"Tech and advertising are not evil." - thoughts?

Hi friends, when I speak about the perils of the attention economy, I often get people who brand me as somehow “anti-tech” or “anti-advertising”, so I tried my hand at articulating the nuance here in an article:

Tech and advertising are not evil.

Would love thoughts and feedback from those of you who are also thinking deeply about this topic. Thanks!


This is bookmarked sir, and nice to meet you. Will share thoughts over next few days this is right up my alley! Cheers

1 Like

Hi Jay thanks for the article and welcome! Excellent article and glad you’re motivated on this topic.

Would be great to discuss what makes tech and ads good and bad, and also look for solutions to creating ethical next-generation major tech services.

My opinion is that what we have is bad and not evil. I don’t think large populations of humans can be evil, because I reserve the words evil for say a psychopath. Maybe some CEOs are evil psychopaths, but much more likely they just make bad designs. And we all suffer from their bad choices, due to a their lack of logic or compassion.

The problem seems to be that technology is had accelerated the ability to do bad and also made transactions ever more automated and therefore inhuman. With more automation and less face-to-face, and now we have automatic programs choosing which content or ads to show, humanity has been stripped out of decision making. Hence even more bad decisions.

I’m a believer that we can recreate the major parts of the tech such as browsers, ads and related web/app backend technologies such as analytics to be much more humane in many ways, and that users might prefer that over the bad mess we have now. Right now there is no good choice for either developers or the people, but by building a system based off of values we would solve many problems all around. What do you think?

1 Like

I apologize for not prioritizing the time to read the article, but advertising is indeed overall evil. Tech is more neutral and has obvious benefits. Advertising is at the heart of the majority of the problems in the world. It drives the consumption of almost all harmful products.

The idea that we just oppose bad advertising, not advertising in general… that’s too much of a pass on how bad advertising is. It was evil long before tech and tracking.

A summary I helped put together: https://wiki.snowdrift.coop/about/existing-mechanisms#third-party-ads

Humane Tech being soft on ads in general only validates Doug Rushkoff’s (of Team Human podcast, book etc) concern that it’s superficial like free-range chickens just in massive cages instead of individual cages before they get slaughtered. Real humane tech would and should reject most of the whole world of advertising. To be clear, classified ads where people are actively looking for listings of things is not what I’m talking about.


Absolutely! Almost all advertising is bad, it is manipulation and has been likened to “brain surgery”. This is one of those things I knew even as a child, just as I also knew that all people of the world should be united in peaceful borderless world.

My question is that why do so few people acknowledge these truths? I feel that people’s thinking shifts from “I know this is dead wrong” to “this is expedient” and then eventually they only think “this is expedient” and completely forget “I know this is dead wrong”.

People lie to themselves, that is beyond sad. I couldn’t live in peace with myself if I knowingly lied to myself. We’ve structured the world so that we lie to ourselves, as if all the nonsense we do from ads to inequality to borders makes any sense at all. We act illogically, Incompassionately, like other animals, and then pretend to be sophisticated. However we are not like other animals, we have the emerging human capability to choose what is right and equitable, and to educate the rest of the human race to do the same. It is just a matter of humans creating and spreading our unique human talent of wisdom (our “information technology”?) and not acting like the other animals anymore.

Hi Jay,

Great article! I wish you would have posted the full article here, so we could deconstruct it into quotes. Personally, I find much alignment in my thinking and yours.

However, as you can see from some of the responses, there doesn’t seem to be a community consensus here on advertising, as a few do believe that all advertising is evil and inherently harmful, independent of the mediums which distribute it.

I view advertising as a distribution problem, meaning it is the environment for it that creates the “nastiness” people don’t like.

I tell my partners time and time again; just because we’re helping people meditate, doesn’t mean we’re inherently ethical. No matter what you’re selling, none of us are afforded the right to say whatever we want to market our wares just because we think we’re doing the right thing.

