From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch and who coined the phrase "net neutrality", a revelatory look at the rise of "attention harvesting", and its transformative effect on our society and our selves.
Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers.
In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the "attention merchants", contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to TV's golden age to our present age of radically individualized choices, the business model of "attention merchants" has always been the same. He describes the revolts that have risen against these relentless attempts to influence our consumption, from the remote control to FDA regulations to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants grow ever-new heads, and their means of harvesting our attention have given rise to the defining industries of our time, changing our nature - cognitive, social, and otherwise - in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.
"Tim Wu has written a profoundly important book on a problem that doesn't get enough - well, attention. Attention itself has become the currency of the information age, and, as Wu meticulously and eloquently demonstrates, we allow it to be bought and sold at our peril." (James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History)
"I couldn't put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, The Attention Merchants is also a book of urgent importance, revealing how our preeminent industries work to fleece our consciousness rather than help us cultivate it." (Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package)
"Television entranced the masses. Digital media, more insidiously, mesmerizes each of us individually. In this revelatory book, Tim Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. The Attention Merchants deserves everyone's attention." (Nicholas Carr, author of Utopia Is Creepy and The Shallows)
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It's Been Sold
Largely a history of advertising
3.5 stars. A well-done book that largely acts as a detailed history of advertising and how advertising has been amplified and exacerbated by the various screens in our lives (from the first screen, film, through subsequent screens of television, computers, and finally mobile devices). Wu briefly touches upon other, older forms of attempting to harness attention (religion and governmental propaganda being prime examples), but the bulk of the book is a catalog of the ever-evolving commercial efforts to wrest our limited attention from us in a ploy to sell goods. I think the book could have been better and more illuminating if Wu had spent some additional time explaining the science of attention, why we are swayed, and the cognitive reasons why the ubiquitousness of mobile devices is so devastating. That said, the book covers its topic thoroughly and is engaging if for no other reason than its topic permeates our modern lives. The book is at its best and most interesting as it heads into the 21st Century and tackles social media and the like, the way that social media makes us each a narcissus, and how the minute details that can now be tracked make attention harvesting easier and our need for escape from such harvesting all the more urgent.
- S. Yates