/ Cory Doctorow / 9 am Thu, Oct 13 2016
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  • The Attention Merchants: a deep dive into the origins of the surveillance economy

    The Attention Merchants: a deep dive into the origins of the surveillance economy

    Tim Wu is a multiple threat: the originator of the term "net neutrality"; a copyfighting lawyer who cares about creator's rights; a fair use theorist; Zephyr Teachout's running mate in the NY gubernatorial race; an anti-monopolist who joined the NY Attorney General and used open source to catch Time Warner in the act; a lifelong deep nerd who was outraged by the persecution of Aaron Swartz, and the author of one of the seminal books on telcoms policy and human rights.

    Now, he's back with his best book yet: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, an erudite, energizing, outraging, funny and thorough history of one of humanity's core undertakings -- getting other people to care about stuff that matters to you.

    Wu's book about ad-tech starts with a history of hucksters, advertisers, con artists, grifters, snake-oil salesmen, and other figures who made it their business to get in your business.

    From this history of attention-economics as a social, core human activity, he carefully builds up a devastating critique of ad tech as it stands today, transforming "don't be evil" into the surveillance business model in just a few short years. It connects the dots between the sale of advertising inventory in schools to the bizarre ecosystem of trackers, analyzers and machine-learning models that allow the things you look at on the web to look back at you.

    This stuff is my daily beat, and I learned a lot from Attention Merchants. More importantly, Wu has provided a framework for understanding current events in light of wider, historical trends.

    Wu -- who has just become a father for the first time -- is planning a very limited tour for the book. If you can make it to one of these events, you really should.

    Monday, October 24 WASHINGTON, DC
    6:30 p.m. -- Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036

    Tuesday, October 25 CAMBRIDGE, MA
    6:30 p.m. -- WorkBar, 45 Prospect Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

    Wednesday, October 26 TORONTO, CANADA
    5:30 p.m. -- Rotman School Event @ University of Toronto, 105 St George Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3E6

    Saturday, November 5 AUSTIN, TX
    11:00 a.m. -- Texas Book Festival, C-SPAN Tent, Austin, TX 78701

    Monday, November 14 LOS ANGELES, CA
    7:15 pm. -- ALOUD series in conversation with Madeleine Brand
    Library Foundation of Los Angeles, 630 West Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071

    Tuesday, November 15 SAN FRANCISCO, CA
    Event Details 6pm in progress

    Wednesday, November 16 PORTLAND, OR
    7:30 p.m. -- Powell’s City of Books, 1005 West Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97209

    Thursday, November 17 SEATTLE, WA
    7:00 p.m. -- Seattle Public Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave, Seattle, WA, 98104

    In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to TV's golden age to our present age of radically individualized choices, the business model of "attention merchants" has always been the same. He describes the revolts that have risen against these relentless attempts to influence our consumption, from the remote control to FDA regulations to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants grow ever-new heads, and their means of harvesting our attention have given rise to the defining industries of our time, changing our nature--cognitive, social, and otherwise--in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.

    The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads [Tim Wu/Knopf]

    (Image: Luma Partners)

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