Tim Wu begins his timely new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by pointing out a fact that many of us have probably long forgotten: “There was a time when, whether by convention or technological limitations, many parts of life — home, school, and social interaction among them — were sanctuaries, sheltered from advertising and commerce.”
Anyone with a smartphone or a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube account now knows that there is virtually no sanctuary from a constant barrage of headlines, images, commercial pitches, and pleas designed to grab one’s attention and that millions of us voluntarily relinquish our privacy.
Wu places efforts to seize the attention of the masses in context by looking back to the daily newspapers of 19th-century New York and from there to the advent of radio and television, video games, the Internet, and the explosion of social media that seems now as natural as sunlight.
Speaking of our hyperconnected present, Wu notes, “Every sliver of our attention is fair game for commercial exploitation.” Even if you consider yourself a neo-Luddite and steadfastly refuse to create and maintain a digital identity, you can be subjected to advertising pitches while you pump gas or sit in your doctor’s waiting room. Wu understands that it is pointless to advocate for a return to a time when advertising and propaganda were less relentless, but he does argue that all of us need to be aware of the extent to which commercial advertising permeates our lives.
What we have to remember is that the quest for our attention, and by extension our money or political support, is calculated and rarely benign.