Whenever productive technologies improve, we figure, we can ease the burden on ourselves somewhat. Surely, with automated assembly lines, washing machines, tractors, and refrigeration, we should find ourselves laboring less intensely than prehistoric humans. But, as even preliminary understanding of economics will tell us, this is not the case: Machines lessen the demand for labor by allowing more efficient production, so wages will never keep pace with productivity.
Now, the former, naïve and common-sensical notion, that productive machines could reduce our collective workload, has gained traction in a number of oddball circles. These tend to venture amusing little theories that the abundance achievable by new technologies could lead us, not to “suffer” massive unemployment, but to “enjoy” it; and that, to fund our inactivity, we ought to distribute the fruits of this new abundance to all, regardless of work-status, or even do away with money entirely, and instead pluck treasures from the endpoints of assembly lines, as Adam and Eve once gathered fruit from the trees of paradise.
These solutions, of course, would shift control of the economy almost entirely from the private sphere, and would accordingly dissolve the more vaunted Efficiency of the free market, which has proven itself, both theoretically and empirically, to be incontrovertibly better than “big government.”1 We seem then to be left with two “efficiencies,” one pitted against one the other: On the one hand, we have the original efficiency of the invisible hand, which demands a free market to operate, the capital-“E” Efficiency, which is established to be the most Efficient, and therefore the most desirable, for all times and for all places; and, on the other hand, we have the situational, small-“e” efficiency, a relative newcomer, which offers mechanical aids to increase the productivity of each labor hour to the point where labor as we know it could rapidly evaporate, but which itself depends on the large-“E” Efficiency to be developed and properly utilized.
It is outside the scope of this essay to enumerate all the mechanisms that have arisen to safeguard Efficiency in the face of increasing efficiency; but, briefly, these could include marketing, public relations, dividend buybacks, corporate mergers, asset-inflating finance, especially in real estate, and most of the service sector. It would not be a stretch to say, that either in terms of dollars or labor-hours, the maintenance of big-“E” Efficiency dominates our current economy.
These forms of economic activity have two key qualities in common: First, because nothing is produced, you can never have too much; and, on the consumption side of things, because nothing is consumed, you can never consume too much.
Now the obvious question (the “common-sensical” question) is: If these mechanisms are defined by absence, what possible effect could they have? How could they possibly be considered efficient? Why, indeed, should we talk about them at all? In this essay, I will focus on one particular mechanism, advertisement, to answer these questions. I focus on advertisement to make my analysis as precise as possible, but the form is broadly synecdochic, and many of my contentions can be adapted to the other mechanisms of maintaining Efficiency.
To begin on the consumption side of things: How are advertisements noticed, or consumed? Generally, the consumer neither pays for advertisement nor pays attention to advertisement. These qualities are not absolute– some advertisements are branded as collectibles, others engage or sway the consumer– but even as the form depends on exceptions for its continued justification, the most fully realized advertisements will exhibit these attributes absolutely, and it is from these that the form derives its greatest power. To understand how this can be the case, we must look at them in some detail.
Let us take the second quality first. Because advertisements are often ignored, an infinite number can be cycled through and forgotten by the consumer in literally no time at all. Consider the driver who listens to advertisements while reading billboards. Advertisements loom on multiple sensory fronts; and, in each case, they are forgotten or found devoid of interest before they’ve been consciously parsed. This simultaneity can be compounded indefinitely, especially in visual forms. Imagine a collage of advertisement on screen or in print: Advertisement is witnessed, and if it is not absorbed, then at least it is not absorbing; and the consumer is thus free to move on before their eye-beams have so much as passed over whatever was in front of them. Advertisement then is a fleeting form; at its best, it tends towards complete non-existence. In this way, it seems just the thing to keep our collective gears whirring, whirring against nothing (as the teeth have ceased to mesh) but, nonetheless, optimally. However, this eminently promising form comes up against its first major challenge in the former definitive quality: No one pays for advertisement.
