Ads in ebooks and why silence matters.

The “great internet fallout of 2010” keeps rolling:

After minimal internet exposure, “My attention span grew back, from about 10 seconds to several hours. I could read half a novel at a time, without the itch to look at something new. You know, that twitch of your left hand to open a new tab…

The novel, the sacred retreat of those who are regaining their abilities to focus on one task. And now thanks to ebooks, yet another way that content providers are going to try and leverage every tiny bit of space to try and sell you something. Over at TechCrunch, Paul Carr mistakenly thought that books are the same thing as ebooks, and also erroneously assumed that publishers would be hiring their own ad teams. Snarkmarketer Tim Carmody rightly points out that somebody could easily devise a software program based on reader demographics to do that for them with a lighter impact on a publisher’s budget than hiring ad teams. But Carmody misses Carr’s real point: his fear is the introduction of product placement, similar to the way products are their own advertisements in movies. That might actually require people to talk to people, namely advertisers talking not only to content providers, but the content creators themselves. As Carr points out:

“Since Ian Fleming defined James Bond by the Rolex on his wrist, many of our most popular literary heroes have been characterised as much by the products they use as by the lines they say. Once those key traits are perpetually being altered at the whim of the highest bidder – a prospect that technology has made very real indeed – well, that’s when the misty-eyed defenders of old media will really have something to write about.”

Product placement of any kind turns into the subconscious hyperlink of long-form narrative. At this point in time, most viewers and readers quickly read the semiotic code of the placed product. The Rolex watch is shorthand for luxury, high-cost, and high taste, with a side-dish of showiness and awareness by the wearer of the brand’s ability to impart that image.Product placement doesn’t always bring the fourth wall tumbling down. After all, James Bond inhabits a world that is loosely contemporaneous with ours. Carr might be exaggerating the impacts just a bit, or he might find product placement more intrusive, especially in egregious cases.

What concerns me the most about both ads in ebooks and product placement advertising in print and other forms is the impact it has on our attention. While it can just be a quick semiotic love-note from the author to the reader, it can also be a lovely mental jumping off point that would lead somebody into a little internet-link-clicky jaunt. So much for avoiding the “new tab” syndrome that haunts us. While it could just be inevitable, and the advertisers might win a place in our novels, it would still bug a lot of people. Namely those who still would like a small part of their lives to be free of the interests of commerce, or at least a place where they can derive pleasure from doing one thing at a time.

All of these things swirled around some conversations I heard between library staffers about the relative noise level in the second floor of our library. I’m not a shusher, and in many cases I think talking in the library is welcome. We are there to learn and communicate, sometimes verbally, and occasionally with the technological assistance of a cellphone. All of these things are sounds and voices that can intrude on some people’s consciousness as they diligently search for jobs, watch MJ videos, study for their tests, or read quietly. A quote from a book I was reading the other day seemed to explain how it is that quiet and silence in libraries functions. David Toop in Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory, quoting Jonathan Katz’s  John Cage’s Queer Silence: “One point of silence, then, is to dissolve the oppositional by freely allowing other voices to be heard.” In other words. If you are quiet, and you listen instead of talking, it gives other the chance to have a voice, and it allows you to hear them. That is what Carr is worried about, and what libraries provide.

Why we don’t want to grow up.

There’s still a lot of daily hoopla over the shallows. It seems more and more that these discussions are really missing the point. Over at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub of the University of California, David Theo Goldberg touched on a Duke University study, in which the researchers acknowledge the one advantage of computer-oriented learning:

“The Duke researchers do acknowledge improved computing skills—the capacity to negotiate software and to find their way around the Internet—that are useful for future employability in the contemporary economy.  But these findings are overshadowed by the stress on what they identify as the computer related failings.”

Sure. Kids are now learning to be more open, collaborative and engage in participatory culture. Computers have helped enable that. Even we adults are starting to do that more as well. I also liked the way that Goldberg broke down the “internet versus books” dilemma, although I would urge him to reconsider the nature of the library: no longer “wooden shelves in a room with pages gathering dust” but instead a place where people outside of schools can access the information they need, and produce the creative and work objects the have to, should they not be privileged with blazing-fast, income-sucking internet connections at home.

But no, what really got my attention that the notion that being open, collaborative and engaging in participatory culture were not ends in themselves, but rather that the most important thing about them was that they “…are useful for employability in the contemporary economy.” The economy that is failing us? Is it the best idea to premise education on that? It looks like those of us who are done with our formal education are somewhat trapped, and it is all our fault, lazy as we are despite the enormous amounts of hustle that many young people engage in to honor that same economy, and end up working for free. Is it no wonder that some people are not excited to go out and hustle any more.

Carl Hegelman at The Awl put it very nicely.

“Patents are filed. The machines get built. Productivity goes up. A couple of guys get rich. For the rest, life stays the same, except for the ones who got laid off because of the super-efficient new machine. So it turns out Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is, after all, attached to a pickpocket. To put it a bit more formally: the benefits of increased productivity go to capital, not labor.”

These same mechanics work in the digital age, now moving us further into a post-industrial twilight. And now we have to deal with something else: crowd-sourced labor, where ” there are entire swaths of work that can be accomplished by anyone, anywhere.” The implication is that we are all now temps, to be assembled at the needs of businesses, and let go when we are no  longer needed. As the author, Mac Slocum points out: “What’s really surprising is that many of the groups CrowdFlower turns to would never define themselves as formal workforces.” The ability to complete school and become financially independent are what New York Times writer Robin Marantz Heing and her source, sociologist Jeffery Jensen Arnett define as part of a set of traditional milestones used to mark an individuals march to adulthood. Look at Hegelman’s point from this perspective. Crowd-sourced labor increase the productivity of companies, not the stability of the workforce (being in the same place, having a regular paycheck). It is software designed to harness collaborative spirit to the benefit of the company in question and the questionably named middleman, Crowdflower. If you’re a temp, it is pretty hard to make long-term commitments in the rest of your life.

 

So yes, let us be more collaborative and participate by learning on computers. We will gain the skills needed, along with the mindset that we are all little interchangeable parts, as easily moved around as bits of information. The 20-something doldrums of the late-20th and early-21st centuries is the digging-in-the-heels of a generation that realization that the big, bright future is really a selling point by people who want to take advantage of our willingness to play nice with others. What Nicholas Carr nearly hits and what David Theo Goldberg somewhat misses is that the learning that comes from deep engagement over extended periods of time is the ability to be more critical of what is being asked of you, as a student or as a worker.

So check out a library book. Read a lot online. Make artwork with MS Office. Write a Blog. Go fly a kite. Je Refuse.