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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 18, 2016
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“Comprehensive and conscientious…Wu writes with elegance and clarity…[his] chapters about the early days of advertising are some of this book’s most enjoyable, easily serving as a reader’s companion to “Mad Men.” Mr. Wu concludes his book with a cri de coeur, imploring us to regain custody of our attention, written so rousingly that it just may make you reconsider your priorities.”
–Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
“Compelling…sharp…Wu [is] a skilled thinker…he applies the thesis of a business cycle to explain the development of the advertising market and the ways in which it has adapted to avoid our natural inclination to ignore it…Wu dramatizes this push and pull to great effect…a “Hidden Persuaders” for the 21st century, just as we stand squarely on the threshold of a post-broadcast world where the algorithmic nano-targeting of electronic media knows our desires and impulses before we know them ourselves.”
–Emily Bell, The New York Times Book Review
“A startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention…We’ve become the consumers, the producers, and the content. We are selling ourselves to ourselves.”
—Tom Vanderbilt, The New Republic
–Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books
“Lively…An engrossing study of what we hate about commercial media…Vigorous and amusing, filled with details of colorful hucksterism and cunning attention-grabbing ploys along with revealing insights into the behavioral quirks they instill in us.”
“Part history and part social wake up call, this book is for everyone.”
“Forget subliminal seduction: every day, we are openly bought and sold, as this provocative book shows.”
“Tim Wu has written a profoundly important book on a problem that doesn’t get enough— well, attention. Attention itself has become the currency of the information age, and, as Wu meticulously and eloquently demonstrates, we allow it to be bought and sold at our peril.”
–James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History
“I couldn’t put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, The Attention Merchants is also a book of urgent importance, revealing how our preeminent industries work to fleece our consciousness rather than help us cultivate it.”
–Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package
“Television entranced the masses. Digital media, more insidiously, mesmerizes each of us individually. In this revelatory book, Tim Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. The Attention Merchants deserves everyone’s attention.”
–Nicholas Carr, author of Utopia Is Creepy and The Shallows
“The question of how to get people to care about something important to you is central to religion, government, commerce, and the arts. For more than a century, America has experimented with buying and selling this attention, and Wu’s history of that experiment is nothing less than a history of the human condition and its discontents.”
–Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
About the Author
TIM WU is an author, policy advocate, and professor at Columbia University, best known for coining the term "net neutrality." In 2006, Scientific American named him one of 50 leaders in science and technology; in 2007, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard's 100 most influential graduates; in 2013, National Law Journal included him in "America's 100 Most Influential Lawyers"; and in 2014 and 2015, he was named to the "Politico 50." He formerly wrote for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas Gold medal for Travel Journalism, and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. In 2015, he was appointed to the Executive Staff of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a senior enforcement counsel and special adviser.
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At almost any time there is a tension or trade-off between getting wonderful information services for much below cost or entirely free and essentially suffering from advertising pollution that impairs our brain’s focus to achieve what we were meant to do on this earth.
Tim Wu feels the above issue has reached a boiling point. He is not alone. Even technology industry leaders have taken that position. In one of the last chapters, he focuses on Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who championed this position. He indicated that the advertising invasion is really impairing customer experiences including underperformance (in terms of speed, video-streaming quality, etc.) of all related information appliances when surfing the internet. Along those lines Tim Cook delivered ad-blockers that are readily available on all Apple’s devices.
Tim Cook’s position is both laudable and self-serving (and not necessarily in a bad way, but a smart way). When you think of the four major behemoths of the technology field: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple; they increasingly overlap and compete with each other over various domains be it cell phones, cloud servers, operating systems, and numerous other software platforms. But, when you look at the funding sources the first two (Google and Facebook) are essentially dominant advertising agencies. Meanwhile, Amazon is the major retail clearinghouse middleman who also benefits a great deal from advertising. On the other hand, Apple is from a funding source standpoint in a silo earning a buck the old fashion way by selling mainly hardware (I Phones, I Pads, I Watch) and services (music, apps). It does not make money from advertising. So, for Tim Cook to lead and facilitate the campaign of the ad-blockers is a direct arrow at the advertising based business of his main competitors.
