Air Filter

LogosQuiz is a game that taught me more about life than I expected. It’s the 95.3 MB on my iPhone that fills the moments between exciting tweets about the music I listened to in high school and the first few sips at a bar before friends show up.

The game is simple: Identify a partially-obscured logo by name. There are points lost for getting it wrong or misspellings, but basic identification is paramount. Get enough right and you unlock a new set of logos to name. Get annoyed by the incessant ads and pay $2 to never see them again. It follows the mobile profit model quite nicely: Fire someone’s competitive instinct long enough and wait for the allure of convenience to overwhelm fiscal responsibly.

The irony of paying to remove ads from a game that’s essentially one big corporate pool party is not lost on me. What struck me as more significant, however, is just how many logos I knew immediately. The game has a number of European companies I’ve rarely seen, but occasional play over the last few days has unlocked over 100 logos with little effort.

I don’t get the feeling that I’m particularly special in that regard, either. Still, there are thousands and thousands of companies in the world, all with a unique and very specific iconography and history. When you think about just how many companies there are out there, the few hundred burned into your memory must be pretty significant.

Logos and advertising are ubiquitous these days, but as consumers we’ve developed a very interesting relationship with corporate branding. While there is an art to creating a logo, a certain beauty in a brilliant design, advertising is a nuisance for most. You can drown in a trademark’s overwhelming presence. Give it enough time and it can be downright polluting. Considering how many logos I can recall on command, my tolerance for poison seems remarkably high.

We despise the pollution of nature, the chemicals and toxins that ruin land and air. Noise pollution is another hassle to overcome in our modern age. Horns and televisions and airplanes, the things that separate our ears from silence, are escaped by drives into the countryside and a campfire under the stars. Or, if you grow up near an airport like me, you simply get used to the static. I can sleep through almost anything these days.

Our eyes are not immune to pollution, either. We are surrounded by billboards and the endless stream of advertising that swarms you, all vying for space somewhere in the mush of your brain. Even the most interesting of logo work can become overwhelming. Helvetica can only look nice for so long.

The digital realm is teeming with these endless ads as well. Expandable banners and commercials lodged between YouTube videos, all chock full of pitches and logos and convenient places to enter your credit card number. With poor web design comes poor banner ads, all bombarding you with bright colors and empty promises. It’s a mess out here.

The pollution online is more than just ads and sales pitches: it’s in the discourse we take part in as well. The news we consume, the social media we take part it; so much of it is pure junk. The value we find in communication is all our own, sure, but oftentimes it’s hard to find any utility in a wave pool of opinions and mindless banter that floods our screens when Important Things happen. It’s enough to make you wonder why you logged on in the first place.

Sometimes I like to think about the infrastructure and impact of the internet like America’s highway system. In The Big Roads, author Earl Swift takes great care to explain the many ways the Interstate System changed the way we live in this country. From food prices to the way we think about transportation and the value of motor vehicles, those tons and tons of concrete and asphalt did more than make convenient places for state troopers to catch you speeding.

Highways look beautiful from above, an intricate marvel of modern engineering. Then you get out of the helicopter, find your car and enter a midday traffic jam, or walk past a hulking concrete overpass at ground level. It can be an ugly, frustrating experience. Highways divide neighborhoods and choke off nature, making you wonder why some civil engineer decided to up and ruin a city on a whim.

Those beltways and highways aren’t going anywhere, though. They provide too much utility to let them go. Their pollution is obvious but the impact of highways, the urban sprawl they support, is still being studied. All things considered, the freedom of highway travel is a relatively new thing in America.

And yet, I can’t imagine a world without it. At 23, I’ve never lived in an America without freeways and two-day car trips to Florida. It is already a part of my understanding of transportation, the ease of travel I’ve grown up with cannot be forgotten. The negatives of the highway system are easy to forget when the advantages are so obvious. Pollution can be ignored.

That’s what has happened online when it comes to advertisements. We’ve trained ourselves to avoid web ads, a major problem for newspapers and any other outlet trying to make some scratch with a URL. The digital realm is not like its print companion for newspapers, the one where many people often only buy a newspaper for the coupons.

I do not want to imagine a world without the advances the Internet Age has brought, but I often wonder what the contamination it brings will do to us. The pollution of our discourse is a more difficult thing to define. For me, it’s when we get less news and more reaction to news. It’s reaction to a reaction to a reaction, a weird cycle of nothing that goes nowhere. The unintelligible jet engine sounds over the hum of server farms.

We discussed it in our last podcast: I’m tired of the Wheel of Morality that comes with every Important Thing that happens in the world. It’s an exhausting thing to endure, and avoiding our digital highways altogether defeats the purpose of them existing altogether.

The problem is that we are used to highways now. We know the rules and we’re more than willing to jump on them and go 65 miles per hour immediately. And sometimes we apply that thinking to the other parts of our lives, like social media. We continue accelerating without wondering what it means or where we’re headed, because we already know that the speed is a good thing. When Bad Things happen, though, that’s when we’re staring at the dingy concrete at ground level.

The outrage and hyperbole that comes with An Event is a pollution we have to overcome. Our best hope is that we learn to ignore it altogether, or to accept it as a byproduct of the good these tools bring and minimize its impact on us. We’ve filtered out the marketing overkill and turned it into a time-waster on our smartphones. Maybe soon enough we’ll do the same with the worst parts of our digital communication.

No one wants to tear down highways; virtual or otherwise. Making them smarter and more appealing, though, is always something to consider.