The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads Paperback – 7 Sep 2017
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[Tim Wu] writes books that make a big impact... The Attention Merchants is a sobering and significant book. * John Naughton, The Guardian * 'Wu writes about the uglier consequences of our great migration to the web with the bruised zeal of an ex-millenarian.' * The Times * 'Wu is much better than most, partly because he is a sceptic, but mainly because he has narrative flair and an eye for the most telling examples.' * The Sunday Times * 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 THE SHALLOWS [Wu] could hardly have chosen a better time to publish a history of attention-grabbing... He traces a sustained march of marketers further into our lives. * Financial Times * 'Wu's book ... record[s] the extraordinarily successful attempts by advertisers to occupy more and more of our attention over the past 100 years.' * Ben Tarnoff, The Guardian * I couldn't put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, [it] 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 A profoundly important book... 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 The question of how to get people to care about something important to you is central to religion, government, commerce, and the arts. For more than a century, America has experimented with buying and selling this attention, and Wu's history of that experiment is nothing less than a history of the human condition and its discontents. -- Cory Doctorow, BOING BOING Forget subliminal seduction: every day, we are openly bought and sold, as this provocative book shows. * Kirkus * [A] startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention * New Republic * Illuminating * New York Review of Books * [An] energetic and original new book * London Review of Books *
A revelatory look at the rise of the 'attention merchants', the advertising marketeers who influence and control our consumption in ways previously unimaginedSee all Product description
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In 28 chapters Wu examines: all the key aspects of advertising trickery. The book is divided into five parts with titles such as won't be fooled again, the third screen, the conquest of time and space, and masters of blazing modernities. He uses examples to illustrate what is going on. For example, the use of advertising into public schools in America.
Wu demonstrates how almost every bit of our lives is commercially exploited as much as possible. We are seldom away from a screen of some kind. Wu explains how this state of affairs has come about. He says it is because of the rise of an industry: the Attention Merchants. It began in the early 19th century in New York. By the early 20th century war propagandists showed how the public could be duped. Harvesting human attention became thereafter a major industry. It is still growing.
What is at stake is not our culture but the very nature of our lives. We are all at risk without fully realising it. The author's main thesis is that from the penny press to social media such as Facebook ever more nasty schemes are being devised to capture our attention. Wu traces the rise of this over the past one hundred years. Some of his examples are decidedly funny. Women he shows tend to be more suggestible than men. Chat shows are used to manipulate us. Politicians employ people to sully our thinking. He examines the Pepsi-cola campaign, a notorious campaign to promote the drink over its rival Coke. His discussion about the use of the Internet is sound and important but not new.
Wu also covers recent signs of a backlash against, for example, the celebrity complex, and the evil game of clickbait. He believes our lives have been corrupted, our homes invaded and profaned. We must act he says to make our attention our own again. Observing today's children in front of a screen and the public's addiction to a smart phone, this is some challenge.
Wu could have mentioned another major reason why these Merchants are controlling so many of us: the lack of reading. Students at every stage including university are reading less and less, relying instead on the flawed information on the Internet. Ask them what they have read on a subject and will get you a blank and puzzled look. It is deeply worrying.
This is a book to savour and think about.
* * *
As Tim Wu explains in the Introduction, “As an industry, attention merchants are relatively new. Their lineage can be traced to the nineteenth century when in New York City the first newspapers fully dependent on advertising were created; and Paris, where a dazzling new kind of commercial art [e.g. posters created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec] first seized the eyes of the person in the street. But the full potential of the business model by which attention is converted into revenue would not be fully understood until the early twentieth century, when the power of mass attention was discovered by any commercial entity but by British war propagandists.”
In their business classic, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (2001), Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck examine a subject of special interest to me: ADD in the business world. Almost everyone continues to experience information overload. Some who have studied this phenomenon invoke metaphors such as “blizzards” of “tsunamis” of data. Meanwhile, information providers struggle to get through them to reach those who are most important to them. How to attract their attention? Then, how to capture that attention with what has been described by the Brothers Heath as “stickiness”?
After conducting an extensive research project, Davenport and Beck concluded that attention is "the new currency of business." Perhaps Michael Wolf agrees, having published a brilliant book in 1999 about “the entertainment economy"; perhaps Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore also agree, having published a book (also in 1999) about "the experience economy."
At least since the marketplaces in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the basic purpose of marketing is to create or increase demand for whatever the given offering may be. Those unable to go to those markets were alerted by “drummers” – literally people, usually children, sent ahead to beat on drums -- to a merchant’s imminent arrival. All commerce begins with a need to be filled, often a problem to be solved. Who can do that?
Wu explains how merchants have responded to that question throughout the centuries, generating interest by attracting attention. As communication and then social media developed, buyers and sellers have found it much easier to connect. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century especially, separate but related disciplines such as demographics, market research and most recently analytics have concurrently developed.
During the 17 years since The Attention Economy was published, the global marketplace has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. One result is that attention has become even more valuable and remains “the currency of business.”
These are among the subjects discussed by Wu that are of greatest interest to me:
o How attention merchants conducted business pre-radio
o Then, with radio and television
o Competition for attention online
o The power of social media, for better and worse
o The rules of zoning
o The regulation of commercial activity
o The nature and extent that our so-called “private lives” and become public
o Why goals to reclaim our time and attention continue to be so difficult to achieve
o The extent to which attention merchants have [begin italics] improved [end italics] our quality of life
o The extent to which [begin italics] potential [end italics] threats posed by attention merchants
These are among Tim Wu’s concluding observations: “At bottom, whether we acknowledge it or not, the attention merchants have come to play an important part in setting the course of our lives and consequently the future of the human race, insofar as that future will be nothing more than the running total of our individual mental states...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 out attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we have 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.”
Indeed, I presume to add, reclaim ownership of our humanity.
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