I view the essence of marketing and advertising as a promotional “theater”, as in done well, it is attention well earned. Maybe the theater is informative, maybe it is seductive, maybe it is funny, but it is theater at the end of the day.

I view the manipulation of marketing and advertising as manipulation and deception, and I think you understand this core distinction.

Human agents will always attempt to “game” whatever system they are given to distribute or earn profit, even if we believe we are doing the right thing, our methods of communication often tip over into propaganda.

Maybe you’re triggering people’s in-group bias and negativity bias by posting an article full of moral outrage about people who are different from you. Maybe a political group paid for that article as a “native ad” — a form of high-performing paid advertisement disguised as content so people can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

Right now, publishers have control to some degree, and technology needs to give good credible publishers the tools to have a role in solving this problem.

The advertising agency has control to some degree too, as they are creating a message for the brand.

But the brand has the most control, if a brand is a predator, and abusing or manipulating an audience for profits that are not duly earned through the merits of the claims - then those brands need to be called out.

I think the overall state is one of confusion, really. Many of the claims made against digital advertising are real concerns about capitalism run amok.

I’m of the mindset that it is not helpful to complain about something unless you either have a solution for it, or a solution is realistic.

There are some things we can design around, and there are some things we can design from scratch.

Either way, technology did not create the problem, it just exasperated a problem that was lurking under the depths.

Ironically, and thankfully, technology can also solve this problem.

“The cure for bad technology is better technology” Jaron Lanier.

I believe the solution lay in removing third parties from the distribution of sponsored media, and turning the internet user into a partner in the ecosystem instead of the product, and redistributing revenue share from advertising directly to internet users in a way that works wonders for all participants.

I look forward to learning more about your work!

Great article. Thanks for posting!

I appreciate that you’re still unclear on the distinction between good and bad advertising, but you can apply the “I know it when I see it” test. I want to dive a little deeper into that because I think there’s more to be explored here.

This is my general principle for ethical action toward others: Do my actions show respect for the other person? For their wellbeing? For their expectations? For their desires and goals? For their personal agency?

(I think it’s would also be interesting to think about right and wrong in advertising based on Moral Foundations Theory.)

Your Headspace example brings up a good point because it pits these aims against each other. The assumption is that people’s wellbeing will improve, but lying to them doesn’t respect their expectations.

Meanwhile the more intrusive forms of psychological manipulation undermine people’s agency and wellbeing. Truth in advertising has long been an expectation codified into law, but as yet we have very few laws to govern these new harmful practices.

Ultimately though, the ins and outs of what is considered right and wrong in advertising (at least from a legal standpoint) will be codified through a continuing conversation between society, government and courts. That’s why it’s important for us to keep talking about this stuff and move the conversation forward.

1 Like

I have no issue with “low technology” ad like the one played in TV channel because it just plays and doesn’t mine data (I hope…)

If a website displays plain banner ad as a plain image delivered from first party (from the same domain of the site) without any associated script, then it’s fine. The site can generate revenue to display that plain image banner as I described. (Of course other conditions like “not too distracting” or “should not trick you into clicking by using shock content in the ad” etc and so on, would still apply)

1 Like

Great article, @jayvidyarthi, and wholeheartedly agree. Maybe you’d be interested in this discussion topic we had about this before: Humane advertising - ethical and mutual-beneficial: It is possible !

1 Like

Thanks for all the discussion y’all, this is really evolving my thinking further - hope it’s useful for all of you too!

@NSaikiwiki I agree - I am also one who believes that bad design is a major culprit here. I think in order to fix that, we need good design. Good as in effective, but also good as in ethical. I work as a designer, and the incentives behind these orgs are not going to reward the right thing unless we rethink these structures, along with the technology. But I agree, a better system is possible technically. The question is, how do we either structure orgs to care, or change the culture enough that people vote differently with their attention. We probably need to do both, and that’s interaction of many societal systems.

