A conversation with Tim Wu, author of ‘The Attention Merchants’

Tim Wu, the author who coined the phrase “net neutrality,” takes a revelatory look at the rise of “attention harvesting” and its effect on our society and ourselves. He’ll be at the Central Library on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. to talk about his newest book, The Attention Merchants. Get a bit of the inside story here and be sure to join us for his free presentation on Thursday evening!

tim-wu-the-attention-merchants-book-coverQ: What is an Attention Merchant?

A: An Attention Merchant is anyone whose business is attracting human attention to resell for profit. The category is broad and includes ad-based TV channels, celebrities, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and so on. Basically, it is business of gathering a crowd by creating something so allur­ing, sensational, or even useful that you can’t help but pay attention—and the crowd itself can then be sold to advertisers.

The Attention Merchants drive what the book calls the “Attention Harvest,” namely, a process of gath­ering as much human attention as possible to sell to the advertising industry. This book is mainly the 100+ year long story of the attention harvest. Once small and obscure, it has grown to become a major part of our lives.

Today, on average, Americans spend about three hours with their phone, nearly five hours with television, and some other hours with their computers. Throw in some sleep, and that’s basically our lives. So policing the bargains is really important.

Q: What inspired you to write about Attention Merchants?

A: So you might have noticed that every day you are typically faced with hundreds—if not thousands—of efforts by companies vying for your time and attention, whether on the web, television, your phone, billboards, you name it. This may the greatest moment-to-moment difference between our lives and those of people 100 years ago. We’ve become used to it, but I think it tends to make us all a bit crazy.

I wanted to understand — just how did this happen? Where did it become the norm that so much of our life is subject to the “attention harvest?” We agreed to all of this–sort of–but is it possible we are living lives that aren’t quite ours? These were some of the questions I was interested in.tim-wu-quote-1-redone

At a personal level, I guess, I just wanted to understand time and attention a little better (Jorge Borges once said, late in life, that the one thing he found the most mysterious was time). Why does a day in the desert sometimes seem to last a week? How is it that you can sit down to write an email, click on a random link, and suddenly two hours disappear?

So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about attention over the last four years (you might say, paying atten­tion to attention), and I’m convinced that as everything else becomes more abundant (food, entertainment, etc) our attention really will be the last scarce resource.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

A: First, that the origins of the advertising industry are actually even darker than I had thought. The marketing of orange juice as a kind of patent medicine for babies was one thing that struck me. Another was that I knew tobacco had a dark history, but the early campaigns to get women to smoke by selling cigarettes as a way to lose weight were pretty intense. Second, I was alarmed by how effective the totalitarian and propaganda regimes of the 20th century were at what we now call “advertising.”

Can I have one more? I was surprised to see just how effectively the countercultural ideas of the 1960s became a selling tool—I guess Mad Men was right about that.

Q: How do the Attention Merchants affect our lives?

A: How don’t they? It is only a slight exaggeration to say that much (if not most) of our lives are spent with the Attention Merchants—whether communicating with friends on Facebook, sitting and channel-surfing for hours a day, running for office by insulting people and lapping up the attention—you name it.

It is often said that more and more parts of American life have become akin to the entertainment in­dustry. That’s turned out to be true. Over time, more and more of our lives have become part of that “Attention Harvest,” which has led everyone—universities, religions, government officials, politicians authors—to feel they need to get attention to do their jobs. To get noticed at all can require using the techniques once reserved for a three-ring circus.

Q:How has the job of the Attention Merchant changed over the last decade?

A: Two ways. First, the so-called competition for eyeballs has just gotten more competitive in just about every way. And unfortunately, the race is usually to the bottom: the more lurid and attention-getting stuff tends to win out, at least in the battle for short-term attention. That helps explain why once “re­spectable” shows like Nightline have become tabloid shows of the ’90s, and why even major print outlets borrow techniques from Buzzfeed.

There has also been a major change in how much of our lives are subject to commercial harvest. There was once something of a line between our private lives—family and friends—and time spent with the entertainment industries. Social media, in particular, has blown that line apart, so that you socialize but in a manner that keeps you available to be reached by advertising. Nowadays, if you hang out with your friends in-person at a quiet cafe, you’re basically stealing from the attention industries. tim-wu-quote-2-redone

Yet while all this is going on, there are also signs of revolt. Many young people—and some older ones too—are determined ad-avoiders and ad-blockers. Parents are concerned about “screen time” and many people now pay for stuff on Netflix or Amazon, as opposed to just channel surfing. Overall, I’d say it’s a tough time to be in the attention business.

Q: What, if any, advances in attention merchandising can we expect in the next decade?

A: Well, for starters, any second of your life that seems “quiet” (that is not already somehow com­mercialized) now will be targeted, one way or another. Many efforts to “simplify” our lives (like self-driving cars, for instance) will also make it easier to pay more attention to attentional industries.

Also, I think the attention harvester’s technologies will get even closer to the person. We see this already as investments in goggles and glasses increase—the eyes are the main attentional input to the brain.

Finally, this has been ongoing for a while, but I would expect more careful integration of advertising into products (so that you don’t realize you’re being advertised to, so that stuff feels completely free), and ever-growing efforts to target advertising to your own particular vulnerabilities and character flaws.

Q: Is there anything we can or should be doing to stop Attention Merchants?

A: They have very dark moments, but my book doesn’t view the Attention Merchants or advertisers as evil. The fact is—and maybe I should have said this earlier—that our dealings with the industry are consensual, or at least somewhat-consensual. It usually works like this: we get free stuff, and in exchange we watch ads. Sometimes it’s even a good deal. Other times, it’s terrible.

What I really think we need to do is be more vigilant about policing the bargain, and make sure we don’t trade away our attention for nothing or too little. Thinking about how many hours you spend with your computer TV and cell phone can make it clear how much is at stake.

Author Tim Wu; photo by Mikiko Hiyashi
Author Tim Wu; photo by Mikiko Hiyashi

Q: What do you want readers to take away from The Attention Merchants? 

A: Three things. First, I want readers to have a visceral sense that their attention really is both scarce and incredibly valuable, and so getting some sense of how they actually spend it is really important for contemporary living.

Second, to understand that the attention industries are powerful and something one must be careful dealing with. I’ve already discussed the individual part. At the social level, we need to understand that like all industries, they tend to grow without natural limit. And if we’re not careful, they can overgrow parts of our society, economy, and lives, even if we may not want them to. Just look what has happened to politics, religion, and so many other fields that are now dominated by attentional contests.

Third, I hope they’ll understand that when things get too bad, it is worthwhile and important to re­volt, by blocking ads, cutting cords, reading books and so on. Americans can be at times surprisingly passive, and then at other times surprisingly rebellious. As this book shows, the rebellions make a big difference, and I hope we don’t lose that spirit.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing for permission to print this interview.  

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