Thursday, March 18, 2021

Review of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Decision Making

Short Description

Elaborate Description
Before the rise of attention merchants, there were places in our lives that were sanctuaries from advertising and commerce.  As advertising has become ubiquitous to lives, our lives have become, as much as possible, commercially exploited.  Advertising can be value adding through market discovery and useful services, or it can be value subtracting by taking away attention from what really matters.  Either for appropriate or inappropriate reasons, those who influence others are considered attention merchants.  As what they do is drive attention to them and their message.  The attention merchants now mediate our lives more than ever, as they direct where our attention goes.  When attention merchants misused people’s attention, there was backlash and people took more control of where their attention goes, but the attention merchants find different ways to access attention and with it, their ability to direct it.  This book showcases the evolutionary history of attention merchants and how they changed the way we live our lives.  

Wu makes it easy to understand what attention merchants do.  Their modus operandi is to attract attention by providing supposedly free products, and then sell that attention to others.  The operation depends on gaining and holding attention. With competition for attention which seek to attract attention, to keep attention the attention merchants provide content that is more stimulating.  The problem is that the more stimulating content is very provocative and is directed at what can be called baser instinct.  This usually leads to a race to the bottom, all in the effort to harvest attention.  

Advertising can either make markets more efficient or be detrimental to markets.  Advertising can be a form of market discovery which is vital in a market and competitive process.  Allowing potential customers to find out about the products, which otherwise they would never have heard about so could not consider purchasing.  The trouble begins with the advertising manufacturing demand by instilling a want in the customers by presenting false information.  Failure to disclose product information or deceiving and misleading the customer defeats the market process.  

Paying attention has its capacity.  It can be directed at something, or disregard things.  The need to have people pay near constant attention to something has resulted in information overload.   Wu sees attention as a kind of resource which is gradually being spent.  By being ubiquitously placed, advertisers catch viewers in between purposeful mental engagement.  Gazing at the world is now exploited for commercial purposes.  Hard to ignore a constant appeal to solve problems and satiate desire.  

The commercialization of attention has its drawbacks as it drives people crazy.  This leads to backlash, a public revolt.  Revolting against the attention merchants is a recurrent dynamic which shaped how the industry operates.  A minor version of backlash is the disenchantment effect which occurs when the means of attention gathering has lost its charm and people see through its exposure as if its not there.  The major version of backlash is when the attention is perceived to be ill-used which has serious commercial consequences that leads to either a reinvention of the way attention gathering is approached, reconfigure the industry, or inspire regulatory action.  What every attention merchant needs to know is how to have enough advertising to earn an income, while not enough advertising to make the listener resentful.  

What started this industry is a newspaper selling its paper at a loss, below the cost of production.  The business model was not the paper, but selling the attention of the audience to advertisers.  There were earlier advertisers in papers, but they were informational and of limited scope.  What the New York Sun did was sell readers attention to substantial advertisers.  To make this effective, readership needed to be large, and to get lots of readers, the paper would do anything, such as not be bound by facts.  Due to its cheapness, readership became so high that it gave rise to public opinion.  Competitors initially did not understand how the Sun was able to sell at a loss, but over time took up the same business model.  

The next step in advertising were the illustrations.  Posters used to be primarily text with some illustration, but Cheret pioneered giant mass-produced posters.  By making them attractive and locating them everywhere, the posters garnered attention.  

An industry which generated lots of advertisements, resulting in a rise in their income was healthcare.  The lesson learned was that attention could be transformed into an income.  The problem was the advertisement were selling a product that did not claim what the advertisement did.  Even worse, the product was hurtful.  The revolt against this industry caused regulations to make misbranding illegal and required a list of dangerous materials used.  

WWI launched the government into the attention industry, which is known as propaganda.  Initially an appeal for the British people to join the war effort.  No invention was involved, except the scale and organization.  All media outlets and technical means were used to spread the message.  The message could not be missed.  The result was that many joined the war not because they were coerced, but because they were persuaded.  This tool of galvanizing a people would later be used by governments and commercial actors alike, but the message would not always be ethical, and sometimes were insidious.  Taking this lesson next was the US, which to create a war-will, persecuted antiwar dissenters.  A manufactured public consent.  Nazi were later to use those strategies to create their worldview.  It was the Nazi regime’s coercive demands which raised questions about what controlling attention does to freedom.  

The next feature of the attention merchant tool kit was to direct the advertisement to a particular group, what is called targeted advertisement.  The initial targeted advertisement was to women.  During the 1920s, women made most of the purchases and so being the key to commerce.  This eventually leads to branding.  Branding enables a more stable customer base which is not easily influences by alternative information.  

Advertising via broadcasting breached the barrier between public and private space.  Initially, broadcasting was thought to facilitate the betterment of human society and that advertising would not be allowed there.  Then Templin noticed that during a popular radio show, people stopped what they were doing and listened intently for the duration of the show.  A time when people ignored one another to listen to the radio, created what is now known as prime time.  With the later and quick adoption of television, people would voluntarily be immersing in the bait for commercials, the shows themselves.  The revolt from too many television commercials inspired the first adblocker, the remote.  

What the internet did was commercialize fame.  Being famous meant using influence and directing it to the attention of advertisers.  Fame did not require an induvial do have an instantly recognizable name, but could be micro famous which means being known to a group.  To earn money, bloggers and other micro famous people, presented an image to the public that was different than who they were.  This created a psychological problem that made many suffer.  Part of what the internet did was also allow advertisers to be more specific at whom the advertisement is directed to.  Some advertisements follow the individual to every site they visit.  A revolt against too many advertisements saw the rise of companies which depend on paid subscription rather than advertising revenue.  

Attention merchants changed the normal business model which impacted the way everyone consumes products and services.  Changing the way in which humans behave.  Problems within the attention driven system drew attention to solutions, adapting to different circumstance.  Attention can be used for valuable purposes, or it can be misused for insidious purposes.  What matters in this book is to inform the reader of how attention is directed, to provide context to the choices being made.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•Who are the attention merchants?
•How do attention merchants generate income?
•Why are there many free products and services?
•Do attention merchants make economy more efficient or are detrimental to it?
•How do attention merchants attract attention?
•How much do individuals control their own attention?
•Why is there backlash against the attention merchants? 
•What kind of backlash can attention merchants expect? Is it possible not to have backlash?
•How did the attention industry change over time?
•Where did the attention merchant business model start?
•What is propaganda and what influence did it have? 
•What is targeted advertisement?
•Why did advertisements start to appear in broadcasting? 
•How did the television change the attention industry?
•How did the internet become so dominant?
•What does it mean to be famous?
•What is the connection between attention and freedom?

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780385352024
Pages to read:   402
Publication:     2016
1st Edition:      2016
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5