Listen: Tim Wu on The Attention Merchants

Tim Wu's book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (review) was one of the best books I read in 2016; on Rick Kleffel's Narrative Species podcast, Wu discusses the book (MP3) covering depth that he couldn't fit between the covers.

The more limited a resource is, the greater its worth. We’re quick to apply this to externalities – air, food, water, energy, and money, for example. But we all own a hidden resource, exploited for immense profit on a daily basis. Each week of his or her life, every human being has 168 hours of attention, mental acuity that we can devote to anything we wish. Sure, much of it goes to sleep and the basics of getting around. Those spare moments when we are able to choose how we spend our attention are sought after with mathematical ruthlessness by those who hope to resell our experience. We are the ultimate product.

It has not always been this way. Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads might be described as brief and action-packed history of advertising. But Wu is well aware of the cultural, moral and epistemological implications of his investigation. The mastery to be found in The Attention Merchants is Wu’s ability to let the story he is telling braid into the bigger picture about what’s going into our heads. Suffice it to say that after reading this book, you will be much more precise when you decide whether to want to spend – or pay – your attention to anything.

Tim Wu Suggests Spend Our Attention on The Attention Merchants: “How can my product be a deliverance for you?” [Rick Kleffel/Narrative Species]

(Image: Tim Wu, Campaign Event, Summer 2014, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. What Mr Wu completely failed to notice is that the techniques used by the "attention merchants" date back to world war II. See the PBS documentary "Century of Self"

  2. Advertising is pretty incredible: merchants pay someone else (the advertiser) for work you are doing, reviewing the product. This is a pretty lucrative business worldwide, and now that the Internet has made it easy to collect the space of our attention robotically, we have enormously profitable entities whose entire livelihood is based on this theft.

    It is pretty clear that you are doing work, because content providers consider your attention a form of remuneration. That is, they will refuse to show you their stuff if you are running an ad blocker: they expect to be given something in trade.

    However, users are the lowest form of citizen in this universe, and the idea that they would have some rights of property with respect to their production (attention) is completely absent, while Google, Facebook, et al make off with trillions.

    Users should be negotiating for a bigger piece of the pie. If Google is making money selling my attention, I should be able to demand commensurate services in return. For every $0.01 of attention I give them I expect at least $0.005 worth of something back. Am I getting it? It seems doubtful, given how much net profit they're walking away with.

  3. Wu's history begins significantly before WWII. He starts with medicine shows.

  4. A great pod, thanks for that. Wu is great, and I think I'll keep listening to the series.

    Ironic that it should be this article in which I first notice this intrusive nonsense fekkan with context menus and being entirely unwanted.

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