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 …

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.

The Horde (in a comments section)

I’ve long been a fan of TNC (earlier instalments, among others, here and here). It’s nice to read an article on what his comments section did well, and how he did it:

If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.

Cixin Li and the ‘Three Body Problem’

I really enjoyed Cixin Li’s Three Body Problem. Since then I’ve smashed through the other two parts of the trilogy. Both were enjoyable – if you liked the first, definitely keep reading.

The third particularly, Death’s End, feels like a step up in terms of his writing. Perhaps it’s just that he gives himself more room to breathe, rather than racing through it all. It’s a particularly bleak vision that he has of the universe, and the end of it. But he tells it well.

Particularly good throughout Li’s writing is the idea of what happens if the floor falls out from under us; if the basic laws and experimental findings turn out to have been manipulated, or falsified.

Here are some quotes (from all parts of the trilogy):

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race …

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him… In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox …

… the universe is not a fairy tale …

… at some point, humanity began to develop the illusion that they’re entitled to life, that life can be taken for granted …

Stories meant twists and catastrophes …

“I also thank every member of the human race,” said … Ice. “Once, we lived together in the Solar System.” …

Civilization was like a mad dash that lasted five thousand years. Progress begot more progress; countless miracles gave birth to more miracles; humankind seemed to possess the power of gods; but in the end, the real power was wielded by time. Leaving behind a mark was tougher than creating a world …

A museum was built for visitors; a tombstone was built for the builders …

… she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river …

Books and articles

Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses, and cephalopods in general, are fascinating creatures. If you haven’t read about giant squid, you should, right now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

That’s before we even get to octopus escapes.

Given such an intriguing topic, I was excited to read Other minds. What was disappointing was that Peter Godfrey-Smith did so little with the topic. The book is largely a recap of evolutionary theory. Which is interesting and important, but doesn’t say much that’s new, and was probably covered in too much depth. The most interesting part here for me, was that he recaps briefly some of the evolutionary theory on ageing, which I hadn’t come across before.

There’s a little bit of a recap here on consciousness, and different theories (see the quote below that references a theory that’s very reminiscent of the ideas put forth in The Ego Tunnel).

But for the most part, the only thing that Godfrey-Smith talks about that’s new is Octopolis, a fascinating site where octopuses display much more social behaviour than had previously been spotted. But Godfrey-Smith doesn’t tell a fascinating story, and for the most part is cautious about drawing out deep conclusions from the research at Octopolis.

All in all, it’s a useful overview, but Other minds ultimately is an uninteresting book on a fascinating topic. If you’re out to read about theory of mind and cephalopods, I’d wait for the next book.

… an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecules instead of the iron which makes our blood red …

In birds like pigeons, each retina has two different “fields,” the yellow field and the red field. The red field sees a small area in front of the bird where there is binocular vision, and the yellow field sees a larger area that the other eye cannot access. Pigeons not only failed to transfer information between eyes; they also did quite badly at transfer between different regions of the same eye. This might explain some distinctive bird behaviors … hens approached … an object in a weaving way that seemed designed to give the different parts of each eye access to it. That, apparently, is the way the whole bird gets access to the object. The weaving gaze of a bird is a technique designed to slosh the incoming information around …

What we experience, in this view, is the internal model of the world that complex activities in us produce and sustain …

The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes

This is a paper by Reagan, Mitchell, Kiley, Danforth and Sheridan Dodds.  It’s based on their ‘hedonometer’, the guts of which is:

… the 5,000 most frequent words from a collection of four corpora: Google Books, New York Times articles, Music Lyrics, and Twitter messages, resulting in a composite set of roughly 10,000 unique words. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, we had each of these words scored on a nine point scale of happiness: (1) sad to (9) happy …

They then ran a large body of stories through their hedonometer:

We extracted and analyzed the emotional arcs of 1,722 novels from the Project Gutenberg corpus using sentiment analysis, and found six common shapes …

There’s more detail in the paper, but they argue that there are six basic shapes that emerge consistently:

  • Rise (‘rags to riches’)
  • Fall (tragedy)
  • Fall-rise (‘man in a hole’)
  • Rise-fall (‘Icarus’)
  • Rise-fall-rise (‘Cinderella’)
  • Fall-rise-fall (‘Oedipus’)

Intriguing stuff.

