Is Your Life Really Yours? How ‘The Attention Merchants’ Got Inside Our Heads

Professor, Columbia Law School

When we turn on the television, or leaf through the newspaper, every one of us enters into a knowing contract with advertisers – they will do their best to sell us something. According to Tim Wu, law professor at Columbia University and author of new book The Attention Merchants, the online world is markedly different – it runs away with that mutual understanding, stretches it to places and methods you would not sensibly consent to.

What makes us stick around, then? Wu believes it’s our love of free things. Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay and many other platforms that have become the center of our social, business and retail lives don’t cost a thing to use, and allow us to do so much. But what are the costs of everything being free? In exchange for these privileges, companies and media organizations harvest our attention and sell it to advertisers. They are ‘the attention merchants’. That makes you the commodity.

Many of us revolt against ads – we use ad blockers, choose streaming over broadcast TV, listen to on-demand music rather than radio, and hack our way out of much-loathed YouTube commercial overtures. But there is subtle attention harvesting happening in ways we cannot see, and do not question. Our preferences and habits are being mined and that information used to sell products and ideas to us at an even deeper level. The high-competition for our attention results in ever-increasing misleading click-bait, flashing images, shorter content (anything to get us in and keep us there), and it actually changes us neurologically. We’ve lost our ability to deeply focus, to get into a flow state where profound work is made – that, in Wu’s eyes is a definite and serious cost.

But even more worrying is the way advertisements push and pull you toward decisions that could change the course of your life entirely. You may spend more money than planned and miss out on experiences you would have organically desired instead, like travel. You may vote for someone you previously wouldn’t have. Open to the influence of companies who know a lot about you, you may end up living a little differently that you wanted to – without even realizing it. This gets us to one of Wu’s big questions: since your mind and attention have become commodities, open to extensive and subtle influenced, are the decisions you’re making really yours? How much of your life is motivated by ideas and impulses disguised so that you feel they are authentically yours? Wu says we need to be diligent in removing ourselves from the attention marketplace regularly enough so that we can be sure we are living lives we can truly call our own.

Tim Wu’s most recent book is The Attention Merchants The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Tim Wu: So there was a man named Benjamin Day who I call the first of the attention merchants, the founder of the New York Sun, who was in his own way a business genius and an innovator. He had this idea which was as opposed to selling a newspaper for six cents which was the normal way of doing it, he would sell his newspaper for a penny and try and attract an enormous audience and resell that audience to advertisers. So the newspapers at the time, the six penny papers, they’re a little bit boring. They covered politics and finance. They didn’t have crime stories, that kind of thing. And he introduced a sort of a far more interesting newspaper. The very first issue was all about the suicide of a man who had been separated from his lover. It had stories of death, mayhem, destruction, gossip and was sold at such a low price that he managed to attract these enormous audiences which then were resold to advertisers. Now the thing about that penny price is it was a money losing proposition unless you sold enough and unless you reach enough advertisers to make it worth it. So he pioneered this unusual business model which today is found in as many places as Google, Facebook, Instagram, you know, it’s sort of taken over our lives.

So we are in a period where there’s something of a revolt going on against advertising. There are a lot of people who consider themselves immune to ads or try and avoid all advertising. There’s cord cutters and there’s a lot of people who use ad blocking technologies to try and have themselves sort of in an ad free zone. And it’s reached the point where it’s a little bit of a kind of a war, maybe a war of attrition. And I’ll say two things about that. First in the history of advertising there have been similar moments. It seems that about every 30 years or so there’s a kind of revolt. Usually because things have gone too far in one way or another and I think in some ways things have gone too far in the web. That there is just too much, too intrusive, too much privacy invasion and people are starting to say, you know, this is not what I bargained for. Whatever deal we had I think you’re exceeding the terms.

I think that hopefully it will lead to a place where we strike some kind of new deal, some kind of understanding is made. You know the web lacks any kind of limits as to where advertising should or shouldn’t go. It’s not like newspapers or something where there’s, you know, you don’t have every page of the newspaper completely covered in ads. There’s kind of a bargain. And I hope we reach that on the web.
[Another thing that it will probably lead to however is also more and more efforts to use advertising that is surreptitious, that gets under the radar, that you don’t really realize is advertising. You might even call it manipulation or nudges.

