Plato Would Ban Ad-Blockers

He was a dick.

A statue of Plato with a Greek temple behind him. Plato has been tinted blue and out of his eyes glare the hostile red eyes of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The temple behind him has been tinted dark red. Part of the temple’s facade has been replaced with the Matrix ‘Code Waterfall’ graphic.
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

In The Reactionary Mind, political scientist Corey Robin articulates a common thread that runs through all right-wing ideology. Robin starts from the observation that “conservatives” are a coalition of people who believe irreconcilable things:

  • libertarians believe bosses should be in charge of workers,
  • imperialists believe America should be in charge of the world,
  • monarchists believe that royalty should be in charge of the nation,
  • white nationalists believe white people should be in charge of racialized people, and
  • Christian nationalists believe Christians should be in charge of everyone who isn’t a Christian.

These things can’t all come to pass. Small-state, low-tax libertarians shouldn’t welcome the trillions of dollars it takes to fund a US military to coerce the rest of the world to accept Pax Americana. A white nationalist and/or Christian nationalist won’t be happy with a monarch or a business community that embraces a (superficial) liberalism of mulitculturalism and gender equality.

The harder you look, the more irreconcilable the “conservative” movement appears, prompting Robin to ask, “What binds all these different ideologies together?”

But once you lay it out in a bulleted list like the one I opened this essay with, it’s obvious: a conservative is someone who believes that some of us were born to rule, and the rest of us were born to be ruled over.

Different flavors of conservativism elevate different groups to power, but they all agree that there is something intrinsic to some people that make them more suited to rule than others.

Depending on which kind of conservative you are, this fitness to rule reveals itself in different ways: perhaps you emerged from a royal orifice, perhaps the markets allocated capital to you that allowed you to amass a large workforce, perhaps your skin color or your professed faith attests to your fitness to rule.

While Robin’s crystallization of conservative thought is an essential contribution to political theory, the underlying idea is very old. It’s the basis for Plato’s Republic.

Quick refresher: Plato’s Republic articulates a theory of human nature that sorts people into “gold,” “silver” and “bronze.” The gold people are born to rule. The silver people are born to enforce that rule. The bronze people are born to be ruled over. When a society correctly allocates power to these different categories, it is a just and prosperous one — but woe betide the society that elevates someone silver or bronze to rule. With the wrong people running things, society will surely come to ruin.

Plato originated the idea that affirmative action makes us all worse off.

The historian, sf writer and musician Ada Palmer says that the core tenet of democracy is the belief that “all people are created educable”:

Often modern people have trouble wrapping our heads around how sure pre-modern Europeans were that human minds and their capacities (A) varied fundamentally, (B) were locked in at birth and immutable, and © were only very rarely rational or educable. This doesn’t mean elite education, it means any education, grasping the basics beyond I’m hungry and I want to eat that fish. Plato and Aristotle (and many transformations thereof over 2,000 years), described a human soul/mind led by three forces: the appetites, the passions, and the intellect i.e. reason. The appetites were simplest and most bodily: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired and want to rest, I’m bored and want entertainment, I’m horny and want sex, my arms hurt I don’t want to carry this anymore. The passions we might call mental but worldly: pride, ambition, loyalty, patriotism I want to be famous, I want to be respected, I want to be well-talked-of in the city, I want to protect my way of life, I want to have power, I want to advance the glory of the state, I want to battle evil, etc. Reason, or the intellect, was the calculating, understanding, and contemplative power, which did math, understood the universe, aspired to the spiritual and eternal (whether Justice or the Pythagorean theorem) and exercised ethical judgment, weighing goods and bads deciding the best course (Eating this whole jar of pickles would be yummy but then I’ll get a stomachache; electing this demagogue would make me rich but then he would tyrannize the state.) Both Aristotle and Plato say that different souls are dominated by different organs of the soul (i.e. either the appetites, passions, or intellect) and that only a tiny minority of human souls are dominated by the intellect, a larger minority by the passions, and practically all by the base appetites. Plato’s Republic uses an exam/aptitude system to identify these rare souls of gold (as opposed to silver = passions, bronze/iron = appetites) and make them rulers of the city, and proposes a eugenicist breeding program to produce more.

