Tim Wu, the professor at Columbia Law School who coined the term “net neutrality,” is the author of an important and extraordinarily well-researched and well-written new book titled The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. In it, Wu traces the entire history of the technology-enabled work of merchants—those who wish to sell us something—to dominate our attention and, in so doing, to create demand for their products and services.
From the snake-oil salesmen of old to the more pervasive, less noticeable, and more effective methods that define today’s Web experience, this book takes us on a comprehensive and insightful journey through the entire history of advertising and explains how the efforts of attention merchants have not only created demands that artificially dominate our lives, but have also gotten into our heads in ways that have fundamentally changed who we are. Even though Wu’s concerned that attention-grabbing technologies have had ill effects, this book is not a screed. It exudes the even-handed tone of a scholar. Wu lays out the facts without preaching, but his concern is nonetheless evident and pressing.
A good life and the sensible decisions that enable it are hindered by the onslaught of distractions that dominate most of our attention today. The constant tug of social media, ubiquitously accompanied by increasingly targeted advertising content, leaves little room for reflection. It exercises its influence largely at an unconscious level.
As the world fills to overflowing with unremitting noise, our lives are impoverished. We have traded our attention for hollow promises of useful content and experiences: a Faustian bargain. The dominant attention merchants of our day, Web-based services such as Facebook and Google, have a self-serving agenda that is much different from ours, but that isn’t obvious without finding a moment of stillness in the eye of the storm. Several authors have written about the battle for our attention that is being waged against us today, including several whose books I’ve reviewed in this blog. Tim Wu has added significantly to this lexicon by telling the chilling story of attention merchants.
We can choose to opt-out of this Faustian bargain that we’ve inadvertently made, but it isn’t easy. By reading The Attention Merchants, you will learn about the main forces that have created this problem—all familiar names—and this knowledge will equip you for battle.