The lizard’s revenge
A book report on Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, musings on the human mind, and anxious portents thereof.
If there is one thing that became crystal clear recently, it’s that the state of the world is not what it had appeared. Perhaps the moral arc of history was taking a short break, but it certainly seemed worse than that—indeed, it feels as if in general things are worse almost everywhere you look. We can’t seem to have rational conversations anymore, and social values are under attack and if anything in regression.
Particularly as someone whose job is to understand human behaviour, I am deeply uncomfortable with not being able to account for so many of the hows and whys of these past few years. My conceptual frameworks on—amongst many other things—collective opinion, modern media, and cognitive information processing prove useless when applied to current events. But the road to greater knowledge is oft paved with books, and so when Stephen Few recommended Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, I picked it up immediately with the hope of answering a number of questions.
We spend more time consuming media content than at any time in our past. The world is, as literally as effectively needs be, at our fingertips on a constant basis. And that media diet, entertainment and factual, scarcely resembles anything from even half a decade prior. Famously, the medium is the message (or perhaps it is the massage?), so how does the new consumption pattern of this new sort of content affect our cognitive processes and our opinion formation? To not mince words, is the firehose of inanity so many of us drink from making us dumber?
The hose feeds more than inanity: modern political blogs dish out what I’ve previously called an “endless firehose of shit to get upset about.” Most are nakedly partisan, and traffic in weasel words, belittling, and ad hominem banter alongside the factual, post-factual, or editorial content they purvey. Add to this the pop-media-studies subject of vogue—online echo chambers—and one must also question how we collectively assess input and form opinion. It’s one thing to debate what is factual, how people assess the factual, and the proliferation of the post-factual, but is all of that not immaterial if collective decision-making and consent aren’t based on information to begin with?
And what of the source of that which traditionally is factual? Old media has been struggling with the modern media economy ever since it even realized there was a modern media economy in which to participate, and to this day it is clear the business models don’t add up. Meanwhile, the elements of new media that do business in news content experiment gleefully with radical ways of delivering and consuming news content with varying regard as to their social value or economic viability, floated along by speculative venture capital. We’ve built a modern society in which our opinion and subsequent participation is based on news and information which we in turn obtain through a business transaction. Is this model sustainable today? Was it ever?
How did we arrive at the modern media landscape?
The symbiosis of content and marketing
The Attention Merchants begins, appropriately, with the first attention merchant. It need not go back far—Wu assigns the distinction to The Sun, first published in 1833 by print shop owner Benjamin Day. Where other newspaper publications of the time were largely expensive luxury products pushing particular political ideas or vanity content, Day was the first to do two connected things: he sold each copy at a loss, and he sold the attention of his readers in the form of advertisement. Essentially, as in most business innovations, he took a gamble.
But in order to have attention to sell, he needed to attract readers. Even at a bargain price (1 penny—far cheaper than the 6 cents typical of the time), he had to attract the eyeballs he would then sell. Day quickly found a particular kind of content particularly successful in engaging his audience: courthouse drama. Assaults of every kind, thefts, con men, and other titillating stories quickly became such a regular and attractive feature that Day hired someone to cover the court full-time. Thus, George Wisner became possibly the first full-time reporter in U.S. history, out of a need for engaging content to sell advertisements next to.
By the 1920s, radio had been invented and had become a pervasive part of daily American life. But most radio content was live music, and there was no moral room for advertisement on the airwaves—the private, family home was considered a sacred space that was not to be intruded upon by business. So the live music shows were underwritten wholesale in exchange for what were effectively naming rights—and the occasional on-stage gimmick.
It was Walter Templin, working for Pepsodent—a toothpaste of dubious medical value—who turned this docile landscape upside down. Upon discovery of a small Chicago program called Amos n Andy airing on an independent radio network, which featured two white actors playing the titular black characters in what can only be called the verbal version of blackface in 15-minute serialized skits, Templin found that all who listened, even in that sacred family space of the home, ceased all other activity and gave their entire attention to the show—something none of the musical acts could claim.
