Advertising Isn’t Free


Photograph by L.

From Literary Review:

Technology has no morality but merely reflects the human values we require of it – so the current system reflects the values of those Silicon Valley businessmen who built and benefit most from it. Pushing past the clouds of airy democratising rhetoric, she examines the actual beneficiaries of an online advertising-funded system where creative work is given away by the public for free. It’s certainly not women, minorities or creatives. She quotes research showing that although 40 per cent of private businesses in the US are women-owned, only 8 per cent of venture-capital-backed tech start-ups are; and over 85 per cent of venture capitalists are men looking to invest in other men. Collaborative sites such as Reddit and Slashdot cater to users who are up to 90 per cent male, mostly young, wealthy and white. In fact, it becomes clear that the beneficiaries of the ‘new’ system look remarkably like those of the old one: well-off, well-educated white men, albeit with a few years shaved off.

‘If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system,’ she writes, and that may mean, for example, taking action against men who threaten sexual violence against women online. Openness advocates may decry these attempts at regulation as authoritarian, but such criticism is naive as it ‘ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things’. She also points out the hypocrisy of free-culture cheerleaders such as Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Don Tapscott – all white men of a certain age, working at elite universities and publishing their sermons of openness not for free but via traditional publishers. Leftists, young activists and free-marketers have been duped into promoting an ideology that serves to exploit the public’s work for private gain. She also argues, rightly, that the destruction of institutions such as newspapers and the criticism of professionals have played into the hands of the powerful. Institutions gave individuals power, security and an ability to take risks creatively. Now we are each of us on our own in a desperate lottery to gain attention in a commercial marketplace. Taylor is right to observe that criticising professionals or cultural elites is not striking a blow against the real powers. ‘When we uphold amateur creativity we are not necessarily resolving the deeper problems of entrenched privilege or the irresistible imperative of profit.’ Instead we are ushering in an age of less accountable journalism, less diversity and less risk-tolerant culture.

So, while we take selfies, rant about the mainstream media and rage our twitchfork battles against lone individuals, the powers that be must be smiling to themselves as they quietly amass more power and money. Like children behind the Pied Piper, we’ve been all too eager to believe the fairy tale that we could get something for nothing, greedily using the ‘free’ services of Google, Facebook and Twitter. But we pay one way or another. We can pay directly through public subsidies such as the TV licence and taxes, or indirectly, our data sold, our public culture placed into private hands and our eyeballs targeted relentlessly with advertising. Even advertising isn’t ‘free’. As Taylor observes, ‘Advertising is, in essence, a private tax. Because promotional budgets are factored into the price we pay for goods, customers … end up footing the bill.’ And we’re talking about an enormous amount of money. The World Federation of Advertisers estimates that $700 billion per year is spent on advertising. ‘Surely all that money could be better spent producing something we actually care about?’ It is hard to disagree no matter how much of a free-market capitalist you are. It’s becoming increasingly clear that public goods require public payment. Among her solutions, Taylor proposes a Bill of Creative Rights that enshrines in law respect for labour. It’s a simple idea but one that needs to be re-emphasised to counter the free-culture zealots. That so many have fallen for the fairy tale shows how attractive it is – and why we need a young activist like Astra Taylor to lead the charge.

“Who Pays?” Heather Brooke, Literary Review