In the last chapter, Tim Wu goes on that we should regain our consciousness and our focus. We should think more deliberately about the choice we make. Do we want to keep on selling ourselves for “free” to be part of massive audiences that are very lucratively marketable by the Big 3 (Facebook, Google, Amazon)? I have recently experienced what it is like. I just recently got a mini I Pad, a really cool little machine. And, I remember attempting to read a serious article that demanded focus in order to be understood. The mini I Pad screen is plenty big for reading. However, it seems that nearly three fourth of the screen was wasted on ads in various forms. And, I literally could not practice the type of slow attentive reading I needed to understand the article. I quickly gave up and read the article a few days later on a printed copy with no problem and a lot more enjoyment and retention. So, I should consider the ad-blocker apps as many of you have already. And, Tim Wu’s nearly spiritual call at the end does promote such attitude. Let’s reclaim the independence of our brain. Let’s focus. Let’s maximize the outcome of our respective destinies.
Tim Wu’s position is really attractive and nearly unquestionable. Could one really take the opposite position? Let’s waste our time being distracted by an unending stream of advertisement and related vapid entertainment and distraction and don’t leave a legacy whatsoever of our passage on earth. Ok, that’s not a very good rebuttal of Tim Wu’s position.
However, if we look at the underlying economics the underlying argument may get more complicated. Let’s say the Big 3 entirely loose out their ad revenues. And, they do not make enough from selling various apps and games to cover their costs. They actually would have to charge for their “free services.” They could use different models such as monthly subscriptions or paying for each unit of services. Given that, how much would you be willing to pay monthly to maintain access to your Facebook profile and its related networking activities? How much would you be willing to pay for one single Google search? Similarly, how much would Facebook and Google have to charge to effectively cover their lost advertising revenues? Those questions become a chicken and the egg issue because the price affects the demand. For “free” those services have nearly infinite demand. But, for any realistic price the demand for all those “free” services would crater. Such economic questions most often render problems or issues much more complicated than otherwise. This economic conundrum was not Tim Wu’s objective when writing “The Attention Merchants.” And, that is perfectly fine. His book probably packs in a more effective punch by focusing on the tension between “The Attention Merchants” and the self-actualization of our own focused consciousness.
Wu acknowledges that we get something for allowing our attention to be sold, which is why we agree to the exchange. This book is not a jeremiad against the free market; there is no implicit or explicit demand for less “free” in the “free market.” Nor is this a Larry Lessig-type call for more government control, always somehow tilted to benefit the Left, under the guise of pseudo-libertarianism (Lessig’s specialty—Lessig is all for less government control, as long as the result is calculated to deliver more power for the Left). Wu just thinks we should consider more deeply whether the bargain we each strike with the merchants is worth it.
“The Attention Merchants” follows the expanding sale of attention from the late 19th Century to Snapchat, tracing how technology makes capturing and selling attention ever easier, even though occasionally some segments of society resist. With television, intrusion into the private sphere expanded greatly. Then the 1960s and 1970s, a time of expressive individualism, resulted in even more advertising success—for the desire to be an individual “was a desire [the advertising] industry could cater to, just like any other.” And, as an advertising executive said at the time, “The hippies are in their peak acquisitive years, and their relative affluence enable them to consume goods and services at a rate unheard of for their age level.” Not for Wu a starry-eyed belief in the virtue of the Age of Aquarius.
Of course, with the rise of the Internet and then of mobile devices, advertising intrusion into the private sphere has become nearly continuous for the vast majority of people. This intrusion today is both nearly constant and extremely finely tuned to the individual target using proven methods of grabbing and keeping attention. Wu decries this, but not as a preacher would, rather with the knowledge that for most people, they think this is a good deal, or they wouldn’t do it. (And he’s funny: “On Facebook, all happy families were alike; the others may have been unhappy in their own way, but they were not on Facebook.”) His call is for more consideration, and a more measured approach, by each of us.
This is not a book of economics. Wu touches briefly on academic discussions about advertising, and describes attention as a commodity, but does not involve himself in questions of whether advertising is in part deadweight loss, as claimed by some. I suppose he thought that would be too much of a departure, and he’s probably right, but I would have been interested to learn more about different views on the topic.
