Tech & Advertising Are Not Evil

Sweeping generalizations are misguiding public sentiment

Jay Vidyarthi
Apr 16 · 6 min read

1. Technology is Not Evil.

I keep hearing the misconception that attention activists are rallying against technology. Technology is not the problem. In fact, I find it hard to pinpoint what we mean when we use this vague word. People in mindfulness communities say “tech is ruining society” just as often as people at tech startups say “tech is going to solve all our problems eventually.” Are they talking about every example of human creation? The potential of all human endeavor? Are they talking about computers in a general sense? Or are they talking specifically about an app on their smartphone?

Tech isn’t the enemy, it’s just that we’re mostly using it to scale selfish values and simple organizational incentives into monsters we can barely control.

The real issue lies in how we apply technology: the values we manifest and scale exponentially, the ethics of design, and the simple incentives motivating us. Why are we creating a given technology? How might it be used? What would it look like if this particular design “ate the world”? Our lives and our society are complex and multi-faceted. As we create exponential technologies with simple, myopic incentives, we’re accidentally disrupting pillars of our civilization like mental health and democracy.

This Russia-linked ad — a studied, intentional attempt to wedge the divide and promote religion-fueled hate in the 2016 US election — sure makes technology and advertising seem evil. The forces at play are much more nuanced.

2. Advertising is Not Evil.

This second point of confusion is a sticky one. When I spoke about attention activism at Harvard last year, someone came up to me afterward and challenged me: “If those of us who are trying to do the right thing don’t advertise, how are we gonna get anywhere?” This comes up a lot. The assumption in the question is that I’m somehow rallying against advertising, as if I think advertising is evil and that no one should ever market anything. I struggled to articulate an answer in the moment, but the question lingered on my flight home from Boston.

As attention activists, we’re rallying against ‘manipulation’ more than ‘advertising’. There’s a blurry line between these two terms, but we can paint the extremes clearly.

If you’re letting someone know about your offering, putting a message in a public place where they can choose to ignore it or engage with it, that seems fairly ethical. Even if you’re making that message a little catchy, and putting it somewhere where you know your potential audience might visit, doesn’t seem like a problem to me. Unfortunately, this form of basic advertising is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Each element of the equation has become more powerful and more surgical. We now know much deeper ways to manipulate anyone with a brain and body.

Smack dab in the space between these two extremes, it’s hard to decide what’s okay. Headspace is seemingly a company all about helping people, yet this recent ad makes a pretty bold promise. Does it feel ethical to you?

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On Advertising

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Jay Vidyarthi

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“Good” design as in useful, enjoyable, and ethical. Mindfulness as a tool to reclaim freedom of choice.

On Advertising

We’re an open community of Executives, Strategists, Designers, Developers and Students alike, skeptically examining communication, technology and culture.