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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Advertising and the health of the internet

Alexis Madrigal’s article for the Atlantic about how many tracking companies are following us on the Web as we browse is extremely informative and raises a host of questions worth considering with regard to the practice (e.g. How many of these tracking companies are there? Does it make a difference if only machines have this information on me? Why does it seem creepy? Should creepy be appearing in academic studies as a term of art?). The most important of these, I think, derives from a claim he makes toward the end:

I am all too aware of how difficult it is for media businesses to survive in this new environment. Sure, we could all throw up paywalls and try to make a lot more money from a lot fewer readers. But that would destroy what makes the web the unique resource in human history that it is. I want to keep the Internet healthy, which really does mean keeping money flowing from advertising.

The assumption here seems to be that in order for information to circulate, it needs to be sponsored. The “health” of the internet — the vitality of its ecosystem, the level of activity of users — is contingent on how many people can make a living from using it, and the only viable way to make a living from the information trade is by making it all ultimately into marketing data. The health of the internet, then, depends on the degree to which we can turn thought into marketing through the process of circulating it. “A panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” Madrigal notes, but he seems at pains to defend that as an important prerequisite rather than a sign that another avenue of communication has been thoroughly subsumed by capital.

Don’t you see? Capitalism allows us to communicate, it makes the whole process worth something to somebody. Without it we would be bereft. (What would we talk about without consumer products anyway? Pinterest would be so boring!) Thank goodness the advertising industry and its skip tracers in the data-tracking field are finally learning to monetize more of our everyday life and our social being; finally sociality has some real purpose. Knowing I am being followed reassures me that I am actually going somewhere.

If we impede this process and try to restrain the conversion of all connection, interaction and thought into exploitable marketing data, we will undermine the internet as a “resource.” That is, we will make it less of an economic resource; we will inhibit its growth and its role in amplifying commerce. After all, all human interaction is just commerce in the end, right? And doesn’t that mean everyhting we hare with one another in the end is just some form of advertising, for ourselves, if not for someone else (if we are being stingy about the ways in which we commodify ourselves and allow what we are to circulate and cross-pollinate with other data beyond our conscious knowledge).

The question here is about what the internet is for, and whether it allows us to imagine alternatives to capitalism or simply serves to allow capital to co-opt the alternatives generated by technological development. Madrigal seems to be saying that if we don’t let our use of the internet be monetized by third parties, if we don’t allow our use of the internet to be governed by the logic of commercial media, then the internet will be a failure. It will cease to be a relevant space. But one might argue that the fact that it seems as though we can’t have an internet not fueled by advertising is a sign that the internet is already unhealthy, sick unto death.

And perhaps we are all sick too if we can’t imagine a way to collaborate and communicate without also commercializing it, that we need private incentives to generate and share information — meaning that all information is being created to make profitable information asymmetries. Are we so resignedly cynical about public discourse that we assume it’s always already advertising for something, so we may as well expect and invite it all to have hidden sponsors and covert agendas?

Banksy’s bit on advertising seems to me a good antidote to that line of thinking.


Madrigal is well aware of the stakes with data tracking:

the norms established to improve how often people click ads may end up determining who you are when viewed by a bank or a romantic partner or a retailer who sells shoes.

If our lives in public are underwritten by our value to advertisers, our public selves will end up indexed to that value for everyone, and our private sense of ourselves will be to a degree dictated by the boundaries of the sensorium marketers can create around us with increasing specificity. Our behavior is tracked and reprocessed to tell advertisers exactly who they can tell us to be and have us accept it. Or think of it this way: Our data helps them find the most profitable version of ourselves, regardless of whether that is our best self, or even a better self. (Of course, that seems to imply that there is even a “right” self that’s authentic in the first place, a whole other conceptual problem I’ll have to set aside here.)

But Madrigal’s resignation about the supposedly necessary role of advertising leaves him eager to give the industry an undeserved benefit of the doubt. He asks us “assume good faith on behalf of advertising companies” and also to “take these companies at their word” to try to ameliorate their social effects, despite the very nature of their business being to affect, if not control, the way we think and decide in service of the highest bidder. (We can never be the highest bidder; we are the product.) And this despite the lengthy section of the piece in which he explains how trackers will continue to collect data on you even after you request that they stop.

“There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content,” Madrigal writes, suggesting that this sponsorship makes the whole system somehow benevolent instead of indicative of a much broader social failure. There’s nothing necessarily sinister about the companies surveilling our behavior and concealing the extent of it except pretty much everything. There’s nothing not sinister about that, including the alibi generated through its association with our access to “free” content. That we think its free is indicative of our delusion: We are paying for it with personal information that may be used against us in perpetuity. The price is not free and not negotiable. The data-tracking system that has evolved as the internet has entrenched itself in society serves an involuntary system of micropayments. Madrigal’s exposure of it is a great service. It’s just unnerving that it’s linked to these apologies for it. “I wish there were more obvious villains in this story,” he laments. I may be naive, but the villains seem very obvious to me.



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