The Digital Revolution Eats Its Own

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Harper's Magazine on 1 January 2000

From an interview with Douglas Rushkoff on Edge (, a Web site edited by John Brockman. Rushkoff’s most recent book is Coercion, published in September by Riverhead Books.

JOHN BROCKMAN: Let’s talk about the so-called human communications revolution.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I prefer to think of our moment as a renaissance rather than a revolution. So many people talk about this computer revolution in terms of the individual user who is empowered to express himself, break down obsolete institutions, or topple the corporate-industrial monoliths. I used to do so myself, but it’s an unnecessarily polar and combative vision. And once it’s reduced to the idea of empowering individuals, all those individuals start looking a lot more like consumers than autonomous human beings. It devolves quickly into “one-to-one marketing.”

I used to think that this acceleration of human action was a great thing. I thought we’d simply bypass our restricting editorial voices, get our superegos out of the way, and behave in that purely spontaneous, wonderful fashion that all human beings would behave in if they were uncorrupted by social and institutional biases. Until about three years ago, I thought that we should just let technology develop at its own pace and in its own way. I wrote three loud books about the promise of new media and honestly believed I was writing them for what I conceived of as the “counterculture”–or at least for people who sought to use these technologies for thoughtful, positive cultural evolution. I told the story of how our tightly controlled media was giving way to a more organic, natural mediaspace. Media used to be a top-down affair. People like William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch could make decisions from the upper floors of glass skyscrapers, and their messages would trickle down to the rest .of us through the one-way media. But now, thanks to computers and camcorders and the Internet and modems, the media have been forced to incorporate feedback and iteration. I wrote Media Virus! to announce that the time had come when we could launch any idea we wanted, that the power was in our hands again. I wrote books about how young people understood media better than adults and were already using it in new, exciting ways.

At the time, I saw everyone who called for us to put on the brakes, or to put new governors on the development of culture, as the enemy of our cultural evolution. Their vigilance would prevent us from reaching the next level of complexity. But something kept nagging at me. I couldn’t help thinking that when you eliminate fear and simply follow your bliss, you don’t always get the best results. In the worst case, it can even be a recipe for fascism. Over the past few years we just let the Internet go, and we’ve got an electronic strip mall as a result. We thought government was the enemy and kept them out of our network. That’s what gave market forces free rein. So I started to explore whether there is a way to foster growth, new thought, cultural innovation, and even markets without getting absolutely carried away and losing all sense of purpose.

BROCKMAN: And you discovered that there was no counterculture.

RUSHKOFF: Yes, I learned that very quickly when I was invited to a convention sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. They wanted me to talk to them about media viruses and youth culture. I was thrilled. I prepared a talk in which I claimed that advertising was over, that their tyranny over young people had come to an end, that they should give up their coercive ways. When I arrived, there were signs and handouts that read “How to use Media Viruses to Capture New Audiences” and that sort of thing. People were coming up to me and congratulating me for my role in launching controversial Calvin Klein ads that I had nothing to do with. Or so I thought.

I suddenly realized that the people who had put my books on bestseller lists were not those Mondo 2000–era hackers and Internet homesteaders I so admired but rather the public relations and advertising industries. I had been selling “cool” to corporate America. My books were primers, required texts for young executives on how to take advantage of new media to do the same old thing they were doing before. That’s when I realized that we were in an arms race and that I was just as caught up in it as everyone else. So I spent two years taking a look at many different styles of coercion, their histories, and how these techniques have been retooled for modern times. I concluded that most of them are based on a simple phenomenon known as regression and transference. It’s used in a positive way by therapists, and in a dangerous way by salespeople and marketers. Basically, if people can be made to feel disoriented or helpless, they will seek out someone to act as a parent. When people are confused, they want parents who can tell them what to do and reassure them. Once you create a situation where people feel that they can trust you, that you understand them, that you’ll take care of them, or that you’ll lead them, they will submit.

The other main set of techniques that is being used in coercion today is taken from neurolinguistic programming. They are really just simple hypnosis techniques, such as Milton Erickson’s “pacing and leading.” If you’re sitting in a room with someone, what you would do is subtly assume the same position as your target and adopt some of the same breathing and speech patterns–that’s pacing. Then, amazingly, you can slowly lead the person by changing your posture, breathing rate, or speech pattern. Your subject will change his posture too, to conform to yours. Then you begin to work on his thinking.

The same technique plays itself out in the sales world through the sciences of demographics and target marketing. You pace your target market and listen to its language. To pace the target demographic, the marketer studies buying motives and propensities through focus groups, then creates messages that perfectly reflect the groups’ existing emotional states. Marketers pace our behaviors and feelings in order to lead us where they want us to go. When this process gets automated through a technology like the World Wide Web, watch out. An e-commerce site watches and records each user’s interactions with it. What screens did the user look at and in what order? Where did he click? When did he buy? Did he buy when the background was red or blue? Did he buy when the offer was in the top left or the top right? And the computer can then dynamically reconfigure itself to make a Web site that identifies and then paces each individual exactly. Meanwhile, the user thinks he’s in control.

Once the customer is properly paced, then you work on leading him toward a greater frequency of purchases, greater allegiance. So-called sticky Web sites are really just trying to create an inexorable pull on the user toward greater and greater interaction with and loyalty to the particular brand being offered. The user is a fly, and the branded Web site is the flypaper. In a sense, nothing has changed; the same techniques that emperors, kings, popes, and priests have used for centuries are now in the service of corporations. What’s different is that we now have technologies in place that make these coercive techniques automatic.