On Time Better Spent and the Advertising Industry

I publish an occasional newsletter called The Thoughtful Net, a curated collection of good writing about technology and its effect on culture (among other things). So when I started reading The Death of Don Draper, an article by Ian Leslie on the impact of algorithms on the advertising industry, I was all set to include it—for passages like this:

The ad industry, run by people who pride themselves on creativity, is being displaced by the ad business, which prides itself on efficiency. Clients are spending less on the kind of entertaining, seductive, fame-generating campaigns in which ad agencies specialise, and more on the ads that flash and wink on your smartphone screen.

I read through it excitedly until almost the end, when—sadly—I came across the inclusion of one of my least favourite tropes:

We stoop over our phones when we should be doing almost anything else.

This idea that time spent ‘stooped’ (I can’t be the only one inferring that as a negative word, can I?) over our phones is time better spent elsewhere is snooty and judgemental. I’ve written before about people ‘staring at their screens’, and what a nonsense phrase that is, and ‘time better spent’ is equally grating to me.

People use their phones for all sorts of things. A lot, if not most of that, is extremely important, if not vital, to the person doing it. I thought Maya Indira Ganesh put this very well in On Time Well Spent and Ethics:

The digital ecosystem generally, and some social media platforms, host both public and intimate economies of care and work that make getting off near impossible. Migrants maintain family relationships across distance; entrepreneurs set up and manage businesses; millions are employed by digital apps and platforms; activists amplify their causes; marginalized people find community. Not spending time on these platforms is not a choice for many people.

I’d suggest that if the advertising industry doesn’t understand this, it’s perhaps understandable that the advertising industry is diminishing.

I got a bit more sad when I read a little further and found this:

A comprehensive US study, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, identified a strong association between social media use and depression.

Leslie doesn’t link to his sources, unfortunately, but I’m fairly sure he’s talking about the work of Jean Twenge (Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?) whose work has been, if not debunked, then heavily criticised for laziness, correlation, and cherry-picking (No, Smartphones are Not Destroying a Generation and Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids, amongst others).

Ian Leslie is a writer who also works as a strategist in the advertising industry.

This doesn’t discount him from holding an opinion, but it does speak of a certain bias. It’s a shame that as someone who works in the advertising industry, he doesn’t think a little more highly of people, and of their being more than powerless zombies.

Anyway, I recommend you read the article to make up your own mind, even if I can’t recommend it as the great piece it promised to be.

Also published on Medium.