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The Attention Merchants

Cover of The Attention Merchants

The Attention Merchants

The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
by Tim Wu
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From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch ( a New Yorker and Fortune Book of the Year) and who coined the term "net neutrality"—a revelatory, ambitious and urgent account of how the capture and re-sale of human attention became the defining industry of our time.

Feeling attention challenged? Even assaulted? American business depends on it. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention. Few moments or spaces of our day remain uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this condition is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the 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 the explosion of the mobile web; from AOL and the invention of email to the attention monopolies of Google and Facebook; from Ed Sullivan to celebrity power brands like Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, the basic business model of "attention merchants" has never changed: free diversion in exchange for a moment of your consideration, sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser. Wu describes the revolts that have risen against the relentless siege of our awareness, from the remote control to the creation of public broadcasting to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants are always growing new heads, even as their means of getting inside our heads are changing our very nature—cognitive, social, political and otherwise—in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.

"A startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention...We've become the consumers, the producers, and the content. We are selling ourselves to ourselves."
—Tom Vanderbilt, The New Republic

"An erudite, energizing, outraging, funny and thorough history...A devastating critique of ad tech as it stands today, transforming "don't be evil" into the surveillance business model in just a few short years. It connects the dots between the sale of advertising inventory in schools to the bizarre ecosystem of trackers, analyzers and machine-learning models that allow the things you look at on the web to look back at you...This stuff is my daily beat, and I learned a lot from Attention Merchants."
—Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"Illuminating."
—Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books
From the Hardcover edition.
From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch ( a New Yorker and Fortune Book of the Year) and who coined the term "net neutrality"—a revelatory, ambitious and urgent account of how the capture and re-sale of human attention became the defining industry of our time.

Feeling attention challenged? Even assaulted? American business depends on it. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention. Few moments or spaces of our day remain uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this condition is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the 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 the explosion of the mobile web; from AOL and the invention of email to the attention monopolies of Google and Facebook; from Ed Sullivan to celebrity power brands like Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, the basic business model of "attention merchants" has never changed: free diversion in exchange for a moment of your consideration, sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser. Wu describes the revolts that have risen against the relentless siege of our awareness, from the remote control to the creation of public broadcasting to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants are always growing new heads, even as their means of getting inside our heads are changing our very nature—cognitive, social, political and otherwise—in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.

"A startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention...We've become the consumers, the producers, and the content. We are selling ourselves to ourselves."
—Tom Vanderbilt, The New Republic

"An erudite, energizing, outraging, funny and thorough history...A devastating critique of ad tech as it stands today, transforming "don't be evil" into the surveillance business model in just a few short years. It connects the dots between the sale of advertising inventory in schools to the bizarre ecosystem of trackers, analyzers and machine-learning models that allow the things you look at on the web to look back at you...This stuff is my daily beat, and I learned a lot from Attention Merchants."
—Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"Illuminating."
—Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author-
  • TIM WU is an author, policy advocate, and professor at Columbia University, best known for coining the term "net neutrality." In 2006, Scientific American named him one of 50 leaders in science and technology; in 2007, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard's 100 most influential graduates; in 2013, National Law Journal included him in "America's 100 Most Influential Lawyers"; and in 2014 and 2015, he was named to the "Politico 50." He formerly wrote for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas Gold medal for Travel Journalism, and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. In 2015, he was appointed to the Executive Staff of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a senior enforcement counsel and special adviser.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 8, 2016
    Business is always trying to get our attention—and perhaps our souls—according to this lively if sometimes overwrought history of advertiser-sponsored media. Columbia law professor and net-neutrality advocate Wu (The Master Switch) takes readers from the 19th-century dawn of New York’s penny press, when media moguls first realized that the attention of readers was their “product” and advertisers their customers, through the propaganda of wartime Britain and Nazi Germany, the advent of television’s mesmeric power, and ultimately the current onslaught of garish pop-ups and click-bait junk-journalism fighting to hijack our eyeballs on the Internet. Wu’s critique of the Kardashianized spiritual malaise of our society of the spectacle—“We are at risk of being not merely informed but manipulated and even deceived by ads... of living lives that are less fully our own than we imagine,” he groans—feels old hat; the real problem seems to be simply how to prune back ads that have grown too invasive and annoying. Fortunately, his history is usually vigorous and amusing, filled with details of colorful hucksterism and cunning attention-grabbing ploys along with revealing insights into the behavioral quirks they instill in us. The result is an engrossing study of what we hate about commercial media.

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The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
Tim Wu
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