It took a lot of convincing (and a square million dollars up-front), but in 1928 Templin managed to convince the Amos n Andy creators, his own superiors at Pepsodent, as well as the folks at NBC (CBS having laughed him out of the room on the concept of airing a show five days of the week) to run the program nationally and largely untouched, with an advertisement for Pepsodent tagged onto the end.
It worked: the serialized fictional content, replete with ongoing plot-lines, hooked listeners and soon 40–50 million people (a full third of the country) were all tuning in to a single show every day of the week. It was such a cultural phenomenon that businesses changed their schedules to fit the 7pm airing. Thus was an entirely new form of storytelling in a new medium brought to not just mainstream entertainment but indeed everyday culture, by a man who needed to sell more toothpaste.
By the 50s, television had replaced radio in the spotlight, and the astute reader will have picked up the pattern by now. Soap operas came to be during the radio era, crafted around social and domestic lives both to target women as well as to form a natural home for product integration for the eponymous soap companies that envisaged the programs to begin with—they found a new, livelier home in television daytime programming. Game shows came to popularity because Revlon was desperate for innovative ways to set themselves apart, and were thus willing to put up the prize money for The $64,000 Question.
But perhaps the content innovation of greatest consequence in the television era is one most of us can remember, and was no less business-driven. Cable television came to be, offering eventually hundreds of channels of content and sealing closed the era where a single popular program could effectively capture a Super Bowl’s audience share every night of the week—and with it came cutthroat competition. With the number of available eyeballs divided between far more than the half-dozen channels of the mid-20th century, the possible ad revenue haul had dwindled—but content wasn’t getting any cheaper to make.
One channel had this problem in particular figured out: MTV. The music video art form it brought to the masses wasn’t just hip and attractive—the videos were often free and exclusive for the network. Between the content that cost literally nothing and the VJs that were paid next to nothing, MTV seemed to have the perfect business formula. But—and this should serve as a rebuke for all of us who lament that “MTV never plays music videos anymore”—the public was growing bored with the music video, having seen such a variety and volume of them already, and the labels were beginning to sense that there were better ways to exploit their own resource.
Eventually, this need for fresh original content and a natural allergy to paying as much as its cable rivals for programming drove MTV to a new vision. Based on, of all things, an old 70s PBS program called An American Family, MTV found seven “naturally ridiculous” people whom they threw in a house for months and filmed relentlessly. Like An American Family before it, The Real World offered for its cast a shot at a weird sort of fame and for its audience a strangely compelling voyeuristic look at—pretty much nothing.
Which is also how much it cost—each participant was paid a grand total of $1,400. Soon, the modern media industry being what it is, the airwaves were full of this new genre of “reality” television. We can, within reason, lament bottom-of-the-barrel taste and how it’s driven the direction of content since the early 90s, but there is equally much to be said for simple economics and the survivability of hundreds of simultaneous channels of constant programming. Yes, The History Channel’s oxymoronic obsession with aliens can likely be attributed to focus groups and audience taste, but it’s also fairly undeniable that Ice Road Truckers costs far less to produce than any well-researched documentary. It is our own collective consumerist demand for sheer volume of content in exchange for our subscription cost—bang for our buck—that shapes the direction of the medium. The business is what drove the existence of The Real World, and the content business equation is balanced by advertising—by consumer attention.
Of all The Attention Merchants’ running thematic threads, this one is simultaneously the most and least surprising. Being a business industry, of course entertainment media is driven by business reality. But the degree to which innovations on the content side are driven by needs from the business side—and not the other way around—is worthy of notice. As a society that deifies creative ideas-people, we like to buy into our own myth that the business suits simply follow where visionary creators blaze the trail. The real stories aren’t so simple, but they do share common DNA:
- Each was driven by a need to secure more consumer attention for fewer dollars.
- Each came to be in a stagnated, saturated market of samey content.
- Each was expected to fail by industry and pundit alike.
- Each increased the stickiness of consumer engagement. Amos n Andy replaced music programs families could leave on in the background with scheduled programming for which they would drop everything.
- Each doubled down on the bet. If the original Sun gamble was a daily printing at a loss on the odds of advertising revenue paying off for that day, the innovations since have increased the size of the upfront bet and the length of the odds.
