Does anyone remember when Rolling Rock beer ran a campaign on highway billboards back in 2008, promising that the company would project its logo onto the next full moon? It turned out that the whole thing was a hoax dreamed up by the advertising firm that handled Rolling Rock, though other companies, including Coca-Cola, had investigated this idea in earnest years before.
What depressed me when I first read about this stunt (and still does) was how plausible it seemed — if not technically, then culturally. We are living in an era when some advertising executive gazes at the moon and sees not beauty, or a humbling reminder of his insignificance, but the Earth’s most unignorable billboard.
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 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 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. 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, 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.
By the end of the 1920s, most Americans were accustomed to being “cajoled and sold to” in print and on billboards. By the end of the 1950s, advertisers had wormed their way into the family living room, with television and radio networks “owning” times of the day that were previously sacred, like dinner hour. Then came the personal computer, the Internet and, finally, the “fourth screen”: our mobile phones. They devoured every morsel of attention we had left, “rather in the way fracking would later recover great reserves of oil once considered wholly inaccessible.”
Wu’s chapters about the early days of advertising are some of this book’s most enjoyable, easily serving as a reader’s companion to “Mad Men.” (They contain great product trivia, too: Listerine was once marketed as a floor cleaner.) But it’s the last third of “The Attention Merchants,” in which Wu charts the rise and fall of the utopian Internet, that is truly memorable.
“Once a commons that fostered the amateur eccentric in every area of interest, the web, by 2015, was thoroughly overrun by commercial junk,” he writes. And the most pathetic part? That commercial junk barely generates a profit. All those clicks amount to “rounding errors in the scheme of commerce.”
In other words, the Internet has become Vegas without the revenue.
Wu is plenty aware of the web’s virtues, not least of which is that it connects us to others. But we pay a price for our gmail and social media habits. Google and Facebook keep track of our purchases and wishes and fears — we’ve become their product, their content. A number of commercial entities, including news organizations, subject online visitors to “extraordinary surveillance,” too, collecting data about them without their awareness or explicit consent.
“It is a more thoroughly invasive effort,” he writes, “than any NSA data collection ever disclosed.”
And how connected are we, really, under the new terms and conditions of our lives? When we all gathered around the boob tube, Wu writes, we at least had “a new degree of shared awareness, even shared identity.” But we’ve since become a nation of niches, each of us vanished into our customized, ego-enlarging, time-thieving worlds.
At least, that’s the implication. It’s not the happiest of visions. Feel free to disagree. (People certainly did when Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet was sending us into a devolutionary tailspin, reducing our attention span to that of gnats, in “The Shallows.”) But many of us can relate when Wu asks, “How often have you sat down with a plan, say, to write an email or buy one thing online, only to find yourself, hours later, wondering what happened?”
And so Wu concludes his book with a cri de coeur, imploring us to regain custody of our attention. It is written so rousingly that it just may make you reconsider your priorities. He brings up the work of the psychologist and philosopher William James, who “held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.” He also quotes James’ quasi-palindromic complement, the ethicist James Williams: “Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.”
We are what we choose to focus on, the sum of our concentrations. What will we choose? This is an age of glorious individualism. Yet never, it seems, have we belonged less to ourselves.