw of traditional supergroup. No one does. And this costs record companies money. It’s more profitable to sell a billion Madonna records than a thousand of a thousand different groups, because there’s less promotion and distribution involved.

Then comes the tricky part. Conjecture. I’m supposed to analyze this situation, and explain how it’s part of a general trend. Okay, then: For starters, the interactive mediaspace has changed our relationship to the television image and celebrities as a whole. When anyone can make pictures on the monitor move around, either through a mouse, remote, or joystick, they have less reverence for the people who have traditionally been the only ones allowed to do so. We don’t need the supergroup rock star heroes as much because we don’t want relate to people in our media that way anymore.

Further, when we can all discuss music in Usenet groups, search the Web for information on bands, and sample obscure artists from around the world, we naturally tend to move towards independent labels and the albums they produce. It’s easier to find music more exactly suited to our own, personal interests.

My guess is that these two forces will make electronic music - ambient, trip-hop, DJ Tricky and the like - more popular in the year to come. It’s easily made by almost anyone, gets played in clubs with no rock star hero on the stage, and in today’s do-it-yourself technological climate, people will probably be more willing to celebrate talents just like themselves.

“How about TV? What’s going Doug? We hear you get $7500 an hour to talk to TV executives!”

After telling them that if really got $7500 an hour for consulting I’d be in Tahiti and not wasting my time on their show, I go on to give my rap on TV: people with remote controls are less willing to be pulled into the programming trance. They will increasingly prefer shows like Seinfeld or Beavis and Butt-head that have distancing devices built-in.

Is this a fact? No. It’s conjecture. Did I use focus groups and demographic research? No. I just guessed. I listen to a lot of music, watch a lot of TV, talk to a lot of people, and try to make sense of it all. When the anchorpeople ask me for the scientific studies I have done to prove my assertions, I tell them I haven’t done any. They don’t like that.

They prefer the suit-and-tie analysts who spout their studies and statistics: the thoroughbred social scientists, who are paid by television networks to create studies that prove the points they need to make to their sponsors in order to keep advertising rates high. “Kids don’t really channel surf,” one sponsored social scientist had the gall to argue his research proved. “It’s just a myth.”

Well, I’m here to tell anyone who cares to listen that the title “social scientist” is an oxymoron. They aren’t using science any more than I am. Most use anecdotal evidence and make faulty conclusions. One panelist against whom I was pitted cited a study that showed that children who are sent to the school principal’s office for aggressive behavior are more likely to say that Power Rangers is their favorite show than are other children. This, according to the person who calls himself a scientist, proves that watching Power Rangers makes children violent. That’s like saying that eating rice makes a person Asian. True, an Asian person is more likely to have eaten rice on a given day, but the act of eating rice does not change a person’s race. But try telling that to the social scientist. He can prove anything he sets his mind to.

The fact is, everyone is guessing. It’s all conjecture - whether it’s Wired magazine heralding the new killer app, or me predicting the popularity of rave music. If I have any real prediction for the coming year, it’s that we’ll begin to see the experts for the hired guns they are, and start thinking for ourselves. So much for my $7500 an hour.