But painted over time, the differences between these stories also form a trend: as the count and diversity of media sources expands naturally over time, each new play is a fight for an ever-smaller return of eyeballs, and becomes commensurately more desperate. This all started with the co-invention of advertising-subsidized newspapers and beat reporting. The serialized plot is a highly interesting entertainment storytelling device; the clash of ridiculous people on reality television… could be, but in practice rarely is.
And where have we gone since the early 90s? Where did all the content innovation go after the deification of “ordinary” people on television? The mental exercise is simple, and it’s the name of the book. Where is all the attention? Where are the eyeballs looking? The trend continues: ordinary—or, perhaps, hyperordinary—people are the focus, and now those people are creating the content entirely for free. Sure, some have leveraged some small income from social media, but they are few and far, and the ones that can truly make a living are no less exclusive nor privileged than the stars of yesteryear, whilst receiving a fraction of the compensation. What does this mean? Where does this go next, and what happens if the bottom falls of the longest gamble yet by the media industry?
And on the flip side, what happens when media innovation is made for something besides the sake of profit?
The manufacture of consent
It turns out that the etymology of “propaganda” is strictly ecumenical—that there was a time when it was used exclusively to discuss the spread of the holy word. It is perhaps telling, then, that the term (and the practice) was effectively coöpted by the state—and in turn, that this was the term that came to represent that effort.
The first propaganda came about in a very different world. Not only was it a time when the state still stayed effectively as far out of daily public awareness as it could manage and when public spaces were free of most attentional intrusion, it was also a time when the world was on the brink. World War I had broken out and it was becoming painfully clear to the British that they, too, would have to contribute vast men and materiel to avert personal ruin. But here one taboo runs headlong into another, and a historical aversion towards mandatory conscription clashes angrily with the visible crassness of a state-run marketing campaign.
Tradition won, and while an initial newspaper and public poster campaign with the lede “Your King and Country Need You” brought 750,000 volunteers within a couple of months, the flow was beginning to wane and winning the war would take nearly tenfold that number. The answer, as ever, was to double down. Ubiquitous posters (54 million of them) that pointed directly at the viewer with a personal appeal, traveling film shows, the first scheduled “broadcast” ever done which ultimately reached around 2.5 million people via a mixture of media, and even military parades all combined to form a “permanent ‘information’ campaign” designed to remind citizens of their existential crisis and to keep recruitment on the mind.
On the other side of the puddle, the United States didn’t have much existential reason to participate in the war. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson had campaigned against it—so when, a year later, he was to break that promise, a divided citizenry needed a bit of nudging to consent to such a course of action. George Creel had played a big part in Wilson’s messaging during that reëlection campaign (including, it must be said, the argument for neutrality), so when he proposed a marketing-science-based approach to “arouse ardor and enthusiasm” for the war, the President readily agreed, handing him broad authority.
In the book, Wu introduces Creel’s campaign thusly: “In his sunny way, Creel would take that authority and run with it, going to extremes that must be described as alarming.” Believing that divided opinion was dangerous and confusing, and conversely that the public’s belief in the justness of America’s participation in the war could be nothing less than completely and passionately felt, Creel aggressively pursued every available avenue to reach—and indeed, bombard—the attention and minds of the public to forge what came to be called a “war-will.”
With a government agency that grew within a year from an idea to twenty subdivisions 150,000 strong, Creel oversaw the printing of 75 million pamphlets and books, a strange early social networking ploy wherein some 75,000 common citizens would eventually give a total of over 750,000 impassioned pro-war speeches, and the creation of feature films both pro-war and (strongly) anti-German. Notably, while Creel himself professed an aversion to censorship, anti-war activists and media were met with official responses that fell variously between public scorn and legal action.
It worked. In fact, it worked so well that Walter Lippmann, amongst those that convinced Wilson to go to war in the first place and who eventually worked with Creel in the aforementioned efforts, came to develop a sort of deep cynicism about the whole affair. Believing that public consent for the war had effectively been manufactured by the government, he wrote the seminal Public Opinion in 1922, which discussed—amongst many other things—the gulf between the complexity of real-life situations and the stories sold to the public. That the public relies upon these oversimplified “stereotypes” (his term) to understand their country’s issues and decisions called into question, for Lippmann, foundational principles of democracy:
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.
