Darius Kazemi believes the only way to keep your integrity is to stay small. Like eight people small.
No, Darius Kazemi is not looking to break the internet. But his Ethical Ad Blocker is, first and foremost, a joke that makes the internet virtually unusable.
Since its release, Kazemi has received emails from users who didn't get the joke. One person wondered why they couldn't access the BBC website because they didn't think it ran ads. Many people don't realize that most of the sites they visit feature advertising.
"I like the idea of codifying a moral high road and then showing people in practice that the moral high ground is not an attainable thing," Kazemi said.
The internet artist has heard both sides of the internet advertising debate, and he thinks there isn't a viable solution that will help either side.
Internet advertising is at a crossroads. Users hate ads that slow down the loading times of pages and pop up in the middle of reading. At the same time, corporations large and small need the money to continue making content and keep running. With the introduction of mobile ad blockers in iOS 9, the debate is more at the forefront of the industry consciousness.
Kazemi has his own views on this perpetual stream of frustration. While he is not tackling this specific controversy head on, he understands that there are some inherent problems with the way our businesses and corporations are structured in the US. In a Skype interview, he suggested a "living wage for everyone" and a "baseline income for every single person" as a way to counteract some of the basic issues we are facing.
"If that existed," he said, "people would want to write content and you could give that stuff away for free."
It seems impossible to think that our current system will drastically change to include things like a universal income, but small steps may be a unique alternative. Kazemi and his wife Courtney Stanton are making changes in their own way, starting with the founding of Feel Train out of their home in Portland, Oregon. Feel Train is a technology cooperative with a unique business model that is capturing the attention of creatives.
"People seem to be responding to the idea of a small place that isn't trying to extort value."
Instead of pertaining to typical hierarchal structures seen in most corporations, the collective makes sure everyone in the company has an equal share. It is "worker-owned," with all employees having the same amount of power, with the ability to hold each other accountable, and get paid the same salary. The company has a strict cap of eight employees. Anything larger would ruin the structure and integrity of the cooperative.
Things like this can't scale, according to Kazemi and Stanton. The larger a company gets, the harder it is to manage. Journalism, for instance, can utilize subscription models, but only at smaller businesses. Things like company culture and communication all suffer after a certain number of employees join a team.
"I think people want a foundation of stability in order to feel secure enough to do good work," Stanton said. "You can't be secretly worrying about what the CFO is doing or curious about when the paycheck is going to arrive; it's just the sand in the gears of bureaucracy. You just want that to be stabilized."
In addition to all employees having an equal share in the company, everyone could be fired by others. While Feel Train is still relatively new and only consists of Stanton and Kazemi, they hope that when they bring on more workers, they'll feel just as comfortable with the company as the founders do and, subsequently, would be comfortable firing its founders if necessary.
"It's reassuring," Stanton said. "Just because I started there doesn't mean my goals and principles will always be in line with Feel Train's missions."
The company's alternative business model has seen some traction among others in the industry. Stanton said that she's received resumes and emails from people asking if they could join the company and she's had to turn them all down, waiting until they have enough money saved up to hire. The rise of the freelance economy and the number of independent workers could be a sign that with decreasing job satisfaction, people are looking for something different than the corporations and businesses that are populating the landscape, especially in creative industries.
Feel Train is a product of that dissatisfaction. Both Stanton and Kazemi worked in the technology sector for a variety of companies, and felt that things could be better in how labor is monetized and how culture is represented.
"People seem to be responding to the idea of a small place that isn't trying to extort value," Stanton said of the response Feel Train has received.
Overall, people are looking for different narratives. Ethical Ad Blocker showed that things can't improve as they are, specifically in online media industries. Traditional stories about brands and business development don't apply anymore as things morph. Kazemi mentioned that if anything, he hopes that Feel Train can "lead by example" and will inspire people to seek their own alternatives in business and in work.
"I don't think it can fix itself over 100 years without addressing the system it belongs in," Kazemi said. "You have to go back to change things about the source."