Exit Strategy

The Original Version


By Douglas Rushkoff

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 15, 2001. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Douglas Rushkoff’s latest salvo on complacent media culture, set in 2008, features Jamie Cohen, a young hacker who, like the biblical Joseph, suffers betrayal and then penance before joining forces with a venture capitalist determined to turn everyone into mindless consumers.

Meanwhile, Jamie’s former pals have developed a way to kill the Web’s – and the stock market’s – profit-making capacities. A dazzling satire of 1990s dot-com mania, this McLuhanesque cultural critique establishes a new publishing precedent: it is the first “open-source” ebook, annotated by online readers.



I woke up as Morehouse's Gulfstream 5 touched down on the airstrip. I had meant to stay awake for the whole flight, having never been on a private jet before, but my third helping of sushi and sake put me over the edge. There was no one to talk to, anyway. Tobias, who had flown navy warplanes, spent most of his time leaning through the door of the cockpit trading near-miss stories with his two good-natured pilots, while Alec discussed decorating strategies with Aneya, a Czech airplane-interior designer who had been hired to bring Morehouse's G-5 up to the level of those belonging to the more demonstratively wealthy entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.

"Eef you go wit da full hot tub, like Mr. Gates," she explained, pointing one of her long maroon fingernails at the plans, "den you need to build a substructure, here."

Her services would end up never being used. At dawn, as Tobias took the copilot's controls to "assist" with the landing, he saw the fleet of planes belonging to the other executives lined up on the runway. A few were passenger jets, like his, but the rest were converted military aircraft.

"Jesus fuck!" Tobias said as they pulled the G-5 into a space between two MIGs. "Has everybody here got a fucking warplane? How do they afford this shit?"

"They're not that expensive, Dad," Alec offered. "Army surplus sells 'em, I think."

"Find out," Tobias said, removing his seatbelt. "If anyone's got a right to fly one of those, it's me."

A black Lincoln Navigator 63 took us from the private airstrip to the ranch it served, a 40,000 acre spread originally owned by one of the last of the independent cattle companies but since taken over by a division of the Entertainink media empire, which made more money using it as a set for movies than selling its steer. The annual Billionaire's Bull Run was being held at the ranch long before it changed hands, though, leading to speculation that Entertainink's chairman Marshall Tellington, a former Rhodes scholar, only purchased the property so that he'd be able to attend.

As our SUV passed over the cattle grate and up the hill toward the main compound, I was overwhelmed by the intense aroma of cows and dung. I popped a prophylactic dose of antihistamine, 64 and loosened my tie.

"Not yet," Tobias said. "We'll change when we get to our rooms. Until then, spit and polish."

I figured Morehouse was still in residual military mode following his three-point landing and complied with his order. We walked up the wooden steps to the porch (Aneya had been diverted to a nearby motel with the two pilots) and then into the house, an enormous old Western ranch that looked like a movie set, which it was. In the foyer, in front of a life-size Remington bronze of a cowboy wrestling atop a bull, a table was set up for registration.

That's when I noticed the girls. The cutest one was handing a canvas bag filled with notebooks, proposals, and a variety of T-shirts, mousepads, and other corporate shwag 65 to a man in a trench coat. She had red hair cut in a bob and huge green eyes that smiled knowingly as she directed the man to his accommodations. Although there were three girls behind the table, and two of them were free, I maneuvered myself around my colleagues, boxing them out with my back in such a way as to indicate that the redhead was mine.

"Jamie Cohen," I told her, awaiting her eye contact as she perused her guest list. She blew the bangs off her forehead before looking back up at me, with the same knowing smile she gave the last registrant. It worked on me in spite of myself, and I felt as if I were the first man she had ever smiled at in her life.

"You'll be staying in cabin four," she said, "with Mr. Morehouse."

"That must mean me," Alec said, idling over. I involuntarily shouldered Alec away.

"Do you work here at the ranch year-round?" I asked, falling into my best appropriated Montanan.

"Oh, no," she laughed, handing me my name tag. "We're flown in. For the event." She made some notes on her papers and reached down for another canvas bag.

"Really?" I asked, desperate to keep the conversation going. "From where? New York? That's where we're from."

"Yeah," she said, amused by my awkwardly forced flirtation. "Technology advisor, Morehouse & Linney," she read off my name tag.

"Right," I laughed, trying to see around the stacks of notebooks to the tag on her lavender, pullover sweater. "And that must mean you're . . ."