(If you’d like to read an excellent science fictional thought experiment about what it would really be like to live in Plato’s Republic, I strongly recommend Jo Walton’s incredible “Just City” trilogy.)

Plato would hate ad-blockers.

Here’s the story of the “attention economy”: your life circumstances dictate how valuable you are to advertisers. Some things make you very valuable to advertisers: having a baby, shopping for a mortgage, or contracting asbestos-related lung cancer.

But one thing makes you very valuable to advertisers: being rich. Rich people have a lot of money (obviously) and that means that they might buy things with enormous profit margins.

But: there aren’t that many rich people, and even with all that money, they each rich person only buys very expensive things sporadically. Even the richest people on Earth don’t buy a yacht or a luxury penthouse or a private jet every day.

In the logic of the attention economy, this makes rich people very valuable: there aren’t that many chances to advertise to a rich person (because they are rare), even rich people only rarely buy very high-value items, and when they do, the purchase generates huge surpluses, and it’s worth spending a lot of that money to target a rich person.

In the attention economy, the right to show an ad to a rich person is very valuable, so publishers that target rich people can make a lot of money for each ad they display to a rich person.

But you know what’s even more valuable than commanding a rich person’s attention? Being a rich person. A rich person’s attention is so valuable that they will always have lots of rival publications competing for their attention, and each of these publications is keenly aware that if they show a rich person too many ads, or ads that are too invasive, they will take their attention somewhere else.

Which is why publications that target the ultrawealthy have a lot fewer ads than publications that target the general public. It’s not because these publications are paywalled.

The idea that “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product” is utter nonsense. The factor that determines whether a company will treat you like the product is whether they can get away with treating you like the product. A company that is disciplined by neither competition nor regulation will extract value from you in every way it can get away with.

John Deere doesn’t give away free tractors. Farmers pay six figures for them. The $170 John Deere charges to have technician come out to a farm and type an unlock code into their tractor’s console to activate a repair the farmer themself made represents what Deere thinks it can get away with.

It’s not the product of an advertising-based business model. Advertising existed without nonconsensual behavioral surveillance from ancient Rome until the early 21st Century. Companies don’t spy on you because you refuse to pay for things, they spy on you because no one stops them.

You can stop them.

The ad-blocker is the biggest boycott in world history. One in four internet users has a blocker installed.

Plato would hate this. If your attention isn’t worth much, then you are destined to sit through a lot of ads. Ad-blocking is affirmative action for the attention economy, a way for poor people to misappropriate the internet experience that should belong to rich people.

In Plato’s world — and in ours — the benefits of market competition are reserved for the rich.

Gig economy drivers have to compete with other drivers to accept the lowest possible wage for their work, while gig economy shareholders can use the law to block apps that force gig companies to compete for workers’ labor.

You have to compete with other tenants to outbid each other for scarce housing. Wall Street landlords can buy all the houses in a neighborhood or a town (with public subsidies!) and then jack up rents without fear of being undercut by a competitor.

Farmers have to compete with each other to drive down the prices they command for their labor, but grocery cartels can fix prices and merge with one another, driving up prices and blaming it on “inflation.”

The people who run the attention economy don’t want a market, they want a planned economy, where they get to set the prices and you get to pay them.

In an “attention economy,” the mere act of alighting on a web-page (or moving through a physical space!) constitutes an “agreement” to have every scrap of data about you extracted and sold to all parties for any purpose.

This isn’t a “free exchange.” If real stores worked like the attention economy, then the instant you glanced in a shop’s window, the proprietor would race out the door, rip your wallet out of your pocket and take whatever they fancy from it. If you protested, they’d point to Bible-thick book of nine-point type that was chained to the storefront and say, “‘Don’t blame me, you agreed to our terms and conditions when you glanced this way. Read it if you don’t believe me.”

Ad-blocking is a form of bargaining: the web’s business proposition is, “We’ll take everything and you will hand it over.” Ad-blockers say, “How about ‘Nah?’

Again, Plato would hate this. You and me and all of our brass colleagues have no business telling the gold philosopher-kings revealed by the capital markets that they are overpricing their goods. Their role is to rule and ours is to be ruled over. If that rule seems unjust, that’s just evidence that we lack the intellect to understand what’s best, which is why we’re brass and they’re gold.