This concern, as can be readily guessed, is superficial; but not quite for the common-sensical reasons. As common sense would have it, the witnesses of advertisement are driven to buy more of the product advertised, and increased revenue from sales then allows the producer to purchase more advertising. Although this is true, it’s only true to an extent. Advertising is actually a remarkable and a vastly complex example of a public good orchestrated largely from the private sphere. Again, this is counter-intuitive; it may seem that the opposite is true: If the role of marketing is to provide a competitive advantage, does it not dissolve into abject uselessness as it becomes the general rule, as an infinity of opposing competitive advantages all cancel each other out? Does it not, then, more closely resemble a tragedy of the commons, actually in need of third-party oversight? The answer, of course, is no; that it is precisely advertising’s apparent limitations, both in the bored eyes of its beholders, and in the unlooking eyes of its creators, that make it so incontrovertibly useful.
There have been other examples of privately-orchestrated public goods in economic history. We can use Henry Ford’s effort on the eve of the Great Depression to illustrate the seeming contradiction. By instituting a substantial wage increase for his small legion of employees, he hoped to open the possibility that they buy the cars they had been building but unable to afford. The effort failed, and the Depression would withstand even Roosevelt’s government-backed equivalent, and would continue until the country’s cogs could whir once again, and whir valiantly, in the creation of the machines of war, which would be used by both sides for the fighting of World War II.
Like the demand-creation of increased wages, advertisement does not work so much in service of any particular product, but instead creates an abstract and aggregate demand, or, more accurately here, an “acquiescence.” As advertisements are absorbed more seamlessly into daily life, they become less justifiable by their association with “the product” and drift instead in service of their higher purpose; that is, an affirmation of the general superfluity of things.
The beholder scans past ads, or tunes out white noise, and sees or hears little of anything, but an impression is made nonetheless. The impression is not dependent on the content of the advertisement or its product, but is tied instead to its imminent non-existence. Perceived space becomes, not saturated (because saturation is impossible for the cipher form,) but certainly remade. In a daily commute, the consumer must deal with limitless and superimposed advertisement; from radio, from billboards, from the margins of the newsfeed on their smart phone. The actual content of these advertisements is largely incidental: The witness may be reminded of a certain beverage’s crisp taste, or, more likely, of its status as a token of their own masculinity, or their femininity; or of their success, their ambition, or charity; but, more likely even than any of this, they will ignore it entirely.
It will not be registered as informative, not even as associative; rather, it will be registered as a sales person tugging weakly at a rolled-up cuff, and will be indignantly or uncaringly ignored. The beholder forfeits their status as “beholder” because they do do not behold anything; indeed, they repel that which vies for their attention. What was once witness now becomes an averted gaze, but each turned-aside set of eyes meets more of the same. The solution is a blanket blindness, tunnel vision, as provided for carriage horses, and the consumer is driven absolutely along the single task at hand. But the attention otherwise occupied by sensory experience is not redirected to an intensive purposiveness; rather, it is redirected infinitely, in each possible direction, with each lash outward finding different permutations of the same repellent lies and white noise. Care and attention recoil in disgust. They hide away, and promptly atrophy.
The once-beholder is reconfigured in the pattern of that which they ignored: The consumer who is immersed in an advert-reality tends towards advertisement’s cipher-quality. They are transported to a world that is no longer worth paying attention to, and respond appropriately– with indifference. They consume without consuming; following their rejection of intake from the world-around-them, they soon implode for want of substance. They become like the zero-dimensional point of planar geometry: situated in space, but materially non-existent. The argument is made silently and incessantly: It is best not to pay too much pay attention; the best tasks are those that can be done simply, absent-mindedly. Not-consuming advertisement fosters a broader habit of not-consuming. Paradoxically, the cycle is cleared for repetition when this comes to include shopping.
Thus the accumulation of failed advertisement amounts to more than the sum of its successes. Stimuli so boring and unimportant that they cannot even be called stimuli, that are depleted of interest even before the non-existent duration of their perception has elapsed, become of utmost value and importance. Our collective cogs are freed to whir indefinitely and indifferently.
