When I was in junior high, I had a class called Problems of Civilization (today it would probably be called Social Studies). One of the things I learned was that the Roman Empire collapsed because of plumbing.
You see, the word plumbing comes from the Latin plumbum which means lead; plumbing was made of lead. Which meant that people who could afford plumbing (the rich Romans) and the members of their household, were exposed to lead poisoning — which causes mental retardation and various forms of dementia. Hence the notorious Roman stories about Caligula and Nero and others.
Wikipedia attributes the lead poisoning to the use of lead acetate as a wine sweetener. But the idea that a technological innovation that seems so indispensable (like plumbing) could be the cause of the collapse of an entire civilization, is a much more intriguing meme. It suggests the following question: What ubiquitous and seemingly indispensable technology is potentially the cause of the collapse of our civilization?
I think the answer is advertising. Wikipedia’s entry is quite damning. Here’s a quote — the rest of the exposition is equally disconcerting:
Over the years, the public perception of advertising has become very negative. It is seen a medium that inherently promotes a lie, based on the purpose of the advertisement – to encourage the target audience to submit to a cause or a belief, and act on it to the advertising party’s benefit and consequently the target’s disadvantage. They are either perceived as directly lying (stating opinions or untruths directly as facts), lying by omission (usually terms or conditions unfavorable to the customer) or portraying a product or service in a light that does not reflect reality.
Spam and splogs are merely the latest incarnation of lead poisoning. (Advertising is about generating leads). That’s why we don’t have television at home. We’re trying to protect our children from lead poisoning. It’s not easy. There are a lot of transmission vectors.
As long as people want to get paid for providing content, the money has to either come from viewers or advertisers. I favor charging the viewers; like cable television or Netflix — then we get to decide what we see. I’m also hopeful that ideas like AttentionTrust can divert the money flow in ways that will provide more control to the viewers.
As long as we rely on advertising to fund content, we’re going to get advertising in our content. And if viewers are unwilling to pay for content, isn’t that a comment on the value of that content to those viewers?
I wonder what an ad-free Google account would cost.