association-list a veritable mint for dunning-kruggerands


Attention conservation notice: ~900 words of divisive, under-researched hobby-horse riding.

So I read this piece by Freddie de Boer the other day, and then Rob Horning’s post on Steve Jobs. Something in both bothered me.

Both of them are basically getting at consumerism and capitalism from slightly different left-wing viewpoints (I am assuming that you’ve read both, at this point). I partially agree with both of them. Neither of them gets all the way to the root of their arguments, so maybe I am getting their position subtly wrong.

But I think the thing that they’re getting wrong, both of them, perhaps this entire line of critique, is that the internet that we have cannot possibly be any other way, as a straightforward consequence of where all of the money (or near as makes no difference) on the internet comes from, which is advertisement. What I mean by this is that almost everything interesting that’s happening lately on the commercial web is in the SaaS sphere (I include social networking in this, although the service is a tad nebulous and always changing) and almost all of it that interacts with consumers is funded by advertising rather than payment for the product. Even in app stores, there are ads, although due to the cognitive magic/trickery of encapsulation into ‘apps’, people seem willing to put in a little money up front, although never very much.

Horning seems to address this every so often, but he never seems to take it all the way. The underlying logic of the social deskilling that he sees stemming from Facebook has no root in the logic of what people actually need from something like a social networking platform. In a world where the money comes from somewhere else, Facebook or an entity like it would look and act nothing like it does. As it stands, social deskilling is just a epiphenomenon of Facebook needing information about what you’re doing there, so they can keep you there longer, looking at their pages and the ads displayed on them. One could argue that it isn’t so much a social deskilling as a gamification of online social interaction, with the dual goal of getting more information about the user to sell to advertisers, and to keep them looking at advertisements for longer periods of time.

My critique of de Boer is a little different, because I think that he gets closer, in his closing paragraph. I guess I would say that he reads to much in; he assumes that more people are more deeply engaged with the worthlessness of the current online world than really are (as does Horning). I’ll gladly join him in his crusade to end a world where everyone is a fetishistic consumer/critic, but I think that the number of people who actually aspire to that sort of thing, who construct their selves online, are many fewer than he imagines. Here too, of course, we see the logic of the advertising-funded internet, as innumerable outlets attempt to pull in as many ‘eyes’ as possible with their floods of strategized and seo-optimized ‘content’. Each struggling to establish themselves as a brand, to gain loyal followers (ad-viewers all), rather than follow the logic of their various missions. Trying to be divisive, sticky, intrusive, to keep us looking longer than we would have otherwise.

This is all pretty dreary, I guess. I think that both of these guys are interesting thinkers, and de Boer doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the internet, so it’s understandable if his insights are a little hazy there. And it isn’t if I come equipped with all of the answers. I mean, I have some proposals, but isn’t as if the US government is going to go around regulating advertisers and taxing marketing budgets and nationalizing Comcast. Nor is anyone going to write a computer virus that installs adblocking on people’s browsers. Although that’s both awesome and doable.

I just mean to highlight the irresistible logic of all of the money on the web currently coming from ads and its consequences. We’re essentially stuck at this stage until we can figure out how to make money doing something else. Google is the highlight here. They’ve brought together thousands of smart people who make daring and great products of genuine utility, and it’s all just a sideline to their real business, which is spying on you for people who want to sell you shoes.

Their critiques are obviously heartfelt (at least de Boer’s. I feel that I am never sure where Horning is coming from, emotionally or contextually), but complaining that ‘the internet’ is vapid or enervating or atomizing or what have you isn’t the point. To some extent, it falls victim to the same kind of end-of-history/there-is-no-alternative thinking both of them inveigh against in other aspects of their political discourses. This is not a surprising thing; the internet is not apart from the world. But the internet is a place where it’s especially problematic, where we’re willing to build an entire world on a pile of shit because the shit-sellers have told us there is nothing else to build on. There is endless analysis to be done on the effects of this, but to me it isn’t important. None of these problems is solvable inside the current framework, and few of them would exist outside of it. Anatomizing the symptoms while ignoring the disease isn’t going to get you anywhere.

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