I think you’ll see this particularly with some of our devices or new technologies. Let’s say you use Google Maps trying to find something, a place to eat. How much of that decision is based on what’s nearby and the best, how much it is based on who is paid at Google to sort of put the ad there. I think as we move into an era where we increasingly rely on intelligent intermediaries defining things for us or to be our guides in life the possibilities of surreptitious marketing increase. And I think that’s a direction that we’ll probably see, particularly with so much resistance to advertising.

You know I think as a culture we’ve become obsessed with free stuff almost frankly quite to our detriment. You know it’s almost impossible for many people to consider using anything on the web that isn’t free. Somehow it’s like an outrage if you have to pay for it. And there’s been a cost to that. I think that when many people signed up for Facebook in the early days it just seemed fun and free. There was very few advertising or very little advertising. But slowly we’ve come to understand that you’re paying in very different ways. You’re paying with your data which you hand over. You’re paying with your attention. If you spend I don’t know how many minutes or even hours a day on Facebook you’re giving over something of tremendous value. And ultimately there’s several ways in which we’re paying. First of all we are granting unprecedented levels of access to ourselves, to our portal of judgment which ultimately has commercial influence or can influence our life in other ways. So we may without realizing it end up living lives that are a little different than we might have wanted to buying more things than we expected to, voting for people we might not have thought we would. All these sorts of things. We make ourselves open to influence, let’s just put it that way.

And the other cost is that ad supported mediums have a constant need to deliver a receptive audience. And since we are the audience we are increasingly programmed to be more receptive which means open to distraction, ready to see something, constantly clicking and looking. There’s an effect that I call the casino effect which I think comes to describe our lives on the web where you sit down to write an email and then suddenly you notice four hours have gone by. You’re not quite sure what happened. You do know you clicked on a bunch of stuff and you went here and you went there. I think that is kind of becoming our lives and that’s a very attractive mental state for advertisers because you’re constantly clicking, constantly refreshing, constantly seeing new stuff. Whether it’s good for us is an entirely different question. And so I think we’re at risk of losing some of our ability to deeply focus, to get work done, to have the kind of attention span you need to do more profound kinds of work. And that I think is some of the cost of free.

So one of the inspirations for this book was the philosopher William James who is one of the first psychologists writing in the nineteenth century. And he had this one line that really struck me where he said roughly, you know, your life experience is what you choose to direct your attention to. And so at the end of your day is when it’s all said and done what your life was will be the culmination of what you paid attention to. You know and that’s in some very profound way true. And it does suggest something interesting about our times. We live in a time where our life experience moment to moment is more intermediated than any other time in human history. It’s almost like we live in a built environment of attention. Most, I don’t know exactly how you count the hours but many of our hours are screen as opposed to physical. I mean the screen is physical but it’s some virtual thing. And in some sense we live in a cocoon almost, a projection at this point. You know we’re still here but in terms of what our attention is paid to a lot of it is not here. And so I think that whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave to one side but it certainly makes it important that we understand the motives of those who are creating the cocoon that you’re living in.

If we are living in kind of a simulated reality that’s where we are, virtual reality is just the stronger version of it. You better pretty profoundly trust who’s creating your reality for you and maybe have some say in what that reality looks like. And I worry and part of the reason I wrote this book is to examine those motivations. And if it is fundamentally the motivation to gather you up for resale to something well that might not actually be in your interest or sort of suddenly manipulate you in different ways. But even more profoundly than being sold to which is kind of annoying there is this issue of living your own life, making decisions which are yours. And I don’t care if you listen to the founders or John Stuart Mill or if you’re a religious person but the importance of decisions that are truly ours is so fundamental, so profound to a realized life that I think we need in this day and age there’s so much that we’re exposed to is motivated by other ideas. We need to be very careful about reserving time and space for ourselves and making decisions which we can truly call our own in order to live a life you can truly call your own.