TV shows and books

In a few quiet moments, I’ve been watching some TV.

Iron Fist – is really, really bad. It fails basic questions of story telling – what is it that Iron Fist guy really wants? Is it to mope around, in general? Who really knows, because all of the characters wander round having these random conversations without trying to achieve any clear goals. The fight scenes are worse than you’d expect.

Lovesick (also listed in some places as Scrotal Recall) is hilarious. Laugh out loud hilarious. It is a story of a young man named Dylan, who gets chlamydia. He has to call everyone he’s ever slept with (at least, within the last several years), tell them the news. He uses it as a chance to revisit. Throughout, theres a ‘will they / won’t they’ vibe about Dylan and his best friend, Evie.

Dylan is an utter wet rag, and the TV show is worse for him being a character in it. Ted Mosby at least managed to be interesting, and to occasionally take decisive action trying to achieve particular things. Dylan, by contrast, is a disorganised bum, who wanders around taking absolutely zero action, and floating along with whatever happens to him. In real life, this is the guy who you have to kick out after he’s slept on your couch for three months, eaten all your cereal and not even offered to pay rent. The closest he comes to a goal or direction is signing up to a course because someone at a bar played a word association game, and the pointed out to him that he had a strong reaction to gardening. He is the personification of a wet rag. Somehow, though, implausibly, every woman he comes into contact with finds him charming, and he ends up sleeping with a large number of them. This is particularly implausible because he’s such a nob; in one scene, he ends up meeting up with an ex. When she tells him he was awful, he doesn’t listen, or apologise – he just tells her she was wrong, and that it was all wonderful. It wasn’t, mate. You’re a nob. I’m tempted to try and use this as a reflection on the broader state of society, and the lack of liminal rites of passage to help drifters know when to grow up, but I can’t be bothered. Dylan is the case study of a teenager who still wants to lie around in his socks and underwear all day.

His friends are hilarious and interesting, though, and they redeem the show. It’s worth watching just to see the hilarity of their antics, and the script writing, which is great.

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin is an interesting piece of writing. It tells the story of a group of Chinese scientists. It turns out that the strange phenomena they’re trying to understand are because aliens are coming to earth, and have been communicating. Those aliens come from a planet with three suns, that struggles to predict weather and temperature, and hence they’re keen to get to the paradise of predictability that is an earth atmosphere.

Liu Cixin has a fascinating imagination, and tells a genuinely intriguing story. There are interesting characters, complex sci-fi questions, and some decent plotting. For me, the major drawback to the book was the writing. Now granted, there may be quite a lot that I’m missing in the English translation. But it felt very abrupt and rushed to me. Scenes that could easily have been a chapter are meted out in a few pages, or paragraphs. This rush through the material lets Liu Cixin cover a lot of ground (in the first novel, a secret organisation dedicated to advancing alien life is formed, ruptured, faces internal conflict and then defeated in the space of a few chapters). But it feels very … superficial, and it doesn’t draw you into the story. It feels very much like you’re reading an interesting set of questions that Liu Cixin wrote, rather than losing yourself in the story.

It’s not that he can’t write well. There are some short passages that are evocative and beautiful. It’s just that he seems to dole them out, at a rate of about three or four per book. The rest is a rapid scan through a hurried storyline.

Worth it if you like good sci fi, but be aware of how it’s written.

Bartels and the state of democracy

Unequal democracy: The political economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry Bartels

Unequal Democracy was written in 2008; strange to think that’s almost a decade ago now. I started it before Democracy for realists, but finished it second. As with most of his writing, Bartels seems to have a habit of bogging down in inordinate numbers of tables, and quoting randomly from different pieces of commentary in the media to illustrate his argument. It makes the book feel a bit patchy.

