The double agent who fled Cyberia just in time

Coercion: the persuasion professionals and why we listen to what they say by Douglas Rushkoff (Little, Brown and Co, £9.99)
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The Independent Culture

Few things read as well as complete, self-abasing repentance. And cyber-guru Douglas Rushkoff's new book must be a modern classic of the hair-shirt genre. Since the early Nineties, Rushkoff has been one of the most exuberant cheerleaders of the information age. He appeared regularly, rhapsodising about those clued-up "screenagers" who would topple media empires, nail corrupt leaders, humanise corporate capitalism - all by their mastery of mouse and modem.

Well, forget that guy. Rushkoff now believes that Cyberia has turned into Siberia. The counter-cultural e-topia has become a consumerist Gulag with captive populations controlled by hidden persuaders and stealth marketeers. How does he know? Because, apparently, it's partly his fault.

Rushkof did not just write articles for The New York Times about the revolution. He had been doing some quiet corporate consulting on the side, advising companies on how to sell to this media-savvy generation. Ethically, as he says in Coercion, it mostly felt good. His message to them was: cut the bullshit, make utility and honesty your watchwords.

His moment of revelation comes when he attends an advertising conference in 1997, themed to the ideas of one of his books, Media Virus. This is a libertarian vision of media power - it's back in the hands of the people, who can create "viral" messages (the Rodney King videotape, the warehouse rave) which use the channels of corporate media for their own ends. But what Rushkoff finds is that these viral techniques are being used by businesses in deliberately obscure, cooler-than-thou ad campaigns that make those tills ring even quicker.

So Rushkoff decided to become a "double-agent", taking the consultant's coin, but keeping his notes. His aim was to reveal the new means of consumer seduction. Like a Vance Packard for the new century, he wanted to drag those hidden persuaders into the light.

The best bits of Coercion are the most diaristic. He takes a series of power-meetings which show US business at its most baroque - anthropologists shouting at rooms full of Hell's Angels; airline bosses anxiously asking if the internet will subvert their union-busting; ad-agency avant-gardists who blithely bring companies crashing down.

More reportage of this kind of absurdity would have made his point better. But most of Coercion is based on the idea that life in the West is an iron cage, or at least a silicon mesh, of enslaved, brow-beaten consumers. It's no less dumb than his previous big idea - that faster communication systems automatically mean a revolution.

Yes, companies use everything from hypnotism to conceptual art to ensnare customers; but no, that doesn't guarantee coercive measures will succeed. Isn't that the fun of the new economy - to see which products and services this movement between seducer and seducee creates?

In a recent interview on John Brockman's Edge website, Rushkoff tells us that he has been helping an airline to put its timetables on a PalmPilot. This is "just giving things directly to customers", he asserts. So is this virtuous marketing strategy still "coercion", Doug? More importantly, are you still getting paid for it?

Rushkoff is now safely ensconced as an academic at New York University. Repentance, as they say, is best conducted at leisure. But this is also the moment when a new student generation, drip-fed by all those Marxisant professors in the Ivy League, join the Teamsters to kick World Bank ass in Washington and Seattle. Beautiful timing, then, to publicly renounce right now the corporate Satan and all (or most) of its coercive works.

Pardon my cynicism; but as the corporate heads cower behind limo windows in Washington, facing the wrath of their ear-pierced future consumers, I bet there's one old name in the consulting directory who will be getting a new round of calls. Rushkoff's hair-shirt won't be on for long.

The reviewer is associate editor of the 'Sunday Herald' in Glasgow