This is not the first time I’ve ruminated about ad block. But it’s on my mind today.
I can’t remember when one of my savviest of tech savvy friends turned me onto ad block software, but it was a watershed moment; I immediately installed it on everything I own and never looked back. I’ve changed the specific program over the years (originally it was the classic Ad Block, though these days I favor uBlock), but regardless of the specific program, it’s always the same goal. I want a clean, minimalist, distraction-free browsing experience.
In fact, I didn’t realize how bad advertising clutter had gotten until I borrowed a co-worker’s terminal to cover her service point (public library term, basically, an information desk) and used a browser without ad block.
I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt unusable. Videos started autoplaying, forcing me to choose between keeping the sound muted and being able to hear important alert notices and phone calls through our call routing software. Things crawled and slid and demanded that I interact with them in some way to get them out of the content. Worst of all was the ads that seemed intentionally built to create an accidental click; trying to close it instead opened a new link to whatever product or service was being peddled. It was awful and it made me retreat to my own station with my clean, quiet, distraction-free experience.
It was a painful realization for someone who works with information professionally, but here it is; the greatest information pipeline in human history is filled mostly with garbage. Fortunately, you can put a filter on your particular tap to remove the junk, akin to using a Brita filter when you don’t trust the quality of the local water.
I actually have a strong feeling of revulsion to most forms of advertising. I hate it. I hate the noise that it represents.
When I was a kid, the television (televisions, really) was the electronic hearth around which life revolved. As far as I can remember, the television was on. My parents watched it. My brother and I watched it. We all watched it. Even if no one was watching it, the television was usually on, as something to be “listened to” or even just as “background noise.”
Our first computer was located in the kitchen/breakfast table area. There was a television in this room, too. I recall when I started to write, when I wrote my first complete manuscript for a terrible fantasy novel, I learned to tune out the noise around me with what felt like superhuman focus. But there was always so much noise.
I haven’t had cable television in my life in probably ten years. This was never done as some sort of act of defiance; I never made the decision to become a “cord cutter.” The rise of digital delivery, a la carte downloading, and other services created a much more powerful incentive for the consumption of content. The fact that it was ad free (because I was either paying for the individual episodes or for the subscription service itself) was just a bonus.
This is how it’s been for so long that I forgot how noisy the rest of the world is.
I came to realize how much noise I’d filtered out when I went back to Tucson to visit my family earlier this year and spent a few days at my brother’s house and then a few at my mother’s. Once again, cable television with all its commercials, all its ads, all its noise, was back in my life. Even at my mom’s place, with her candles, crystals, peaceful demeanor, and adorably ancient cat . . . there was still the television and the noise.
It was a powerful lesson in how noisy life is and how much energy we spend ignoring it. Because make no mistake, even if you don’t consciously notice the noise, even if you can tune it out with superhuman focus as I did, your body is still experiencing it. Your ears are taking in the sound waves and your brain is filtering through the massive amount of data it ingests to prioritize what it believes to be the most important bits and so much exposure to this barrage of junk sound mean it all gets chucked into the spam folder . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s not still being ingested.
I resent it. I resent the bandwidth advertising consumes. I despise the cognitive tricks that are deployed to co-opt my reason and manipulate my emotions. I know enough to know that I’m not immune to these techniques; that they are crafted by people who devote their considerable intelligence to this purpose. I am not immune; thinking otherwise simply means you’re easier to manipulate.
I treasure silence. It’s hilariously stereotypical, considering my profession, but there it is.
Let’s return to the Internet and all its mental noise.
I understand why ads exist. I know that everything we do online has a cost and if I’m not paying for a service or product directly, it’s because I am the product. Ads are the price of admission. It’s the model that we’ve gotten used to. But it’s one that I’m sick of. I’m so sick of it that I pay money to keep ads off my site, because I don’t want anything I do to help contribute to that flood of noise. It’s worth it to me.
I don’t think content should be free. Content has value and content creators should be compensated for their time and effort.
Many sites are switching to subscription models or donations or other options to pay for premium, ad-free experiences. And this is a good step, but it’s so fractured, so disjointed, that it wasn’t until I started seriously doing personal budgeting that I realized how many different goddamn subscriptions were sipping away at my finances. Things I’d used and forgotten to cancel. Things I used a few times a year. So many things. It’s too much mental bandwidth to responsibly manage all of those things, to do the mental math of deciding each and every time “how much did I use this site or that site this much? How much was this worth to me.”
The model I would use would be similar to my current cell provider, Ting. Each month, I use a certain amount of data and text messages. There’s a neat little meter that tracks it on my account. At the end of the billing cycle, they say “you used this much data, you owe us this much.” And I pay that amount. You might also recognize this model as the one you get through your electric bill or your water bill or almost any other utility.
Websites already track your shit. All those cookies we mindlessly agree to are little troves of data to be bundled up, packaged, and sold, so that the commercial engine of the Internet continues to turn. Again, there is nothing on the web that is free. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product, or more accurately, your information is or your viewership or whatever other metric advertisers are measuring.
So that’s what I want: a meter that tracks how much I view each site each month and then calculates a value and from that total bill, pays out whatever dividends my consumption of that content would have represented in terms of ad dollars. I want it manageable from one central location, instead of having forty different subscriptions charging me a dollar each.
I recognize that this model may not be possible right now. Who decides how much each site is worth? What if one site decides it costs me five dollars per page and another says it’s 10 cents? It obviously would require an entire paradigm shift and at the core, what I’m really saying is that I want to pay more money than I already do.
Because, let’s be honest; the current model is actually fine for me. I block the ads, I get the content, the cost of having me as a viewer is subsidized by all the people who aren’t blocking ads. In fact, it’s better for me if ad block never goes mainstream, because if too many people start using it, it will fail for everyone. Content providers will see their revenue dry up and then something must be done. I already have noticed an uptick in the number of sites that just flat-out deny access if you have ad block running.
But this does not feel ethical or right. This idea shows up in philosophy a lot. Kant’s categorical imperative and the prisoner’s dilemma come to mind as possible examples.
So there we are. I’m an Internet parasite. I’d like to change. But currently it’s not easy enough or rewarding enough to do so, so I don’t.