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Advertising and Free Speech

If one were to criticize advertisements for some of the effects they have — of creating an overly-materialistic culture, or causing people to want things that they would not otherwise want and might actually harm them — proponents of “free markets” and “free speech” would immediately come to its defense. It’s up to consumers, they would say, to actually make the choices that advertisements merely suggest; and anyway, we can’t restrict advertisements because doing so would clearly violate the First Amendment.

I think both defenses have problems with them; I am concerned here with the second. (For a very considered discussion of the first, you might take a look at John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.)

I think that the state to which we have allowed advertising to invade our culture actually harms the ideal of Free Speech, and to defend it on First Amendment grounds is out of touch with the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Advertising takes up space and air time. By filling our media with advertising (to the extent that magazines have more advertising than content, and half of every television broadcast is filled with commercials), we prevent that time and space from being used to propagate information that might be more useful or significant to the public. Moreover, because advertising is profitable to the entities that broadcast it, they have little or no incentive to replace it with more meaningful content if it means a drop in profit margins — thereby making it even more difficult for a useful message to get air time. Not only does that message need to compete for the time; it needs to compete for paid time.
  2. Advertising makes us less sensitive to information generally. Through constant overstimulation, media consumers become desensitized to information. Rather than taking on the Sisyphean task of sorting out information that’s good and useful from information that isn’t, we simply become more likely to tune it all out. Things that should shock us don’t; useful messages don’t have the effect they would have in the absence of advertising.
  3. Advertising is psychologically manipulative. Advertising creates desires in people where none existed before. It encourages conformity to the states of mind that advertisers want consumers to have. Whether or not you believe it’s “ultimately up to the consumer” to act on the mental states that advertising induces, it is undeniable that the express purpose of advertising is to cause people to believe something they did not before, usually for the sake of the advertiser’s profit. Even if this is true, of course, it doesn’t necessarily affect the right to free speech. The problem, however, is that free speech is only valuable if free thought precedes it: the purpose of protecting free speech is to protect a diversity of perspectives, which are necessary for the pursuit of many other valuable things (like, say, the Truth). Advertising, by creating conforming desires, destroys that diversity of perspective. It therefore harms not just free speech but its more valuable precursor as well.

All this is not to say, of course, that we should do away with advertising entirely. Some advertising is genuinely useful (for example, if it informs people of new products that can actually improve their lives). What we need is a way to sort the good advertising from the merely invasive. Again, the free market people will try to tell us these mechanisms already exist: you as a consumer can change the channel during commercials, or skip ahead to other pages with real content. But clearly, this approach has only made advertising more invasive and more subtly manipulative over the last several decades. Some new mechanism is required — one that puts the power to choose good content and reject bad content in the hands of the collective consuming public, instead of merely the individual.

Proposals, anyone?


Written by whereofwecannotspeak

March 7, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Some proposals

Here are four proposals for the improvement of society that I have had occasion to think about this weekend. I do not know much about the technical feasibility of any of them, but I put them forth as ideas for others to refine:

