Science and profit

There’s a lot written about the imperatives for scientists to publish. This article in The Guardian was the first I’d come across something on the economics of the industry. It’s an interesting read – well worth it.


The Eagle Huntress

Was good. Visually stunning. And it has a lovely story arc. But I would have loved to see some acknowledgement of the fact that cameras were there, recording the whole thing. The idea of the invisible eye seems tired and false to me; it would have felt more honest if the documentary maker had at least explained how difficult (or easy) it was to get there, and what the film’s stars said to him.

The Attention Merchants

I really enjoyed Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, so I was excited to read The Attention Merchants. 

Wu’s thesis, if I can paraphrase, is that:

  • It’s useful to think of media we consume on a regular basis, that’s funded by advertising, as being attention merchants: they reap human attention with the product they provide, and then repackage and sell the attention to corporations.
  • Over time, attention merchants have become more effective, and their work has extended into parts of daily life that were previously thought of as separate and apart (the home, the school, and times in the day that were seen as inviolate at one point).

They’re both interesting ideas, and worth unpacking.

What I think the book is lacking, though, is a theoretical framework for attention. It’s surprising, actually – an enormous blindspot. There are odd moments where Wu will refer to particular psychological theories. But given the topic of his book, it would have made a lot more sense to me to start with attention. What is it? What do we mean when we talk about attention? How does our attention to our environment around us, influence our decisions?

These are all good questions, and I think Wu’s book would have benefited from unpacking them. Much in the same way that I think Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order benefits from a clear explanation of the psychological theory underpinning his work.

Without that theoretical framework, Wu’s writing mostly becomes a history of advertising. Which is interesting, but not as deep, and not as useful in understanding what’s happening.

Notes and quotes

What Lippmann took from the war-as he explained in his 1922 classic Public Opinion – was the gap between the true complexity of the world and the narratives the public uses to understand it … When it came to the war, he believed that the “consent” of the governed had been, in his phrase, “manufactured”. Hence, as he wrote, “It is no longer possible … to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify …

Information cannot be acted upon without attention and thus attention capture and information are essential to a functioning market economy, or indeed any competitive process, like an election (unknown candidates do not win) …

… much of the energy formerly devoted to blogs or other online projects was now channeled into upgrading one’s Facebook profile and, with it, the value of Facebook itself. In this way, the public became like renters willingly making extensive improvements to their landlord’s property, even as they were made to look at advertisements. Facebook’s ultimate success lay in this deeply ingenious scheme of attention arbitrage, by which it created a virtual attention plantation …

Media and voter behaviour

A little while ago the thought occurred to me that although I assume, or take it for granted, that media has some impact on people, I didn’t know what the research actually said about how media affected voting. There’s plenty out there about the psychology of advertising – but less came to mind for media and politics.

After a short burst of googling, here are some of the more interesting pieces I found:

  • A blog post digs a little into causality, and concludes that there are two-way relationships between basically everything.

My sense is that what we have here is a feedback loop. Does media attention increase a candidate’s standing in the polls? Yes. Does a candidate’s standing in the polls increase media attention? Also yes

  • A study run in 2005-2006 randomly gave free newspapers to households. While only run in one area of the US, the result showed that giving either a left-leaning or right-leaning paper resulted in a higher Democratic vote. Given the geographic constraints, hard to know how broadly applicable this is.
  • A paper that examined data from 1996 and 2000 (that seemed to be one of the more frequently cited) found that Fox News increased Republican vote share.
  • A 2015 paper (that I haven’t downloaded) concludes that public interest and media coverage both influence each other in the US Republican primary.
  • A 2016 analysis of UKIP concludes that media coverage does drive voter support.
  • John Sides argues that the media drives voter behaviour – it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t.

It’s just that most of us, most of the time, have to rely on the media for information about the world, information that helps us determine which issues — or candidates — are worth paying attention to.  What else are we going to do?  Most of us don’t have the opportunity to talk to the candidates ourselves. And it’s not like we’re going to conduct our own original research (“Honey, I’ve spent the day reading 12 newspapers and every candidate’s Web page. Here’s what I’ve found.”)

So. Those are the articles I found in a quick search. It’s not a meta-analysis, or a literature review. If you find anything more interesting or more detailed, let me know. It’s an interesting question.

Rupert Murdoch and All the King’s Men

Rupert Murdoch: An investigation of political power

McKnight’s book reads like something that is very carefully worded, and very carefully referenced. It’s the kind of book you might write about one of the world’s most powerful men if you didn’t want to lose all your money in a lawsuit.

But it’s still an interesting read. It touches the intersection between Murdoch’s business interests, his political focus, and his personality. As this review notes, Murdoch is not an original political thinker.

One thing I found interesting is that while Murdoch’s values may be reasonably consistent (although they have changed at points), he is willing to back politicians on both sides of the aisle (at least in the UK and Australia), which makes him ruthlessly effective.

One thing the book doesn’t really unpack, is the media side of the equation. As a review notes:

… none of the dark stuff would work unless Murdoch ran hugely popular newspapers and television stations. I don’t think McKnight gives due weight to this fundamental source of the old man’s power. Murdoch’s political leverage depends on his uncanny talent for winning and holding the attention of very large numbers of people.

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

I came across All the King’s Men in a list of books recommended shortly after Trump’s election. It is the story of Jack Burden, a journalist working for a corrupt, populist politician in the pre-WWII American South.

As his Boss rises, so do Jack’s fortunes; but when fate turns on his boss, he’s forced to confront his own responsibility.

It is, politics aside, a beautiful book. Warren writes beautifully, and it is evocative and powerful. Worth it for the writing alone.

It’s also beautifully structured. We see Burden fall into the pit of despair, both at his Boss’s fortunes, and at his own lack of moral courage. Joseph Campbell can write about heroes killing their fathers; the way Jack Burden does it is particularly striking. But beyond it all, Burden finds a measure of redemption, frail as it is, in taking the right step.

There is some discussion about whether the ‘restored’ version (evergreened, perhaps?) or the original is better. I wasn’t sure whether you could get the original on Kindle, so I bought it from a second hand dealer. I didn’t want to mark up an older copy, so there are no quotes; but believe me that the writing is beautiful.