Another quickie post (because, yes, I’m still working on the manuscript — and so close to the end that I’m finally enjoying the writer’s bliss zone). (*1) But I’m taking a moment to comment on two essays I read this week.
The first is by Alexis Madrigal writing at TheAtlantic. The second is a response to Madrigal’s piece by Rob Horning writing at The New Inquiry.
Madrigal’s essay is about the mechanisms of online advertising tracking. Trackers “follow” you around the web, and then sell the info they’ve gathered to advertisers so that said advertisers can “target” audiences with appropriate advertising (read: with ads that will make you want to buy what they’ve got).(*2)
Much of Madrigal’s essay is devoted to the nuts/bolts of how this works. (Fascinating stuff, by the way.) But that’s all by way of his main point: What does tracking mean for us in our “real” lives (if indeed our online lives are separable from our non-online lives)? And is tracking a bad thing?
Madrigal’s conclusion (for now) is that it’s a necessary evil (my term, not his): Online tracking is the price, literally and figuratively, we pay so that the web/internet can remain a mostly “free” resource. The folks at the New York Times, for example, can post much of its content for free, or for a minimal price, because ad tracking helps pay for that content. In his words:
There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content.
In his view, the alternative to tracking is the paywall, and as far as he concerned that poses a greater danger:
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.
Horning disagrees. (*3) In his view, Madrigal’s conclusion amounts to a sell-out (no pun intended) to “capital.” By conceding the need for tracking, we’ve ceded our “selves,” our humanity, to capital. In his (more eloquent) words:
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.
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 . . . .”
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.”
Here’s my (admittedly paltry) contribution to this discussion. Despite their differences, Madrigal and Horning agree on one point: Tracking and advertising are an us/them situation. In their view, trackers/advertisers are “them” horning their way into our lives. (Madrigal’s “us” view, I should add, is markedly more measured than Horning’s. (*4))
I disagree. In my view, capitalism is less about us/them than it is a participatory system from which all of us benefit. Let’s consider, for example, Apple, the very model of capitalism, and, thus, presumably a “them.”
Apple has been criticized lately because it manufactures its products in China under allegedly less-than-stellar conditions. (I say allegedly because it’s not clear to me that anyone involved in the discussion is being completely forthright.) A strike against Apple. (*5) But consider the other positive ways in which Apple affects our lives. Consider, for example, the iPad.
Many people spent years imagining, designing, and developing those little wonders. They got paid for doing so. Apple’s marketing people earned money thinking about how to “position” the tablet in the market. When people visit an Apple store, they enounter a crew of employees whose job it is to help them understand and perhaps buy the iPad; that a crew earns money. When you buy an iPad online, someone in a warehouse earns in income by boxing your purchase for shipping (using packaging that others earned money to design, fabricate, and deliver) so that the woman in the brown uniform and driving the brown truck can deliver it to you.
Nor do the collective benefits of the iPad end with its delivery to your door: The iPad’s success elevated Apple’s stock and so its shareholders, including myself, earned more profit from it.
That’s obvious to the point of being simple-minded. But sometimes the obvious is what gets overlooked. Capitalism is less an us/them proposition than it is a participatory system: All of us, every last one of us, profits (literally) from this system. (*6) Tracking is less an us/them equation than it is a particularly efficient mode of stoking capitalism’s engine (and a device that, yes, many people have earned incomes inventing, designing, and implementing).
So perhaps one step toward “imagining” a better web/internet, and a better capitalism, is rethinking our stance on the conflicts (we believe/imagine) it engenders.
*1: The writer’s bliss zone = the moment when he/she realizes that, wow, this is truly, finally, almost a finished work! Hey, this is going to be finished; it’s going to be a coherent whole, worthy of sharing with the rest of the world.
*2: Here’s my own recent encounter with tracking: I’ve been looking for a shoulder bag for five years and not had any luck. (I’m not that fussy, but most bags are less about practicality than about fashion, in which I’m not interested. Unless “practicality” is a fashion statement.) But about six weeks ago, I finally found one that came as close to perfection as I was likely to find.
But it was expensive: “suggested retail price” was (if I remember correctly) $235. I found it online for $178. I’m a writer; I make shit for income. (Boy were my taxes easy to do this year!) So I was willing to wait — for the price to come down; for a coupon; for a “sale.”
I’ll be damned. Twelve hours after I found said bag, I was visiting some site or other — no idea what, but probably a news-related site — and there, at the of the page, was a banner ad, containing my bag and a hefty discount coupon. I clicked the ad, bought the bag (and set in motion the chain of events I describe in the body of my essay).
*3: For lack of any better place to put this: Horning does not address one of Madrigal’s main points: How the hell do we pay for content? That’s a biggie.
*4: About the trackers, Madrigal writes: “None of them seem like evil companies, nor are they singular companies. Like much of this industry, they seem to believe in what they’re doing. They deliver more relevant advertising to consumers and that makes more money for companies. They are simply tools to improve the grip strength of the invisible hand.”
*5: Frankly, I don’t get the criticism, especially because the critics are busy tapping out their critiques on devices, Apple or otherwise, built under similar conditions, probably while wearing clothing and shoes manufactured under similar conditions, and probably while sitting in a chair manufactured under similar conditions.
*6: At this point, many of you are rolling your eyes. “Has she never heard of Enron? Did she sleep through the stock market collapse/scandal of ‘08?” Yes, I have, and no, I didn’t. Of COURSE the system has “bad” players. Every endeavor has its shares of incompetents, devils, and bad guys.
But it doesn’t follow, logically or otherwise, that the system is bad. I’ve experienced more than my fair share of incompetent physicians, to name one example, but they don’t make me want to toss modern medicine out the window. (Indeed, I thank the universe pretty much every day for its wonders, without which I wouldn’t be here to write this.) There are bad lawyers and evil politicians and shifty bankers. But the law, and our system of governance, and banking survive and function well because most players are good, not bad.