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The Great Attention Heist


At the LA Review of Books, John Bell and John Zada review The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu, which is newly out in paperback. The book examines the individual and social consequences of the social media–fueled “attention economy,” and traces its history back to the advent of the advertising industry in the late nineteenth century. As Bell and Zada point out, the ceaseless demand for our attention is not an incidental byproduct of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, but rather their fundamental purpose and design. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets—and the applications that support them—represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.

The social effects cannot be underestimated. As Wu writes:

[U]nder 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 consequences of this vast gambit for our attention is that we have been drawn into a kind of mental slavery. Masters of profits and propaganda are farming our minds, doing cumulative damage that may go to the very core of our humanity. As a result, our attention is becoming locked into a low level of living and functioning.