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  • Will Advertising Keep the Net Free?

    Our Continuing Experiment in Social Destruction

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The widespread hope for a "free Internet" has lately been taking refuge in the idea of advertising: banners across web pages, clickable icons, commercial messages in every possible form. This evidently strikes many observers as a wonderfully cost-free way to subsidize our access to Net content -- so much so that those who are not thrilled with the idea are dismissed out of hand. As Seidman's Online Insider recently put it (July 7, 1996):

    Look for Mercury Mail to begin adding advertising to these services soon. They even care about the cranks who are dead-set against advertising! They can still pay the full subscription price and not get any advertising whatsoever.
    Well, as it happens, I am one of the cranks dead-set against advertising in the electronic media, not as a matter of social policy, but as a matter of personal choice. I prefer not to subject myself to the noisy, scattered, chaotic, distracting, trivializing, unesthetic, and disturbingly perverse content of much modern advertising. That such a choice should be stigmatized with the word "crank" by a well-known Internet commentator strikes me as profoundly symptomatic. Only someone who finds the quality of the conscious human interior irrelevant to the social future could make such a remark.

    Try to hold your attention upon a routine object -- a button, a comb, a spoon -- for three minutes, thinking about its form and substance, its manufacture, its use, or whatever other aspects you like. I guarantee that you will fail, and if you are like most of the rest of us, you will fail miserably, with your thoughts moving by association to the far ends of the universe. The fact is that, in our inner life, we are largely governed by a kind of irrationality. No one is master of the house.

    Do not imagine attention to be a mere abstraction. It is perhaps our single most immediate and vital possession. But not really "possession," for it is only through our attention that we are capable of possessing anything at all. In the entire psychological inventory of the human being, attention stands most intimately in the place of the self. Remove your powers of attention and you no longer have a self. Think about it.

    Advertising may be the most potent force in the modern world aimed at sapping our attentive strength. It is not just that the intent of much advertising is to slip beneath our defenses and bring us to act in ways we do not consciously choose. Much more important is the style of consciousness that advertising cultivates in us. The clever sensations underwritten by individual advertisements, the leap from one unrelated advertisement to the next, the fast-paced, mutual interruption of advertising and content (the distinction between which, unsurprisingly, grows muddier and muddier)--all this accustoms us to crazed and senseless juxtapositions. Reason and meaning can find no foothold in the overall pattern, so we necessarily let go the search for meaning. We learn to assess all things in terms of a different, more visceral kind of impact.

    In sum, we endure what is, by all historical standards, a nearly incomprehensible assault upon our awareness -- an assault b