Without anyone’s consent

A Reading Note

Writing about images from the Reformation forward (which, I’ll note, is also from the printing press forward), Franklin comments on the ways in which imagery has, in a sense, colonized our brains:

Today, technological realities have very much the force and authority of religious doctrine, including the notion that the laity is unfit to question doctrinal content and practice. It is in a spirit of questioning authority that we should ask, “What about people who are at the receiving end of technologically produced pseudorealities of images?” Their work has changed as their lives have changed. Life and work have been restaged by exernal forces. The literature of television and advertising is testimony to that, but more so is the practice of both. The reconstructed world of images has taken over much of our vernacular reality, like an occupation force of immense power. And somewhere, someone will have to ask, “How come the right to change our mental environment—to change the constructs of our minds and the sounds around us—seems to have been given away without anyone’s consent?”

Franklin, The Real World of Technology, page 37

There’s a notion among certain media circles that reading on the web means consenting to whatever tracking or targeting or advertising technology they can throw at you. (This notion is often spoken of in the same breath as the idea that using ad block is theft—which, nope, but more on that another time.) The thing about this idea of consent is that it implies that simply being somewhere—entering a space, looking around, staying there for however long—is indicative of consenting to whatever happens in that space. If you didn’t consent, you would just leave, right? But that neglects the possibility that you might need to be in that space, that you might be obligated to be there, while also disagreeing with all or some of what is going on. For example, if I refused to read any ad-supported websites out of my objections to the ways in which ad tracking operates, I would also rob myself of access to information and cultures which also just happen to be gateways into the most lucrative career paths. In other words, however queasy I am about the ways in which advertising operates, I pretty much have to exist within it if I want to keep a roof over my head. Likewise, in order to live in a dense, urban place (that is, a sustainable, human place), I have to walk the street: I have to be in that world in order to survive. But that doesn’t imply my consent to street harassment. Being somewhere does not constitute consent; it’s simply being.

More to Franklin’s point, part of what’s so troubling about image making in advertising is the way in which it actively eliminates freedom: every purchase we make, every product we covet is at least partially constructed by “external forces.” Do you really want that shiny new thing because it will improve your life in some way, or because you have been programmed to want it? How can you tell the difference?

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