She arched her back, raising her chest above the pile of stuff on the table, and simultaneously pushing the curves of her breasts through the material of her sweater. Surely she knew the effect this had on people.

"Jenna Cordera," I read. "That's pretty. Spanish?"

"Way back, I guess," she said. "You're into nationality?"

I didn't know what to say. Had she pegged me for a racist? Could she tell that I was already evaluating the impact that a Catholic-raised girl of at least partially Hispanic descent would have on the Cohen lineage? My parents would adapt. Or maybe she would convert.

"It's just interesting, that's all." I figured I'd cut my losses. "I guess I'll see you around, then."

"I guess so," she said, smiling at me in a way that either meant genuine interest or simple self-satisfaction at having successfully entranced yet another one of the scores of businessmen who would have the very same interaction with her that day.

"Christ, Jamie," Alec ridiculed me later in the cabin as we unpacked our bags. "She's paid to flirt with you. It's her job. Most of these girls are professionals, receive my meaning?"

"Oh," I said. Fun and games. Right.

Cabin Four, like all the others, had twin beds with identical cowboy motif headboards, matching dressers, and a bathroom between them with a horseshoe on the door. Tobias was staying in the main house with the other old-timers. The possibility that any of these sixty-year-old-plus executives might suffer from embarrassing physical maladies such as incontinence, colostomy bags, or worse, earned them the right to private rooms, no questions asked.

Alec sat on his bed. He'd already changed into faded jeans, a blue flannel shirt, and well-worn beige cowboy boots. He fit in perfectly with the shellacked logs that formed the cabin's walls. Did he already own these clothes? Did the Morehouses have such a property themselves? Alec seemed capable of rising, fully costumed, to any occasion. They must train kids for this in prep school.

"Look at all this shit they gave us," Alec said, picking through a pile of shwag next to him on the bed. "Four T-shirts, two mousepads, three baseball caps, a yo-yo, five—no—six pens, a mess of pads . . .  Shwag city."

"Tomorrow's landfill," I said, opening my luggage.

"We could start a business selling shwag, you know." Alec held up a T-shirt from a random Web company. "You know how much of this stuff is simply discarded? Enough to clothe the whole world, I bet you. We could buy surplus promotional clothing from companies that go out of business, or overruns from conventions and stuff. And then resell it as high fashion. We'd put our own label on it—somewhere really visible. Like right here on the tit. Or in random places. Different for every garment, but really conspicuous."

"What would our label say?"

"It'd say Shwag. Get it? We'd rebrand generic shwag as Shwag. Recycled but new and ugly clothes, packaged as social satire."

Alec had ideas like this all the time. I feared the day this boy would be running M&L and would have the power to implement them.

"Is there a schedule of events in all that junk? When's my TeslaNet speech?"

"I guess you're part of the new technologies panel at three this afternoon," Alec said, leafing through the pamphlet's mock-rawhide pages.

"A panel?" I asked, more of the air than Alec. "I can't do this kind of thing on a panel. It's not up for conversation." Audiences tuned out for panels, because they were never about anything other than whatever company or product the panelists were there to pitch. Then again, who was I but a guy from some company, pitching a new product?

"You're lucky to be on it at all, Jamie," Alec said. "There's only two panels and a couple of speeches the whole weekend."

"And the rest of the time . . . ?"

"Cowboy stuff, Jimmy. And networking. Come on. Get dressed. What're you gonna wear, pal?"

I opened my suitcase. I had some casual wear, but it was all new, high-fashion duds I picked up at Armani and the Prada 66 stores after Tobias's approval of my suit. Great. I finally went upscale, but at precisely the wrong time. I'd have been better off with my old college clothes. I scrounged for something manly or at least earthy and then lined up my proposed outfit on the bed: a pair of new black chinos, a T-shirt, and a gray hooded sweatshirt I brought along in case I had time to take a run.

"That it?" Alec asked.

"It'll have to do," I said, sadly taking off my dress shirt.

"You won't even score a hooker in those, my friend," he laughed. "That's okay. More for me."

The fifty-three men and two women who had arrived that morning were served lunch on the big house's sprawling back lawn. Fried chicken in giant wicker baskets was set onto picnic tables covered with red-and-white checked tablecloths. As I dug around for a drumstick, I couldn't help but think of the fried chicken that was indirectly responsible for mangling young Alec in the springs of that chair.

Or maybe I had subconsciously seen the old neurotic himself, reflected in the glass of a lemonade pitcher as he slowly approached from behind.

