Coercion: Why we Listen to What "They" Say, Douglas Rushkoff

Riverhead, 1999, 293 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 1-57322-829-X

Like most of your contemporaries, you probably think of yourself as a smart, savvy, independent person. You like to make up your own mind: Advertisements don’t work on you, and neither does the cheap rhetoric of politicians, media spokesperson or car dealers. You’re too smart to be taken in by those blatant techniques.

Well, good for you. But chances are that you’re fooling yourself. Today’s methods for changing your mind on just about any subject are more subtle than a gross sales pitch. They seek to bypass your intellect and get you through your emotions. Sometimes, they actually want you to be so smart as to see through them. Politicians, corporations, religions, celebrity-makers and con artists alike are fighting for a piece of your mind with a desperation that leads to a memetic arms-race: As the target (you) get smarter about their methods, they’ll switch to a new one against which there is no predefined defence.

In his introduction to Coercion, Douglas Rushkoff describes the strange path that has led him to write the book. From media pundit who took a delight in pointing out how the media was being subverted from within (in Media Virus!), Rushkoff found himself increasingly solicited by ad agencies and media think-tanks, asked to help them harness the power of subversion in order to better market their wares. “Going underground”, so to speak, he collected notes and Coercion is the result of his journey in the underworld. Either that or it’s just another way for him to sell more books; from the start, Rushkoff takes an impish pleasure in pointing how he himself is selling his book to a potential audience. Unless he’s simply being meta-clever, hoping to attract readers who think they’re smarter than him? Hmmm…

Still, most of Coercion is a description of how sophisticated the battle for mindspace has become. Salesman techniques borrow from CIA interrogation manuals (or the other way around); malls and supermarkets use psychology in arranging their displays layouts; sects and scams alike are optimized in a pyramidal model (so is the stock market); religious groupings share traits with political rallies, rock shows and wrestling events; public relations take the unpleasant truth and twist it in a logical feel-good story ready for mass consumption; publicity campaigns resort to cynicism in order to be hip for the media-savvy audiences. Oh, and the Internet isn’t the consensus-busting tool is promised to be, but has become jut another marketing tool. (Surprise!)

All fine and well (and familiar to anyone who’s well-read in psychology, specialized media and counter-literature such as Adbusters magazine) but one of Rushkoff’s main sub-themes is to illustrate how this incessant war for your attention is having an impact on the Rest of Your Life. Friendly Salespersons compliment your figure in order to sell you clothes, but isn’t the same duplicity undistinguishable from comments received by friends? When the government distorts the truth to manufacture consent for another war in the Gulf, doesn’t this undermine what they’re saying about other things? What about spam: deluged by a flow of trash, some people are simply abandoning this mean of communication. Indeed, argues Rushkoff, as marketers are becoming more desperate and devious, they are threatening the fabric of civility. That’s the nagging feeling most of us get when marketing makes a new intrusion in our lives.

Indeed, it’s difficult to read Coercion without tying it with our own lives. I myself was shocked, not as much in seeing what techniques were “used” on me, but how I was using some methods -notably at work- to facilitate my life. Brr!

But it’s easy to become paranoid when reading this book, and that’s something against which Rushkoff warns us. Being aware is good; being paranoid makes us needlessly fearful, dismissing the good along with the bad. Still, a faint doubt remains, and that should also be the case for you: What if this web site, these hundreds of pages, these millions bytes, are nothing but a subtle way to sell you Rushkoff’s book?

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