Last October, I interviewed writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who had just written a lengthy essay for New York magazine about our modern “distraction sickness.”
“You are where your attention is,” Sullivan told me, and, as it happens, our attention is nowhere and everywhere at once. Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, the internet —we’re captive to an endless parade of distractions.
Sullivan’s meditation touched a nerve, but it was hardly the whole story. Behind the instruments of distraction lies an entire industry devoted to capturing our attention and selling it to the highest bidder.
Author and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu has written a sweeping book about this industry. Titled The Attention Merchants, it tells the origin story of our distraction sickness: who engineered it, who benefits, and how it became so pervasive.
The merchants, on Wu’s formulation, are the harvesters of human attention. They create platforms — newspapers, radio, TV, websites, apps — that attain commercial viability by selling the attention they capture, or the clicks they can get, in exchange for the “free” content they produce.
As the industry has grown and evolved over the years, more and more of our lives have become mediated. We’re always being stalked by advertisers and product peddlers, always being sold something by someone, whether we know it or not. Unless you’ve unplugged from the digital world altogether, you’re a pawn in this scheme.
I spoke to Wu recently about how we got here and about the broader war for our attention. Our conversation, edited for concision and clarity, follows.
Let’s start with this: Who are the attention merchants, and what have they done to us?
Great question. The attention merchants are the businesses whose model is the resale of eyeballs. Normal businesses sell a product or a service. Attention merchants sell access to people's minds.
The business model usually is to gather a crowd or find a captive audience, and then you basically resell access to that — the minds of that audience for a price to advertisers.
The long-term effects of this business model are interesting. It used to be a fairly limited business model — at one point, it was just tabloid press — but it's spread to the mass media, radio, and TV. It has spread almost to all parts of our lives, and that's what I'm concerned about.
The attention industry needs people who are in a distracted state, or who are perpetually distractable, and thus open to advertising. And so it has a strong influence on the content of the media, which becomes increasingly attention-seeking and clickbaity, for want of a better term, and ultimately affects us because the kind of media that you're exposed to starts to influence your own brain and your own personality.
And it's not the only cause, but we're certainly distracted and unable to concentrate. We’re prone in this culture to lose control of our attention and our time. We’re constantly getting swept up into various kinds of vortexes, where you lose hours of the day clicking on random nothingness.
So that's what I think it's done to us, and I think there's a good chance it'll only get worse if trends continue.
This is such an insidious problem. Most people most of the time have no idea how much of their attention is controlled by external forces.
One thing I learned writing this book is just how difficult it is to control your attention. It has to do with the science of our brain and brain attention. We aren't that great at paying attention to what we decide to pay attention to — the voluntary control is weak.
We're subject to involuntary cues. And also just vulnerable to being pulled by enticing objects or ideas away from the things we ought to attend to. This is obvious to anyone who has sat down and made an effort to learn how to play the piano or to meditate or to write or to do anything that demands sustained attention.
You’re always being pulled away, and it’s getting worse every day.
That’s definitely true of my experience. I’ve tried to meditate regularly, for example, and it’s just a pathetic failure every time. I’m eternally hostage to my random, meandering thoughts.
One of the things I've been very interested in is feats of concentration that people used to perform all the time — [such as] writing a book in six weeks or a computer program in a few days. I don’t think that’s impossible now, but I do think it’s become considerably harder in our environment to enter important and deep states of focus and concentration, because we surround ourselves with technology, whose business model is to distract us.
Our computers are ostensibly productivity-enhancing machines, but they also are loaded with platforms whose business model is to consume as much of your time as possible with ads and noise and distraction.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a break, but we've engineered our environment for distraction. We bob from one thing to another, perpetually. And I don't know if it's so great for our culture or even ourselves.
I’m rather certain it isn’t, but I’ll leave that for others to decide.
You spend a lot of time in the book identifying the roots of the attention industry. What is this history, and how did it lead to all of us gradually giving ourselves over to commercial exploitation?
I trace the source of the attention industry to a couple of major developments. The first was the invention of the penny press newspaper in the 1870s — the idea of a paper that you gave away for very cheap, loaded up with sensational stories. And it then relied on advertising revenue to keep it afloat. This was the invention of a model that now powers Facebook and Google and every form of commercial media.
I think the industry hit primetime in the First World War, with the invention of systematic propaganda techniques. This proved how effective advertising could be and, therefore, how valuable access to the public's mind was.
Before that, no one really cared what people were thinking. It was thought irrelevant to the business of selling products. But after the British government was able to persuade millions of people to volunteer for the army on the basis of an advertising campaign, big business took notice and said: If they can get people to join the Army, we can get them to buy a car.
If I had to choose one more moment, it would be the turn of the 21st century, when that basic advertising model jumped from traditional media and became part of the computer environment and the internet environment.
If you had a computer in the 1980s, it wasn't exactly showing you ads — in fact, you're lucky if it could show you anything. The idea that computer platforms would also be for advertising really began with AOL and its pioneering of advertising. Later, a company like Google would prove the actual possibility of it.
Obviously, there are many other examples, but these are critical moments in the evolution of the attention-harvesting industry.
At what point did advertising become scientific? When did it go from marketing to demand engineering?
Oh, I don't think it's truly scientific, but when did it pretend to become scientific?
Well, the 1920s was the golden age of demand engineering. Big business noticed they had a problem: They had all these new products that nobody wanted, so they decided to engineer the demand for them using the techniques of scientific advertising.