While many progressives, looking back on the war effort and in particular the silencing of dissent, came to agree with Lippmann, there were others that greeted Creel’s massive and radical success with open arms: in America and Britain by intelligentsia who saw an opportunity to wield a sort of enlightened manipulation over the masses—and in Germany by an imprisoned and bitter war veteran who saw and wrote that “before the enemy propaganda we were like a rabbit before a snake.”
A low-level veteran of the advertising industry in addition to war, that prisoner was particularly taken with the British campaign, which presented, in his words, simplified “negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood” which allowed “no half-measures which might have given rise to some doubt.” And so upon release he took the same lessons Lippmann had learned across the pond and turned them on their head to forge something new and unprecedented: total control of attention and reality.
It began, of course, with his now-famed oratory skills. And to be certain, his speeches were by all accounts extraordinary: carefully crafted creeping crescendos that were almost supernaturally enrapturing. But it was only after Hitler assumed control that the truly remarkable was accomplished. With Goebbels instated as his Creel, Hitler set about translating his oratory success, which had won the Nazis hundreds of thousands of adherents, into a form that could reach and win over no less than the entire population of 80 million.
Critically, this didn’t always involve leaning hard into the techniques that had worked in person. Having taken over the nation’s radio system, Goebbels didn’t flood the airwaves with propaganda—instead, he simply replaced some commercial advertising with political content. This persistent but inconstant background drone of propaganda proved effective enough that the radio became a centerpiece of the Nazi information campaign. In fact, it was important enough that the regime manufactured and aggressively marketed a cheap radio known as the Volksempfänger which sold well enough that the reach of radio blossomed almost four-fold to 16 million households.
This didn’t mean that the Nazis restrained themselves to subtle techniques: the Funkwarte had the explicit job of ensuring citizens and neighbors were listening to said radio—and indeed, were tuned into the appropriate stations. They also, for periodic special occasions, and in a move that by no measure accidentally resembled congregating for a religious service, herded everybody into designated listening rooms to hear special broadcasts.
In this case, the message must innovate alongside the medium, and the Third Reich did just that, employing techniques that resembled not authoritarian decree but instead the subtler manipulation the commercial advertising industry had been hard at work mastering for half a century. Amplified by the regime’s complete control of information and ownership of its citizens’ attention, the marketing message didn’t so much demand adherence and loyalty as forge a complete vision of reality that painted the available choices in stark, emotional terms that could not on their own terms be ignored nor refuted. The presence of individual choice was certainly an illusion, but the effort to sell that perception of choice was no less important than the manipulation that effectively eliminated any real version of it.
These expeditions into the power of attention and information control provided lasting lessons. As a precedence and a cautionary tale, the West developed largely allergic feelings toward any state-run domestic campaigns, while the Soviets did their best to double down on the example.
But as a series of individual points and principles, the impact of Hitler’s total control can be felt even today. The dictator put emphasis on the operating principle that his regime must “serve its own truth uninterruptedly…as soon as by one’s own propaganda even a glimpse of right on the other side is admitted, the cause for doubting one’s own right is laid.” Between the 24-hour content feeds of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and hyperpartisan websites and communities, as well as the distortion, selection, and outright manufacture of reality by all of the above, a potent American reënactment of the Third Reich’s propaganda campaign is now well into its second or third decade. Parallels can even be drawn between the integration of political content into your Facebook feed and the insertion of political content into the radio program you’d listen to for musical entertainment.
Liberals are not immune. I recommended in a previous post Daily Kos as a source of rigorous political coverage with in-depth policy analysis. And while I stand by that recommendation, I’ve always been wary of their generous use of unproductive weasel words—Trump is either “popular vote loser Donald Trump” or “illegitimate president Donald Trump;” Republicans and their supporters are almost universally portrayed as stupid, fundamentally hypocritical, or outright evil. This isn’t just unproductive, it’s counterproductive: if it wasn’t clear enough from the Constitution and the structure of our country, it ought now be clear enough from the past two decades of near-total gridlock and brinksmanship that either party simply cannot govern alone. Calling each other names on a continual basis breeds enmity and takes us all further from being able to form a more perfect union. Juxtaposing real policy problems and proposals with ad hominem weasel attacks runs the risk of creating a sort of mutually-reinforced emotional association.
