Excerpt from Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Why We Listen to What 'They' Say

by Douglas Rushkoff

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  • First Published:
    Aug 1999, 321 pages
    Oct 2000, 304 pages

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Worst of all, the acceleration of the arms race between us and our coercers deteriorates the foundations of civil society. Telemarketers make us afraid to answer the phone in the evening. Salesmen bearing free gifts (with strings attached) make us reluctant to accept presents from our neighbors. Greedy televangelists twisting Bible passages into sales pitches, and church charity drives employing state-of-the-art fund-raising techniques make us wary of religion. Our president's foreign policy is channeled through spin doctors before it reaches Congress or the people, leading to widespread cynicism about the political process. Our sporting events are so crowded with product promotions that we can't root for a team without cheering a corporate logo. Our movements through department stores are videotaped and analyzed so that shelves and displays can be rearranged to steer us toward an optimum volume of more expensive purchases. Scientists study the influences of colors, sounds, and smells on our likelihood of buying.

It's not a conspiracy against us, exactly; it is simply a science that has gotten out of control.

In a desperate attempt to use any tool available to keep up with our rapidly growing arsenal of filters, marketing professionals turned to high technology. They invented the personalized discount card at the local supermarket, which is used to create a database of our purchasing decisions. This information is bought and sold without our knowledge to direct marketers, who customize the offers filling our mailboxes to match our individual psychological profiles. Home-shopping channels adjust the pacing of sales pitches, the graphics on the screen, and prices of products based on computer analyses of our moment-to-moment responses to their offers, in real time, automatically. The automation of coercive practices is a threat more menacing than any sort of human manipulators. For unlike with real human interaction, the coercer himself is nowhere to be found. There is no man behind the curtain. He has become invisible.

And yet, even when the coercer has vanished into the machinery, we still have the ability to recognize when we are being influenced and to lessen the effect of these techniques, however they originate. There are ways to deconstruct the subtle messages and cues coming at us from every direction. No matter how advanced and convoluted these styles of coercion get, they still rely on the same fundamental techniques of tracking, disorientation, redirection, and capture. Restoring our instinctual capacity to sense what we want, regardless of what we're told, is within our reach.

For instance, as you read the words on this page, consider what is being done to you. Picture yourself reading this book, and consider your relationship to the author. Should the fact that my words have been bound in a book give them more authority than if you had heard them on the bus from a stranger?

Already you have been exposed to a battery of coercive techniques. In fact, everything you have read so far has been concocted to demonstrate the main techniques I'll be exposing in this book.

The opening paragraph, mixing humor with terror, combined a rhythmic assault with the fear-inducing creation of a powerful "they" that means to shape our destiny. The humor disarmed you just enough for the next barb.

Then came a list of rhetorical questions. Of course the answers were already built-in, but they gave you the illusion of interactivity. Like the responsive readings in a church service, they made you feel like you were actively participating in a deductive process, even though the script had already been written and you had no power to change it.

I asked you to personalize the dilemma I had been describing. I asked you to consider the authorities in your own life that act upon you in unwanted ways so that you would personally identify with the threats to your well-being. You were no longer just reading about a problem; you were now in the middle of it.

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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