December 22, 2003
Social Hypertrophy

I've been re-reading Douglas Rushkoff's book Coercion recently, and I had forgotten how insightful he is regarding the persuasion industries. Rushkoff gets at the larger social and psychological effects of a culture built on coercion, rather than simply outlining the tactics and their tactical effects. In his intro, he points out that most methods of coercion are built on existing and healthy social behaviors, which is why they are effective in the first place. The damage is not simply that those social behaviors are misused or misrepresented, but rather that the original meanings of those behaviors are negated. Take a specific example, marketing with "free gifts," in relationship to the social rapport of gift-giving that it supplants:

"Enclosing a free gift in a solicitation for donations is meant to capitalize on this evolved set of behaviors. The technique has become so overused by now that it barely works... Most of us won't be swayed enough by the offering to open our checkbooks. We just resent it... This resentment actually erodes the community spirit on which the manipulative technique is based. A stranger who gives us something must want something in return. We are reluctant to perform acts of goodwill ourselves lest we provoke paranoia in the recipients."

I bring it up partly because I'm re-reading it, and partly because of Cory Doctorow's entry on Warren Ellis' blog, which intersects some of these same points with different lines:

"The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy... using our technology to affirm, deny and rewrite our social contracts... On that note: I have a special request to the toolmakers of 2004: stop making tools that magnify and multiply awkward social situations ('A total stranger asserts that he is your friend: click here to tell a reassuring lie; click here to break his heart!') ('Someone you don't know very well has invited you to a party: click here to advertise whether or not you'll be there!') ('A 'friend' has exposed your location, down to the meter, on a map of people in his social network, using this keen new location-description protocol -- on the same day that you announced that you were leaving town for a week!'). I don't need more 'tools' like that, thank you very much."

What both Rushkoff and Doctorow are getting at is a kind of social hypertrophy, the way things break by overstimulation rather than neglect. Rushkoff addresses this as regards coercive technique, the act of putting social behaviors into overdrive because we want to get them to do something else. In Doctorow's entry, it's more about putting them into overdrive more or less simply because we can. Never bet against technology and like that.

Either way, we're breaking the things we're using, important things like affection. Many years ago when my dad died, I used to wear his tailored shirts to feel close to him. It only took a month to stain them, stretch them, rip them, and otherwise strip the dad from the fabric. There was a small tragedy in that, but what was the alternative? In the end: adapt and die.

Posted by kevin slavin at December 22, 2003 07:15 PM

It's an apt and well-said end-of-Rome sentiment: that we're breaking the things we're using. I have this little itchy question though...It starts with the notion of the gift-exchange being ruined by being used for coercion. My understanding from anthropology is that gift exchange started out as being very much about power dynamics and influence (see: Potlatch). So that the other way to look at it, besides that we're breaking things, is we're revealing their true/original nature--what they were before the sentimental discourse of capitalism required that they be concealed. Maybe. It's just an itch and a curiosity, and I don't know if it would bear out for other examples. But that affection you mention, which is so extremely valuable to us emotionally, may be itself an act of concealment.

Posted by: Kio on December 23, 2003 04:57 PM

Actually, Rushkoff addresses that very point:

"Many of our social behaviors are based on underlying psychological impulses that are themselves healthy and natural responses to real needs and situations. Psychologists have determined that these impulses originate in the structure and function of the brain itself. Because so many of them operate on an unconscious level, however, we are not generally aware of when or how they are being activated."

But it's not that those needs are concealed, I don't think. They're there -- we're lonely if we don't have friends, and all that.

But still, the point is that those power dynamics and etc. are already very much there, and I'm not quite sure what to say about that yet, why it's so different when they refer to sneakers instead of people. Not to say it doesn't, only to wonder how exactly.

Posted by: Kevin Slavin on December 23, 2003 05:58 PM

I think we might be saying the same/similar thing, if I can try saying this again, but maybe more clearly. Your second quote doesn't actually address what I was trying to say. I think what I'm saying is just adding a tiny nuance to Rushkoff, not disagreeing at all. I don't mean that the NEED for affection conceals anything--it's a basic human need, hardwired, etc. I mean that investing the gift exchange with affection (which happened sometime in the era 1400-1800) might conceal some of the power dynamics of the gift exchange. And that stripping it of affection by overuse for commercial purposes both deprives us of something and also reveals what it was all along.

Of course it still feels like breaking and broken, either way. And I'm curious to see where further your thoughts go on the subject.

Posted by: Kio on December 24, 2003 09:49 AM
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