Saturday, 25 April 2015

On advertising and adblocking.

Advertising is a scourge. Of the various institutions of capitalism, it is perhaps the most alienating. The reason for advertising is simply to make people want stuff they don't need. You never see advertising for basic things that people actually need, it's always the unnecessary stuff that people wouldn't buy otherwise that are advertised.

Advertisers do their work by simply using bullshit and lies, often deliberately trying to make people insecure and induce anxiety, then offering a way out of that anxiety by buying their product. Advertisers try to make you unhappy with what you got, even if it's perfectly acceptable, so that you will buy their product. This anxiety, and the sheer lack of meaning in the chase for more and more stuff creates great alienation and unhappiness in our society.

Today, they also use modern information technology to violate the privacy of pretty much every internet user. Their programs track the individual internet user and use that information to tailor the advertisements that the user sees to what the programs perceive as their interests. Facebook and various other social media services are essentially schemes to sell such data to advertisers.

There is also the aesthetic aspect: advertising is generally so ugly as to be dispiriting even without considering the message that they send.  Garish, kitschy and loud are the archetypical qualities of advertising. Even worse is when they actively destroy works of real aesthetic value, such as when advertising chops up films on television into bits, or appropriates music for their dubious cause.
I've made my own little revolt against advertising. I don't read, listen or watch ad-supported newspapers, radio or television, getting my news instead from public service radio. One must still deal with outdoor advertising and the like, but every little bit helps. I can't help but admire the people of Sao Paulo, who have enforced a ban on outdoor advertising.

There are also the useful programs of Adblock plus and Ghostery. The former simply blocks advertising on the internet while the later enables you to detect and stop data collecting companies from collecting data about your internet use.

Of course, adblocking has raised some consternation from the commercial parts of the internet. For people who live on producing bullshit, there is no greater crime than to not listen to them. There has been much sanctimonious moralizing about the "entitled freeloaders" who free-ride by blocking advertising, thereby not paying for the content that they "consume". (implicitly admitting that viewing advertising is negative, draining experience, that it takes something out of you, like paying for something drains your money supply). They do of course ignore that producing advertising is highly morally questionable activity, as related above. To paraphrase Brecht ("Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die GrĂ¼ndung einer Bank?"),  blocking advertising is no crime compared to the crime of producing it.

In the most hysterical of these ravings, the doom of the internet is prophesied. By cutting off ad revenue, adblockers, if they become prevalent, will kill off the commercial internet who relies on that revenue, they claim. Of course, if that was to actually it happen it would be a good thing. The present ad-driven model would be proven to have been unsustainable, to be build on sand and it's collapse would therefore not only be inevitable, it would be just.

There is no need to grieve an economic model which couldn't survive the economic reality. Almost no one except the aristocratic class who lost most of their power grieves the collapse of feudalism today, even if it's replacement wasn't much better and perhaps even worse. There is not much use in grieving over the march of history.

Such predictions of doom also underestimate the non-commercial parts of the internet. The collapse of the commercial internet will probably not put a stop to the free and non-commercial sharing of information. If the collapse leaves a void, one might fill it with public funding, as we do in other parts of our culture. This way the collapse might turn out to be a positive development in the history of the internet, especially as it would mean the end of advertising.

Of course, such a collapse will probably not happen for quite some time. Internet advertising is still a healthy industry, and even if it does happen, some other source of revenue will probably be found. Still, a man can dream.

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