Ezra Birnbaum. I recognized him immediately from his appearances on CNBC. 67 As the wiry seventy-year-old struggled to get his cowboy boot through the opening between the bench and the picnic table, two of the hired young hostesses appeared from nowhere, each taking an elbow to steady him as he sat down next to me and across from the Morehouses.

"Another year, another fucking hoedown," Birnbaum said. He wore a crisp new cowboy shirt, still creased from the original package, and a starched white kerchief around his neck. Both contrasted sharply with the black plastic bifocals set atop his long Semitic nose, and the few hair spray–pasted strands of gray spiraling around his bald spot.

"Good to see you, too, Ezra," Tobias said, much more in his element than the feeble Fed chairman was. Morehouse's thick white hairline was visible beneath the brim of his black felt cowboy hat. Except for his bloodshot eyes, he looked positively virile. His fleece-lined suede jacket and tough denim shirt made the swollen capillaries in his face appear more like ruddiness than alcoholism. "You're sitting next to our newest addition, Jamie Cohen."

"Pleased to meet you," Birnbaum nodded in my direction while keeping his eyes on the prize: a basket of chicken at least a foot beyond his reach. I rose to push it closer to my equally out-of-place Jewish elder. "Thanks," Birnbaum said, involuntarily licking his lips in the spasmodic manner of an old grandpa as he leaned forward to choose his favorite poultry part. This was my own true destiny, I thought, as Ezra tested the tenacity of his Poli-grip before sinking his dentures into the bird's flesh.

I'd have time to bemoan my DNA later. For now, what an opportunity this was! The chairman of the Federal Reserve, a personal friend of the president of the United States, was seated right next to me. And no one was speaking. I could start a conversation about anything at all—the nature of money, the impact of technology on world economics, the public perception of the World Bank. But what I knew about my own firm's strained relationship with the Fed's proposed investigation of online trading kept me from all but the safest of topics.

"It's good chicken, huh?"

"Mmm," Birnbaum said. "A little dry, maybe."

"Remember how Mary used to buy kosher when you'd come over?" Tobias asked. He knew exactly the chain of associations he hoped to launch in Birnbaum's brain: chicken, football, La-Z-boy, crunch. Apparently, it worked.

"You went right to the firm from Princeton, Alec?" Ezra asked.

"Yes, sir," Alec said. "After a year in Europe."

"That's good. Broaden your horizons. Sow some oats."

"Sure did," Alec laughed proudly.

"You know the Fed's decisions aren't mine alone to make, Tobias," Ezra said, suddenly bringing the subtext into text. I'd heard this was his style. Take people off guard. He was scheduled to appear at a Senate hearing next week, and everyone wanted some advance word on his comments—as well as the chance to influence them. "They all have a vote. I'm just the messenger." I admired this abrupt candor, and looked forward to Tobias's response. It was not to come.

"Ah, Jesus, will you look at that?" Tobias changed the subject. "Those synapse guys are a fucking cult."

At the next table, six young men sat eating their fried chicken with forks and knives. Two wore green polo shirts with a corporate logo, and another wore a green cap.

"Synapticom, Dad," Alec corrected him. "They're the leader in reactive architecture."

Reactive architecture was the attention economy's latest version of stickiness. Instead of simply making it hard to leave a website, Synapticom's interfaces exploited feedback loops and Pavlovian cues. The company's claim to fame was the sad bong sound that was heard every time a user checked for mail and received none. While the arrival of a new message would lead to a happy three-note chord, the bong sound made users feel isolated and alone. The audio sample had been developed after two years of research into aural psychology, and was actually based on the sound of a finger being amputated with a hedge cutter. Synapticom had since developed a series of other audio and visual cues that rewarded transactions and punished noncompliance.

"A shame what happened to their CEO," Ezra said. "A real tragedy."

"I heard they'll be announcing his replacement at the panel this afternoon," Alec said.

"I hope you'll be able to make it, Mr. Birnbaum," I added, a bit too eagerly. "I'll be doing a presentation, as well. Something very new we're developing."

"Oh really?" Ezra struggled violently with an ear of corn on the cob. About my presentation, he couldn't have cared less. Would anyone?

By the time the audience was assembling on a series of wooden benches set into a hillside amphitheater in the woods south of the main house, however, I began to think my presentation might matter to these gentlemen after all. The circular stage was at the bottom of the hill, making me feel like I was about to address the Roman senate.

Thanks to the revised schedule, I would have just ten minutes to explain how TeslaNet works, and how it would revolutionize networking access for the whole world, forever. In the process, I'd establish myself as the next great young new media visionary. Or, at the very least, as something other than a complete idiot.

