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Friday, December 17, 2004
It's been saddeningly cold and glum in New York lately, but yesterday it brightened up a bit, so after my in-office lunch I took a little stroll. Standing for a cycle on the traffic island beside Union Square, looking up Park Avenue, I became charmed and transfixed by some sort of in-progress building a few blocks up, which has been happening with an odd frequency of late. The half-finished building near 2nd and Houston, the curvy one at Astor Place, etc. Something about the sky passing through the concrete windows, the outline of something massive. Or maybe just a break in the valley wall, like the strange feeling of wilderness the only time I visited the pit.

At any rate, so here I am, staring north, half-assedly enraptured with this building, when I look slightly to the right and see the windowless south face of a building across the street. My unfocused eye spies the color on it and it seems to be a very old ad, for dry goods or something, except then when I focus on it, it's actually a very new ad for a very new movie: Ocean's 12. And I experienced one of my very infrequent spurts of Annoyance At Advertising.

Now, there are people who seem to spend their whole lives in the midst of such a spurt, or at least experience such annoyances more frequently and more intensely. (Mine was along the lines of "Damnit, that would be all pretty if that weren't there. Oh well. What's for dessert?") I'm not really interested in critiquing that here. Instead, what I want to ask is: what would a world look like with advertising, or consumerism, under control? It can't look like that momentary glimpse of an ad-free-because-incomplete building I had, because turn your head a little and there's s'more. So what would it actually be like?

Perhaps because it's been saddeningly grey and cold lately, I've been playing a lot of Spiderman 2. (Which is pretty good, incidentally, but that's for another time.) In this game, as in most of the ones on the GTA3 model, the playing area is a fairly believable model of an actual city, and in the case of this particular game, it's explicitly New York. It's actually remarkably accurate, all things considered--you can even go over the Queensboro Bridge and stop off on Roosevelt Island! The thing that's jarring about it though, that makes it unreal (aside from the fact that everything above 135th street has been swallowed up by the Hudson, of course) is that there are no signs and no ads. It's creepy. You go down Broadway and instead of the usual run of green Chinese food awning -> yellow dry cleaner awning -> blue bodega awning -> orange chinese food awning -> Starbucks -> lightbulb-ringed bodega awning -> black car service awning, it's just...nothing. Blank buildings. Because advertisers (er, "Brand Owners") decided that, stupidly, video games have to pay them to use their ads, they're just not part of the environment. Sure, maybe in GTA you'll get made-up ads, but even then it seems unreal because there aren't that many of them, they just repeat, and they're not all-pervasive because that would get tiring. It's very insular. And then, of course, there's the Spiderman model, which is to just not have anything at all that's not directly related to Things You Can Do. And so there's actually very little.

What does this imply? For one, it says that an ad-free environment does not exist, because an ad-free environment looks unreal. I don't think this is limited to New York. Driving through a landscape without ads would just seem creepy. The world has changed along with the rise of advertising, and it all seems of a piece. Would it look good? Bad? We don't really know; we just seem to dislike what we have now, which, I dunno, seems a bit odd. Withou an ad, that dumpy forty-year-old building with a Bacardi ad would just be a dumpy forty-year-old building.

The other thing it implys is that the vision of an ad-free "public space" is a kind of utopianism. If it is acheivable only through creating an artificial environment (and even then sustained only though, ironically enough, market forces!) then it is unreal, an ideal, a pipe dream, or more kindly, just a dream. I guess you could say, yes, well, it is just an ideal, there's no need to eliminate all advertising or commercial speech, just a lot of it. Still, having utopianism at the heart of your hard-to-articulate desire seems worrisome. I think a lot of my love for commercialism comes from the particular humanity of it, the little variations behind it, the randomness, the infinite variety, the way it stinks with the heady scent of other people who I don't know. But maybe this is a kind of utopianism too.