what i'm reading: the attention merchants by tim wu

Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale. (Incidentally, if you know anyone who believes the 'Hitler was all right at first, he just went too far' canard, Wu provides ammunition to shoot it down. From his earliest days making speeches in beer halls, Hitler was blaming Germany's woes on Jews.)

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- indeed, I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list.


deang said...

Thank you for this fascinating review. Book added to my reading list.

laura k said...


allan said...

If only you could have arranged for five pop-up ads to appear as I was reading this!

Did Wu mention anything about regular people choosing to wear clothes that advertise various products and corporations? That has many levels to it, from the person wanting to associate himself with the company on his shirt as a status symbol, the act of exposing others to a walking commercial, and the free advertising the company receives. (Indeed, the wearer pays the company to be a billboard.)

laura k said...

Good point! It's a part of the advertising takeover that is seldom mentioned. I remember when that started, or at least ratcheted way up, in the early 80s.

Wu doesn't mention it, but he does mention that we are often paying companies when they should be paying us. I had a prof in library schools who ralied against libraries installing all the "free" Microsoft Office products, rather than companies putting in bids and paying public libraries to install their products, or else using open-source applications. When I suggested that people want to learn Office products because that's what's used in the workplace, she went ballistic. Or at least ballistic in library-school terms, which means adamant and slightly heated.

impudent strumpet said...

Is the thing your prof describes with companies paying libraries to install their products an actual thing that does happen or could happen? (In other words, are there actually companies that would pay a library to install their products if the libraries would just deign to use non-Microsoft products?) Or was your prof just talking about what an ideal world should look like?

If it is a real thing, what's the companies' incentive?

laura k said...

It's hard to see why this would be -- because we're so used to the way things are done now.

This is not done anywhere now. The prof was talking about an ideal world where public libraries were truly public and inclusive and unsullied by corporate influence (her view).

In most situations, if a corporation wants its product named or featured somewhere, they pay for that access. Bank name on a stadium, pay the sports team that plays there. Beer company name on a music festival, pay the promoters. Tim Hortons buys jerseys for little league hockey so it can put its name on the jerseys and announce that they support hockey for kids.

Microsoft gets its products in every single public library computer in the world. Pays nothing. Libraries drool and say thanks.

laura k said...

A better example would be product placement -- the brand of cereal or snacks on the table in a sitcom.

impudent strumpet said...

The product placement idea makes more sense to me, or at least lets me see how they got there. With the sports sponsorship idea, I was like "But the beer company doesn't give the stadium free beer to sell...do they?"

Although, even though I am familiar with the fact that it's done and the stated reason for doing it, I'm still surprised that any company would pay money for product placement. It just doesn't seem worthwhile.

laura k said...

Supposedly repeated exposure to a brand name makes you associate the product with a brand. It's why people call facial tissue Kleenex and clear tape Scotch Tape and etc.