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We Don’t Manipulate the System. The System Manipulates Us

As promised, some musings on technology, communication and what others have thought about this in the past. As part of a discussion on commercialism in communications technology (read: are advertising-supported communications systems inevitable?), my class read an article by David H. Freedman describing the possible future of advertising using cell phones, Internet tracking technologies, interactive wall displays, etc. Personally, I find it all creepy and invasive. Who says I need to have ads on my cell phone? Already, I’m getting random weird text messages about real estate on my phone, messages I neither sought nor solicited in any way, apart from the fact that I have a cell phone in the first place. And now I have to pay for these spam messages? There’s something wrong here.

I also do not like the idea that the information created by my online movements, my shopping and browsing decisions, my Google searches, my reading habits, etc. should make money for companies harvesting my information and selling it off to others. All of this without so much as asking for my permission. And those little tiny-text legalese messages no one reads do not count as properly asking for permission. That’s my data, and why are you profiting from it while all I get from it is yet more manipulation and sneakier sales practices?

Well, along those lines, here’s something I wrote for class that I’m happy with and would like to share.

In an attempt at levity perhaps, Freedman ends his article, The Future of Advertising is Here, on what he probably thought of as a wry note: “So stay tuned. As if you had a choice.” As a closing flourish this strikes me as more chilling than amusing because it raises issues of control and freedom directly associated with technology, and especially communications technology such as that used to spread advertising into every corner of our lives. Officially, we tend to link technology with freedom and choice, in the belief that our new technologies give us more freedom by opening up more options, more choices, for us. But how much choice do we truly have in all of this? Erik Barnouw’s excellent book, The Sponsor, convincingly portraits the broadcasting technologies of radio and television as part of a system that “has made the center of national attention a market item, for sale at auction prices” (p.172) and that reaches far into every realm of our culture and society. Barnouw points out that the individuals working within that system, the network executives and ad men, are not the ones to blame because they are just as trapped within the system as everyone else.

In The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard expresses a similar view when he worries about the levels of social control that “social engineers” and Madison Avenue wield and where this might all lead to one day (bioengineering – a concept that fits in with the vision explored in The Matrix). No one, according to Barnouw and Packard, is entirely immune from the relentless and nearly inescapable message broadcast by the merchant system of communications: that we are all, first and foremost, consumers. Does the choice not to be a consumer still truly exist amid the ever-encroaching technology described in Freedman’s vision of targeted advertising? As communication devices surround us, moving closer to integration with the human body, it becomes that much harder to truly assess the system and to make an informed choice about playing along. Messages that do not fit into the framework become invisible and so we are increasingly presented with false choices (have a cell phone with advertisements or choose not to have one and become disconnected from all your friends) even as it seems that we have unlimited choice – but only as a consumer.

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