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

“My Experience is What I Agree to Pay Attention to,” said psychologist William James. And therein lies the problem and danger of advertising: we don’t always agree or choose to pay attention, but it shapes our life experience irrevocably.

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.


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.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.