HOW FAR WILL ADVERTISING GO?

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When science fiction stories describe a world of the future, it’s the story that grabs and holds our interest but it’s the little details that bring that world to life. How do the characters entertain themselves when they’re not battling to save the world? What do they buy and how do they buy it? What information systems tell them how to navigate their lives?

A few of those questions got me thinking about advertising.

Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was everything if you provided a product or service to a special clientele or the general public. At some point, some cynical soul decided it might be a good idea to put a sign that said “Blacksmith” above his door, just in case the smell of the forge, clang of iron, and giant anvils standing everywhere weren’t enough to clue people in. And then, if there were two smith’s in the same town, a family name on the sign would distinguish it from the competition, and maybe something like “official smith of His Lordship, the Duke” wouldn’t be amiss either.

Advertising really took off once the printing press became widespread. Even Will Shakespeare couldn’t count on an audience magically appearing—they had to be told where and when a performance would take place, along with a little sales pitch to draw them in. Before long, it wasn’t enough to just tell people that you provided a service, and why yours was better than others—you could actually create a market for your deliverables by persuading people they needed what you were offering, even if they didn’t…um, I mean, if they’d never realized it before. Snake oil salesman of all stripes have taken that to heart ever since, and advertising has become as slippery as politicians (who took to it with a vengeance, naturally).

Flyers and newspaper ads weren’t enough—they could be ignored—so some genius came up with the idea of interrupting content on radio and then television with commercials. It became a pact between advertiser and audience: free entertainment in return for paying attention to the ads. Not a bad deal, really. And it worked so well that before long we were subjected to ads attached to content we were already paying for (movie theatres, I’m looking at you). By then, billboards had been blocking scenery for decades, buses and other vehicles had become moving billboards, and even gullible people blithely allowed themselves to become mobile signage by wearing brand names on their clothing, somehow believing it gave them membership in the cool crowd.

The advertising bargain had broken down by then, and we never noticed. We no longer had to implicitly agree to be subjected to it—we had no choice.

Whoever gave advertisers the right to fill our every view, every moment of sound, everything we experience with their messages? It’s like the frog-in-a-pot story: heat the water slowly enough and it will never realize its danger until it’s cooked.

Defenders of advertising will tell you it’s a public service: informing people about products and services they might want. I don’t know about you, but if there’s something I actually need to buy, I can look up where and how to buy it in about thirty seconds with an online search. I don’t need, or want, somebody interrupting my life to tell me what they want me to want. My wife and I only watch streaming and pre-recorded content at home—no commercials. We mostly listen to public radio—no commercials. And we’ve opted to receive no flyers in the mail. Do I sometimes miss flipping through them? Sure. But my impulse purchases have gone way down.

What does all this have to do with the future? Well, as technology becomes ever more pervasive and invasive, so does advertising. Do you think it will be cool to walk past a billboard and have it address you by name and show an ad for stuff you really like? In fact, it’s already happening whenever you surf the internet or use social media, and personalized ads show up. Think about how much some company has to know about you to do that. Just add facial recognition and gait recognition capability to the billboards, and you’ve got a sales pitch just for you…that everyone walking nearby can also see. Watch out for the lamppost! Oops, too late. And forget about just enjoying the ambience of a neighbourhood street, because the next billboard will call out to you just as insistently, and the next, and the next. If regulators don’t prevent them, the billboards will send urgent messages to your phone telling you about the big shoe sale a block ahead. Might be kind of cool, you think? Until you get twenty such messages in a ten-minute walk to your favourite coffee shop.

Forget about movie stickers on bananas; what about when each section of orange, slice of melon, cross-section of cheese is imprinted with slogans? When your toaster etches your slice of bread with “30% Off Sale Today at…!” When your shampoo contains fluorescent glitter micro-particles that coalesce into product placements for everyone to read. So far, you’re allowed to turn your TV to a channel that doesn’t play commercials, but what about when your TV forces you to watch ad messages first whenever you turn it on?

I’ve written a novel about internet-capable brain augments. One of my speculations is that unscrupulous advertisers will figure out how to use them to directly stimulate the vision and auditory centres of the brain. Suddenly you see a giant bottle of [insert your favourite cola brand here] floating in front of your eyes and hear their latest jingle in your ears. I’ll leave you to imagine the results if it happens while you’re riding a bike, crossing a street, or about to descend some stairs.

Far-fetched, you think? Absolutely not, I promise you. We’ve already allowed ourselves to be subjected to advertising in virtually every aspect of our lives, in increasingly intrusive ways. If a method arises to directly access the minds of consumers, it will be used. Unless we act to prevent it. And I’m not talking about writing to your local politician (although it wouldn’t hurt)—it’s your money that talks. If you want to send a message to advertisers that it’s all too much, stop buying the products and services of the companies that use advertising methods you don’t like and tell them why. Shut off all the personalized advertising functions of your social media. Cancel all your rewards programs accounts. Boost privacy settings on all of your electronic devices.

