It was right around the dawn of the smartphone that I first became concerned with the advancement of technology– the pace of its innovations and its insidious integration into our personal lives. It seemed that modern humans, given the opportunity, preferred to conduct any and all matters of business and recreation through the prism of their devices, in whatever form those devices took during the expansion of this digital age.
There were those “traditionalists” amongst us that still preferred to use laptops, but our number was shrinking as more users opted for smaller devices that required less in the form of action and allowed for more continuous consumption. With the simple pressing of a button—and even the button was virtual, just a spot of color on device with touchscreen capabilities—the user could be transported into a world of nonstop streaming, where music and movies would be presented uninterrupted.
Gone was the antiquated burden of free will. The device told you what to watch, what to listen to. The device told you what to like. In many ways, the device knew you better than you knew yourself, and its gift to you was the stripping of any human inclination, and any awareness of choice in the matter at all. Its blessing was unconsciousness. True digital ignorance was bliss.
As the technology evolved, our capacity for observing these changes dissolved just as quickly. Soon it seemed I was the only one yet to succumb. Each time I voiced my concerns I found my audience smaller than it had been before, and it was never very large. Eventually the responses stopped entirely, and even my most anxious shouting drew only silence in return, so deafening that it stifled even my echo.
No one was listening. They were all wearing headphones.
Humans on the whole were slow on the uptake, completely unaware that the conventions of traditional society were eroding before their blind eyes. But this was not so with industry: many businesses had adapted to these changes and seemed to be leading the charge, if not driving entirely. Where there was disruption there was opportunity, and the entrepreneurs of the new age took advantage. Some filled the void, others created voids to fill. If there was money to be made, then the devolution of the human spirit was just another operating cost—intangible, at that.
Of these hyper-responsive industries, which through successful adaptation had demonstrated both an awareness of and a total disregard for those pillars of civilization that had enabled the advancements in the first place, none was more triumphant than the field of advertising.
It started with the evolution of content: when the channels of distribution were altered, the advertisements were forced to adapt. Few are left that remember the primitive “pop-ups” that haunted our dial-up connections. Soon our access was digitized, faster and more efficient, and white knights amongst us had developed applications to block these intrusive pictorials. But the marketers fought back, an innovative tug-of-war causing both sides to advance their techniques, a frantic race to control those capabilities that did not even exist yet.
Videos were not rented, they were streamed; Subscription superseded ownership; Privacy and property were violated in the same mad rush to consume, for desiccation lurked behind every empty moment. Humanity plagued by an unquenchable thirst, a bloodlust for value-proposition, and an endless longing for free market economics.
Of course, dear consumer, we’ve got just the thing! The solution to your every misery, an escape from each feeling of despondency that invades your being when faced with the impossible task of generating an original thought. Suffer no more!
At this point I should disclose that I had lived my only waking life in advertising, and as such was especially attuned to its ruthless techniques. I was never concerned with the implication. Marketers effortlessly bypass the ethical dilemmas inherent in such blatant and potent mass mind-control strategies because marketers are immune to the human element: a man is not flesh and blood, he is a demographic. Predictable and rational, his every inkling is written on the branding of his t-shirt– his favorite movie, who he votes for, and which personal demon he wrestles with.
For (g)od’s sake, they even called those helpless bastards “targets”!
But when you are on the front lines, you have a tendency to look past the more unpleasant aspects of your job. Certainly changing careers, and watching a six-figure student-loan go for naught, is a much taller task. So you grin and bear it and try not to think about the degradation your work inflicts upon innocent men, women, and children.
What I’m saying is, the paycheck helped.
And those paychecks had enabled my premature retirement. By the time my self-loathing reached intolerable proportions, I was able to reason that if I could manage to live sparingly in the last few years I planned to complete, then I could survive on the wealth I had accumulated to that point.
The universe had finally smiled upon me: I could live my life on the couch, the great American consumer Dream! And it was college basketball season. Felicity indeed!
It was on Wednesday that I found myself absorbing a discussion about the top-ranked teams in the nation, as both Duke and Kentucky had fielded strong recruits. (It seems not all things change so fast as technology.) But the break in the debate forced me to the abhorrent intermission, and I knew I would be subjected to the most vulgar and indecorous endorsements.
I do not mean to say that they were crude or illicit in the pictures they presented, nor in the words of their messages (though the content was certainly repulsive). It was just my finely tuned ear for adspeak– part nature, part nurture—that made my senses revolt when subjected to the methods of these soulless marketers. I had worked in the industry but was not immune to its techniques. My awareness only made it more difficult to bear, and in the moments before the ad-block started, after the screen had briefly faded to black, I valiantly wrestled with the urge to vomit.
Then the session began, and the device spoke to me.
“Hello Vincent,” it said.