Book Review: Tim Wu Enlightens Us To Those Trying to Get Our Attention
"THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads" by Tim Wu
Thursday, November 10, 2016 5:02 PM
Are we hurtling toward a point of peak advertising? Our attention is becoming so completely harvested that there may be little more of ourselves to give. If we reach this saturation point, what happens then? The implications for newspapers, television networks and Internet companies could be dire. Columbia law professor Tim Wu seeks to provide some answers in his new book, “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads,” his comprehensive account of the media world’s more than century-long struggle to grab and keep increasingly distracted customers.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry.” © 2016, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
In lively prose, Wu takes us back to the birth of the penny press in the 19th century, when the mania to capture our attention took off. These mass-market newspapers, heavy on sensationalism, sold at a lower price than the competition and made up the difference by drawing a vast readership that advertisers appreciated. Although many of these cheap papers faded away, the penny press not only revolutionized the practices of the newspaper business but also served as a model for other media companies that relied on advertising to keep costs low for consumers.
Wu highlights the evolution of saturation advertising in a trend found in many public schools in recent years. Schools across the country now allow corporate advertising on campus in exchange for a cut of company revenue. Lockers, hallway walls and meals bear corporate logos. Advertising appears on video billboards containing school announcements. In America in 2016, few spaces are considered sacred or safe from the demands for our attention.
While Wu describes the dynamics within journalism, advertising, television and Internet services that brought us to this moment, he struggles to offer a path for us to take back our minds and souls. The book shies away from the prescriptive. It is composed of short chapters that contain at most two anecdotes each that highlight a specific step in the story. The approach fits Wu’s goal: He wants to show us how our current conditions arose. He raises concerns about the adverse impact of commercial harvesting of our attention. He asserts that in such a world, giving deep attention to something noncommercial — a prayer, a poem, a playground — seems almost an act of rebellion. But Wu promotes no effective response to our modern condition. Nor does he criticize the danger that attention merchants pose to our ability to function as citizens of a democratic republic. The goals of the attention merchants — for instance, to capture millions of eyeballs through online clicks — conflict with the need to provide substantive, high-quality information that enriches culture and enhances democracy.
Wu introduces us to both familiar and unfamiliar players, companies and technologies that have transformed the media and advertising landscape. For those who know the history of television, the rivalry between two pioneers, David Sarnoff of NBC and William Paley of CBS, is a well-trod tale, and Wu brings little fresh to it. Less known is the work of sociologist turned marketing guru Jonathan Robbin, who practically invented the rudimentary process of mining consumer data and habits by Zip code, allowing advertisers and marketers to analyze audiences on a more granular level than ever before.
Through his work in the second half of the 20th century, Robbin signaled the end of the assumption that a single mass market exists. And thus began the process of sorting each of us into pockets of like-minded market segments. Wu overlooks one of the deleterious effects of this slicing and dicing of consumers: The unrelenting drive to surveil and tag us as consumers not only distracts and exhausts us — it’s dehumanizing. It treats us simply as means to a sale. It also undermines centuries of concerted effort to engage in complex collective thought that enables us to deliberate on the substantive issues facing society. It’s hard to participate in a republic, let alone tackle global challenges, when our eyes are darting from television to iPad to phone. Wu suggests we employ self-control in the face of the temptations that swamp us on our screens. But how realistic is that?
Wu, who coined the phrase “network neutrality” and has worked for the Federal Trade Commission, is no technological naif or idealistic libertarian. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for New York lieutenant governor in 2014 on a populist platform. So one might expect him to offer a more overtly political response. Those hoping to find policy and political answers to the overwhelming commercialism of civic and cultural life in America won’t find them here.
Wu’s primary task in this book, however, was to write an engaging history of the attention economy, and he has succeeded in that. He argues that consumers are indeed exhausted, our eyeballs deeply occupied. The question remains: Where do we go from here? What’s next in the long history of company gambits for grabbing our attention?
Well, Google, the most successful advertising company in history, recently introduced an obelisk called Google Home. It’s a loudspeaker and a microphone constantly connected to Google’s servers and algorithms. It’s always on, passively listening to the words and sounds of the home. The device melds the information it gathers with the rich dossier that Google already has on its users. It promises to provide personalized responses to verbal search queries and requests to play music. Google Home is a response to Amazon’s Echo, which also sits on a counter, constantly listening for voice commands. The newest version of Apple’s Siri is also capable of listening at all times, learning constantly about its owners’ desires.
Between these devices on our counters and the mobile sensors we increasingly strap to our skin and carry in our pockets, the attention merchants need no longer compete for our attention. Attention is so 2010. These companies monitor our voices, motion and bodies just by being there. We can ignore them, and they will still respond, monitor, record, profile, sort and deliver.
We have a long way to go before humanity is constantly connected to and monitored by companies and governments. But the model is clear. The attention merchants don’t have to chase after us so much anymore: We are willingly connecting ourselves to them.