Advertising Is Not Orwellian

Yesterday’s Metro newspaper contained an article entitled What To Expect In 2014 in which three futurologists have a stab at predicting how the latest technological and scientific advancements might change our world this year.

It made for satisfactory lunch-time reading until I read the following from futurologist James Bellini:

“Social TV is also set to go big over the next 12 months, spurred by the driving force of big data. Advertisers will shape campaigns around social media feedback by analysing your chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and the rest to generate numbers-backed customer insights about you. Welcome to 1984.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of people drawing a false analogy between online marketing/advertising and the totalitarian state depicted in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s so fashionable to do so now that it’s possible Bellini hasn’t actually read the book and is just spouting one of the worst clichés of the Internet Age. If Bellini has read the famed tome, then I’m puzzled as to how he seemingly isn’t able to identify the profound differences between the Big Brother in Orwell’s story and our ‘Big Brother’, i.e. advertisers.

Orwell’s fictional Big Brother has one malevolent goal, which is to force you to behave in a certain way by preventing you from behaving any other way. To this end it quite literally watches people at home, at work and practically everywhere else. As a result the state knows what you’re doing at any given moment. The ‘Big Brother’ of our world, i.e. advertisers, has a benevolent goal, which is to persuade you to buy stuff. Whilst it’s true that it wants to persuade you to commit certain actions, this doesn’t require advertisers preventing you from taking certain other actions. Our Big Brother can be ignored and even evaded and it won’t have you kidnapped and tortured for doing so. Orwell’s Big Brother cannot and will. The Nineteen Eighty Four Big Brother is the result of involuntary interactions. Our Big Brother is the result of voluntary interactions. Our Big Brother is the people’s choice. Orwell’s is the antithesis of people having choice.

So no, Mr. Bellini, it’s not “welcome to 1984”. It’s much less dramatic and traumatic than that. It’s simply welcome to the reality that people aren’t prepared to pay to use social media networks and to the fact that they therefore must be funded some other way. Selling access to information about users and advertising space to other businesses is, for the time being at least, the most agreeable way to society to keep social media networks in business. But that could easily change if a time comes when enough people object strongly enough to using social media networks funded this way to start using alternatives funded some other way, or ones that are open-source, self-hosted and basically free.

No market economy could ever manifest or become a Big Brother of the Orwellian type because such a thing, by definition, must exist against the people’s will – but markets only produce what people want. The closest we’ve come so far to a Orwellian Big Brother is China’s government and America’s NSA. How much closer we get to a Orwellian dystopia might depend on how well we can distinguish between voluntary and involuntary interactions, between violence and virtue.

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