I think @wolftune’s perspective is lacking the nuance I intended to explore in the article. I actually chose to write this article because I was going down that path, starting to brand entire disciplines as evil when terms like “technology” and “advertising” are too broad for that to make any sense. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely critical of the manipulation going on in our world using tech and ads - but if we’re going to do something about it, we have to get beyond this blunt understanding and address them with clarity. What is leading advertising to become an evil force in our society, when obviously it can be used for good too? Same can be asked of tech. We need to find the core of the issue - the “advertising is evil” position is naive - @wolftune - you reveal this yourself at the end when you point out there are some kinds of advertising you don’t think are evil (classifieds) - I point to several other examples in the article and articulate this case a lot more clearly there - would be really curious to hear your thoughts if you have time to check it out.

Love @NSaikiwiki’s description of brand-as-predator. This in itself could be an interesting framing for this, that there are potentially brands, people, advertisers, businesses, executives, etc. that are “predators” because they abuse the public trust and dive guiltlessly into outright manipulation and abuse. Fascinating to think about how we would identify these agents and reject them from our systems. A correctional system for the web.

@wolverdude pointing to “I know it when I see it” is really aligned. That’s why I felt it was so hard in the article to draw a clear line between ethical and unethical advertising… I can paint the extremes because it feels obvious to me. But as @NSaikiwiki said - we need to suggest solutions, and I’m at a loss at how to draw hard and fast ethical rules for this stuff. I just know it when I see it. If there’s any solution I’m really advocating in writing and sharing this article, it’s that the humane tech community needs get over the blunt nonsense that these tools are somehow inherently evil, and think clearly about what we’re trying to do here as a community and as a movement.

I found this community because of my work with Native Smart, we’re five years into such a design, with a piloted and tested MVP, as well as a business plan and rollout plan for national adoption within a year. Since we are viewing this as a design problem, the two core design flaws we identify and correct for are:

  • Treating online digital advertising as a print model (like newspaper or magazines) was established in the very late 90’s. This means the infrastructure for online ads has primarily been display ads.
  • Treating data as the commodity instead of user’s attention.

Both of the above have been exploited by third-party ad networks, beginning with Google, and I could show, create all of the negative results we see today, such as fake news (it’s an ad product!), bots, fraud, ad blockers, digital tracking, targeting, etc.

everyone hates ad tech, the publishers and the brands don’t like it just as much as the user does not like it.

All of the above have been exasperated by technology companies seeking IPO’s or taking money from VC’s that require them to submit to the monetized and measurable model of data collection.

Therefore, our core solution proposes

  • Replace third-party ad networks altogether.
  • The new network that would distribute sponsored media would be internet users themselves. Give internet users the tools to distribute and verify sponsored media in partnership with websites and apps, and receive a significant portion of ad revenue share.
  • Give users the ability to store, sell, or trade the value of five seconds of their attention as a true digital asset (without requiring any adoption of a blockchain)
  • Give web publishers the tools that allow them to earn more revenue without the need for third-party networks, and give them the tools for controlling which sponsored media they broadcast.
  • Develop a way to raise funds without the need for an IPO and in a manner that is SEC compliant and eventually turns ownership and control of the entire ecosystem directly to the participants.

Would love to know your thoughts. A big picture presentation is here.

Publishers can and should play that ethical role, they are the “guardians” for their audience. Most pubs don’t have the tools to do that tho. What do you think about decentralizing that problem down to the web publishers?

Publishers don’t really have many choices with current ad tech, they run the ads that are served by the third parties and the ads which meet third-party standardization :frowning:

I think it is the current distribution model that turns responsible brands into predators, and while there are genuine predator brands that exist, many of them would not have a business model at all if not for ad tech. Many types of scammy affiliate products are able to find their customers because facebook and google devalue users attention so much and have so much reach, that the cost of them presenting predatorial products and finding the sucker to buy them drives a big chunk of ad revenue, unfortunately.

Indeed! Come help, please :slight_smile: It is absolutely a lot simpler than most would assume to replace the third party ad network model, and the attention economy being placed back into the hands of the owners (us) and receiving the reward in return we believe will be an infectious solution. We’ve completed most of the heavy lifting up to this stage, but lots more work to go.