And if you’re a liberal, you probably end your day unwinding with any of our politically-flavored late night hosts spinning the day’s misdeeds into a comedic context. But I’ve come to wonder whether comedy is a healthy way to obtain or contextualize your news for the day. Comedy is chock-full of fine lines, and amongst many other things it is easy to accidentally start punching down rather than up and bringing issues to light in counterproductive terms. The risk of falling prey to reductionist tendencies for the sake of a laugh is ever-present. And just as integrating serious policy content with belittling attacks or light entertainment has, to my nose, an odious quality, I wonder if integrating serious political news with comedy carries the same whiff.
But the genie is out of the bottle, and on a practical level all any of us can do is focus on the rational while identifying and weeding out attempts to control our attention and our information streams. This in turn leads one to ask: how good are we at resisting manipulation?
Selling the whole barrel
This article is (deliberately) not structured like The Attention Merchants. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of Wu’s book is its strictly chronological narrative and just how perfectly the entire story fits together, with recurring characters and ongoing plots. To read the book is to watch the entire media and advertising industries grow from nothing before your eyes, and I have no interest in robbing the potential reader of that experience nor the book of its thunder. Rather, I’ve tried to pick up some of the recurring conceptual themes that in the book are scattered about due to their temporal distance and offer them in juxtaposition with critical analysis.
And I’ve saved the most insidious, pervasive, but also ineffable and tenuous theme for last. Because at almost every turn, with almost every innovation, there is an opportunist who in some cases sees a gap at the bottom of the barrel others missed, and in other cases is willing to reach for the bottom of the barrel where others refused on moral grounds.
Even all the way back to The Sun we see this: Benjamin Day enjoyed a couple years of nearly unchallenged success until 1835 when The Morning Herald arrived on the scene. The Sun may exploited the particular attentional stickiness of courthouse drama, but it was still fundamentally coverage, and it also balanced the titillating by taking an abolitionist stand, covering the human stories behind runaway slave capture and the auction block. The Herald had no such inhibitions nor noble pursuits. A sort of penny-paper precursor to Jerry Springer, Perez Hilton, and your nightly local news, its publisher James Gordon Bennett focused on the weird, extreme, violent, and freaky whilst deliberately lashing out at the competition and starting feuds. Deaths, murders, and fires were particularly prized, and reported upon in a weird gonzo style that would eventually become on-scene crime reporting.
It worked. Not only did the Herald quickly become the Sun’s only readership rival, it also goaded the Sun into lowering its own standards to keep up, fabricating an entire series of articles on recently discovered extraterrestrial beings.
In radio, you could almost argue that the big content innovation and the lowering of the bar came simultaneously—Amos n Andy certainly pioneered a much more effective, interesting use of radio than the staid musical and factual programs that preceded it, but to what extent was its success also predicated on its comedic capitalization upon racist stereotypes—and to what extent did its unprecedented popularity perpetuate and promote those stereotypes?
We’ve already discussed television’s modern slide, but it’s useful also to note that at their conception, both radio and television were conceived and broadly thought of as public services. The earliest television programs may not have been of very high quality, but they at least aimed at a classier kind of entertainment, and at distributing genuine public interest information—the sort of programming you might find on PBS today. It was, amongst other pressures, the introduction of Nielsen ratings that gradually eroded the taboos and gently nudged the bar downwards. It is difficult, after all, to look at the hard viewership numbers on the page and choose the science education program over the game show or the celebrity interview show. It is similarly difficult to look at the mealtime drops in viewership numbers and not think about invading that sacred space (hence, Today and Tonight).
We haven’t, however, already discussed the other major form of advertising-driven print media: magazines, where we find the same story. The folks at Time-Life can’t exactly be credited with bringing classy ambitions to its content—Life died because its glossy coverage grew stylistically outdated for an increasingly sophisticated and skeptical audience, and Time’s calling card was its reader’s digest approach to the news, reducing complex issues to no more than a few paragraphs at a time. But it was its next project, People, that would prove how lucrative the bottom of the barrel was. Where Time had sought to report the news through a focus on individual personalities, People would do away with any pretense of news and write exclusively about its famous, wealthy subjects apropos of nothing besides. But 1974 was a time when celebrities still universally valued and guarded their privacy, and tabloid rags were regarded with disdain, even within the Time-Life halls. The effort was derided internally and externally—but between its subjects’ curious willingness to open up about all sorts of personal matters and the public’s newly discovered voraciousness for tabloid rags, People took off, spawning endless imitators.
