Internet consumers take for granted that information should be free, at least to them, because so much of it’s been supported by advertising. New York Times columnist and podcaster Ezra Klein recently interviewed Tim Hwang about his book, Subprime Attention Crisis, which explains how the $500 billion internet advertising industry makes information seem free by auctioning off human attention to the highest bidder.
Hwang is a Berkeley Law School graduate who has worked at Google, led a Harvard-MIT project to study the ethical applications of machine learning, and cofounded a boutique law firm “for the extremely online.”
Subprime explains how computer science helped advertising turn human attention into a commodity. Commodification involves grouping massive numbers of similar items into packets of value which can be computer traded at high speed. Mortgages to buy homes, pork bellies to make bacon, oranges for juice concentrate, any product with a large enough market can be packaged into units and traded as a commodity.
The internet should have been the ultimate human tool. Instead, programmatic advertising has turned our attention into a commodity.
Internet technology commodified attention by gathering personal information about every person and linking that knowledge to every bit of content they view. Through a technology called programmatic advertising, when a person clicks on a website, their demographic and psychographic characteristics are broadcast to advertisers who can bid to place commercial messages alongside whatever content that consumer is visiting.
Consider how this might have worked had I searched for a last-minute restaurant reservation after listening to Klein’s podcast on Valentine’s Day. My query would have generated a signal: 68-year-old cisgender male has attention available. Advertising messages are matched to buyer-specific attention opportunities in the time it takes for the search results to load. Erectile dysfunction meds might have topped the bids had I searched sooner, but at-home flower delivery seemed the better bet given the lateness of the hour. That’s programmatic advertising.
Hwang drew the subprime aspect of the title from his concern that the temptation to fake attention metrics might collapse the internet’s economic foundation much as mortgage fraud brought down commoditized debt and the U.S. economy. Metric inflation is so common that the TV series Silicon Valley included a humorous bit about a startup that hires a click farm to fake exponential attention growth for a buggy product.
Klein used his podcast to explore how programmatic advertising affects what sorts of information flow online. The internet siphoned off ad revenues that had once supported many newspapers, broadcasters, and other pre-internet info vendors. Some name-brand info merchants have survived by shifting to subscription sales. Klein said internet flows are boiling down to a question of what people are willing to pay for.
I care about small producers. Local authors, musicians, artists, filmmakers, game designers, and other content creators bring a hitherto unimaginable diversity of voices to the marketplace of ideas. But programmatic advertising rarely works for them. They can’t generate enough attention. For every internet influencer who goes viral, tens of thousands labor in obscurity. As for selling subscriptions, small content creators have the business model of a kid’s lemonade stand, selling to family and friends and hoping for recommendations.
At one point Klein says the character of the internet flows from its business model. He’s both wrong and right. The internet was an engineering cooperative, a functioning anarchy with no central point of control. Its technical protocols were designed to empower the creative people at the edges of the network. It should have been the ultimate human tool. Instead, programmatic advertising has turned our attention into a commodity. Surely that is a character flaw.