Thanks for kicking this discussion off, let’s keep it going!

Interesting what Tristan said in the video.

  1. He mentioned that giving pennies to users in exhange for personal data was not a good solution.
  2. He also mentioned that big tech doesn’t even need personal data (to manipulate people via learning algorhythms).
1 Like

yes, I was going to write something about this, just haven’t gotten the time. I absolutely agree if we are discussing giving them pennies for their data, its not going to solve the problem.

However, giving “pennies” for attention, plus for distribution and verification, and having that asset stored creates far more value than just “pennies” for the user data, which is not even required. If anything, adding data to the mix could get them far more than just pennies.

Consider a CPC model. average CPC for a click from Google is (last i checked) $1.10.

Evolving this idea further (currently, we only have solution built for mobile) how much advertising are we exposed to every day across multiple mediums? If we are talking pennies, or even sub pennies, per viewing transaction, every day, all of that adds up into something more substantial. Adding data to your attention value could mean the difference between pennies and dollars.

Now consider, groups pooling their attention value, for example lets say all members of a specific charity, 100,000 members, pool their attention value for one week towards a direct action cause?

There is massive wealth in ad tech, to the tune of $100 Billion per year (at least) in the US alone, and that’s just on the digital side.

It’s more than just pennies when the value is placed on attention and not data, and of course, if and only if the third party is removed. If it is not removed, there is not enough margin for the economics to work.

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Sure giving a cut back to the people sounds reasonable, it’s just the complicated logistics of it. There’s also the argument that the money belongs with the publisher.

I actually think your model would work much, much better with search. Therefore you could pivot to being a search engine, powered by Yahoo, which respects privacy and gives users back some of the revenue from the search ads. Because search ads are much more profitable than publisher ads. That is why Google takes about half of all the world’s digital ad revenue itself. (Much of the rest goes to Facebook.)

In a dream, I would be retired already. Maybe that is what ads on Google search cost. For ad viewers just in the United States of America and Switzerland. But for publishers it’s different. Google and all the other middle men take over 50% of what it typically a much smaller number to start with.

Also on aside I think CPC model doesn’t really exist as far as I know as Google actually uses CPM and just converts it to CPC.

An issue with your model is poor people will be attracted to it for money, while advertisers will want rich people who could care less about money and more about their time. There is the elusive rich world middle class. But that’s a small part of the world.

I’ve also meant to ask you, where (on Earth) do you expect to find advertisers? I just mean that to be funny. But seriously I have been a publisher and can tell you great advertisers are impossible to find. Even big sites are lucky when they get them. I think there is a 10 million person per month minimum (with all those people hopefully in the same rich country and speaking the same language) to get these big direct ads. And then you know maybe it’s better to go with contextual ads anyway. Thanks.

It’s not as complicated as you would think. Publishers still will get, and will always get the lion’s share.

Let’s look at the full marketplace for an “ad buy”

  • Brand employs the agency

  • Agency creates content, performs media buy (so agency gets a cut of ad buy too)

  • Agency pays the third party, the third party sells the publisher

  • Third party pays publisher but keeps the data premium (the third party takes a higher cut, the publisher gets lower cut, based on their remnant prices bought in bulk.)

That entire transaction is covered in a series of “insertion orders”.

Now let’s remove the third party from the equation.

Agency/brand works directly to the publisher (in either direction, publishers can approach brands)
Publisher’s loyal audience becomes the decentralized server for the publisher.

Agency gets more premium than for less, the publisher makes more, and third-party fees are distributed to the users.

The complications arise from remittance, how does all of that money get distributed seamlessly?

The solution for that problem is called a “Smart Insertion Order” or P2P insertion order, where all fees (agent who sells, audience who verifies, views and distributes, and publisher who attracts an audience) is accounted for down to each individual, instead of two or three parties. That insertion order literally becomes the digital asset, because the brand is purchasing five seconds of pure unfiltered attention, and that digital asset is literally storing the USD value of attention, broken down to each individual.

