Tim Wu’s The Master Switch is one of the most referred-to books I know. Deservedly so. It tells the story of communications technology over the past 150 years or so and convincingly shows that over and over the same pattern repeats: The new medium is celebrated as providing a democratizing voice … and then it gets owned, consolidated and corporatized. The Internet, Wu implies, just might be the exception.
His new book suggests that maybe it won’t be. In The Attention Merchants, he traverses some of the same landscape, this time viewing it not as a history of communications technology but as a history of attention capture. From this point of view, the Internet looks not like an exception but as a fulfillment of a continuous history beyond that history’s wildest dreams. Where once we had television commercials that we ridiculed and could leave the room during, we now have online services designed from the ground up to capture every nuance of our responses and to use that against us to distract and mesmerize us further, and then to sell that data to others. The Internet is the perfection of the art—and now science—of attention capture and monetization.
It seems undeniable that this attention to attention has powered the commercialization of the Net, and that the commercial entities capturing and reselling our attention have become central to our experience of the Net. But to leave it there would be to inadequately characterize the Net. (Wu himself is not guilty of such a mischaracterization.)
Attention is a weird thing. We can will ourselves to attend to something, or we can have our attention grabbed by something we don’t want to pay attention to. An intermediate state is also quite common: We put ourselves into an environment where what grabs our attention is likely to be worth our while. We do that when we settle in to read a magazine, wander freely through a foreign city or check in with a website that aggregates posts.
This experience of entrusting our attention to an environment has long been deeply important to us and deeply useful. It’s in such spaces that we let things grab us by the brain, and thereby discover new interests. The attention merchants distort and devalue this state online by playing tricks on our judgment, as with scientifically engineered clickbait. They are there silently—Wu references Vance Parkard’s 1957 Hidden Persuaders—trying to capture our interest just long enough to get us to click, without any actual regard for whether we actually care about what they’re getting us to click on, or even if there is a shred of truth in what they’ve said in their effort to wring precious click oil from our fingers.
No barriers to learning
As a result, the free spaces we wander in order to have our attention arrested have become polluted. But those spaces still have value. If Facebook—or Reddit or name your favorite—wasn’t also showing us content that we cared about, we wouldn’t choose to wander there.
There is a yet bigger phenomenon beyond the capturing of our attention by increasingly expert commercial kidnappers. Before the Internet, much of our attention was surrendered to outlets that not only showed us what they wanted when they wanted, but also that gave us no other ways to pursue our own genuine interests. If the TV broadcast a news story that piqued your interest, you probably could not pursue it any further. The barrier to learning more was substantial, involving trips to the library and waiting on interlibrary loan. Now, of course, you can click your way to satiety … although you’re very likely to run across something new and worthy of pursuit along the way.
So, while it’s true that our attention is under assault by commercial interests that distract us and pollute our free-wandering spaces, this era is also the time of our greatest control over our own attention. The space is polluted, but it’s also far vaster than any attentional space we’ve ever had. That makes it only more imperative that we reclaim our attention from profiteers who want to sell it to the highest bidder.
As with so much else that the Internet has wrought, our attention is both more able than ever to flourish and also more at risk. The first step toward preserving our attention is to pay attention to it.