Wu also does not explore another avenue that I think would have been profitable to explore—the effect of class. He does not seem aware, or at least does not address, that his concerns are confined to the educated classes—namely, the type of people who read his book. The lower classes are not reflective, usually, in the way that Wu suggests we be, and they will not hear his call. If they did, they would probably reject it with the contempt shown to Luke Wilson’s character in “Idiocracy,” as yet another way the snobbish elites are trying to control them and lord it over them. The lower classes do not debate taking “Internet Sabbaths.” Steve Jobs strictly limited all forms of screen time for his children; the lower classes use, whether by necessity or choice, all forms of electronics, accompanied by constant advertising, as babysitters, for both children and grownups.
In fact, many of Wu’s suggestions would actually increase the class divide in America—yes, premium TV, which Wu identifies as part of a current (and probably temporary) “retreat and revolt,” has fewer advertisements, but it’s generally not consumed by the lower classes. In an interview in The Atlantic, Wu said “We have to get over our addiction to free stuff. Suck it up and pay.” This message only resonates with those who have money. Those with extra money may choose to spend it on limiting exposure to ads and increasing privacy, but those with little money will more likely choose the bargain of cheaper entertainment, or free entertainment, at the cost of more ads and less privacy. And let’s be honest—lack of reflection and self-control is a key characteristic of the lower classes, one reason they ARE the lower classes, so they are unlikely to instead read “Middlemarch.” That’s just the nature of human society, and the reality of human nature.
On a broader level, although Wu is left-liberal (he ran as a Democrat for Lieutenant Governor of New York) this book at first appears non-political. True, it’s sprinkled with references to New Left nonsense philosophers, from Habermas to Marcuse. They’re used for pithy quotes, though, not for their ideological claptrap. (It’s not at all clear Wu really grasps the actual ideology of the New Left, especially since he claims that they (and the “youth movement” of the late 1960s) “envisioned an end to all forms of repression,” which was “a more ambitious aim than anything hoped for even by Karl Marx and his followers, who simply sought liberation from an unfair economic system.” I suppose at some level that characterization of the New Left, Marx and Marxism is true, but it omits everything important. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)
But as I say, these references to the Left are window dressing in what appears to be a non-political book. It is not non-political, though. In fact, “The Attention Merchants” is a deeply conservative book. Moreover, it is not conservative as “libertarian,” which is sometimes acceptable to our elites as long as the focus is increasing atomizing choice likely to lead to leftist goals like destruction of the family and traditional religious beliefs (again, think Larry Lessig). Rather the book is deeply culturally and socially conservative. I’m not sure if Wu realizes or would acknowledge this, but it is nonetheless true.
Why do I say is this a conservative book? First, Wu explicitly recognizes that the materialism that drives the sale of attention is a substitute for religious belief. Wu notes that as religious faith in the West has declined, “Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline.” This is a common conservative insight, but rarely seen on the Left, which generally believes that religion is inherently doomed, that disbelief does not result in reaching for substitutes, and that materialism is driven by malevolent capitalist forces, not by us.
Second, Wu shows constant skepticism towards government, especially because it is a source of and key user of propaganda. As he relates in detail, this has been true since as soon as propaganda became technologically feasible and Americans temperamentally less resistant to it, from Woodrow Wilson on. This propaganda, Wu emphasizes, is not just the crude emotional manipulation of Kitchener’s “I Want You.” Rather, it lies in corralling the thoughts of the masses into certain patterns. He quotes one mid-20th Century writer, “the task of propaganda lies not in a scientific training of the individual, but rather in directing the masses toward certain facts, events, necessities, etc., the purpose being to move their importance into the masses’ field of vision.” Admittedly this writer was Hitler, but we would call this today “setting the narrative”—not by rational exposition and discussion, but by emotional appeals under the guise of facts.
And such emotional appeals are all the Left offers today, although Wu does not say this and does not take the step to realize that such propaganda is today less a formal government activity and more a coordinated activity of the ruling cultural elite, led by people like George Soros. Modern left-liberal appeals, from gun control to Obamacare to Not Trump to unrestricted abortion, don’t make the mistake of engaging the complex merits of an issue, before, or after, engaging the listener (which is what makes propaganda fail, as Wu points out). Raw appeals to simplistic emotions characterize today’s entire program of the Left—it is conservatives, lacking the megaphone of the news-setting media that allows the Left to set the narrative to whatever is today’s Left focus, who have to lead with the complex merits of an issue.
