BOSTON — coercion: why we listen to WHAT 'THEY' SAY By Douglas Rushkoff Riverhead Books 336 pages, $24.95
Earlier this decade, Douglas Rushkoff wrote unabashedly about the societal good of the Internet culture. It seemed to offer freedom from the mass media filled with advertisements and other messages meant to persuade consumers to buy what they did not need or could not afford.
Rushkoff's book "Cyberia" (HarperSan Francisco, 1994) lionized the scientists, spiritualists, and keyboard hackers intent on designing a carefree life for each individual among the masses by using computer technology. His "Media Virus" (Ballantine, 1994) was a variation on that theme.
He thought his message was catching on when he received invitations from politicians, media companies, and the most avowed enemy of all, advertisers, to explain his new rules for the online generation.
"I saw little harm in taking their money just to tell them that the genie was out of the bottle," Rushkoff writes from the perspective of 1999. "I felt like an evangelist, spreading the news that the public had grown too media savvy to be fleeced any further. The only alternative left for public-relations people and advertisers was to tell the truth. Those promoting good ideas or making useful products would succeed; the rest would perish."
His new book, "Coercion," is a mea culpa. Rushkoff says he was a Pollyanna: Advertisers, marketers, politicians, and religious leaders have co-opted the Internet and other forms of technology.
The results have been worse than Rushkoff could have imagined. If those coercive forces simply sold unneeded material and spiritual goods, that would be bad enough. But, Rushkoff says, the damage is far worse - a deterioration and near-breakdown of civil society.
Using the technology that it seemed individuals would harness to create a nearly perfect world, telemarketers "make us afraid to answer the phone in the evening." Resentment growing from giveaway mailings causes millions of recipients to shun all gifts that might have strings attached, further eroding trust. The next step, Rushkoff says, is a reluctance to perform acts of goodwill, "lest we provoke paranoia in the recipients."
Televangelists interested in silver rather than souls twist Bible verses so they become sales pitches. Church charity drives are so honed by commercial selling techniques that religion seems like something to be wary of.
Instead of communicating honestly, politicians practice spin control based on what the pollsters say the public wants, leading to widespread cynicism about politics. Department store personnel place cameras to unobtrusively videotape customers, analyzing the footage to rearrange displays in a way to maximize purchases.
Rushkoff sounds like a zealot on many pages, and there is no zealot like a converted zealot. As a result, his book is rarely fun to read. Yet just as the temptation arises to push aside the book, Rushkoff relates an anecdote that rings so true another chapter rushes by.
Ever felt victimized by a car salesperson? Rushkoff explains why. Ever wonder why a trip to the shopping mall with nothing in mind but some new underwear leads to a dozen unnecessary outerwear purchases? Rushkoff empathizes, then explains the pain. Puzzled about buying a Nike product when something similar without the swoosh would be just as serviceable at much less cost? Rushkoff understands that scenario, and for the mere price of this book will share his understanding.
Sometimes his explanations border on the gobbledygook so objectionable in advertising and public relations. Explaining the lure of Nike, Rushkoff says, "Part of an icon's power comes from its indivisibility. The swoosh cannot be further deconstructed into its component parts. Just as golden arches mean McDonald's, and the little red tab means Levi's, the swoosh is Nike. The product is its icon, inseparably and without exception. To buy a pair of Nike shoes is to buy the Nike swoosh. By adopting the postlinguistic currency of an iconic culture, marketers can reposition themselves and their brands in a manner consistent with the operating system of today's point-and-click marketplace."
Such labored phrasing, combined with the book's dark theme, makes it a downer to read. But the effort is ultimately worthwhile.
Vance Packard told this sad story more artfully 42 years ago in his classic "The Hidden Persuaders," which Rushkoff cites. But Packard was writing before the widespread use of computers, before the advent of the online culture. Rushkoff's update of Packard is a good warning about the coming century's technological hucksters.
*Steve Weinberg edits the magazine Investigative Reporters & Editors at the U of Missouri Journalism School.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society