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Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say, by Douglas Rushkoff, New York: Riverhead Books, 321 pages, $24.95

Once upon a time, Douglas Rushkoff thought the Internet and other new media were going to unleash the power of individuals over institutions. He wrote books promoting this dream, most famously Media Virus (1994), and made a name for himself as a cyberutopian. Then the Establishment invaded the Net and turned Rushkoff's liberatory tool to its own ends, littering the Web and his beloved e-mail inbox with that ugly thing, commerce. Admen and P.R. flacks even had the gall to try to use him and his ideas for their own nefarious ends.

So in 1998, Rushkoff signed on to the "Technorealist" movement, which aims, in his words, "to support the mindful development of cyberculture beyond the priorities set by business interests" while avoiding "neo-Luddite" hysteria. Dashed hopes and all, Rushkoff remains a prophet, but one closer in spirit to Jeremiah than to Moses. In Coercion, he purports to reveal not a promised land but our most grievous faults. His theme is how professional "coercers" make suckers of us all.

For those of us who use the word coercion in its conventional sense–that is, as the use or threat of force–the questions about Rushkoff's book start with its title. He is actually writing about the many methods of base rhetoric, of unwholesome persuasion: indirection, trickery, deceit. He is not describing systems of social control that carefully conceal the threat of force behind, say, noble-sounding rhetoric; that is, he is not talking about politics. He is talking about commerce. But sellers "threaten" us, at worst, by withholding an enticement.

At one point, amusingly, Rushkoff slips into the standard use of the word, with a reference to the CIA's "noncoercive interrogation" techniques. Why does Rushkoff bring this up? To explain how salespeople use similar techniques as part of their "coercion." Here and elsewhere, Rushkoff demonstrates that his peculiar use of a common word disables him. There is a continuum from coercion proper, through coercion loosely conceived as he thinks of it, to plain, honest persuasion. By misusing one word, he defeats his whole enterprise. "The fact is," he states without irony, "everything is coercive." Except, of course, those CIA interrogation techniques.

So Rushkoff's villains are admen and marketers. They gain our compliance not with threats of jail or death but with jingles, point-of-sale racks, and puff pieces carefully placed in the press. For instance, Rushkoff offers the sad story of "Mort Spivas," a salesman he knows who lies and cheats, the better to bilk his customers. Mort finagles a nice old couple into purchasing an expensive therapeutic bed they don't really need, for more money than advertised, on the poorest terms around. Then Mort has a crisis of conscience, landing in the hospital for a "heart condition" that turns out to be little more than a partial change of heart.

Rushkoff uses Mort's story to introduce the "science" of selling, as developed from Dale Carnegie's day to our own. It is all very interesting stuff. We learn, for example, that the development of "system selling" among car dealers has gone through increasingly slick iterations, one ushered in by a consumer advice book appropriately titled Don't Get Taken Every Time. As the chapter wears on, however, Rushkoff loses his bearings; he seems to suggest that all marketing is as bad as Mort's manipulations. He expends little energy considering what "good" selling might be. Selling itself is suspect.

Consider Rushkoff's take on the easygoing atmosphere of the Gap. By "creating an ambiance of customer service and a basic sense of trust," he writes, "companies using the soft sell fool us into believing they have abandoned the cruelest coercive practices of their predecessors, when all they've really done is replaced them with kinder-looking ones and shifted the direct abuse onto their salespeople." Beyond the question of whether "the ambiance of customer service and a basic sense of trust" might actually be real, does Rushkoff really think that pleasant shopping correlates directly with poor working conditions?

It doesn't end with the Gap, of course. "Atmospherics," he explains, is the art and science of influencing behavior through careful design of architecture and interior decor, lighting, sound, and smell. Malls, thus, are carefully planned to induce what those in the trade call the "Gruen transfer," when consumers mutate from shoppers for specific items into impulse buyers for damn near anything. While this argument seems strong at first, Rushkoff then tells us that discount warehouses emerged in response to a rising distaste for the mall environment–and that these are coercive, too. They may not have salespeople tricking us, they may not dazzle us with carefully sculpted point-of-sale displays, they certainly lack glamour and glitz, and they have no comforting aura with which to impart that certain touch of disorientation that mall developers love. But this lack of artfully contrived selling schemes doesn't absolve them in Rushkoff's eyes. After all, he writes, they "rely on our inability to answer" certain questions, such as, "Do you feel truly confident as you try to make sense of in-sink garbage disposal strategies? Do you know whether horsepower or flow rate is the more significant statistic?"

