One of the Best Books of the Year
The San Francisco Chronicle * The Philadelphia Inquirer * Vox * The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch ( a New Yorker and Fortune Book of the Year) and who coined the term "net neutrality”—a revelatory, ambitious and urgent account of how the capture and re-sale of human attention became the defining industry of our time.
Ours is often called an information economy, but at a moment when access to information is virtually unlimited, our attention has become the ultimate commodity. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of efforts to harvest our attention.
This condition is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. Wu’s narrative begins in the nineteenth century, when Benjamin Day discovered he could get rich selling newspapers for a penny. Since then, every new medium—from radio to television to Internet companies such as Google and Facebook—has attained commercial viability and immense riches by turning itself into an advertising platform. Since the early days, the basic business model of “attention merchants” has never changed: free diversion in exchange for a moment of your time, sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser. Full of lively, unexpected storytelling and piercing insight, The Attention Merchants lays bare the true nature of a ubiquitous reality we can no longer afford to accept at face value.
Business is always trying to get our attention and perhaps our souls according to this lively if sometimes overwrought history of advertiser-sponsored media. Columbia law professor and net-neutrality advocate Wu (The Master Switch) takes readers from the 19th-century dawn of New York's penny press, when media moguls first realized that the attention of readers was their "product" and advertisers their customers, through the propaganda of wartime Britain and Nazi Germany, the advent of television's mesmeric power, and ultimately the current onslaught of garish pop-ups and click-bait junk-journalism fighting to hijack our eyeballs on the Internet. Wu's critique of the Kardashianized spiritual malaise of our society of the spectacle "We are at risk of being not merely informed but manipulated and even deceived by ads... of living lives that are less fully our own than we imagine," he groans feels old hat; the real problem seems to be simply how to prune back ads that have grown too invasive and annoying. Fortunately, his history is usually vigorous and amusing, filled with details of colorful hucksterism and cunning attention-grabbing ploys along with revealing insights into the behavioral quirks they instill in us. The result is an engrossing study of what we hate about commercial media.