Advertisements in e-books threaten to take away one of our last commercial-free cultural spaces.
Harry Hurt III, an American writer, has released a new e-book that has ads embedded in each chapter, and product placement throughout the narrative. Nearly two dozen businesses, from luggage companies to restaurants, are looking to cash in as Hurt reveals his Adventures in Love, Labor and Modern Manhood. Why has he taken this road? Apparently because the publishing industry is in dire straits and we can, as Hurt says, either “cry in a corner, or do something about it” – that is, make money in ways beyond just selling the book to consumers. It seems that ads will “read” the text and automatically insert themselves where brand names are mentioned, or where no-name products cry out for designation. Thus, “She checked her watch” might be accompanied by a glowing display for Rolex or TAG Heuer.
The marketplace’s intrusion into the interior spaces of our lives is relentless. We are bombarded with sales pitches throughout our waking hours, and we enable this assault through our attachment to cellphones and electronic tablet technologies. As for television, only the mute button on our remote control stands between us and obliteration of our finer sensibilities – the mute button, that is, and any innate refusal to surrender entirely to advertising’s 24-7 siren call. But, for the most part, we live in a world where our acceptance that money buys everything has become a sedative, and all we want to do is sleep. Our slumber is not disturbed when the Scotiabank Giller Prize reminds us that art is subservient to the power of its purchase. We don’t wake up when an automobile is named after the core spiritual part of ourselves. Our collective “Soul” is now on display in car lots everywhere, measured in horsepower and fuel economy.
For a long time, the outer world has been brought to us by the almighty dollar, but there was always an inner sanctuary of consciousness where our imaginations and desires could respond to creative expression in writing, painting, music, and other genres without an attendant, manipulative framework of cost and ownership. Now the placement of ads within e-books threatens to overrun that sanctuary altogether.
Of course, we already place our minds on hold – or, at least, allow them to be distracted from deeper considerations – when news broadcasters announce that “coming up after the break” will be stories on poverty in a Third World country and flood victims closer to home. The “break,” in reality, is the news, and stories of distant starving villagers or suffering fellow citizens are used as fillers to support the transmission of a market world view that lulls us into tranquil certainty of our own survival.
Until now, one of the most effective weapons against such tactics has been our uninterrupted time with works of art – on the page, on canvas, between our ears, and elsewhere – whose narratives and forms have not been designed to make us open our wallets and surrender to compulsory acquisition.
Because the technology is there to infiltrate not only e-books, but virtually everything, what can we expect in the immediate future? First of all, in Hurt’s new e-book, advertisements in the form of images, and even videos, will appear on select pages to highlight products directly associated with the story in progress. This form of advertising is nothing so simple as the subliminal messaging in sentences like, “She checked her [brand name] watch and stepped into her [brand-name] Hybrid 600.” Instead, we will be enticed by visually pleasing, attention-grabbing displays running in the margins while we try to focus on writing that – if it is any good – contains far more complex questions than a car ad can answer.
Picture a video of northern Ontario hotel accommodations beside paintings by the Group of Seven in the National Gallery because support for art museums has fallen off (see the Harper government’s recent funding cuts for more on this issue), or imagine sitting in a theatre and hearing the announcement, “This performance of Copland’s Grand Canyon Suite is brought to you by the Better Business Bureau of Colorado.” Once the floodgates open, the deluge will cover the creative world, and there will be no Noah’s Ark where two each of novels, poems, paintings, songs, etc. will be able to float safely above the waves of commerce, or avoid the fast-food signs on Ararat’s summit. The very nature and experience of art will have been transformed, and we will have reached dry land in an ark whose corporate sponsor proudly tells us it is seaworthy because of its particular make of caulking.
The unfolding of such a scenario is inevitable. We prefer speed and convenience over reflection, and have no use for any interference with the pleasures of instant satisfaction, whether we are shooting up villains, acquiring wiki-facts, or engaging with art. There are no halfway control measures or solutions. Once our private territories of contemplation become commercial strips to support our preferences, we will sell them off without respite or salvation.