How They Change Your Mind

Disinfo has just released a visual companion volume to my book Coercion, called How They Change Your Mind by Martin Howard. I’m humbled and honored that something I wrote could inspire such an effort.

Here’s the preface I wrote for it.

These are challenging times for conscious people. More challenging than I usually allow myself to believe.

I originally wrote Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say as a primer to the world and ideas I had been describing in my previous books. I had been so excited about the prospect of interactivity, virtual community, and consciousness expansion, that I thought all I needed to do was write about these new possibilities and everyone would jump in. My earliest books, Cyberia, Media Virus and Playing the Future, were happy announcements of the fact that the tools of reality creation were now in the hands of average people. We could all read the news, report the news, and make the news – as well as anything else we chose to. Seize the day. The world is ours.

I found there were two main audiences for these optimistic forecasts of the effect of new media and new mindsets on our society: counterculture members and marketing executives. The first group consisted mostly of the hackers, computer games, scientists, and culture jammers who already understood most of what I was saying. The other group – who I wasn’t really interested in at all – was made up of people working in advertising and public relations. They wanted to know how all these changes would help or hinder their efforts to influence our thoughts and behaviors. They read my books in order to counteract the changes I was celebrating.

The second problem was that although I was able to connect with younger people, who already had some sense of the way that the media (and much of our world) has been constructed to stymie their cognitive capacities, I wasn’t able to reach most of their parents. What I realized was that most of America didn’t even know that their agency had been compromised in the first place, much less that there was something to do about it. What use had they for the Internet, if they thought the mainstream media was already doing a fine job at telling them the true story, thank you very much?

That’s why I took a few steps back, and wrote Coercion. Here was my exploration of the people and institutions who mean to control public and private opinions and, more importantly, the techniques they are using. I felt that if I could show the common elements in coercion of all sorts – from advertising to public relations to internet architecture – I would empower people to see these techniques whenever they were being used, and even to challenge them.

Take a simple technique like inducing “regression and transference.” All this means is making a person feel small, like a child, and then stepping in as that person’s new parent figure. A salesman might do this to a new car buyer, by using technical terms the buyer doesn’t understand; a cop might do it to someone he is interrogating; a commercial might do it, by intimidating the viewer before introducing the nice gray-haired announcer; the stock market guru might do it right on CNBC. By recognizing the underlying techniques, we stand a much better chance of resisting or, better, defusing them.

For the real point of Coercion was to show people how influence techniques depend – to some extent – on our participation. The final joke, really, is that we are “they,” and “they” are powerless without us. We confer respect on our authority figures whether they’ve earned it or not. We submit to their techniques because we feel ashamed, powerless, at their mercy, or guilty about our own desires. Like any confidence man, the coercer can only exploit a weakness that we refuse to confront directly, ourselves. And that weakness is that while we complain about the way others coerce us, very often – whether at work or church – it is we who are using those very same techniques to coerce someone else.

Coercion met with a lot of acclaim – especially from people outside the marketing world. Emails came in from teachers, senators, artists, and consumer advocates. They all wanted to use the text – or some part of it – in their education programs, anthologies, documentaries or white papers. And pretty much everyone wanted me to create a companion manual to the book – a visual, practical guide to identifying psychological manipulation in our world, and learning to break its hold over us.

Luckily for my own already overbooked life, a brilliant and energetic writer named Martin Howard pinged me about five years ago to ask if I was planning to write a Coercion companion – some kind of workbook that pulled out the most useable ideas from the text and made them even more accessible to and actionable by the modern reader. This way, even a non-reader (and that’s most of us, these days) would be able to get the gist of these ideas – and even those who do read would get a more user-friendly presentation of this material, complete with some new case studies and high-impact, easily remembered visuals.

Of course I was all for it, and the result of Martin’s work – the quintessence of Coercion – is in your hands.

But let me also, dear reader, give you a quick disclaimer. I began the book Coercion with an extended introduction that demonstrated a bunch of different rhetorical techniques. I wanted to show from the outset that books, too, are influential in their own way. We can’t help but use influence techniques, to some extent, whenever we communicate with one another. We wouldn’t be speaking if we didn’t want to make some change in the other person.

The format of this book is alive with visuals and packed with persuasive language. And while it’s sometimes fun to descend into the conspiratorial mindset for a moment, please realize that there’s a bit of a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to all of this. Yes, there are nasty people out there in government and corporations who mean to compromise your ability to think. That’s just a fact. But this doesn’t mean that these people comprise a great and all-powerful “they” who can make you do anything they want to.

It’s fun and useful to identify the enemy, see his techniques, and then disable them. It’s not useful, however, to become so obsessed with the “theys” out there that we lose sight of our own participation in the game. There is no they without us, and the more we glamorize and obsess on their techniques, the less able we feel to get beyond them.

So please enjoy the style and tone of this volume for what it is: a way to make some of the scariest things about our propagandistic landscape have a bit less hold over us. It’s a kind of ghost story, really. Yes, it’s scary – so is the idea of a “they” – but the enemies here are just spirits, and only as real as we allow them to be.