At first I found it easy to dismiss the writings of naysayer cyber critics like Jerry Manders, Paul Virilio, and Neil Postman, who attacked the notion that the new media had made a positive shift in the balance of power--culturally, economically, or otherwise. There was just too much evidence to the contrary. Although I had some sense that there were people out there attempting to deploy these same innovations coercively, I believed that acknowledging their efforts would only feed their power. If we ignored them, they would go away.
My optimism--and my willingness to consort with the enemy--was met with a number of personal attacks as well. One morning in November 1996, I woke up to a New York Times article describing me as a Gen-X guru who sold youth culture's secrets to media companies for upward of $7,500 per hour. Many of my friends and readers wondered how I could have betrayed the "movement," and wrote me to voice their disapproval. Alternative newspapers who had supported me in the past now called me a sellout. Mentors like virtual-community maker Howard Rheingold and Electronic Frontiers Foundation chairman Mitch Kapor warned me that my uncritical enthusiasm might be blinding me to very real threats to the civic revival we were all working for.
"Vigilance is a dangerous thing," I wrote at the time. I was convinced that a guarded approach to the development of new media would only slow things down, giving our would-be oppressors and manipulators a chance to catch up. And even if I was no better than the scores of "cool hunters" who hoped to cash in on corporate confusion about the changing priorities and sentiments of youth culture, since the ideas I promoted were empowering ones, I couldn't see the harm. I told executives at Sony to design a video game console that allowed kids to create their own video games. I told the people developing content for TCI's new interactive television network to make programs that gave viewers the chance to broadcast their own news stories. I told phone companies that the way to please their customers was to stop treating them like criminals whenever they were late with a payment.
I went to conferences and sat on panels alongside my media-hacking heroes like Michael Moore, the director of the GM-bashing documentary Roger and Me, and Stewart Brand, one of the original band of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. I delivered keynote addresses to thousands of advertising executives and television programmers, telling them to admit to themselves that their monopoly over the public will was over. The older executives threw up their arms in disgust, while the younger ones transcribed my every word. I couldn't have been more pleased. I felt at least partly responsible for dismantling the engines of propaganda and demilitarizing the coercive arms race. Better yet, I was making good money for doing so. My books were hitting best-seller lists, and my speaking and consulting fees were going through the roof--even if they never quite reached the fabled $7,500 per hour.
I guess it was too good to be true.
In the summer of 1997, I was invited to speak about my book Media Virus at a convention of "account planners" (advertising's version of anthropologist-researchers) sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. I packed up my laptop and headed for Sheraton Bal Harbour in Miami to spread the good news. The conference theme was "Mutant Media/Mutant Ideas," itself a play on the ideas in my book. Had the advertisers come to recognize that their power was dwindling?
Hardly. These friendly, well-dressed, and articulate people had bought and read my book--but for a reason very different from the one I'd had for writing it. They were eager to learn all about the mutant mediaspace, but only in order to figure out ways of creating advertisements that were themselves media viruses! Media Virus had become a best-seller not because so many activists, public-access producers, or computer hackers were reading it, but because it was now a standard text in the science of public relations. My work was being taught in advertising school.
Reprinted from Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Douglas Rushkoff. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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