I’m expecting too much, right? You like a lot of that personalized advertising, not to mention rewards points. And buying things gives you a buzz.

Yeah, I know. Which is why intrusive advertising has come this far, and will go every bit as far as we allow it to.

Do you feel the water getting hot yet?

CAN DYSTOPIAN FICTION BECOME FACT? IF WE LET IT

As I write this, Donald Trump is in his second week as President of the United States. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has told easily-disproved lies with the boldest of faces. But then, Toronto’s The Star newspaper is now keeping a running list of the false claims Trump himself has made since becoming President. And Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway has cited a “massacre” that never happened as a defense for the travel ban against seven Muslim countries. Along with Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts”, it’s inevitable that people would be reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. No surprise, then, that the 1949 novel has suddenly become a bestseller again, selling out at Amazon and elsewhere.

The totalitarian government of the country Airstrip One that Orwell describes in the novel rules with an iron fist over a mostly uneducated lower class population, and seeks power above all. But the element of the novel that resonates the most this week is Airstrip One’s Ministry of Truth which is, of course, about anything but truth. Its work is to revise history to make it match the party line, to erase troublesome figures and events from news and historical accounts. The Ministry’s “Newspeak” is official language that mostly obscures the truth and encourages “doublethink” requiring citizens to embrace opposing concepts, such as “black is white” (if the government says so). Alternative facts, indeed. The citizens of Airstrip One have no freedom and no privacy—almost all of us are familiar with the famous slogan “Big Brother is Watching You.”

In these days when the National Security Agency in the U.S. has surveillance powers that beggar belief, and even corporations know virtually everything about us and our movements thanks to reward programs, facial recognition, and our ever-present smartphones, the Big Brother concept is barely fiction anymore.

Of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four is only one of the best-known dystopian novels, but others are also disturbingly relevant to current events. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World describes the year of 632 A.F. (“After Ford”) in which humans are produced in test tubes conforming to a very rigid class structure by genetics. Citizens’ behaviour is controlled through sleep-conditioning. And the masses are pacified by an all-purpose feel-good drug called soma, so that personal freedom can be sacrificed for the cause of social stability. Huxley was pretty familiar with mind-altering drugs, but he didn’t know the distraction value of television, the internet, social media and text messaging. I feel sure he would have recognized all of those as perfect means to keep the general population from looking too deeply into their governments’ actions and motives. Modern-day leaders have certainly embraced the sleight-of-hand techniques that technology offers them to keep the voters’ attention elsewhere.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 envisioned another totalitarian world in which books are banned and even burned (along with their owners!) in a deliberate attempt to pacify and control the general populace by keeping citizens from thinking for themselves. Orwell also thought such a government would ban books, while Huxley feared people would simply lose interest in reading all on their own (a circumstance that many believe is coming true). Although there’s been no move to ban books in general, many means are being used to diminish the effectiveness of the media that are most people’s main source of information about the state of their own countries. Leaders like Trump (and before him Canada’s past-Prime Minister Stephen Harper) have very combative relationships with the media; they portray members of the media as dishonest; they try to muzzle scientists and administrators (I have to think Trump got the idea from Harper, who did it first); and “false news” sources have sprung up like bad weeds all over the internet. These all have a similar effect to banning books: keeping people uninformed and more apt to believe what they’ve been told by “official sources” (the louder, the better) rather than form their own opinions.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a fiercely right-wing Christian movement has overthrown the American government and returned all women back to the status of being the property of men. That may seem quite a distance from Trump’s attitude toward women, including his executive order banning any federal money from going to international groups that perform or provide information about abortion. But obviously the many millions of women who marched in protest in the U.S. and all around the world the day after his inauguration don’t think so.

A huge number of dystopian novels feature totalitarian governments, religious and cultural oppression, and the suppression of individual rights. They’re not far-fetched—it has happened in the past. And today’s technology—the omnipresent internet, computer hacking, electronic surveillance techniques, plus the constant distractions of smartphones, social media, and other entertainment—makes the modern world more fertile ground than ever for the rise of such movements. The desire and the means are already in place. All we have to do is to keep ourselves ignorant, apathetic, and distracted, and the rest will take care of itself.

Regimes like that can happen if we allow them to happen.

It’s interesting that novels like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent and others have been among the most popular books read by young adults. You have to wonder how many of the warning signs young readers recognize in the world around them. Far too many of their elders don’t seem to.

READ TO YOUR KIDS...IN YOUR FUNNIEST VOICE

Want to save yourself big money on medical bills and parental leave days?

Read to your kids.