Consider, a $10CPM equals .01 for every visit to your site. Third party takes 50%, you get .005 for every visit.

If every visit to your site insured five seconds of exchange between users and your site, that means that brand is paying .01 for five seconds of attention.

Since you as the publisher are selling the attention of your audience, and you as a humane tech publisher understand that the audience owns the value of their attention in that exchange, and as a responsible internet user, I will trade you a lion share of my value to use your site for free.

The smart insertion order initiates and closes the entire transaction down to the user level.

Agree, but baby steps. It would work with virtually all advertising eventually that is the ultimate goal, but we wouldn’t be able to start with search, because then we have to either convince Google to adopt our technology or build a search engine to compete with Google.

We’re starting with mobile direct to web pubs and apps because that marketplace is ripe for quick adoption, its something we’ve done before, and alone is so huge and the adoption potential so high, that once we set that standard where users are the distributing third party and receive a revenue share, we have a huge ecosystem and working model, and then we would seek to influence the other networks to adopt the model (by using our system for storing the digital asset, but not our system as a content management and distribution system).

Exactly, that is what the average CPC is from Google if you are an advertiser paying for it. If your site is running things like Outbrain, I know in some cases they split the CPC with the pub, but I think it still backs into a $5 or $6CPM after the conversion.

So let’s say your site has historical content for a certain topic, say I dunno marathon running. And your article peaks on Google search for terms around marathon running. That audience coming in from search to your site has the same value as it does to Google, there just are not any tools for you to monetize that way, but within this solution, you could, and using this strategy, you could sell the visit for far less, make far more, and piggyback off of Google search and only show Google search audiences the specific content. This is audience segmentation, and I’m not aware of any ad network that gives any publisher those tools.

It depends, but yes all models back into some sort of CPM measurement when the transaction is going in the way of the publisher, but for the advertiser, many do purchase on ONLY if there is a click, or a video view, not just the impression for it (that’s part of the way the third party devalued attention). So for example on YouTube, the advertiser only pays for :30 views, not all of the impressions it took to find it. Basically, they are purchasing on a CPV (cost per view) of (average .06 per view) which is equal to a $60CPM, but since CPM refers to impressions and not conversion, it can complicate things.

Now, Imagine if the publisher had the tools to deliver that sort of engagement and make a $60CPM instead of a $5CPM?

Now imagine that $60CPM, the publisher keeps 60%, the audience keeps 30%, an agent who sold it keeps 10%.

The system can still reach the same amount of eyeballs of the rich, and if the rich don’t want to accept or take the money, fine it goes back to the network of users.

But what if affluent people could pool and collect the money into crowdfunding or direct action? Consider, this solution distributes wealth for literally doing no extra work at all. Another element of it is the social side, creating “groups” to crowdfund direct action or projects. So I think we will see some adoption from the affluent, but we don’t need them to adopt for any of this to work.

Ahh, one of my backgrounds is in media sales. As long as you have publisher supply (quality pubs too, no crap) and a premium product that guarantees them viewability, etc it’s just media sales. Honestly, as long as you have a budget to hire a media sales team, I guarantee you that you will have advertisers, even if you are selling a crappy media product.

You also have to know which different types of markets are buying which types of media. Its’ rich, and this is usually what the third-party ad networks do for the pubs, their media sales.

If by big sites you mean NY Times, Wired, etc they all have media sales teams and sale their own media, in addition to selling out their unsold inventory to ad networks for lower cost.

For the big sites like that, the darling product is “sponsored content”, a native advertisement created by the publisher for the brand direct.

Advertisers want

  • Premium engagement
  • Guaranteed viewability
  • Channel control (they want to know where their ad is actually showing
  • transparency
  • protection from bots

If you can offer that plus audience, you can easily find an advertiser. Display ads no one likes or wants, so you have to be able to offer a product that media buyers are looking for.

1 Like