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ENDitorial: Living as if being at an airport

By EDRi · January 24, 2018

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 our attention. Should we start working on a right to not be addressed?

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 you do is being tracked, and the data is being saved permanently.

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. Another way in which it seems we are permanently in an “airport mode”: The way in which our daily experience is shaped by advertising.

The airport as advertising space

It is always surprising how aggressively the surroundings at the airport are trying to draw people’s attention. The airport is, as the advertising experts say, a “high dwell time environment, delivering a captive audience”. This means you often have to wait a long time and there’s nowhere to go. That’s why you even find advertising on the luggage claim, on the trays carrying your belongings through the scanner, and on your boarding pass. 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 riot, since in order to make the Lexus-spots, the parking spots for disabled people were moved to a less favourable place.

The arms race for attention

Also outside the airport, the arms race for attention is in full swing. Graffiti artist and activist Banksy pointed out the problem over more than ten years ago. He sampled a text 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 a beautiful photo project by Nicolas Damiens’s where he has removed all ads from Tokyo – it becomes clear how contaminated our field of vision is with advertisements. This contamination is everywhere.

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Thanks to outdoor advertising company Exterion and with consent of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the main Dutch railway service, Amsterdam Central train station 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. However, not because we don’t want to be followed by advertisements, which in the near future will be able to use facial 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 “have not communicated properly enough”.

Attention and internet freedom

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

The internet has become a completely commercialised space. In the scientific article 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 behaviour. According to them, a search engine with advertisements would never have the incentive to show that result on top. Now when you search 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 internet. 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 Head, Matthew B. Crawford makes an analysis of how we currently treat attention. He was inspired to write this book when making an online payment, between entering his PIN code 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 their 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. In other words, the time spent on Facebook is mainly benefiting Facebook and you can’t use it again for your own economic or socio-cultural activities. Crawford therefore argues for “attentional 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 book about it. And ex-Google philosopher Tristan Harris has started a non-profit with the name Time Well Spent. 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 recognise this. According to Harris, this race for attention has negative effects. 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 Crawford thinks that the problem lies elsewhere. We haven’t yet sufficiently politicised this attention-economy. Currently, it’s like Wild West, without rules, everything still possible. Weare not yet aware that attention is a limited source, like clean water or clean air. This is why we need to take the political decision to more efficiently protect it, both offline and online. It has been demonstrated in São Paulo that this is possible.

São Paulo, a city without ads

Mayor of São Paulo Gilberto Kassab passed his law for a clean city 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, and advertisements on buses, buildings, and so on were all prohibited. Politics defeated advertisers, with the support of a majority of the people. Companies needed to find different ways to reach their customers, and they ended up finding out that those ways often worked better than the billboards. Suddenly, there was literally space to tackle metropolitan issues in a new way.

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 look 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. Translation from Dutch to English by Ludwine Dekker. A version with images and background links is available here:

(Contribution by Hans de Zwart, EDRi member Bits of Freedom, the Netherlands)