In the 1920s, you saw the emergence of the behavioral school of psychology. Researchers like B.F. Skinner were discovering how to condition animals under laboratory conditions. The corporate world simply borrowed these techniques in order to cultivate responses in human beings.
Women were a key target initially, right?
Absolutely. The early treatment of women consumers was relatively simplistic. The common approach was to use humiliation or social shame as a motivating instrument. You can see this in the early advertisements for Listerine, a mouthwash product that was initially a floor cleaner and a battlefield disinfectant.
Listerine ads peddled this narrative that a woman with bad breath might not be able to find a husband. At the time, this was powerful stuff. I wouldn’t call this science, but it was certainly more of a scientific approach in that it discovered something that people were afraid of and then engineered an ad campaign around that.
Do you worry that most of us want to be distracted, want to be told what to think about and what to pay attention to?
It is the human condition in a way, right? I'm not saying there was something great about humans 200 years ago, but once upon a time there was a sort of natural check. There were technological limits on what we could do to keep ourselves amused. Sustained periods of boredom were unavoidable.
Today, boredom is an option. To the extent that boredom is a lack of stimulation, we have cured it, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. If you can endure boredom, you can devote yourself to deep and serious projects. If you can’t endure boredom, how do you write a book or enter into reflection?
So this is really a cultural question for me, and it’s something I feel myself. I’m certainly not immune to this need for stimulation.
If I live another 50 years, I know the biggest regret I’ll have is that I paid attention to the wrong things. And yet I’m constantly paying attention to the wrong things.
William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, is a personal hero of mine. He made a very simple point: Your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to. When you add it all up, your moment-to-moment experience is everything. It is your life, really.
So the stakes are pretty high here.
What are the political implications of allowing the “attention merchants” so much power and influence over our lives?
It seems to me that manufacturing distraction is just another way of manufacturing consent, and so it really matters what people think about and how they use their attention.
I have to say, that's a profound idea. This topic of politics and what people will pay attention to is enormous. One thing I thought about while writing this book is how politics has become more like commerce and commercial advertising.
Politicians are essentially vying to capture people’s attention in order to promote their brand. It’s marketing. And so they have to become even more outlandish to get people to notice them. Trump, for instance, understood that this was an attentional game more than anything else, and he was quite good at making all the right noises in order to get constant coverage.
I thought quite a bit about Trump while reading your chapter on the rise of the celebrity industrial complex. How, in your view, did we reach a point at which a TV man could bulldoze his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity?
I think Trump is the culmination of everything I've said in my book. The battle for attention is the first battle in everything, and those who have mastered the techniques of getting attention by all means necessary have a massive advantage. And you want to talk about someone who'll use all means necessary, there you go.
One of the most fascinating ideas you raise in the book is that, at some point in the 20th century, capitalism became our religion. Business became the moral authority and the driver of virtue.
Is that a fair reading of your thesis?
It's more the idea that business co-opted the most successful techniques of religion and beat it at its own game. Once upon a time, the only entity that really cared about gaining access to our minds, about what we believed, was religion.
The story of the advertising industry is the story of the co-option of many of religion’s best techniques — primetime rituals, the idea of having people gather around every day or week at a particular time. This is a little like mass insofar as it’s time devoted to a common subject every day.
In some ways, the idea of icons or religious iconography translated into the brand movement. The inventor of brand advertising was a devoted Catholic who was very interested in how humans would fixate on brands and come to imbue them with so much meaning.
These early copywriters were often ministers or former ministers who wanted to sell products to people the way they sold religion in church. The idea was that these products would deliver some form of salvation to whatever ails the consumer, and they were quite explicit about this.
What’s the alternative to our ad-soaked culture? As a member of the media, I wonder what my industry — and others — would look like if they didn’t pummel people with ads? People don’t want to pay for information.
So what’s a viable model moving forward?
I think we need to rethink our entire media environment. I know that people don't want to pay for stuff, but if we, the public, want better, we have to begin paying for more of it. I strongly believe that.
Look, we need to suck it up and pay for quality journalism and quality content and just forget about this everything's-going-to-be-free-forever culture. It really hasn't worked. It's been an experiment, and I think it’s gone well in some ways, but it has led us into an abyss.
I appreciate your clarity on this front. There will be no change if it doesn’t come from consumers. In fact, what you seem to be arguing for is a kind of revolution in consciousness.
I think that's right. Whether we know it or not, how we spend our time and money in this space is not like buying a product. What we’re doing is supporting an environment we want to see. And it’s important to get this model out there.
American media has a tradition of reinventing itself. All American institutions do, in fact, and I think we can do better than we are doing today. There's a lot of talented journalists and thinkers and writers out there, and there's a lot of people who would like to see their stuff.
We just have to dispense with the pipe dream that everything can be free and we can still get what we want and need out of the media. So yes, I am calling for a transformation of consciousness.
Your book ends with a plea for us to reconsider the distinction between the sacred and the profane, or between the private and the commercial. Are you hopeful that this will happen, that we’ll carve out a space for being and thinking beyond the reach of attention merchants?
Large things have small beginnings. To some extent, we're in the beginnings of a revolution already. A lot of people have become fed up and have moved over to paid media. We see this in television as well, and in the decline of ad-supported programming.
There will be some pain in the transition, but this is a wealthy country and people want quality stuff, and they can afford to pay for it. It's just about finding the mechanisms to connect people properly.
We won’t put an end to advertising, and I don’t think we have to, but we can do better.