The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016. $28.95)

At a recent small college basketball game I was in the stands with perhaps twenty or thirty other fans, most, unlike me, parents of players, or friends of coaches, along with a few teachers and academic administrators. Sitting near me was the father of a female player who I knew to be on the court as a starter. This man, perhaps fifty years old, paunchy, pale and badly dressed, stared down at his smartphone. I could see him checking email, surfing the net, sending and receiving texts. He rarely looked up and almost never saw his daughter in action. He sat that way through the entire first half until rising to go outside. I followed him, curious about what he’d do out there. He was standing in the cold, staring down at his WMD (wireless mobile device!). The second half was the same story, this father staring down at his mobile device, fingering it, putting it in his pocket for maybe fifteen seconds, then getting it out again, firing it up, surfing the net, checking his email, sending and receiving a text. When the women’s game was over, his daughter left the court. But she returned to the stands and joined her father for the second (men’s) game. Then they both got out their mobile devices and instead of talking and watching the game, they buried themselves in their screens. This is not a particularly unusual story. It happens all the time and everywhere.

Tim Wu, policy advocate and professor of law at Columbia University, writes for The New Yorker and is a science expert on technology use. His new book, “The Attention Merchants” is a distressingly brilliant dissection of a global disease that threatens our social, moral, emotional and political wellness and “well-being”. Wu documents the rise of advertising from the penny newspapers of a burgeoning New York City (circa 1880), through the rise of the movies (the first screen), television (second screen), the computer (the third screen) and, finally, the personal “device” (the fourth screen). At its inception, it was simply “advertising”, a conversion engine that, with astonishing efficiency, turned the cash crop of attention into an industrial commodity. As such, attention “could not only be used but resold.” Wu’s story is distressing in that it carefully documents our individual surrender of our time and privacy, and the loss of our “intentional motivation” through the steady invasion of our “heads” by both the state and the corporation.   Originally, our human attention was paid to danger and pleasure—animals that might eat us, and to plants and animals we might eat. We paid attention to art, to other people’s faces, particularly their eyes and expressions; we paid attention to the stars and the our sun, to our Gods and heroes, and sometimes to our poets and our philosophers. Too many times we paid attention to our Generals and went to war. Often we paid attention to our demagogues and lost our political liberties.   And over millions of years as animals on earth we gathered a harvest of emotional and cognitive intelligence that gradually set us relatively free now and then.

Wu’s book is thus the story of a loss of autonomy. It is a carefully calibrated and beautifully told tale, all the more stunning in its fearsome currency. There is a lot to learn in Wu’s book—the story of newspaper advertising, posters on Paris streets, the rise of movies, radio and television, the invention of ‘Prime Time’, the march to the exaltation of brands and celebrities and our final descent into a complete and total surrender of our autonomy as we stare constantly at our screens as they tell us who and what we are, and under what conditions we may live. Wu discusses how the Nazis learned to use propaganda to appropriate human attention (a lesson taken to heart by Stalin), though in truth the first great propagandists were the British during World War I (followed not far behind by the Americans under Woodrow Wilson). Wu shows how the long downward grind toward total annihilation occurred during the “Internet Period” that slowly devolved to the WMD, a technology that has obliterated human personality and created the human being that consists of little but states of “partial attention”, a fractured narcissist.  In some ways the ultimate result is Donald J. Trump, himself the apotheosis of a fractured narcissist, a modeled result of propaganda, corporate branding, and perpetual serial distraction.  Tolstoy once said that those who most want to change the world seldom want to change themselves. Well, we’d better get started changing ourselves.


“In the ensuing contest (between late nineteenth century penny newspapers in New York) we can observe a very basic and perhaps eternal dynamic of the attention industries. We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of that model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our “automatic” attention as opposed to our “controlled” attention, the kind we direct with intent. The race to a bottomless bottom, appealing to what one might call the audience’s baser instincts, poses a fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant—just how far will he go to get his harvest. If the history of attention capture teaches us anything, it is that the limits are often theoretical, and when real, rarely self-imposed.”

“The invention of ‘Prime Time’—the attentional habit of turning on the radio (later, the television) at the designated hour each and every evening of the year—was a momentous cultural as well as commercial innovation at a point where the two categories were drifting steadily closer. For it transformed the lives of those whose attention was now there for the taking. We have already remarked how who we are can be defined, at least in part, by what we attend to—how much more so this is when what we attend to is determined less by our volition and more by ambience. When we speak of living environments and their effects on us, then, we are often speaking too broadly—of the city, the countryside, and so on. Our most immediate environment is actually formed by what holds our attention from moment to moment, whether having received or taken it. As William James once put it, ‘My experience is what I agree to attend to.’”

 Total Attention Control, or the Madness of Crowds:

Early in the twentieth century, the Nazis had developed an advanced understanding of how to gain and use access to the minds of the public. It is a fact no less fascinating and relevant for being so depressing to contemplate. For by testing the extremes of what attention capture could accomplish the Third Reich obliges us to confront directly the relationship between what we pay attention to and our individual freedom. In producing “the people’s community” that the Nazis referred to as Volksgemeinshchaft, the Nazis affected a shutdown of free thought in the land of Kant, Schiller, and Goethe.

