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Book review: The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu

The internet has brought a wide variety of positives and negatives to humanity, or the slice of it that is regularly online. Perhaps the most sinister of the downsides is the way that human attention has been commodified, with targeted adverts and ‘content’ specifically designed to capture our attention for profit. What we have today is the logical conclusion of a long process , as Tim Wu describes in his book The Attention Merchants – The epic struggle to get inside our heads.

All through history there have been competing claims on our attention, but the idea of profiting from human attention is more recent. Wu starts that story with the early advertisers, such as Clark Stanley, the original and literal ‘snake oil salesman’. He describes the trend in ad posters and billboards in 1920s Paris. A chapter details how the first insights into advertising were used and supercharged by the British government during the First World War, introducing state propaganda to the world.

From newspapers and posters, the attention merchants moved into radio, sponsoring programmes and then later introducing adverts in between them. This was controversial at the time. Since people listened at home, it was seen as a commercial encroachment into private space. Fast-forward a couple more decades, and television had buried that idea for good, and millions of eyeballs would be focused on commercial messages at the same time – an era of primetime dominance that Wu calls ‘peak attention’.

There’s a kickback in the 1960s, where the counterculture encouraged people to drop out of commercialization and pursue their own freedom of thought. It was not to last, with big business co-opting the counterculture in their own marketing.

Wu tells all of this as a story, picking up on colourful characters, anecdotes and important technical innovations. (The remote control was invented and originally marketed in response to the annoyance of TV adverts, I learned.) It’s in large part the story of advertising, but not exclusively so. Governments want a claim on our attention and our imaginations, especially in oppressive regimes or times of crisis. (Nod to Britain’s latest round of propaganda, the Get Ready for Brexit campaign.) As the book goes on, other players enter the story too, from subscription television to bloggers to the ‘micro-celebrities’ created online.

Then comes social media, which is machine tooled to keep as many people as possible on the site for as long as possible, and checking back all the time. Search engines work out how to accomodate paid-for results, reaping billions in the process. There are chapters on ‘clickbait’, and the science of writing headlines that people can’t resist – whether or not the content is worth viewing when they actually do click through. For Wu, this reaches its nadir in about 2015, when the web was “thoroughly overrun by commercial junk.”

The book ends with Donald Trump, a one-man brand and an attention merchant par excellence. He purposefully dominates political discussion in a way that makes “almost all political thought either a reflection, rejection, or at least a reaction to his ideas.” For Wu, a reality TV presidency perfectly sums up the challenge the book addresses: how do we make decisions based on merit, when the conversation is so overwhelmed by the contest for attention?

The Attention Merchants is a thoughtful and important book. What we pay attention to is our lived experience, and therefore our lives. When our attention is hijacked for profit, when we are deliberately distracted for the benefit of a company, something is taken from us without our will. We may in time come to see this as a form of theft.

As companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google compete to make their ‘voice assistants’ indispensable to us at every waking moment, we are on the cusp of another big wave of attention commodification – one the book doesn’t get to. Amazon’s Alexa engineers talk openly about how their objective “is to shift the cognitive burden from the customer to Alexa,” with Amazon’s AI reading our emotions and making suggestions or even purchases for us.

It has never been more important to guard our attention, and monitor who has access to our private lives, and Wu’s book is a useful way to understand the current moment and how we got here.

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