Friday, June 13, 2003


More Thoughts on Ad Pollution

There's a lovely scene in Neal Stephenson's Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (gratuitous affiliate link), which I'd quote in full, but it appears my copy has been toddlered, so I'll just have to summarize:

Protagonist Sangamon Taylor is a chemist and environmental activist; he works for GEE, an organization that resembles Greenpeace. He meets up with a co-worker who has been driving a GEE-owned car; when they stop at a gas station, he discovers that the dipstick is dry. When she shrugs off the matter as uninteresting, he flies into a rage, lecturing her about the cost, both environmental and financial, of replacing a car, and then he reminds her of The Tragedy of the Commons and the tendency of people to undervalue that for which they do not have to pay directly.

"Checking the oil in the Omni," he finishes, "is another kind of environmentalism."

That phrase has stuck with me for years, and come in handy in many a situation. Because what's environmentalism all about, really? Protecting the commons. It's misunderstood by some as being about the hugging of trees and the cuddling of fuzzy baby owls, but what it's about is making sure that in the future, you won't have to be rich to breathe fresh air and drink clean water and eat nontoxic food and look at a pretty landscape now and then. Those things are our common heritage... and the people who want to take them away, destroy them, and then sell inferior substitutes back to us for a profit, must be fought.

And, of course, it's not the only kind of commons.

Why is it wrong to shoplift? I'll pick a favorite example: You know those stupid little plastic packets of condiments and envelopes of salt and sugar that you get at cheap restaurants? Those sure do suck, don't they? You know why we have to put up with those? Because the salt and pepper shakers kept getting stolen. Oftentimes--probably more often than not--by people who could easily have afforded to buy salt and pepper shakers, who thought the the item was so cheap that no one could possibly miss it. This is just the tiniest, most trivial way our shared world has gotten uglier, more annoying, and less congenial--especially in places frequented by those who aren't rich--because our trust in each other has been eroded away by petty theft. Not stealing is another kind of environmentalism.

Why was Eldred vs. Ashcroft such a horrible blow? Because our generation and those that came before us were lucky enough to have a rich public domain to draw from in creating new artistic work, and our descendents will be stuck with no more than what we had--after we've already thoroughly mined it--and anything else, they'll have to pay for. Disgusting. Protecting the public domain is another kind of environmentalism.

Why are free and open-source software such good things? Because they balance the tendency of commerce to put fences up around the commons, with an opposite process--the creation of whole new commons, by people who understand that shared effort leads to shared benefit. Linux is another kind of environmentalism.

And--at last, we come to the point--it's not a coincidence that when I posted the other day about removing brands and banner ads, I used an environmental metaphor, "walking out of a vast cloud of poison".

Perhaps the very least appreciated commons is precisely the one that we'd most need the use of if we wanted to appreciate it: clarity of thought. Our lives are short, dammit; we deserve to have our brains operating at peak efficiency so we can make the best use of the time we have. And instead, we have created a half-trillion-dollar industry entirely devoted to filling our brains with mahooha.

The amazing thing is how little it bothers me, most of the time. I rarely think about it. I wouldn't be thinking about it now if Mike hadn't brought the subject up the other day. But just read his rant for a taste of how ubiquitous this crap is. And I know from my own experience how much of a burden it is--simply freeing myself from the relatively benign and unobtrusive banner ads that litter the web was a nearly religious experience. Installing SpamAssassin recently was perhaps even more of a relief (though not as dramatically eye-opening, of course, because the one thing no one will ever say about spam is Huh, I never noticed before how annoying that stuff is).

If you haven't tried turning down the volume, you just can't imagine how noisy the world is, how much it knots your muscles, how distracted you are. (And there aren't any technological tools for eliminating billboards and brand names and "swoosh"-logo t-shirts.) And yet, mostly... we don't notice. We're the proverbial boiled frogs.

And I haven't even mentioned the content of the noise. Yesterday, as it happens, my wife read me a passage from the book Affluenza (another gratuitous affiliate link, but please don't buy it if your library has it, or this ever-lengthening screed will be rendered somewhat hypocritical); it was a description of a marketing conference called "Kid Power" that was held at Disney World in 1996, with a keynote address called "Softening the Parental Veto":
    Speaker after speaker revealed the strategy: Portray parents as fools and fuddy-duddies who aren't smart enough to realize their children's need for the products being sold. It's a proven technique for neutralizing parental influence in the marketer/child relationship. [...] "Anti-social behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing," [speaker Paul] Kurnit stated calmly, suggesting that advertisers could best reach children by encouraging rude, often aggressive behavior and faux rebellion against the strictures of family discipline.

Hoo ha. I can't wait til my kid starts marinating in that crap.

(There's a discursive point to be made here about the ironic fact that those politicians who make worshipful obeisance to and disdain the least interference with the almighty Free Market!, and grant privelege after privelege to the ones who so eagerly send exactly these messages, are exactly the same politicians most inclined to kvetch about family discipline and the lack thereof. But I don't feel like going there just now, so let's take the thought as the deed, 'kay? Thanks.)

It boils down to this: The ability to string two thoughts together without being shouted at is another commons. And they're stealing our commons. For money. Again.
    Don't it always seem to go
    That you don't know what you've got til it's gone?
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot

But Joni got it wrong; sometimes you don't know what you've got even after it's gone.

And shutting off the ads is another kind of environmentalism.

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