 A Meeting Between Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan!

 “Among other things, Leary and his followers were deeply committed to what might fairly be termed an attentional revolution. They wanted the public to block our the messages of the mainstream media and other institutions, which they saw as little more than tools of mass manipulation…By the time of his lunch with McLuhan, Leary was growing in fame and wanted to bring his ideas to a broader audience; his great ambition was to reach the young, now understood to be broadly disillusioned with how things were and looking for something different.   (Afterwards…) Most would take Leary’s words (Tune in, Turn on, Drop out) as a call to pay attention to where your attention is being paid; mind what you open your mind for. If this was not America’s first call to attentional revolt—Packard and Lippman had each issued his own, as we’ve seen—Leary’s proposed a far broader compass of things to ignore, not only for messages from television and government but college, work, parents, as well as other sources of authority. He called for a complete attentional revolution.”

 The Cognitive Psychology of “Checking Email” (Ie., Free will as an illusion)

 “According to (B.F.) Skinner, we, too, in most aspects of our lives, are like pigeons pecking at a button to receive little snacks. And this, according to the cognitive scientist Tom Stafford, explains the check in impulse behind email and other online technologies. Unlike a food pellet, email isn’t always rewarding; in fact, it is often annoying (though with fewer people and less spam, it was surely more rewarding back in the 1970s). Once upon a time, there could be no new email for days at a time. Much of what we get is uninteresting or indeed difficult to deal with. But every so often we get a message we are very glad to have. That such “rewarding” email comes unpredictably does not dim its allure or keep us from looking for it. On the contrary: as Safford points out, the most effective way of maintaining a behavior is not with a consistent, predictable reward, but rather with what is termed “variable reinforcement”—that is, rewards that vary in their frequency and magnitude.”

Think for a minute about activities that entrance their practitioners, like gambling, shopping or fishing…”

 Facebook and Depression

 “…more and more people began to complain that being on the site made them unhappy. It should have been no surprise, given what we know about human nature and the way Facebook was first conceived to play on the social dynamics of anxious adolescents, but watching the highlight reels of other people’s lives was bound to make you feel inadequate. Others found Facebook (like email) a compulsion in that same Skinneresque manner—usually disappointing, but rewarding enough to keep you hooked. A variety of studies—none entirely conclusive, to be sure—associated depressive symptoms with Facebook usage, one finding that “compared to browsing the Internet, Facebook is judged as less meaningful, less useful, and more a waste of time, which leads to a decrease in mood.” One is reminded of Marcuse’s observation that people in the industrialized West had ‘made mutilation into their own liberty and satisfaction.’”

 Instagram and Narcissism

 “Let us review our story in brief, as it might relate to Instagram: For most of human history, the proliferation of the individual likeness was the sole prerogative of the illustrious, whether it was the face of the emperor on a Roman coin or the face of Garbo on the silver screen…With the arrival of the smartphone and Insgtagram, however, much of the power of a great film studio was now in every hand attached to a heart yearning for fame…

Perhaps a century of the ascendant self, of the self’s progressive liberation from any trammels not explicitly conceived to protect other selves, perhaps this progression, when wedded to the magic of technology serving not the state or even the corporation but the individual ego, perhaps it could reach no other logical end point, but the self as its own object of worship.”

“New forms of expression arise from new media, but so do new sensibilities and new behaviors. All desire, the philosopher and critic Rene Girard wrote, is essentially mimetic; beyond our elemental need, we are led to seek after things by the example of others, those whom we may know personally or through their fame. When our desires go beyond the elemental, they enter into their metaphysical dimension, in which, as Girard wrote, ‘All desire is to be,’ to enjoy an image of fulfillment such as we have observed in others…By encouraging everyone to capture the attention of others with the spectacle of one’s self it warps our understanding of our own existence and its relation to others. That this should be come the manner of being for us all is surely the definitive dystopic vision of late modernity.  But perhaps it was foretold by the metastatic proliferation of the attention merchants’ model throughout our culture.”

 In conclusion:


  1. The past half century has been an age of unprecedented individualism, allowing us to live in all sorts of ways that were not possible before. The power we have to construct our attentional lives is an under appreciated example.


  1. But with the new horizon of possibilities has also come the erosion of private life’s perimeter.


  1. It is a paradox that in having so thoroughly individualized our attentional lives we should wind up being less ourselves and more in thrall tour various media and devices.


  1. Without express consent, most of us have passively opened ourselves up to the commercial exploitation of our attention just about anywhere and anytime.


  1. What is called for might be termed a human reclamation project. While the goals of reclaiming our time and attention are easy to praise, they can prove surprisingly difficult to achieve.   The difficulty reflects years of conditioning and the attention merchants’ determination to maximize, by any means possible, the time spent with them.


  1. At stake is how one’s life is lived.


  1. If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.


For further reading:

 The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture by Terry E. O’Reilly and Mike Tennant (Toronto, Random House Canada, 2009)

Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Ellul (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1968)

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse (London, Routledge Classics, 1964)

The Rise of the Computer State: The Threats to Our Freedoms, Our Ethics, and Our Democratic Process by David Burnham (Random House, New York, 1983)