Rob Horning tells Alexis Madrigal he is sick unto death, but Alexis is sure the next ad from a drug company will save him

The assumption here seems to be that in order for information to circulate, it needs to be sponsored. The “health” of the internet — the vitality of its ecosystem, the level of activity of users — is contingent on how many people can make a living from using it, and the only viable way to make a living from the information trade is by making it all ultimately into marketing data. The health of the internet, then, depends on the degree to which we can turn thought into marketing through the process of circulating it. “A panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” Madrigal notes, but he seems at pains to defend that as an important prerequisite rather than a sign that another avenue of communication has been thoroughly subsumed by capital.


The question here is about what the internet is for...Madrigal seems to be saying that if we don’t let our use of the internet be monetized by third parties, if we don’t allow our use of the internet to be governed by the logic of commercial media, then the internet will be a failure. It will cease to be a relevant space. But one might argue that the fact that it seems as though we can’t have an internet not fueled by advertising is a sign that the internet is already unhealthy, sick unto death.


“There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content,” Madrigal writes, suggesting that this sponsorship makes the whole system somehow benevolent instead of indicative of a much broader social failure. There’s nothing necessarily sinister about the companies surveilling our behavior and concealing the extent of it except pretty much everything. There’s nothing not sinister about that, including the alibi generated through its association with our access to “free” content. That we think it's free is indicative of our delusion: We are paying for it with personal information that may be used against us in perpetuity. The price is not free and not negotiable. The data-tracking system that has evolved as the internet has entrenched itself in society serves an involuntary system of micropayments. Madrigal’s exposure of it is a great service. It’s just unnerving that it’s linked to these apologies for it. “I wish there were more obvious villains in this story,” he laments. I may be naive, but the villains seem very obvious to me.

Media people attempt to use the web as media. Web people deal with the web as the web.