If I were to tell you that there was a group, funded by billions of dollars anually, supported by every major corporation in the world, whose sole purpose was to convince you to think a certain way, you'd be a little bit worried, right? What if I then told you that, instead of eliminating this activity, governments of the world merely seek to regulate it, so that beyond outright lying they can use any means necessary to bring you around to their point of view? They have wormed their way onto nearly every page on the Internet, sometimes even altering the text of the page itself, in order to bend you to their will. They not only appear in every form of mass media; in a very real sense they control all forms of mass media. They aggressively target children of any age. They use whatever means they can to stake out some territory inside your mind, and leave their message there, so that it appears again when they want it to, like a posthypnotic suggestion.
At some point while you were reading the preceding paragraph, you probably realized that I was talking about the ad industry, and a switch flipped in your head. "Oh," you thought, "he's talking about the ad industry, they're actually harmless! I will read the rest of this paragraph with that in mind, and appreciate the joke instead of being worried." Frankly, it frightens me a little, how willing everybody is to trust their impression of an industry that spends billions of dollars every single year with the goal of manipulating our impressions.
The Attention Economy
It seems pretty clear that people's attention has value - it's the premise that the entire ad industry is founded on, really. If attention has value, we should be able to treat it as property; it belongs to each of us. It can be thought of as similar to intellectual property, since it's an inherent product of our minds. When you have people's attention, you can put ideas in their heads, and this is immensely valuable if you have a cause (or a product) you'd like to spread around.
(Why don't we spend every waking moment taking in messages from others, giving away our attention to all who seek it? Because attention has value to us individually. To actually do things, and not just passively absorb things that others have done, we need to reserve some of our attention for ourselves.)
Attention can be sold. Every time you turn on the television, you're engaging in an economic transaction: In exchange for letting me watch Hugh Laurie cure people's ills with sarcasm, I agree to give up X number of minutes of my attention to watch these advertisements which are conveniently interspersed within the show. This commercial arrangement (pun unintended) was forced on us, so most of us don't really take it seriously - we ignore ads most of the time, or switch channels, or edit them out entirely if we have a good DVR. The idea is still there, though, even when we're not holding up our end of the bargain.
Attention can also be stolen. Take billboards, for example - you're not getting a damn thing in exchange for having to look at billboards during your morning commute. They've taken your property without your freely-given consent. Why do they get away with this? People don't generally consider their own attention to be their property, so forcing them to sit through commercial messages against their will is usually seen to be at most an annoyance.
Without realizing it, we've developed ways to get discounts on the attention we are charged. When commercials come on TV, we change the channel, and escape without paying attention. (Broadcasters see this as shoplifting, and would love to prevent you from changing the channel during commercials like DVDs already do - but they know how well that would be received. Pun unintended.) On the Web, our eyes slide right past increasingly distracting ads designed to hold our attention hostage - we've learned how not to pay them any attention. When we receive spam, we go several steps further, and have complex technological systems designed with the sole purpose of classifying and deleting spam before we even have to look at it. Marginal attention cost: zero.
Do Marketers Dream of Hypnotic Sheep?
(Yeah, that's not how hypnotic is used, but I really wanted it to rhyme :( )
Targeted advertising is incredibly primitive today. Marketers target incredibly broad categories, and while that level of targeting produces some results for them, it's laughable compared to what they could be doing. We know that they have access to increasingly comprehensive and diverse data about each and every one of us, and it really is worrisome. Today, though, given the sorry state of the art in targeted advertising, we don't have anything to worry about yet.
There are really three pieces here. They need raw data to start with, but they already have that coming out their ears, with the advent of electronic point-of-sale systems, and tracking cookies on the Internet, and pervasive CCTV cameras, and RFID tags, and any number of other new technologies. They need computer scientists (specifically, data mining specialists) to sift through that data, tease out correlations and useful facts, and find out everything there is to know about each of their consumers. They're making progress on this one. Finally, they need psychologists, to optimize their marketing so as to maximize their chance of influencing their targets. I don't know what the state of the art is here, but I sincerely hope it's nowhere interesting.
Because the psychological side of this could get very interesting indeed. There's already significant research that's been done on decision making, and on obedience, and on hypnosis, and on other tricks you can play with the human mind that I don't even know about. What if some enterprising young psychologist combined all that into a predictive model of the mind, where you could try out different inputs, and figure out how a person would respond to them, based on an existing profile of the sort we already have? It would be the next best thing to mind control, albeit for an individual.
Let's call this the manufactured meme. It's not a matter of if, but when - someday, people will be able to design viral ideas, and deploy them into an unsuspecting society. Viral advertising and catchy commercial jingles are the beginnings of this. Advertising is trying to evolve into meme manufacturing at this very moment, and the only thing holding it back is the limitation placed on it by our current understanding of the human mind.
The fear I have about advertising - the fear that makes me think we should dismantle the entire industry, while there's still time - is that they will connect the dots, and that they will pull in the specialists they need to sift through the mountains of data that they're collecting, and the psychologists to direct the use of that data and figure out what makes people obey, and they will create the most perfect form of population control that has ever been conceived of by man. Only a fool could think that, after creating a system that can influence populations with a high degree of accuracy, those in power would use it only for good.
History has repeatedly shown that, once a tool exists, it will eventually find its way into the worst possible hands. In this case, the worst hands I can imagine are those of a totalitarian government, or a corporate fiefdom. 1984 tried to predict exactly this, and Brave New World came somewhat closer to what's possible, but both these books depict some fairly coarse-grained population control. The possibilities that manufactured memes and individually-targeted advertising present are far more subtle and terrifying. Imagine an ad for a political candidate that changes what it says to be as convincing as possible to each person that looks at it. The candidate's actual views are irrelevant - as we've learned repeatedly, it doesn't matter a whole lot what they promise during an election. Imagine a government that enforced conformity by turning people against their neighbors when those neighbors didn't toe the party line. Imagine untraceable targeted assassinations through advertising - remember the killer Pokemon episode, that induced seizures? An ad platform that can show everybody a different message could do that to a select group for next to no cost. (Okay, that last one is a little farfetch'd. Pun intended this time.)
This is not science fiction. It may sound farfetched now, but I don't believe we're all that many breakthroughs away from this becoming reality. And it's not a reality I want any part of.