Bartels focuses on inequality, and the relationship between economic inequality and political outcomes, and vice versa. He finds that Democrats substantially boost incomes for low income earners, but the reverse isn’t true for Republicans. He also finds that there are some issues where strong public support hasn’t been clearly reflected in decision making, or takes a long time to be reflected – minimum wages and estate taxes are his two examples.

He concludes with a reflection on what this means for democracy. In line with Democracy for realists, below, he concludes that economic outcomes impact politically, and that the prognosis isn’t good.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Democracy for realists, but it’s an interesting piece. Worth it if you’re looking for something a little more in-depth on political economy.

Economic inequality is, in substantial part, a political phenomenon …

On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.

My analysis in chapter 4 identifies three distinct biases in political accountability that explain much of their success. One is a myopic focus of voters on very recent economic performance, which rewards Republicans’ surprising success in concentrating income growth in election years. Another is the peculiar sensitivity of voters at all income levels to high-income growth rates, which rewards Republicans’ success in generating election-year income growth among affluent families specifically. Finally, the responsiveness of voters to campaign spending rewards Republicans’ consistent advantage in fundraising.

First, voters are myopic, responding strongly to income growth in presidential election years but ignoring or forgetting most of the rest of the incumbent administration’s record of economic performance.

Rather than contributing to accurate apprehension of that fact by conservative and liberal observers alike, political awareness seems mostly to have taught people how the political elites who share their ideological commitments would like them to see the world.

… it would be a mistake to characterize public opinion as a primary impetus for the major shifts in tax policy. At most, public opinion was a resource to be used-and shaped-by elites in their own policy struggles.

… increasing economic inequality may produce increasing inequality in Political responsiveness, which in turn produces public policies that are increasingly detrimental to the interests of poor citizens, which in turn produces even greater economic inequality, and so on. If that is the case, shifts in the income distribution triggered by technological change, demographic shifts or global economic development may in time become augmented, entrenched, and immutable.

In Aristotle’s terms, our political system seems to be functioning not as a “democracy” but as an “oligarchy”. If we insist on flattering ourselves by referring to it as a democracy, we should be clear it is starkly unequal democracy.

Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels

The title says it all, really. Or says the key bits. This is a disconcerting read, and a detailed one. Achen and Bartels set out to show that many of the intuitive ideas we have about democracy may be incorrect; and not just mildly inaccurate, but wildly wrong.

Their book is thought provoking, and disconcerting. I’m not an expert in the field, so I won’t comment on whether their data and conclusions are right – I’ll leave that to other political scientists. But as a reader, it was certainly interesting and challenging.

Bartel seems to have a habit of going painstakingly through detailed figures from surveys and regressions, that could perhaps be better summarised, or put in an appendix. It makes for exhausting reading if you check every number. It may prove that as with Reinhart and Rogoff, that his detailed work is subsequently proved wrong. I’m not planning to check.

But regardless of their presentation, Achen and Bartels argue that not only are voters poor decision makers (often inconsistent), but that a key theory (retrospective voting) is also wildly incorrect, with retrospection focussing only on the recent past, and including factors that may be completely outside political control.

From there, they argue that voters often decide based on identity – which seems fairly plausible. Their discussion of what the practical implications of that are is intriguing.

There are two particular illustrations that stuck with me. One is the shark election – how a series of shark attacks impacted the 1916 US Presidential election. Another is their chart showing a relationship between democratic responsiveness and fluoride uptake – jurisdictions that had more frequent elections were less likely to have fluoride in the water.

If you’re interested in political theory, this is a thought provoking read, and well worth it.