The lizard’s revenge
But why do people crave tabloid content so much? Academic research is still catching up, but Wu offers the consideration-worthy theory that we humans possess an “essential craving” to be connected with the extraordinary. Since ancient times we have invented deities, spirits, and gods—and perhaps it is no accident that the decline of religion in modern times is coincident with the rise of celebrity worship and tabloid culture.
There are real scientific areas of study around human attention: “automatic,” involuntary attention in contrast to “controlled,” intentional attention are understood concepts, for instance. But we needn’t rely upon a deep field survey of a field so complex and nascent as behavioural science to do some armchair analysis and piece together what is already happening to us, and what may be in store for our own future. For while The Attention Merchants (and indeed even Stephen Few’s recommendation thereof) are framed around concern that individuals understand the Faustian bargain they have signed in participating in the modern media economy—in other words, that we are all rational economic actors that can exercise judgement and restraint—I am far more preoccupied with our own irrational selves and whether in the end we are all fooling ourselves with notions of judgement or restraint to begin with.
It’s important to remember that we humans aren’t the intentional culmination of any sort of process. It’s not like evolution made the first modern Homo Sapiens and dusted off its hands, stood up, and declared its work done. We are, if anything, the rogue AI of planet Earth: a runaway element of far greater collective power than the processes that created and surround us (and indeed with enough power to easily destroy it all if we so chose). This is evident in many aspects of our daily lives and biology: fats and sugars taste so good to us, for instance, because they are rare in nature and our biology incentivizes us to seek out such foods.
There’s no reason to expect that our minds are any more completely baked. Our irrational mind and behavioural economics have become fashionable and important topics of study, but again we needn’t delve off topic to establish our point here—we can follow the lead of the book and discuss as an example modern society’s common addiction: checking email. It’s certainly more prevalent and visible now that email is readily available in our pockets, but email’s sticky effect has been observed for pretty much as long as the technology has existed. One of B. F. Skinner’s many interesting findings in behavioural reinforcement is that activities that provide variable, uncertain rewards are way stickier and more addictive than predictable ones. You check email so frequently because you hope that you’ll get a new message, but it’s exciting and addictive precisely because you very often don’t. The same applies to most things online these days: social media, of course, but take a look also at how Farmville and other free-to-play games are full of gum-ball and slot machines with random virtual prizes.
Indeed, the core thread of our story here is all about the exploitation of such little tics in our heads. The shocking, the lewd, the violent, the titillating—these kinds of content all work preternaturally well. We can argue up and down the street about why exactly that is and the extent to which this is a problem for society, but that’s out of scope here. What matters is that when we look at the history of the media landscape—print, radio, television—we see repeatedly that digging for the bottom of the barrel engages our attention far more effectively than the meaningful public service content it displaces. And this continues today: the Buzzfeedification of headlines across the web is just another little brain hack, another little optimization proliferating because it works.
That proliferation is worthy of discussion as well—it forms the second pillar of this argument. I’m not one to ever personify or ascribe morality to economic processes like capitalism. It is just a tool like any other. It can be used for good or ill. Even completely unchecked there is some society somewhere that could make capitalism work sustainably and admirably. To try to brand capitalism as “evil” or “greed” is to caricature a useful complex system formed of hundreds of millions of people in far-too-simple terms.
But it’s hard to look at the history of this industry in microcosm and not feel some incarnation of the invisible hand pushing us gently, firmly, consistently away from enlightenment. Media and advertising are codependent businesses built on a persistent, ever-growing bet. Investment is made up-front in content in hopes that it all pays off, which in turn depends on both sides of the equation: the price of the investment and the success of the content. Of course all parties involved are going to gravitate towards stickier, cheaper, attention-grabbing content—it’s a simple matter of comparing numbers on a page. And once an innovation in attention-hacking is discovered or is morally broached, it would be business suicide not to jump on board. The first major tabloid rag. The first reality television show. The first clickbait headline. The economic reality of the bet, the margins involved relative to the dollars in the bucket, dictate that where success goes the money must follow. If it doesn’t, your enterprise will soon be left behind in a set of business equations that no longer balance.