Third, Wu is highly skeptical of easy solutions. His measured approach to every problem shows repeatedly that Wu has the “constrained vision” identified by Thomas Sowell as underlying the conservative approach to the world. He is skeptical of magic solutions that promise something for nothing, again in contravention to Left ideology (and in contradiction to every single New Left idol that he quotes). Wu simply does not buy into the standard Left belief that human nature and human society is perfectible; he is an incrementalist, which means he is fundamentally a conservative.
But these are small beans compared to the main reason why this is a conservative book. Wu’s solution to the social problems he identifies is, although he doesn’t use these words, a call for a cultural renewal along conservative lines. He notes that until recently, “custom,” “tradition,” and “religion” “used to define certain inviolable spaces and moments . . . . And while there was much about the old reality that could be inconvenient or frustrating, it had the advantage of automatically creating protected spaces, with their salutary effects.” Here is the spot where nearly any modern writer, a foot soldier in the Gramscian culture wars, would perform a ritual denunciation of supposedly endemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., that characterized the “old reality,” and apologize profusely for suggesting that something good might have existed then, even if the author nonetheless maintained that a tiny thread of virtue did exist that might have been lost. Not Wu. He just says nothing of the sort—in fact, calling the past “inconvenient” and “frustrating,” but nothing else, suggests a deliberate choice to reject sacrificing at the altars of the Left’s gods. He just makes his point and moves on.
Next he channels, for all practical purposes, the conservative writer Yuval Levin, noting that today’s unprecedented individualism is both good and bad, but “What is called for might be termed a human reclamation project.” He calls for us to become like “the monastics, whether in the East or the West, whose aim was precisely to reap the fruits of deep and concentrated attention.” In essence, Wu calls for us to seek the Good. “At stake, then, is something akin to how one’s life is lived.” He calls for us to “desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture.” No different than Aristotle or Abelard, he notes that the Good is not obtained from passive acceptance of a barrage of materialist demands, but from a spiritual focus on obtaining something objectively good.
Along the same lines, Wu makes the extremely conservative point that man seeks above all transcendence, or meaning, and we obtain only false transcendence from accepting as key to our being the wares paraded before us by the attention merchants. As Wu says of Apple and other companies to whom brand loyalty and identity is critical: “What is offered to adherents is not merely a good product (though often it is), but something deeper and more deeply fulfilling—a sense of meaning that comes with the surrender of choice.” But true meaning cannot be obtained through this mechanism, only false meaning. That Wu, even implicitly, distinguishes between true meaning, that leads man to the Good, and false meaning, makes him deeply conservative.
In fact, Wu’s plan dovetails precisely with the plans advanced by conservative thinkers, such as Rod Dreher and Roger Scruton, to take back culture as part of an active plan of resistance to, and perhaps ultimate victory over, the New Left. A key part of that resistance is rebuilding intermediary institutions in which we actively participate, and, as Scruton says, “under whose auspices people can flourish according to their social nature, acquiring the manners and aspirations that endow their lives with meaning.” These institutions are the opposite not only of government social control, but also of the passive acceptance of commercial messages and the granting to those messages of control both over our private lives and, even, the meaning of our lives. Or as Scruton also says of consumerization, “The fact is we know the solution, and it is not a political one. We must change our lives. And to do this we need spiritual authority, the ability to make sacrifices, and a refusal to be degraded into the machines désirantes of Deleuze and Guattari.” That sentence would fit seamlessly into Wu’s book.
Now, it’s true that Wu effectively writes not only in opposition to left-liberals, but also in opposition to Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who think that the unfettered free market is inherently productive of the Good and refuse to recognize that powerful forces of social atomism necessarily result from the free market. Conservatism is much more fragmented than it once was. It’s not like Wu is going to be speaking at the next Republican National Convention. But his straightforward analysis and original thought is both very interesting and clarifying, and people of any political bent can benefit from reading his book.
... just how insidious and cynical the attention merchants are.
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