OK, that’s simplifying things a bit, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has now strongly suggested that doctors prescribe “reading together as a daily fun family activity”. It’s a position the Canadian Paediatric Society has held for some years. Basically, the better your reading and writing skills, the more likely you are to get well-paid employment, and having a better income makes it much easier to get and stay healthy. The doctors offer up lots of data, and point out the importance of literacy to national economies, too—you can read a good overview here—but it doesn’t take a hundred studies to know that we all love stories. That sharing stories is one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment there is. That reading to little kids can a be real blast, for everybody involved.

I suppose, as a science fiction writer, I’m expected to forecast that within a hundred years there’ll no longer be any books and we’ll all just passively suck up video entertainment instead. But I don’t believe that. Reading is just too good a thing to ever go away, although the future of literacy does depend on showing our kids how much fun it can be.

What’s in it for you?

For one thing, reading to your kids gives you a great chance to practice those cartoon character voices and foreign accents—you know, the ones you do while singing along to the radio in the car. Your fellow motorists have never truly appreciated them, and traffic cops can get downright hostile, but your kids will think they’re great. Or at least they’ll have a lot of fun rolling their eyes and saying adult things like, “Oh Daaad.” I used to randomly throw in a Donald Duck voice that I’d perversely refuse to do when requested. And if you take it further and “re-imagine” the story as you go (as the Hollywood producers would say), the kids get to fine-tune their persuasion skills as they beg you to “read it the right way.” The paediatricians call these parent-child bonding experiences. I call them fun. They’re even cheap—compare a trip to the library to the price of an amusement park ticket or weekly violin lessons. In case you need help getting started, there are websites galore to offer advice, like this one from Reading Rainbow.

If you want to instil a lifelong love of science fiction, try sharing some of the SF novels of the classic era once the kids get a bit older. Maybe you can’t name every different car model you pass on the way to school, but you can be the cool parent who knows about things like black holes, the three laws of robotics, and the Ringworld. Another good thing is that Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury rarely included sex scenes that you’ll have to skip. Niven, well….

As a bonus, you just might rediscover the great stories that made you fall in love with reading. Like the best of old friends, they’re still there waiting for you.

Canadian Copyright Bill C-32 Has Serious Flaws

As a Canadian writer I’ve been very concerned lately about a proposed new bill in our Parliament that would change the Canadian Copyright Act. Copyright must be a big concern for all writers—it’s the only thing that ensures we get paid for our work.

The Copyright Act is in serious need of an update to catch up with the times—no-one disputes that, but some of the proposed changes in Bill C-32 will harm writers and could cripple much of our native publishing industry. Seven of Canada’s largest writers organizations cooperated to send a brief to the federal Industry and Heritage Ministers, and that brief outlines the most grievous concerns of Canadian writers very well. Even if you’re a writer in another country, if your work is published in Canada you should be concerned. You should also make sure your own government doesn’t make these same mistakes.

A new proposal to include “educational purposes” under the “fair use” of copyrighted material could save money for educational systems, but only by taking the money out of the hands of the writers who created these works, already among the most underpaid professionals in the country (with an average annual income under $20,000 from their writing). Perhaps even worse, it will become much less profitable for publishers to produce books for the education market if schools can just copy the parts of a book they want. Where will schools get Canadian text books, novels, and poetry to study if it’s no longer worthwhile for the publishers to produce them?

Another proposal would allow anyone to use part or all of an existing work within a new work, as long as it’s not for commercial purposes (so-called “mash-ups”). Since the new work could be freely distributed over the internet, this could completely destroy the market for future sales of the original work, or any sequels created or authorized by the original author. Would you allow a home inventor to use a company’s patented technology in a gadget of his own, and then give the gadgets away to thousands of people? Certainly not.

Bill C-32 also expands the existing exception for “interlibrary loan” to allow digital delivery directly to the computer of a reader. This would essentially allow people to get free e-books from libraries, which they could share with hundreds of thousands of others, the way music files are currently copied (illegally) with peer-to-peer programs. With the traditional publishing industry facing tough times, authors and publishers look to the sale of e-books for their future earnings.

Similarly, Bill C-32 would make it legal for an individual to make any number of copies of a digital book for unspecified “private purposes” without any payment to the author. Again, this plays into the hands of those who would share files over the internet for free, and there would be little that an author could do to protect a work that might have taken them years to produce.

Bill C-32 has some clauses that are obviously intended to address some of the above examples, but they’re not strong enough because they’re too open to interpretation.

The Industry Committee of Parliament has been tasked with studying Bill C-32 further. The clerk of that committee has received a copy of the above-mentioned brief from me (and probably many others!) But you owe it to yourself to write to your Member Of Parliament and make your concerns known. Whether you’re a Canadian or not, you could write to the committee on Bill C-32 at CC32@parl.gc.ca .

Whenever Bill C-32 is passed we’ll be living with its consequences for a very long time.