I was the third of four presenters, just after the new CEO of Synapticom, who, in accordance with their new "green and clean" campaign, had refused to fly and would appear instead by live satellite feed. Maybe capitalism would restore the environment, after all. I'd be followed by Ruth Stendahl, an ex-CIA operative who was now director of an investment consultancy charged with convincing Eastern European businesses to put their resources into NASDAQ. 68 She was a diminutive but forceful woman, who insisted on testing every facet of her own audiovisual presentation, leaving little time for me to get my own ready. Screw her. TeslaNet would crash the stock market pyramid altogether.

I went over my notes and timed my slide changes as the first speaker, Ty Stanton of IDPP, announced his breakthrough business concept, the Meta-Incubator. Of course Ty had already leaked the idea to nearly everyone in attendance, so no one bothered to listen. The noise of the crowd, busy networking among themselves, drowned out Ty's presentation in spite of his lapel mike. Only the occasional burst of feedback from the speakers penetrated the din of deal-making. Ty finally left the stage, garnering no applause. These men were too important to bother with being polite. From his seat in the stands, Alec mouthed to me, "Don't worry."

I wasn't worried. Ty flopped, but I wouldn't. The video presentation by Synapticom would be a perfect transition into my own speech. The audience will welcome a dynamic young speaker standing before them in the flesh after enduring the flatness of a satellite feed.

But as the green-adorned young executives of Synapticom took the stage, I feared I was destined to play into an anticlimax. What seemed like a thousand lasers suddenly blasted from throughout the surrounding woods toward the stage, creating a crisp, swirling, luminescent rainbow in the day-lit air that eventually resolved itself into the bright green Synapticom logo. Music, as if from the heavens, burst through the amphitheater's speakers: thick, orchestral chords with no discernible melody, but that seemed to resonate with joy, optimism, and hope. I could feel myself getting swept into the enthusiasm of the moment, as did the assembled great men. When the music reached its final crescendo, the lasers simultaneously shot directly into the sky in a brilliant white, bringing the audience to its feet. A pulsating wall of light surrounded the amphitheater, reaching to the skies. Everyone—myself included—cheered the display.

The greenshirts took positions in front of the main screen as the video began. It traced the history of Synapticom in breathtaking graphics, from the evolution of the sticky website to the introduction of the trademark "no mail" bong. A computer-generated female voice narrated Synapticom's role in lobbying for looser restrictions on attention deficit disorder 69 medications, the use of which led to a 45 percent increase in the number of eyeball-hours that America's youth spent focused on commercial websites, and tripled the e-commerce dollars they spent. By the turn of the century, the company had acquired the American Association of Hypnotherapists in order to establish its feedback and compliance division and complete the testing of its new Reactive Architecturetm line of turnkey Web site solutions. By adapting the fundamental hypnosis principles of pacing and leading to the one-to-one information space, Synapticom was now on the brink of helping its clients create websites that could track the behavioral patterns of each user, mirror them precisely, earn their trust, and then lead them toward more consumption-based expressions of their underlying psychological needs. The "buy" button itself would be able to activate serotonin production in the brain.

Then the soundtrack became more discordant. Television footage of Synapticom's dashing twenty-six-year-old CEO, competing for America's Olympic snowboarding team last January. In a news clip all too familiar to everyone present, the young man somersaults over a ravine but misses his landing, digging the tip of his board into the wall of rock just short of the other side. His arms flail desperately, as if to propel himself to safety as he careens down the cliff, slamming repeatedly into the jagged rocks, his board flying free behind him. The audience gasped in unison as His head hits one of the protruding rocks, snapping his neck back so far, so fast, that his chin smacks against his own back. The micro-moment of agony is repeated again from a closer angle, then again, even closer, before the video resumes and the limp body continues its descent, landing lifeless in the stream at the ravine's bottom.

Silence. The lasers faded to an orange glow as the synthesized female voice resumed. "The company's board of directors initiated a global search for a new executive capable of continuing the Synapticom mission into the next millennium. Hundreds of candidates were interviewed, but when they met the man you are about to meet, they knew instantly that they had found a candidate so unique, so prescient, and so fully aware of the impact of technology on the evolution of the human spirit, that Synapticom would be shepherded to even greater heights."

"Ladies and gentlemen," the computer intoned, "it is with great pleasure that I introduce the new CEO of Synapticom, coming to you live from his mountain villa in his native Stockholm: Thor Thorens."

