The Attention Merchants, Reviewed & Author Interviews

9780385352017Everyone seems to be in agreement that this year has been exceptional in terms of attention overloading from all directions–political, commercial, “friends,” and so on. Unfortunately, the forecast is for more, and increasingly effective, attention-getting from technology-aided corporations. We have two words for you: Digital. Detox. And in the New York Times review of Tim Wu’s new book, a compelling set of evidence why those two words matter more and more:

…The history of the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness — whether by television commercials, war propaganda or tweets — is the subject of Tim Wu’s new book, “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.” He starts with the penny press newspapers of New York City, moves on to the heyday of radio and television, and concludes with the chaotic online bazaar of the present, surely better suited to bugs with eyes all over their heads than to ordinary human beings. En route, he covers snake oil, commercial psychology, Timothy Leary, AOL chat room Gomorrahs. His bandwidth is broad.

“The Attention Merchants” is more survey than treatise. Few chapters offer startling new arguments, though Mr. Wu is well attuned to paradoxes and ironies. His tone is measured, careful.

Only in the last 50 pages, when he appraises the excesses of the modern internet — which mutely scrapes our data and stalks us with weight-loss ads; which narcotizes us with listicles and hands to preening no-talents their own micro-platforms on which to strut their micro-stuff — does Mr. Wu turn savage, sinking enough venom into Twitter and Instagram to kill a baby monkey: “Fame, or the hunger for it, would become something of a pandemic, swallowing up more and more people and leaving them with scars of chronic attention-whoredom.”

But because “The Attention Merchants” is comprehensive and conscientious, readers are bound to stumble on ideas and episodes of media history that they knew little about. Mr. Wu, the author of “The Master Switch,” writes with elegance and clarity, giving readers the pleasing sensation of walking into a stupendously well-organized closet. As a lawyer and star professor at Columbia Law School — he famously coined the term “net neutrality” — he is clearly in the habit of laying out his arguments in logical, progressive steps.

Throughout his book, Mr. Wu explores “the fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant — just how far will he go to get his harvest?” Almost inevitably, these merchants run afoul of our core sense of privacy. But over time, that sense has eroded…

Read the whole review here. On the All Tech Considered segment of Fresh Air (National Public Radio, USA) you can hear an interview with the author. On the Leonard Lopate show, which you can listen to here as a podcast, another excellent conversation with Tim Wu, a man with the ability to illuminate and elucidate during these trying times (also thanks to National Public Radio, USA).

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