Thus, the book resulted in a kind of intellectual conversion experience for us. Much of what we had believed and trusted turned out to be false. To be faithful to the evidence and honest with ourselves, we had to think very differently …

The folk theory of democracy celebrates the wisdom of popular judgements by informed and engaged citizens. The reality is quite different. Human beings are busy with their lives. Most have school or a job consuming many hours of the day. They also have meals to prepare, homes to clean, and bills to pay … For most, leisure time is at a premium … Without shirking more immediate and important obligations, people cannot engage in much well-informed, thoughtful political deliberation, nor should they …

The psychological indeterminacy of preferences revealed by these “framing effects” … and question-wording experiments calls into question the most fundamental assumption of populist democratic theory – that citizens have definite preferences to be elicited and aggregated through some well-specified process of collective choice …

As a blueprint for government, the folk theory [of democracy] is hopelessly flawed. Primaries and referendums with no admixture of party or legislative influence exemplify the failure. Overlooking “the elemental necessity for organized leadership in a democratic politics” … has produced a mishmash of heightened responsiveness to popular impulses, behind-the-scenes elite influence, and self-defeating choices stemming from the limited political expertise and attention of ordinary citizens …

An even more fundamental problem is that voters may have great difficulty accurately assessing “changes in their own welfare.” Proponents of retrospective voting have routinely assumed that voters know when “thugs make neighborhoods unsafe” or “polluters foul food, water, or air” as Fiorina puts it. But that is by no means obvious. To the extent that voters’ assessments of their own well-being are erroneous, retrospective voting will succeed much less well in selecting good leaders and in disciplining them to pursue voters’ interests …

In most recent scholarly accounts, retrospective voting is a natural and rational feature of democratic politics. In our view it is natural, but not so obviously rational. Indeed, blind retrospection of the sort we have documented in this chapter seems to us to provide a significant challenge to the conventional understanding of political accountability in modern democracies … Our analysis suggests that “blind” retrospection on the basis of overall well-being, with no consideration of the impact of government policies on that well-being, is very unlikely to provide much in the way of effective accountability, notwithstanding the fact that it may be “rational” in a narrow sense. Voters ignorant about evidence and causation, but supplied with a tale of incumbent responsibility, will punish incumbents whenever their subjective well-being falls below some fixed standard, regardless of whether or not their pain is in fact traceable to the incumbents’ policies …

Blind retrospection afflicts us all. It is the inevitable consequence of bewildering social complexity and human cognitive limitations-limitations that the rise of democratic government has not altered. The conventional account of retrospective voting, minimalist as it is, fundamentally underestimates the limitations of democratic citizens and, as a result, the limitations of democratic accountability …

… for thinking about democracy, rational choice liberalism is a scientific error …

For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgements about where “people like me” belong. They do not always get that right, but they have much more success than they would constructing their political loyalties on the basis of ideology and policy convictions. Then, often enough, they let their party tell them what to think about the issues of the day …

… each party organizes the thinking of its adherents. A party constructs a conceptual viewpoint by which its voters can make sense of the political world. Sympathetic newspapers, magazines, websites, and television channels convey the framework to partisans. That framework identifies friends and enemies, it supplies talking points, and it tells people how to think and what to believe … For the voters who identify with a party, partisanship pulls together conceptually nearly every aspect of electoral politics … In fact, the more information the voter has, often the better able she is to bolster her identities with rational-sounding reasons …

Most of the time, voting behavior merely reaffirms voters’ partisan and group identities. They do not rethink their fundamental political commitments with every election cycle … In the political sphere, the most salient groups are parties, and the self-justifications that sustain group life are primarily grounded in-and constructed to maintain – partisan loyalties. People tend to adopt beliefs, attitudes, and values that reinforce and rationalize their partisan loyalties. But those loyalties, not beliefs or ideologies or policy commitments, are fundamental to understanding how they think and act …

… from the viewpoint of governmental representatives and accountability, election outcomes are essentially random choices among the available parties — musical chairs … This bloodless change of government is a great deal better than bloody revolution, but it is not deliberate policy change. The parties have policy views and they carry them out in office, but most voters are not listening, or are simply thinking what their party tells them they should be thinking. This is what an honest view of electoral democracy looks like. It is a blunder to expect elections to deliver more …

In our view, the most concrete and potentially important benefits of elections are not those envisioned in the folk theory. First, and perhaps most obviously, elections generally provide authoritative, widely accepted agreement about who shall rule … Moreover, in well-functioning democratic system, parties that win office are inevitably defeated at a subsequent election … This turnover is a key indicator of democratic health and stability … electoral competition also provides some incentives for rulers at any given moment to tolerate opposition …