Of course! He was a legend in the gamer community. Thorens Interactif made wildly popular games that taught kids about ecology and nature. The company had been absorbed by Viacom back in the nineties, in a stock swap that made Thorens a billionaire. After that, he spent his money funding environmental causes. He even worked for the UN, then volunteered as a consultant to the G8's developing nations program. Word was he became a Buddhist after that.

Before anyone had a chance to applaud, Thorens's image appeared on the giant screen. He was about forty-five, with straight brown hair and crystal-blue eyes. The hunter-green shirt beneath his off-white suit jacket explained where his company's fashion trend had come from. Thorens smiled humbly and cleared his throat.

"I am delighted to be with you all," he said calmly, with a slight Scandinavian accent. "I'm sorry I could not be with you in person, but we only negotiated my options package this morning." He laughed, and the audience chimed in. I did, too. The joke only worked because Thorens's reputation was so to the contrary. I felt myself empathizing with the new CEO's plight, and hoped the well-principled European would be up to the challenge of competing with the assembled robber barons. If the column of greenshirted young men staring at their new leader with rapt attention was any indication, Thorens would have no problem.

"Our team will now be distributing a demonstration disk of Synapticom's new prototype technology, what we affectionately refer to in-house as Version Six."

The Synapticom troops dispersed through the crowd, handing out stylish black plastic envelopes, each containing a single CD-ROM. 70 The black plastic was something my friend El Greco had always talked about as the ideal CD wrapping. Jude said he was working there—maybe he was the one who had designed it, I mused, fingering the envelope. I scanned the green shirts, but couldn't find El Greco among them.

"As you'll see," Thorens explained, his own video image receding to the upper-right-hand corner of the screen in order to make room for the graphics demonstration, "Version Six operates in any dynamically driven website environment. As long as your site assembles itself in real time, and has the ability to track the user's responses as they are made—and if it was built this century, it better . . ." There was more laughter from the crowd. This time, nervous laughter from executives who had no idea whether their own company's websites were dynamically driven. Tobias turned to his son, who shrugged. Thor waited for everyone to stop shrugging, and continued. "As long as it does, you'll be able to exploit the impulse-response algorithm of Version Six."

Several of the old men dressed as cowboys abandoned the pretense to put on their glasses for a better view of the screen.

"For example, once a user logs into this sample e-commerce site, his identity is noted by the server and is cross-referenced with his other Internet use, as well as any consumer information we already have, including credit card purchases, insurance records, library activity, brain scans, what have you."

The list of possible databases with information on the consumer appeared along the left side of the screen. As each database name was highlighted, the appearance of the Web page changed.

"This user owns two dogs, sees a Jungian psychologist, takes natural vitamins, lives in a two-bedroom split-colonial, earns a hundred forty-two thousand dollars per year, et cetera. Thus the text and images on the screen, as well as the offerings and price points, adapt and arrange themselves to maximize probability of click-through. Further, the information recorded during the session itself becomes part of the greater database, not just for this user, but for all users with profiles containing similar or analogous consumption parameters. And it's available to all Synapticom-enabled media properties."

In spite of the enthusiasm with which Thor spoke, his presentation amounted to little more than an extension of one-to-one marketing, albeit with a little psycho-pizazz thrown in for good measure. A customized website based on cross-referenced user data. Whoopee. Mine was better.

"Where it gets interesting, though," Thor said, as though responding to me, "is when we begin interpolating the moment-to-moment analysis of our reactive architecture program in real time. For instance, how long did the user take between clicks? Did he utilize the right half of the button, indicating rational left-brain activity, or the left half of the button, showing a propensity for more emotionally based decision making? Once we establish a preliminary neurolinguistic template, we can begin to utilize real-time entrainment techniques, such as altering the frequency at which the cursor blinks in order to target particular brain states, pulsating menu bars subtly along the color spectrum, and, of course, utilizing images and sounds that appeal to or stimulate the underlying psychological propensities for sex, survival, profit, or even personal fulfillment, depending on the user's mindset at that moment. Secondary reinforcement."

As he spoke, the Web page slowly adapted itself to the fictional user's psychological profile. It looked like an organic wall of graffiti, a near-psychedelic display of colors, images, and pulsating light, all directed toward the "buy" button.


On Sale
Sep 15, 2001
Page Count
375 pages

Douglas Rushkoff

About the Author

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. He is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens, where he founded the Laboratory for Digital Humanism. He is a columnist for Medium, technology and media commentator for CNN, a research fellow at the Institute for the Future, and a lecturer on media, technology, culture and economics around the world.

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