I ended up in something of a debate about ad-blockers on the internet yesterday. Radio “futurologist” (inverted commas because that term is so problematic for me) James Cridland wrote a blog post entitled Piracy and Ad-Blockers Are Both Theft.

To which my simple, immediate and gut-response was simply “you’re wrong”.

James tweeted a link to his post, and I responded on Twitter. He invited me to discuss it further in the comments of his blog on the basis that he found it difficult (in his words “it is impossible”) to have a nuanced debate about the issue in a 140-character medium. I declined on the basis that I was reluctant to contribute to his (then) ad-supported blog.

A long debate ensued on Twitter, which I’ve collected and posted on Storify.

And then, after some further discussion, some more prompting from James – and the removal of ads from his blog – I decided I would respond in the way that he wanted me to. I posted some follow-up comments on his blog. You can read the full exchange at his website, should you wish to – and I’m happy to send the traffic his way.

I’d encourage you to have a read of the Twitter conversation and the thread of blog posts if you’d find that useful, but actually – the specific detail of the conversation is not the issue I’m interested in here.

It was good to work through the ideas and have a rational discussion about it. It challenged what I thought and made me try and justify and articulate those things in a coherent and rational way. But I rounded up my thoughts and left the discussion (which is still going on with other commentators on his blog) with the following observation:

“…we’re not going to change each other’s minds about this. That’s not a failing of the medium of Twitter (clearly, since we’re saying many of the same things here using far more words) – it’s simply the nature of this sort of debate. It just happens that we’ve given ourselves more space and more words with which to air our entrenched positions. We can be as nuanced and as rational about this as we like – but there was never a point at which either of us was going to convince the other of our point of view.”

And I was thinking about this on the way to work this morning. There’s a reason that rational debate won’t work in this context. It’s not the right tool for the job. This is not about reason or logic. This is an emotional position – not a rational one.

When James says “people who use ad-blockers are thieves” what he means is “I feel stolen from”. And that’s quite a different thing.

He says in his article: “Howls of protest followed from normally intelligent people; yet the point can’t be argued against.” The ‘point’ can absolutely be argued against – and perfectly rationally. I feel I did a reasonably good job of exactly that and so did most of the other commentators on that post.

The feeling, however, can’t be argued against. No matter how coherent and rational my argument, I can’t change the fact that James feels stolen from. That is his feeling. Something that he believes to be rightfully his, and that he is entitled to, has been taken away. His ‘rights’ as he understands them have been violated. Whether that feeling of entitlement is justified or not is not the point. Those are, unarguably, his feelings.

And that sense of loss contributes to a feeling of frustration, anger, powerlessness and transgression that comes out as “You are thieves!”. No amount of rationality about software, consumer behaviour or advertising methodologies can explain that away.

I made the observation that these sorts of discussion, while ostensibly about technology and commerce always seem to come down to debates about ethics. And that makes sense, because ethics is as close as we can usually get to discussing our feelings without leaving the post-enlightenment world of rationality.

But the feelings come from a set of expectations about behaviour within a techno-cultural environment. And the transgression comes from the fact that those expectations are not shared. There is an implied contract in that context but the terms of that contract have never been negotiated – or even discussed. They have only been assumed.

And so when that implied contract is asserted or transgressed, then feelings of betrayal or unfairness are bound to emerge.

What James’s expectations are for his website and how people should behave in that environment seem obvious, clear and right (in a moral absolutist sense). Those expectations are, however, not shared by all visitors to his website – and are actively broken by around 14%, according to James’s own figures.

That does not necessarily mean that those people ARE THIEVES (and their own sense of fairness will no doubt bristle at that accusation), but rather their own sense of what is right and fair conflicts at times with James’s own sense of what’s right and fair.

The trouble with this sort of argument – and in large part, a reason I was reluctant to get involved – is that there isn’t a way to win it, because both parties will be very good at employing reason and logic to back their cases, and both will seem (at least to those sympathetic to their position) to be wholly rational and sensible.

But this is not an argument about what is rational. It’s a statement of hurt and an accusation of blame – followed by a defence that outlines an entirely different set of understandings and expectations.

Writ large, this is about world views concerning commercial and intellectual property, consumer freedom, ethics, online culture, speech as a commodified form and the public domain. But at its simplest, it boils down to:

“I am very angry.”
“I can see that you are. Don’t be.”

And that’s not a discussion that gets resolved through an application of logic to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.