I was reading yet another lament at the death of a much-loved publication because advertising doesn’t work any more and they couldn’t execute the pivot to subscription (fewer and fewer can). Ads no longer work because of the Google/Facebook duopoly; suddenly I was thinking “This reminds me of something.” After wandering the dusty back corridors of memory I came up with names that will be familiar to a few oldsters: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. No, really.
Our Heroes · Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, heroes both, appeared in stories written by Fritz Leiber between 1939 and 1988 (!). This is classic sword-and-sorcery stuff with all the usual flourishes. Yes, they’re sexist as hell (see the cover above) but not racist (despite the cover). In my youth, few fantasy worlds (and I visited a lot) offered me more pleasure.
It’s easy to understand why. The swordfighting is tasty, the sorcery is richly painted, and our two heroes are the most charming rogues imaginable. Also, none of the stories take themselves seriously in the slightest. For a combination of adventure, treachery, and laugh-your-face-off, you just can’t beat my favorite story in the series, Lean Times in Lankhmar, featuring that down-on-his-luck deity Issek Of The Jug.
You’ll notice that I haven’t linked to any opportunities to buy these stories. If you want to it’s not hard, Fafhrd and the Mouser have been anthologized any number of times and bootleg versions are out there. But I recommend dropping by your local library and checking a few out. After all, Fritz died in 1992 and doesn’t need the money.
The Devourers · They are the villains of a story entitled Bazaar of the Bizarre, first published in 1963. They arrive in the mighty and degenerate city of Lankhmar and set up an attractive storefront in the Plaza of Dark Delights.
It turns out they’re from another universe, and are described thus: “The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes … meaning simply that they sell and sell and sell! —sell trash and take good money and even finer things in exchange … they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility … eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash.”
Fafhrd and the Mouser end up tasked with expelling the Devourers. It turns out that the brightly-lit shop is full of exquisite and wonderful books and jewels and telescopes and pretty girls in cages, which are revealed, when Fafhrd dawns the Veil Of True Seeing, to really be noisome rotting rubbish. And giant spiders. The Mouser, without the advantage of the veil, is being led to his doom by the illusion. Then the iron statue awakens and… well anyhow, go read it if you want.
The Devourer duopoly · That’s what Facebook and Google are. They will sell ads to target any conceivable human interest, not on the quality publications that care about that interest, but on random lowest-possible-cost sites that are visited by what AdTech guesses is the same audience. I’ve linked to this before, but the best description of how this works is Data Lords: The Real Story of Big Data, Facebook and the Future of News by Josh Marshall.
Like the Devourers in Lankhmar, they will suck out the profit and the life from all the publishers with heart and replace them with AdTech, which I’d argue proffers the same kind of trash the Devourers in the story sell.
And like the Devourers, they’re destroying the ecosystem that they’re farming — eventually all the quality storytelling on the Internet will retreat behind the paywalls of the very few operations that can manage the pivot to subscriptions. Which, among other things leads to a future where The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free, not exactly what our society needs right now.
The difference is that, unlike the Devourers, Facebook and Google can’t skip off to another universe after they’ve finished despoiling this one. That’s why busting them up and slapping a fierce regulatory framework on AdTech is among the single most important policy moves that our governments ought to be getting to work on, and I mean right now.
Because there are no vagabond swordsmen with wizardly mentors coming to clean out today’s Devourers.
Not that that wouldn’t be cool.