But this has only been to talk on the consumption side of things. To shift now to production, we see advertisement’s two-fold role in stabilizing the structure of employment (if only a slight percentage of the population is engaged “actually making things,” what do the rest of us do?) and in stabilizing the continued presence of advertisement itself as the form tends towards its greater role as encroaching non-existence.
As small-”e” efficiency frees growing chunks of the population from the demands of “actually making things,” more and more material wealth can be redirected to those occupied in the maintenance of Efficiency. Advertisement can be leveraged to justify and stabilize this process. The skill-set of “actual production” has already been determined: anyone can do it. You don’t need a college degree to build shoes or iphones. Thus these tasks retain their low status as an accessible but humiliating means of eking out a living. Advertisement, on the other hand, can choose for itself the credentials it may require. As citizens who are either easily relatable to those-with-money, or else indicative of early-stage success– for example, the graduate of an elite college who “did everything right,” and whose personal failure would therefore indicate a larger failure of the ordained life-model of “work hard, succeed”– as these types of humans come into the job market, they can be internalized by advertisement or related industries to prevent systemic instability.
While advertisement alone seems to offer an unconstrained inlet for these cases, (if nothing is made, you can never have too much), a wealth of related industries builds upon the process and ensures its smooth growth. Take, for example, the field of advertising analytics: Firms emerge to analyze the relative efficacy of different advertising strategies; and they must employ their own arm of advertisement, which then can be analyzed. The process can be repeated ad infinitum: We advertise for advertisers who analyze an analyzer’s advertisements, and we can delve into the feedback loop as deeply as we must, until all those who embrace Efficiency are employed in its service.
This signals advertisement’s unlimited potential, but it it also seems to indicate a vulnerability. Not all our contemporary CEOs and entrepreneurs have the perspicacity– or the market-power– of old Henry Ford: not all realize the public benefit of certain private practices, or else they cannot presume to implement them single-handedly. Then the process of non-existent eternal return crafted by advertisement is not neatly orchestrated from above: It cannot be simply decided by an abstract “employers” to adopt the policies that would benefit them.
Here is where the full importance of advertising analytics comes in. While advertisement’s greater social benefit rests on its failure, its private benefit rests on its success. Advertisement analytics secures and measures this private benefit. It gauges profitability, and, as certain breeds of banner ads become ignored or unclickable, or as the consumer succeeds in numbing themself to certain pitches of radio advertisement or patterns of flashing colors, it helps determine which forms are as yet fresh and surprising.
Of course, they will not remain such. Soon the consumer will realize the boring unimportance of these new attention-grabbing techniques; but, like police sirens that change every few months to ensure that their pitch and oscillation remains startling to drivers, advertisement changes forms to continue to impress itself upon the consumer. The difference is that the far more rapid perception of advertisement renders the effect more cumulative and less cyclical. The configurations of space, digital and physical, that had not yet been remade in advertisement’s likeness are scrutinized and altered appropriately. That is to say, they are destroyed.
This may seem to indicate a time limit on advertisement’s efficacy, practically speaking. While its failures (and therefore its public success) will become more frequent and more encompassing, its service to “the product” will be minimized, and it will cease to be justifiable in the eyes of the private purchaser of advertisement. This problem, though, is artificial, because new media and new cultural forms permit virtually limitless variation. So long as these things continue to create new ground for advertisement to revoke, the practice will remain secure. Just as advertisement and its associated industries will forever offer blank positions for those who must be employed, new media will forever ensure new spaces for advertisement to destroy. The eternal recreation of space stabilizes advertisement even as it precludes its total realization as non-existence.
Thus advertisement liberates us from the possibility of abundance even as it retains excess for those who must be provided for. There will always be those who are willing to buy advertising’s cipher-products as long as it exists to bore them, and there will be those who will be able to afford its cipher-products for as long as it exists to employ them. Efficiency, then, is maintained in the face of increasing efficiency.
1Note the deadweight loss (“DWL”)