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Living as if being at an airport

The internet is starting to look more and more like an airport. Not only because of the ubiquitous surveillance, but also in the way that advertising is trying to steal away all our attention. Should we start working on a right to not be addressed?

This speech has been translated from Dutch to English by Ludwine Dekker. You can find the original here.

The title of this piece is inspired by Marleen Stikker of the Waag Society. She uses this metaphor to tell a story about how the internet has changed. From a public space without central rules, to a place where you change your behaviour to accommodate an invisible code of conduct, because everything is permanently being saved.

The airport is a world where we accept that we abandon our usual rights because of the perceived threat level, and where we let the government come closer and closer.

The airport as advertising space

I want to highlight another way in which it seems we start to permanently spend our lives as if being at an airport: The way in which our daily experience is shaped by advertising.

Everytime I’m at an airport I’m surprised about how aggressively the surroundings are trying to draw my attention.

Advertising is everywhere at the airport

The airport is, as the advertising experts sayUSA Today about ads at airports, a “high dwell time environment, delivering a captive audience.” Differently put: you often have to wait a long time and there’s nowhere to go. That’s why these days, you’ll even find advertising on the luggage claim, advertising on the trays carrying your stuff that you put through the scanner and advertising on the boarding pass that you print at home. No surface can be left unused. In Canada, there are even branded parking spots where you can only park a Lexus. This led to a small riotMore about Lexus parking at Calgary airport, since in order to make the Lexus-spots, they’d moved the parking spots for disabled people to a less favorable place.

Lexus parking spots at the airport
Special parking places for Lexus drivers

The arms race for attention

Also outside the airport the arms race for attention is in full swing. Banksy pointed out the problem over more than ten years ago. He sampled a textHow Banksy got to this quote about advertisers and turned it into this:

They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. [..] They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you.

By removing advertisements — as in Nicolas Damiens’s photo projectCheck Nicolas Damiens's website below — it becomes clear how contaminated our field of vision is with advertisements. And that’s not just the case in Tokyo. Damiens could’ve easily made such a photograph at Amsterdam Central train station.

Tokyo with and without ads
Tokyo No Ads (Nicolas Damiens)

Thanks to Exterion and with consent of the NS (the main Dutch train provider), Amsterdam Central is filled with advertising columns with moving images, which according to research are 52% more visible than images that don’t move. Those advertising columns have cameras to see if the viewer is actually looking at them, giving them their attention. Those cameras have now apparently been turned off. Not because we don’t want to be followed by advertisements, which in the near future will be able to use face recognition and then can be connected to Facebook in order to merge the offline and online advertising market. No, they have been turned off “for the time being”, because Exterion regrets that there has been a discussion about the cameras because they — here it comes — “have not communicated properly enough”.

Attention and internet freedom

This story is important because I think we are structurally underestimating the value and importance of our attention. And that ensures that we can’t verbalize a decent answer to the way the web is being ruined by its completely dominant business model. A business model that is based on gathering data and producing advertisements.

The web has become a completely commercialized space. In the scientific articleThe Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine from 1998 in which Larry Page and Sergey Brin introduced Google to the world, the gentlemen said advertisements and search engines could never go well together. They boasted about their top result for the keyword “cellular phone”, an article about the effect of making phone calls on driving behavior. According to them, a search engine with advertisements would never have the incentive to show that result on top. Below is what you’ll find now if you search Google for “cellular phone”.

Google search results for "cellular phone"

Google search results for "cellular phone"

Almost half the visual space has been taken by advertisements and much more than half of the data usage has been taken by the utterly unnecessary ways in which Google tracks us. This example is symptomatic for the current state of affairs on the web. To internet platforms it doesn’t matter what we look at. As long as we’re looking. We accept the current state of affairs on the internet, or more broadly speaking: in the public space, because we underestimate our own attention.

Insufficient appreciation for our own attention

In the introduction of his book The World Beyond Your HeadA review of Crawford's book, Matthew B. Crawford makes an analysis of how we currently treat attention. He was inspired to write this book when during a payment, between entering his pin and confirming the payment, he was confronted with an advertisement.

According to him, attention is something intimate. It determines what is real to us, that what we have in our consciousness. In fact, companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon use our attention for our commercial goals. And because you only have a maximum amount of attention, Crawford doesn’t see this as creating new prosperity, but as a redistribution of existing prosperity. From you, to the companies in Silicon Valley. Put differently, the time spent on Facebook is mainly good for Facebook and you can’t use it again for your own economic or socio-cultural activities. Crawford therefore argues for ‘attentional commonsThe Grand Central terminal as an example of a commons’, the recognition that attention is a limited and shared source that we all need. Like clear air enables breathing, cognitive silence — in the sense of no distraction — enables thinking.

Thankfully, attention has recently gotten more attention. Tim Wu, the driving force behind net neutrality, just wrote a bookTim Wu's 'The Attention Merchants' about it. And ex-Google philosopher Tristan Harris has started a non-profit with the name Time Well SpentTime Well Spent's website. He believes that big companies from Silicon Valley are playing a zero-sum game to claim as much of our attention as possible. Everyone who has spent more time on Facebook or Youtube than they actually wanted will recognize this. This race for attention has quite some negative effects, according to Harris. One example is the vulnerability of our democracy to fake news.

Fake news is the result of the way our information ecosystem works. Harris blames technology for this. But I think, together with Crawford, that the problem lies elsewhere. We haven’t yet sufficiently politicized this attention-economy. Currently, it’s some kind of Wild West, without rules and where everything is still possible. We’re not yet aware that attention is a limited source, like clean water or clean air. So we need to take the political decision to protect that better. Both offline and online. In São Paulo they’ve demonstrated that this is possible.

São Paulo, a city without ads

Mayor Gilberto Kassab made his law for a clean cityRead more about the law at Adbusters in 2007. He saw the law as necessary to address the pollution of water, air, noise and the visual domain. He started with that visual domain: billboards, video screens, advertisements on busses, on buildings, etc., all were prohibited. Politics won from advertisers, with the support of a majority of the people. Companies needed to find different ways to find customers and found out that those ways often worked betterClearing the Air, a radio show about São Paulo than the billboards. Suddenly, there was literally space to tackle metropolitan issues in a new way.

Empty billboards at São Paulo

São Paulo No Logo (Tony de Marco)

The right not to be addressed

Maybe Crawford is right when he says that we have to add the right to not be addressed, to our right to privacy. Maybe we can focus our attention to shared interests and build an internet where it’s pleasant to hang around. An internet that doesn’t have the characteristics of an airport. We should all be looking forward to that.

This is an edited version of the speech Hans de Zwart gave during the Big Brother Awards 2017 on Monday 11 December 2017 in the City Theatre in Amsterdam.

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