  1. Burn food that gets thrown away. That’s right: we should start mechanically metabolizing the food we throw away and harvesting the energy this produces, instead of simply letting it rot or even making compost from it. We are facing an energy crisis; yet every living thing on the planet has an efficient system for turning organic materials other than petroleum into energy. By setting up a chemical process that simulates human (or another species’) metabolic processes, then feeding it food that would otherwise be thrown away, we would create an efficient, non-oil based source of storable energy that would help reduce a huge source of waste. One problem this would create, of course, is that animal metabolism produces carbon dioxide. By adding to our metabolic process a series of ecological controls for this, like the plants used in this rest stop on the Vermont highway, we can reduce carbon dioxide output as well. Another problem is the building of infrastructure — but haven’t we solved this problem for every other energy source we’ve ever relied upon?
  2. Raise taxes or tolls for private car use, while providing tax breaks for public transportation use. One of the biggest problems facing public transportation in Philadelphia, at least, is that it is constantly underfunded, and new contracts and funds must be secured every year. The solution to this is not to throw more money at a broken system. Instead, we should provide greater incentives for the people who currently avoid the system (because it’s dirty, because it’s slow, because it’s unreliable, because they can afford to drive) to use it by raising taxes on non-public forms of transportation, and put the added revenue into much-needed changes. Meanwhile, we should provide tax breaks for people who use public transportation, just as we provide them for other practices that help the environment and benefit the public. This will foster greater public support for the system, which in turn will make improving it easier.
  3. Revise copyright law so that rights and restrictions have a “sale depth” of 1. This one takes some explaining; I admit that the idea isn’t totally well-formed in my mind yet. The idea is that we should continue to protect the benefits of artists with copyright law, to foster creativity, while preventing restrictions on copying once an artist has already benefited. It’s probably true that if creators did not have the exclusive right to license copies of a work, we’d see less creation. But once an artist has benefited from a work by selling the copyright, or by selling copies, the restrictions on further copies should be drastically reduced. Many people are willing to pay for “depth one” copies — copies of works originally produced by the artist or the publisher to whom the copyright was first sold. “Depth two” copies — copies made from depth one copies, or made by a second publisher who bought the copyright from the first — should be completely free and unregulated. If I buy a CD, I should have to pay for it, and I should not be able to profit from making copies of that CD and selling them to others while the artist or first publisher still holds the copyright. But I should have the right to make copies and give them away for free. Market regulation (i.e., the cost of producing physical copies) will ensure that I can’t do enough of this to really harm the artist. Virtual copies (e.g., song files ripped from that CD), though extremely cost-effective to distribute, are not really copies of the original work, and sharing them will only increase, or at least not decrease, sales of “depth one” copies (cf. this study). This again protects the artist’s profit without placing harmful restrictions on the public or allowing too much profit to secondary entities that does not filter up to the artist. This proposal does entail that some artists and publishers may make less money, but it is unlikely to harm those who really need the protection of copyright law: independent artists and publishers, who often suffer from the high costs of production and advertising. A system which allows people to share work that they really like will reduce these costs and add to profits, since the work of advertising great but undiscovered works will be passed onto the public, who will do it freely. Only the large corporate publishing entities and overpaid “artists” whose practices are currently harming the public stand to lose out, since they will no longer be able to prevent people from previewing works before they buy them, and strangling competition from independent sources by advertising and distributing their products ubiquitously. Quite frankly, I am not concerned about protecting the rights of artists and corporations to profit beyond the profit that any other type of laborer may make. No artist should have to worry about just scraping by if their work really is beneficial; but neither should they make millions of dollars by preventing the public from obtaining the benefits of their work.
  4. A tax to fund political campaigns. I heard several times in the news this week that presidential candidates for 2008 expect to need to raise $100 million to run any kind of “serious” campaign. This means they’ll need to raise at least $2 million a week to have enough by the time the race really heats up. That’s a lot of money by any reasonable standard, which raises the question of why on Earth it should cost so much to run a “serious” campaign, a question I unfortunately cannot address here. However, raising this money presents at least two other problems: (1) to raise $2 million a week, it seems most likely that it will have to come from pockets deeper than the average voter’s, which means candidates will be beholden to special interests even more than in the past; (2) raising that kind of money takes time and effort, which means our most promising political leaders will be doing a lot less of what they should be doing right now: representing people in government. There’s a simple solution to both these problems. The federal government should levy a tax to fund presidential campaigns. There are over 200 million persons of voting age in the United States today; each of them should pay a small tax of, say, $10 into this fund, which will make $2 billion of public funds available for presidential candidates. Even supposing that $100 million really is required to run a serious campaign, that’s enough to fund the campaigns of twenty presidential candidates, which is certainly more than the number of “real contenders” we have seen in any recent election. Candidates should receive this money in increments after demonstrating certain amounts of popular support. Thus, the public would select its candidates as the race progressed, instead of having candidacy available only to those already in a position to raise vast sums of private money. The result would be a set of candidates answerable only to the public, who don’t have to worry about significant fundraising, and who can therefore focus on doing their current jobs. Moreover, the cost of this system is minimal. I would certainly be willing to pay $10 every four years to ensure that my candidates would not be subject to undue pressure from special interests. Even without a tax, we could create this fund by diverting a small portion of the federal budget: setting aside $2 billion for publicly funded political campaigns is less than the cost of two weeks of the war in Iraq.

Please discuss.

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

February 17, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Entrenchment and Types of Stability

Entrenchment is the greatest enemy of democracy. By entrenchment, I mean the continuation of any aspect of government — be it funds for a program, ideological stances, or a politician’s term of office — merely because it has been established in the past. Entrenchment introduces inefficiency, lays the grounds for corruption, and limits the government’s ability to serve the needs of the people it represents as the world around them changes.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

February 7, 2007 at 1:56 pm

Things that are not art

Here is a list of things that, in and of themselves, are not art:

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

January 17, 2007 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Shooting the Bull

Graph Connectivity is not First Order Definable

Perhaps, dear readers, I am mistaken in believing that many (or any) of you are interested in logic, but on the chance that you have arrived here through a search engine in desperate hope of finding a solution to some problem, I shall post a PDF for you, and for historical purposes.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

October 22, 2006 at 7:31 pm


There are many ways that groups of people make decisions. Some of them are conspicuous: we talk about “collaboration” or “coming to consensus”, for example. Other cases are more subtle: sometimes decisions are “handed down from above”; the price of some good reaches an equilibrium in a market; a conversation shifts to a new topic. In each of these cases, a stable outcome is reached after being influenced by many individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

September 28, 2006 at 12:17 am

Facts, possibly

I have made several false starts now, trying to write something. This may have something to do with the hour (12:20 a.m.), and the variety of demi-thoughts that it produces, but more likely, I am just out of practice. In any case, I shall try to establish the facts: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

July 30, 2006 at 12:47 am

Posted in Shooting the Bull