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Industry StandardYou could get paranoid reading Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say by Douglas Rushkoff. In his earlier books, including Cyberia and Media Virus, Rushkoff extolled the virtues of the new-media revolution, in which the Internet shifted the balance of communication power and individuals could spread ideas as easily as—even more effectively than—old-fashioned media superpowers. Then he was hired as a consultant by some of those superpowers to help them use new media, and he decided to become a double agent, studying how "coercive forces of all kinds influence everyday decisions."
The result is an expansive, scary, instructive, elegantly written primer on how to win friends and influence people, from Dale Carnegie to "virtual marketing" on the Internet. Rushkoff researched neurolinguistic programmers, government-intelligence agents, public-relations specialists and market researchers to uncover the unseen forces that make us confess to crimes and buy things. Actually, it's not paranoia: They really are after us.
The book is divided into such categories as "Hand to Hand," in which the author investigates the techniques of real people in real time. CIA operatives, it turns out, work a lot like used-car salesmen: Get to know the subject; use the knowledge to create "an assumption of goodwill"; create momentary confusion; get the confession or make the sale; and, finally, when it's all over, say something reassuring to secure ongoing cooperation.
In chapters on advertising, pyramid schemes such as, he maintains, the stock market, spectacle such as political rallies and "atmospherics," Rushkoff explains the evolution of techniques to get us to respond. In "Public Relations," he makes the compelling comparison between Christian missionaries and Kathie Lee Gifford—both of whom used a standard formula for cultural domination: Learn the overriding myths of the target population and gain their trust, find the gaps in their beliefs and fill the gaps with facts that redirect their allegiance. Kathie Lee, of course, wasn't out for obvious cultural domination, but the same routine worked when her public-relations consultant, Howard Rubenstein, turned the revelation that she was fronting for a sweatshop operation into her recasting as a leader in the fight against oppressive labor practices. The routine: "pace" the audience—that is, mirror their response—to "gain control of the narrative," then rewrite the story to l! ead to a new conclusion.
Nowadays, of course, we're all sophisticated about many of these techniques, and so marketers use our cynicism to sell their products. Temples of affluence became monuments to brands; extravagant theme stores led to ostensibly nonthemed warehouses, where the unspoken motif was "value." Image advertising led to anti-image advertising, where consumers who feel like they're in on the joke are primed to buy.
Rushkoff, a few years ago, saw the Internet as the way out of this mess. The Internet, he claimed, would democratize the dissemination of ideas, and coercive techniques would be laid bare. But instead, he says, the Internet was transformed from a communication medium into a broadcast medium, with commercial content pre-eminent. Once, the interaction between people was the point; then the Internet was recast as "a set of information that could be accessed. And anything that can be accessed can be given a price tag," he writes.
Add to that the media characterization of the Internet as complicated, threatening and dangerous, and soon we all welcomed the "mediating filter known was the World Wide Web"—a medium that, unlike the Internet itself, is pretty much "read-only."
Along with the taming of the medium came its use as a hypermarketing tool. Marketers who have already observed our walking patterns, our eye movements, our reactions to light, sound and a firm handshake, can now track us step by step every moment we're online. It's "pacing and leading" again, the technique of car salesmen and CIA interrogators—but this time it's automated. A computer can watch where we go, and then gently lead us in the direction it prefers. "The techniques of influence," he says, "can be embedded in every frame and button."
The result of all this, he claims, is a pervasive feeling of powerlessness and passivity. We've been coerced into submission, Rushkoff asserts. And so he offers this "course in media literacy," a wonderful, authoritative, eye-opening guide to the unseen forces all around us.