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 …


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