It is no exageration to say this has been perhaps the toughest year I can remember. I lost my sister to cancer in April and a dear friend to depression a few weeks ago. In some ways it seems peverse to continue a normal my life of writing, social media updates and so on - indeed galivanting off to New York for conferences next week - but in some ways my only way to keep going personally is to focus on my work and my long area of passion, media reform.
Sitting with my sister in front of the TV which was normally on 24 hours a day, I was reminded how the majority of the content that people consume each day involves one of two messages: that you are inadequate, and that by buying certain products you can become less inadequate. Come Dine With Me is a great example (and a fun programme to watch) - the presenter laughs at the clumsy pretensions of someone trying to throw a good dinner party, while the ad breaks tell you all the things you can buy - good wine, butter, magazines, etc - so you can be better than them.
Worse still, the depiction of people with mental health problems is typically wrapped with fear. Despite a third of our population being affected in some way, the mentally unwell are at best ignored and at worst demonised as dangerous and violent, despite there being no greater percentage of violence amongst the mentally ill than the rest of the population. The five hours a day of TV watched on average (or whatever the number) could provide comfort and advice for the pursuit of happiness and support for those unwell or in need. Instead it seems to best serve the advertisers who fund most of it, by creating fairy tale fantasies that encourage the buying of more stuff. If you could only have this car, razer, lip gloss, shampoo or gadget you too could be as happy as the hero of your TV show, with the beautiful partner and (typically) wealthy lifestyle.
This was why when @DanneeRoy told me last night about a radically simple proposal to cut carbon emissions that my jaw hit my lap and I started exclaiming wildly.
The idea (whose source and link I cannot find online now) is to ban all advertising. Perhaps just for a period of time. It's a very radical idea, but it's deliciously simple - for the consumer, nothing more is asked of them to reduce their emisions, it is simply assumed that wthout the 1000s of daily messages telling them to buy more stuff that they will, ultimately, consume less. And in an era where traditional advertising is struggling to compete with the social web, and where peer-promotion is more powerful than any costly campaign, companies with good products and solid customer engagement should still do well. In short it's something that wouldn't need to upset the applecart of the capitalist status quo - simply remove the dark arts of subconscious manipulation which clearly is not making any of us who consume it each day any happier.
Aside from the impact to the ad industry, the main devastating consequence would be to content producers who depend on an ad supported model. Indeed it's hard to even contemplate the idea without thinking of an alternative funding system for content.
Fortunately, at the same time there's a huge need for a new system for funding content. The present situation is riddled with problems - from piracy to creative accounting by studio bosses who don't pay their creaters, to the difficulty of market access for independents and a huge disparity between the content we end up paying for and the content we value and appreciate.
For me there is really only one sollution - some kind of a content license fee. In the UK most pay for Sky or Virgin, for Spotify, for the Times Online and so forth. A well managed license fee could distribute your monthly subscription to all the content you consume and appreciate in a month - blogs, bands, videos, feature films, video games even. Small creative start-up companies would be able to compete, as on eBay, with the big market players with parity. Financial success would be based not on some murky market advantage based on historical weight, but on the quality of content, right here and now.
The exciting work by Flattr.com is a move in the right direction and seems to have been remarkably successful already - some photographers making hundreds of dollars a month just for showing their work online. But it equates the viewing and 'flattring' of a photo as equal to watching a feature film - your money is shared to each equally, while it still requires an active click from the 'flattrer'. Imagine a system tho that simply tracked your attention online - 30 minutes watching a documentary, 8 minutes reading a blog, an hour listening to a playlist, 30 minutes listening to a playlist and reading a blog. At the end of your month, your attention currency is shared amongst those people who captured your interest, regardless of whether they have
How would it work? It couldn't be driven by the state, and there would be no interest, I imagine, from big media until it was clear they could make lots of money from it. There would be big technical challenges to overcome and the ISPs or at least a browser-maker would need to support the technology to track your activity. With this would come privacy concerns as your online activity would need to be stored and associated with a user account. But I'm sure if there was a critical mass of people and supporters who, said 'we don't want pop-up ads on our video, or anywhere else, but will pay £10 or £15 a month to support content creation', more and more creators and services would opt in. As the line between consumer and creater continues to blur (and this is Flattr's genius IMHO) paying for other people's art, writing or music will be natural to us as we will hope they will pay for ours. Indeed the more I think about it the more it seems a possible replacement for the BBC license fee.