Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 14 Jan 2006

On the attention economy

Irritable? Easily distracted? Have difficulty focussing on written text for long enough to read more than a sentence? Welcome to the club.

According to some researchers, we are exposed to up to 3500 advertisements per day by way of television, internet, radio, shop windows, buses, and other pervasive display media. (And somehow I don't think they're counting the 400-600 spam emails that end up in my Junk folder every day, either.) This cognitive overload is the end product of an arms race between advertisers (who want to buy a share of our attention) and their target audience (those of us with attention to spare). Advertisements are distracting nuisances most of the time, unless you're specifically looking for something -- say, you want to buy a camcorder so you buy a camcorder magazine and comb through the reviews and ads. We therefore screen them out. Advertisers in turn resort to more and more eye-catching methods in an attempt to get our attention.

Personally, I don't like advertisements. I don't like it when someone tries to sell me something I don't need by hinting that I am socially inadequate if I don't own it. I don't like it when insurance companies or lenders try to sell me insurance or loans by playing on fears of financial insecurity. I really hate telesales: telesales calls are like someone standing outside your front door and ringing the bell until you go to the door to find out what's causing the racket, then exhorting you through a megaphone. Spam is even worse, mostly because the content is either incomprehensible, revolting, or fraudulent. And as the spam and telesales problem gets worse I'm gradually finding that my attitudes are hardening -- not just against spammers and telesales firms, but against all advertisers, because they merely represent different points on the same slippery slope.

They all nag for my attention -- attention which is not freely given except when I deliberately go looking for a particular product or type of product. And it occurs to me to wonder where it's all going to end. Spam filtering tools block the most obviously mechanized mass-mailings, so spammers resort to more complex tools that try to personalize their pitch; ultimately the job of separating spam from real communication is Turing-complete -- you'd need a human-equivalent AI to do it properly, and by the time we get there the spammers will probably be using AIs of their own to outwit our personal secretary bots.

You can try to get away from ads on TV by switching to watching only DVDs or downloads, but this stops working when the media conglomerates realize that the DVD purchasers are a captive audience for secondary content on their disks. You can render yourself less vulnerable to telesales by using the Telephone Preference Service statutory list, or by using an answering machine, but the former only weeds out the better-socialized telesales outfits (scammers don't bother with it) while the latter reduces the usefulness of the communications device. Usenet got overrun by spam so lots of us switched to weblogs; which was fine until the blog spammers arrived. Instant messaging? SMS texting? Hello IM spambots and spimmers. Try to escape by playing a computer game and some asshole in marketing is going to realize that there's prize real estate in their MMORPG and start selling advertising billboards in Middle Earth. Even going for a walk in the country is no guarantee of safety, from the posters gummed to the walls of rotting trailers parked in fields, to the skywriting on the clouds overhead.

In the short term we may be able to build advertising censorware into our glasses. But it's still only a partial solution to the blight.

About the only really advertising-proof entertainment media are the 19th century hold-overs: theatre, opera, novels. (And maybe live music events at venues too small and primitive to have been nobbled by the likes of ClearChannel.) Get rid of electricity and most of the tools the advertisers rely on stop working. Maybe that's the way forward.

Meanwhile, we have a terminally fragmenting society, self-medicating through alcohol and other drugs, that is losing the ability to discriminate between trivia and important issues -- largely because of the way news has becoming a marketing vehicle for advertising eyeballs, the consumer society is driven by fear and insecurity rather than the meeting of actual needs, and we're growing so used to receiving information in ten second long compressed bursts that we can't read books any more.

Ban the advertising industry. Ban it now, before it's too late.

(This rant brought to you on the back of nearly 500 spams and just two meaningful messages in a 24 hour period, to a primary mail address I've maintained for just 5 months short of a decade and which I may have to abandon shortly because, unfortunately, it's no good being bloody minded: the bastards have won.)

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posted at: 15:39 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
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"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
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Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
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Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
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October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
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April 2005
March 2005
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November 2002
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March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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