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It doesn’t ad up anymore

Communications is no longer about deep thoughts or information. It’s about money, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Nov 19, 2011 02:07 IST

It’s a month and a half since mobile spam was banned but text messages from real estate touts, kundli salesmen and weight loss charlatans are back. I complained to my provider to see what happens. Predictably, nothing. Days later, I got a cryptic message saying that some other, unnamed network believes that everything is cool.

Why must the consumer complain when the provider’s network can read and filter its own traffic? That’s how Gmail blocks spam. I don’t believe that mobile companies can’t institute filters to block Short Messaging Service (SMS) merchants. Between advertising and spam, there are so many voices in my head that it would be a pleasure to hear my own again.

Even advertising is getting spammy. It’s uncomfortable to read about the latest outrage while Katrina Kaif and Shah Rukh Khan grin at us from adjacent ads, promoting the latest lotions and satellite TVs. It’s like reading using spectacles with lenses of two different colours.

I get the sinking feeling that advertising is nearing its use by date. For us in the media industry, that’s scary, because we don’t know of an alternative. Advertising is fatiguing because it’s blatantly promotional. Ad professionals frequently protest that advertising informs, but they protest too much. Advertising would inform if it also told you about the competition. That would be a comparative review, not an ad. And some day, the overwrought consumer will perhaps tire of a noisy, importunate, elbow-tugging marketplace dominated by advertisers and spammers, and the reviewer will be king. If only we media-wallahs can find a way to monetise him, of course.

That’s the effect of too much information and solicitation, the boundary between which is blurring rapidly. But too little is almost as bad. Personalisation was a media buzzword in the late 90s, following the publication of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) evangelist Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. It posited a ‘Daily Me’, a newspaper completely personalised to the individual reader’s tastes and interests. It sounded awesome at the time and even today, we personalise news feeds to fight information overload.

But about a decade ago, Cass Sunstein, who teaches law at Chicago and Harvard and also runs the information office of the Obama administration, suggested that this is a recipe for insanity. Excessive personalisation creates an echo chamber in which we can hear only what we want to hear, or have heard before. Google follows that recipe to an extent, ordering your search results according to your search history, producing what the activist Eli Pariser calls a ‘filter bubble’. If Google thinks you like pink elephant, you are likely to find pink elephants.

That’s relatively harmless, but John Pilger is in Delhi this week with his film The War You Don’t See, which investigates a chilling example of the filter phenomenon: the manipulation of the media by George Bush and Tony Blair to build a consensus against Iraq, though their administrations knew that it had no weapons of mass destruction. And then they used ‘embedded’, blinkered journalists to sell a ‘just’ war. Deep stuff, in the midst of which my mobile shuddered. It was an SMS bootlegger offering to sell me 10,000 messages for R1,100. Just letting me know that communications is not about deep thoughts. It’s about commerce.

( Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine )

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 18, 2011 22:54 IST