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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 by disconnected, arbitrary, disproportionate, often degrading images. In submitting our consciousness to these images and the accompanying sound and text, we train ourselves in the kind of mental functioning the advertisers require. Losing our powers of meaningful attention, we also lose our powers of conscious decision, and, finally, we lose ourselves.

    The nature of advertising is no deep mystery, and is the subject of an endless stream of literature. The remarkable thing is how few people (including Internet commentators) pay any attention to the issues, as if all the services paid for by advertisers came to us without cost in psychological and social health.

    Read your newspaper to see the costs. The world we build "out there" inevitably reflects and embodies the world "in here." A psyche that lends itself to being profitably ridden by commercials is a psyche that lends itself to those other appeals of blood, instinct, lust, vanity, and irrationality coming from every corner of society. A psyche too scattered to sustain quiet, centered reflection -- a psyche incapable of deliberately and carefully sounding depths of meaning -- cannot contribute to social healing.

    However, to be driven this way and that by the unceasing distraction of the media is not necessarily to lose one's susceptibility to the kind of precise, externally supplied focus made possible through programmed logic. Such focus is actually encouraged by our loss of self-mastery. Programmed logic is, after all, another name for what can be followed unthinkingly. Indeed, its whole nature is to run automatically, whether in us or in our machines. Distracted minds, confronting the marvelously calculated, rigorous precision of the machine, readily yield to mechanical determination instead of asserting their own responsibility for the future.

    This paradoxical mix of sleepwalking and sophisticated calculation is easy to spot everywhere in today's society, not just in the use of computers. The Madison Avenue executive can watch a television advertisement fully awake to every nuance of persuasion, gauging the quality of every technical maneuver, making precise notes for her next ad campaign, while completely oblivious to the frightful monstrosity of the entire production: this mobilization of technical and dramatic skill, human emotion and sincerity, combined, perhaps, with music that once sounded from the noblest reaches of the human spirit, all in service of a lie -- the lying proposition that it is important for me to experience this emotion, this crucial truth, and to be so swayed by them as to buy a particular brand of deodorant.

    And if as an adult I were watching the advertisement for the first time, I probably would experience much of this human meaning quite deeply -- it might be a sublime, almost religious experience. (Beautiful music, after all, can have that effect.) But then I must face the puzzling incommensurability between the sales punchline and the vehicle of its delivery. I cannot help realizing, at some level, that what is most human within me has been prostituted.

    But eventually, like a prostitute, I adapt. Indeed, we all learn the lesson well if we watch our televisions. We feel only the most muted inner responses to the dramatic appeals coming at us from all sides. Not that there is no response at all; we can still coldly assess a commercial much like the advertising executive. But the rest has gone subconscious, instinctual -- probabilistic and beyond our control -- so that the executive is fully justified in her confidence regarding the nearly exact statistical results of her next assault upon the public consciousness.

    I am, then, no more inclined to submit myself to the visual and ideational clutter on my computer screen than I am to endure the noisy clutter of boomboxes in a city park, if I can possibly avoid it. Ten minutes' reflection upon a single line of text on my screen is infinitely more valuable than a megabyte rapidly scanned. When the scanning leads me from one interrupted thought to another without rhyme or reason, it progressively weakens my habits of attention and my sensitivity to delicate threads of meaning. One cannot dwell deeply upon what has no rhyme or reason.

    In the end, those ten minutes of reflection may no longer be possible even if we should want them. But maybe you think I'm exaggerating. It's easy enough to put the matter to the test of a simple, contemplative exercise. Go ahead, I dare you -- and be sure to let me know the results.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Will Advertising Keep the Net Free? :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/advertising.html

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