Advertising and The Future of the Less-Evil Internet

by The Awl

“The information economy that we are currently building doesn’t really embrace capitalism, but rather a new form of feudalism,” writes Jaron Lanier, in Who Owns the Future? That book is published today, and you can order it from all the usual places. (Indiebound; Amazon; McNally Jackson; Barnes & Noble; Powell’s. See what I did there?)

Jaron Lanier is the author of You Are Not a Gadget, and is a “scholar-at-large” at Microsoft Research. LOL he’s also working on an alternative to the space elevator.

But right now, he’s looking at how things have come to work on the web. “The primary business of digital networking,” he writes, “has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power.” That is literally it. End of story.

What has become of the Internet is that we are not just producers of content from which people make money, but we are also uncompensated bits of identity that are traded and sold, often without our knowledge. The Internet was built without the desire to compensate us for our labors.

And yet, what gets the bad rap so often is advertising.

Can we change the Internet? We actually can. We actually probably have to. Even if we’re not all as idealistic as Lanier, even if you don’t believe that an at least functionally evil Libertarian-capitalist-Objectivist overclass is trying to wring every last penny from the Internet, surely we can agree that things can be better. Here’s Jaron Lanier on advertising.

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The dominant current business plan for consumer networking is advertising. What would the role of advertising be in a humanistic information economy?

Advertising can be manipulative, sneaky, and a maddening source of distortions. It is also purely human, a part of us we couldn’t remove any more easily than we could sever our limbs.

In a cab in New York City, some sweaty summer day in the 1990s, a cloying, intrusive jingle blared from the radio. “Can you turn the radio down, please?” Was I heard? Louder. “Turn the radio down, driver, please!” It was an ad for a chain of furniture stores. A percussive Pakistani accent penetrated the barrier between driver and passenger, “Mister, when you own your own cab you can turn the radio off. This is my cab, not yours. Stop shouting at me.”

Then it hit me. That was me playing the annoying melody on the flute. My friend Mario Grigorov, a soundtrack composer, and I picked up jingle work from time to time. We had produced this one for an ad agency a year ago, and I remembered we had to go back and forth many times to please the client — to make sure the music was sufficiently piercing to ruin the precious solitude one might hope to enjoy in a cab on a sweltering day.

Advertising was one of the main business plans of the age of mass media from well before the appearance of digital technology, and there is no reason to expect it to disappear as technology evolves. In fact, advertising ought to be celebrated for the starring role it has played — for centuries — in the onset of modernity. Ads romanticized progress. Advertising counterbalances the tendency of people to adhere to familiar habits.

It bothers me that link placement in search engines and social networks is called “advertising” in the online world. That is at most a tactical sort of advertisement, but it’s more a form of direct micromanagement of the options in front of a person from moment to moment. Real advertising romanticizes the offerings of people to each other. This is usually called “brand advertising” these days, but romantic — or if you prefer, heroic — advertising isn’t limited to brands.

Brand advertising is what Apple did, for instance, in huge outlays for TV, billboards, and print in order to introduce a product like the iPad. Tactical link placement of the kind pioneered by Google could not have accomplished that. Instead, such links, placed for pay in front of your eyes, might influence where you buy something like an iPad. It remains a bit of a mystery how to best transfer true brand advertising from TV, billboards, or steaming New York City taxicabs into the frenetic jumble of online experience.

My purpose here is not to dictate what a utopia would be like, but I imagine that a romantic, stylish form of advertising will continue to be a central part of human experience in any advanced economy. I am a little less sanguine about paid link placement. Our online world should function well enough that we see the best links as a matter of course.

From Who Owns the Future?, by Jaron Lanier, which is copyright © 2013 by Jaron Lanier, and excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster, which is a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Creative Commons-licensed photo by “Jimmie.”