Douglas Rushkoff

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?

Media Virus!, Douglas Rushkoff

Ballantine, 1996, 344 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-39774-6

As someone who started reading Adbusters! magazine in high-school during the early nineties, media jamming and memetic theory aren’t much of a discovery at this point in time. Still, “Hidden agendas in popular culture” is a tagline that’ll get me every time, so it’s no surprise if I picked up Media Virus.

Culture commentator Douglas Rushkoff wants to do two thing with this book. First, to show how media, far from being a fearsome monolithic entity that that tells everyone what to do, is in fact controlled by the public. Second, to give specific examples of how individuals can manipulate media to transmit ideas they have created and optimized for maximum impact.

At least, that’s what I was able to gather. Media Virus is so scattered, so free-wheeling that it’s hard to constrain. Like a channel-hopping teen wired on Jolt Cola, Rushkoff switches from one theme to another with a breathless energy, telling good stories but seldom bothering to pull them together. “Media Virus! Media Virus!” he shouts here and there. Well, okay: ideas can be propagated through the mindspace like their biological counterparts, but what happens then?

To be fair, though, you won’t spend too much time worrying about the unity of the book as you rush through it, thrown from one field of interest to another with scarcely a moment’s pause. Media Virus! is an exhilarating read even six years (and a full Internet revolution) after publication. (Unfortunately, some cultural references now need a footnote or two, and this caveat will only grow worse with time.) Highlights include a wonderful analysis of the 1992 presidential election and explanations of the cultural significance of Ren and Stimpy, Peewee’s Playhouse and The Simpsons. Rushkoff shows us a television rushing toward greater realism fully four years before the reality show craze. (What did he write about “Survivor”?)

From a certain perspective, Rushkoff also shows us a society ready for the Internet. His forays on the Internet circa 1994 take on a nostalgic quality, but clearly show a society only a click away from Kazaa, ICQ and virulent political chat boards.

Oh, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second—mostly because after reading “Media Virus!” so many times, it’s easy to be bored. (We’re the MTV generation, Rushkoff. Our brain assimilates information more quickly. Don’t you forget it.) It’s also an unfortunate effect of his chosen field of study -media theory- that he has to rely on anecdotal “evidence” and personal interpretation of facts rather than harder numerical data in the form of, say statistics and survey. Media theorists have to apply, essentially, the tools of historians to subjects that haven’t even had time to cool down. This makes his speculations fun and interesting to read, but rather less than convincing from a purely objective perspective.

But it may be a mistake to apply scientific thought to this subject. Maybe it’s more accurate to consider Media Virus! as a bunch of ideas and thoughts half-way corralled in book form. That a lot of them are obvious would only mean that Rushkoff either did his research or was dead-on in predicting the prevalent Media Viruses of 1995-2002.

In any case, Media Virus! is great good fun. Even limiting itself to anecdotal evidence, it manages to explain (and defuse) the success of such latter pop icons as Eminem, Teletubbies, Survivor and a whole bunch of other things. As maybe the last book about the pre-Internet media, it may even be a historical curio of sort. In any case, this is a splendid thought-piece, a book to read whenever the success of the latest pop sensation looks too bizarre to be believed.