Inside the belly of the technobeast

Summary:New media thinker Douglas Rushkoff takes aim at technocapitalism.

It's as though the rabbi has lost his religion.

Douglas Rushkoff, one of cyberculture's leading chroniclers, has recanted his faith in the Internet as a tool of liberation. Instead, in a stunning back flip, the writer, new media thinker and card-carrying member of the digital intelligentsia now claims the Internet has become a hypnotizing and corrupting e-commerce tool. He's even taken a swipe at electronic day trading -- likening the Web's latest darling to a pyramid scheme.

"Many people in America are walking around hypnotized," he told ZDNN in an interview. They're wanting things for reasons they don't comprehend and, worse, alienating themselves even farther away from life's real satisfactions, he said.

Rushkoff's scorching indictment of the Net is contained in a new book due out this Wednesday. It's called "Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say" (Riverhead Books, Sept. 1, 321 pages, $24.95), and it promises to send a collective shudder through the Internet's commercial establishment -- from California's Silicon Valley to New York's Silicon Alley.

The reason is that Rushkoff, in effect, worked undercover to gather information for "Coercion" -- taking advantage of his access to the corridors of technocapitalism to reveal the methods and motives of the for-profit forces that now dominate the new media. In Rushkoff's own words, he was a "double agent."

Rushkoff said "Coercion" makes good on a two-year-old promise he made to himself to basically say that his writings and ideas may have been wrong. "I saw it for one way for awhile. Now I'm seeing it another way," he said.

The 38-year-old "cultural anthropologist" entered the vanguard of a new cyberspace intelligentsia with his non-fiction works "Cyberia" and "Media Virus." His novel, the "Ecstasy Club," is being turned into a Miramax Films movie. In these writings and three other books, he extolled the "liberating" virtues of electronic technology.

Fencing in the 'mediaspace'
As Rushkoff saw it, the TV remote, the home video, computers and, finally, the Internet gave consumers new powers and the savvy to demystify the media and wrest it from its corporate keepers, as well as the marketers it represented.

He predicted a "populist renaissance" in which everyone was empowered to champion their ideas in a chaotic and ever-growing expanse he called the "mediaspace." An idea in this rich and networked environment would find the perfect conditions to propagate and spread, as readily and rapidly as the latest flu strain.

Such provocative ideas, propounded at a time when the Internet remained a mystery to the mainstream, began to win Rushkoff speaking engagements and consulting stints. Politicians, advertising agencies such as Leo Burnett, and companies such as Sony, Turner Broadcasting and TCI sought his advice.

And Rushkoff's speaking and consulting fees went, as he says in his book, "through the roof."

Then it hit him.

As Rushkoff recounts it, he was in Miami Beach, Fla., where he was to speak about "Media Virus" before a 1997 gathering of advertising researchers. He'd been flattered by the invitation, but, at the conference, it dawned on him: The attendees weren't there to surrender to his ideas that advertising and marketing were being outmoded by the new media in the hands of savvy young Gen Xers.

Instead, they wanted to know how to create better ads by actually using viral techniques.

"It was at that point I realized that the forces attempting to turn the Internet into a marketing machine were actually stronger and better organized than I'd imagined," he says now.

"They used the books I had written about celebrating our liberation from coercive media as the basis for retooling their coercive systems to a new audience.

"My work had been co-opted." It was then and there, he says, that he decided to write "Coercion."

For next two years, Rushkoff said he used his newfound access to Madison Avenue and corporate America to study and analyze the increasingly sophisticated methods of manipulation being employed by the for-profit forces that now dominate the Web.

Not an expose
Although he made his mark writing about the new media, Rushkoff does not consider himself to be a technologist. "I don't know f--- all about technology," he says.

He also refuses to characterize the book as investigative journalism. "I didn't set out to write an expose," he says. "I don't see it as expose; I see it as primer in media literacy.

Nevertheless, he admits, he may have succeeded in burning a few bridges. "We'll have to see," he says. "As far as I'm concerned all I'm trying to do is tell it like I see it."

Rushkoff swung wide enough in his book to sting somebody. Among his claims:

The Internet has changed, becoming a marketing-driven medium, just like TV.

The machines have taken over.

The Net is a haven for pyramid schemes.

Bottom of the pyramid
Rushkoff argues that, with technology, the people turning the media into an electronic marketplace "have succeeded in automating their craft. In effect, they've put the machines in charge."

"People lack the defensive techniques to maintain independent thinking and clarity in a media environment fraught with coercive techniques," he says.

Rushkoff goes so far to say that Web trading is the most dangerous technology of all. "It's giving individuals the false sense they are making educated decisions," he says. "I look at electronic trading programs as the way to get one more level at the bottom of the pyramid."

Topics: E-Commerce

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