Rushkoff ignores the obvious retort: Human beings never have had this kind of knowledge. We didn't before discount warehouses graced the landscape, and we won't when we purchase everything from the Web and have it delivered to our homes by matter transfer. We can spend time researching some items, but surely not everything we buy. "We are all ignorant," said Will Rogers, "just on different subjects." And this lack of omniscience in no way adds up to a case against the superstore.

But Rushkoff has a more basic point. These environments, too, are planned to appeal to consumers, he argues, so they can't help but be manipulative: "Conscious of the millions of dollars being spent on store environments, many people feel as if they will get better value shopping in an environment stripped down to its bare essentials. What they may not realize is that those stores, too, are meticulously engineered to exploit just such a state of mind."

It is a mark of Rushkoff's method that he never bothers to ask such relevant questions as, Are there better deals at Costco than at the Bon Marche or a mall shop? Then again, why should he waste time comparing prices? If "they" are selling something, Rushkoff reasons, they must be out to get us.

If "they" are salespeople, then who exactly is "us"? Rushkoff distinguishes three types of consumers. A "traditionalist" is "emotionally moved by politicians' speeches, dedicated to [his] local sports teams, and ready to believe that government agencies would prevent us from being duped by misleading advertisements." Such people are, if not atavisms, at least remnants of an era that seems to be passing quickly away. A "New Simpleton," by contrast, demands "straightforward, no-nonsense explanations for what [he's] supposed to buy or do."

The third group, the "Cool Kids," react to advertising in a much more complex fashion. They feel they understand "how the media hope to manipulate" them, and their basic attitude is one of "ironic detachment." The younger generations haven't just grown up with mass media, Rushkoff argues; they've grown up with remote controls. "Young people and remote-control-capable adults no longer sit back and watch a television program; they watch the TV set and put it through its paces. They are literally watching and deconstructing styles of programming."

Yet despite their media savvy, Rushkoff writes, even Cool Kids can be manipulated. "The stance of ironic detachment, while protecting ourselves from straightforward linear stories and associations, nonetheless makes us vulnerable to more sophisticated forms of influence," he says. How does it do this? By robbing us of meaning, and leaving us yearning for "some value, any value, to accept completely and genuinely."

Which perhaps accounts for Rushkoff's serioso mood throughout. He's not going to let anyone trick him into falling for something. Though he clearly identifies on a certain level with the Cool Kids, in this sense Rushkoff is a New Simpleton par excellence. He wants people to make choices rationally, based on explicit information and an easily listed set of preferences. For him, warm feelings in fuzzy categories are best left to nonmarket relations–you know, like "family" and "community."

Strangely, Rushkoff pulls back from espousing explicit public policies to deal with the problems, real and imaginary, that he describes. Instead, he draws a vaguely individualist lesson: Basically, "we" are "they," and "without our complicity, they are powerless."

At this point, ironic detachment starts looking pretty good. If we are snookered a hundred ways till Sunday yet remain somehow responsible, mightn't a little snicker be, at least once, the appropriate response?

Coercion is a balanced book in at least one sense: For every real insight, it gives us something utterly ludicrous. Even the best part, the next-to-last chapter on "Virtual Marketing," includes some gasp-inducing statements. Here's one at random: "As anyone who has used an Internet account for a while will tell you, the majority of messages circulating online are the electronic equivalent of junk mail, or what has become known as `Spam.'" I have used several Internet accounts, for more than a few years, and this flies in the face of my experience. Sure, I get quite a few ads at one of my Yahoo! addresses, but unlike Rushkoff–who complains of lacking an easy way to distinguish junk mail from friends' mail–I can identify spam at a glance, and kill it with a few clicks. I read only what interests me, only those messages that have enticed me with an interesting subject line or a familiar e-mail address. Why complain about something so easy to dispose of? A flick of the finger and it's gone. No bulging garbage bag, no trip to the dumpster.

And so I react to this book precisely as it would have us react to a sales pitch. Rushkoff is pushing something, and that something does not seem to be in my interest. Like any good salesman, he tells a good story, and his wares do not wholly lack merit. But he's twisting words and arguments in untrustworthy ways.

My advice, then, is for readers still curious about his book to learn from the masters of the video remote and program for themselves. Check out the chapter on "Virtual Marketing," in which Rushkoff tells the tale of an Internet twisted from its communitarian origins into a commercial monstrosity. Perhaps you will not react as I did (I suspect that Rushkoff has always been a bit off the beam). Perhaps you will not see his progress from eschatological Internet optimist to sour and beleaguered "Technorealist" as a thing of comedy. Perhaps you'll buy what he's selling.