But traditional economic theory is built on both supply and demand—we consumers have the right to refuse the deal, correcting the market and imbuing our values into the system. Indeed, Wu covers some of what he calls “great refusals” over the course of his book. I remain less convinced. In the case of the 60s counterculture movement, for instance, it seems the great refusal was quelled by simply reshaping commercial messaging to a slightly different set of values (hence the Pepsi Generation). And while these refusals may or may not have corrected certain oversteps over the years, the delta between the beginning and end of our journey is enormous. There was a time when public streets, let alone family homes, were considered too sacred for business to invade. Now advertisers track every website you visit—and probably know more about your own spending and consumption habits than you yourself do.
Maybe we’d do it all the same if we were to try again. Maybe this deal is in fact what most people want, and would rationally choose. We get a lot of things without paying very much cash at all in this grand bargain. But that sentiment implies two things: one, that the existence of a choice is evident; and two, that the terms of the deal are apparent. It’s easy to pull into a gas station in 2017 selling gas at, say 29 cents a gallon, determine that something’s probably dreadfully wrong, and refuse the deal. It’s less obvious when exactly it was that we all accepted the current media landscape—and you can ask any privacy advocate just how hard it is to explain to the average layperson why the tracking of your web browsing history is deeply troubling.
And then you factor our first lemma back into the discussion—the fact that attention optimization digs at irrational, less-than-conscious aspects of our own brains. We can talk until our heads turn blue about the merits and morality of the attention marketplace we sell ourselves upon, but right now you’re nearly half an hour into this article and you’re probably feeling that junkie itch right now—what’s going on on Facebook? Twitter? Better check your email; maybe something important has come in. Or did you not manage to make it even to this point? It is well-known that drugs like heroin recalibrate the mind’s pleasure and reward centers—what has the smartphone done to us?
And thus the requisite two halves of the vicious cycle emerge. The industry innovates by finding ever-more effective ways to hack at your brain, to steal your attention without your witting, conscious consideration, to coöpt your reward and pleasure centers. We in turn succumb to our lizard brains, accepting the deal and giving over our attention: our precious time, our intellectual capacity, and today even our personal lives and content thereof. The numbers on the balance sheet demonstrate success, and the latest brain hack propagates because it must if one is to stay in business. It doesn’t take advances in behavioural science to further the field of attention domination and we don’t have to understand why these tricks work to see that they do—there are enough actors out there trying new things that ideas continually prove themselves out, and the numbers speak for themselves. What we can understand is that over time, our rational ability to refuse the deal declines and the totality of attention control increases—and we’ve seen where that can lead.
And: at the end of it all, the lizard finally has its day again.
Coda: final notes on the book
Over 6,000 words of synopsis and analysis later, I of course owe this book a proper review. As previously mentioned, The Attention Merchant’s greatest strength is the force and flow of its narrative—something I have deliberately eschewed here. A lot of this is thanks to reality and how history happened to play out, but more must be said for Wu’s writing and characterization. With the precision of a scholar but the readability of a novelist, Wu’s prose brings history and (oft-recurring) characters to life with style and a canny sense of storytelling.
Also important: this article hardly touches the totality of the content in The Attention Merchants. Indeed, the above praise can only be heightened in light of the sheer density of information in its roughly 350 pages. Most chapters in the book aren’t even hinted at in anything you find here. Dozens more essay-worthy topics like the first wave of female-oriented marketing (it’s not what you think!), the first comprehensive nationwide data-driven geospatial marketing-demographic analysis (earlier than you’d think!), Oprah (pretty much exactly what you’d think!), and how literally buying product whose marketing message reflects certain values fulfill the personal need to live those values (where do you think hippies went?) all live within these pages.
Highly educational but imminently readable, Wu’s book is easy both to recommend and to read. Pick up a copy.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.