Tag Archives: Book Review

We Sell Our Attention Too Cheaply

The message of Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is that we should more carefully consider what we get in return when we let companies sell our eyeballs to advertisers. In fact most we don’t consider it at all. If I’ve failed to turn off Twitter or my mail app while working, inevitably, barely thinking about it, I click away from the task at hand to quickly check my inbox or Twitter feed. I’m lured away from productive work by something that is literally optimized to capture my attention.

In the case of Twitter, as all of us these days are aware, the salable product isn’t the app, it’s your attention. Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Instagram, are nominally free because these companies are  what Tim Wu calls attention merchants, capturing your mental space and selling it to advertisers. In exchange, we get pretty good free email, a way to stay in touch with old high school friends, and a chance to argue politics with idiotic strangers who we’ll never meet in real life.

The attention merchant model isn’t new – Wu traces it back to the first tabloids in New York, which sold their papers below cost, hoping to make money through advertisers. To make this business model work, tabloids like the New York Sun were the Buzzfeeds of their day, trafficking in the 19th century equivalent of clickbait.

In the case of Gmail or Facebook, yeah, we know they’re selling our data, but we think the trade is worth it. The same is true with broadcast TV: the Superbowl is free to watch, and in exchange, we sit through some high-budget, clever ads. What’s not to like about this deal?

Wu argues however that we’re selling ourselves too cheaply. Without blinking an eye, we let advertisers vie for our attention in our most personal and protected spaces: our homes, our bedrooms, our schools. At one time, as Wu documents, the idea that one would let a stranger pitch a sale to the family sitting around the dinner table was outrageous. No longer, as we eat in front of our TV’s and phones.

Not only have the attention merchants completely invaded every last corner of our personal space, but their business imperatives have also distorted the content we get. We think we get a great app or great TV shows in exchange for looking at a few ads. Wu shows however, we put up with content that is not driven by the creative talents of directors, screenwriters, performers, journalists, or editors, but rather by the talents of those whose business is to commoditize human attention – and the content sucks as a result. As examples, Wu cites the rigged quiz show craze of the late 1950’s, or the crappy reality TV of the aughts. (Interestingly, Wu argues that we’re getting great television now, thanks to companies like Netflix that, rather than selling attention, sell subscriptions.) One could also cite the deluge of completely fabricated news stories during this past election.

One question that Wu didn’t seem to me to have a good answer to is, what’s the alternative? Take journalism for example, perhaps the most important locus of tension between the attention merchant business model and the critical societal need for content that does not actively mislead or exploit readers or viewers. Few newspapers these days can survive on subscriptions – so how do they stay afloat without selling out their readers? Cable news has clearly gone all-in on the attention merchant model, pursuing sensational but trivial stories to keep viewers glued to the screen.

I got bogged down in a few places in this book – Wu’s critiques of specific social media apps is very detailed – but, overall, Wu gives the reader a deeply engaging history of attention merchants and advertising. He ties together the first tabloids, the original snake oil salesman, and the tortured history of AOL.

I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as he is, but we absolutely should take seriously his call for a “human reclamation project”, creating protected zones in our lives “for our own consciousness and mental space.” While we unquestionably benefit from many of the “free” things we get from attention merchants, we’ve failed to adequately reckon with the consequences to human civilization of the commodification of our mental space. “What are the costs to a society of an entire popluation conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?” Wu asks.

Seeing how we’ve just come through an election dominated to an unprecedented degree by fake news, propaganda, and other ridiculous distractions from the very high stakes that were on the ballot, we’re about to learn the answer.

You can hear Tim Wu talk about this and more on the Ezra Klein show, where I first heard about this book. And yes there are ads on this blog, but I guarantee you they’re well worth the content you get here.

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Science for the People: Coffee Table Science

sftpThis week, Science for the People meets the authors of three big books that use stunning images to tell intriguing stories about the history of science. We’ll discuss evolution and the building of the fossil record with invertebrate palaeontologist Paul Taylor, author of A History of Life in 100 Fossils. Archivist Julie Halls shares stories of unheralded ingenuity from her book Inventions that Didn’t Change the World. We will also learn about attempts to map the world in three dimensions from independent conservator Sylvia Sumira, author of Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

The Science of Monsters

The edges of old maps, the gateways to parts unknown, are often said1 to have carried the words “Here Be Dragons”. At the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, there was plenty of room for those dragons to roam. Each human culture around the globe was surrounded by a fog of geographic and metaphysical unknowns. Since that time, science has destroyed the habitat of those dragons in a steadily process 2.

The central question of Matt Kaplan’s book, The Science of Monsters, is really focused, not on the monsters, but on us. Why did we populate that fog of unknowns with fabulous creatures that evoked fear and awe? Do we still tell similar stories after the fog has been lifted? If we do, how have the stories changed to reflect our new reality? The Science of Monsters is ultimately about our favorite monster – us. Continue reading

What I Don’t Know About Flyingfish

Steve N. G. Howell’s The Amazing World of Flyingfish plays with the concept that eveyone “knows” about flyingfish as a way to highlight the huge gaps in our knowledge about these iconic fish. Those areas of ignorance can have dramatic and direct impacts on conservation and sustainable fishing issues.

At its heart, The Amazing World of Flyingfish is a book of pictures – beautiful and hard-won pictures (photographing flyingfish in flight is apparently, but not surprisingly, challenging). The images are not just aesthetically pleasing. They serve Howell’s major theme, contrasting the known with the unknown.

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

On one hand, flyingfish are common and well-known. On the other hand, we do not necessarily know that much about their life history, development, or how many species their really are. Howell uses this contrast between the known and unknown to discuss different aproaches to research. The benefits of briefly viewing live animals behaving in their natural environment are compared to detailed laboratory analyses of preserved specimens in a way that shows the value of both approaches. The problems posed by limited knowledge of species identity for conservation and sustainable fishing are discussed with a thoughtful approach to the value of common usage versus scientific naming.

And, if those issues do not interest you, the book is filled with over 90 gorgeous photos of flyingfish in action, revealing aspects of these animals that were entirely new to me.

The dynamic of known versus unknown played out when my six-year-old joined me in looking over this book. The beauty of the images and the name “flyingfish” immediately captured our attention. Then we got curious.

As I am not an expert in flyingfish, fish, nor any set of multicellular organisms, that meant we were rapidly going to bump into the familiar territory of “things to which Daddy does not know the answer”.  This is fun territory, because we get to go on the journey from “not knowing” to “knowing” together.

We asked the question, “Do they really fly?” We learned that you cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes/no”. We first had to decide what we meant by “fly”. We were learning about the process of asking and answering questions.

When Howell discusses the difficulty of pairing juvenille specimens with adults in terms of species identity, we talked about physiological changes in appearance during development and the expectation that her own body would change as she grew.

One image, however, did not draw us in. The altered image of a human-sized, trophy-style flyingfish confused and distracted. Instead of discussing the fascinating biology of flyingfish, I had to explain that the huge fish was not real, the ethics (or lack thereof) of trophy fishing, and Photoshop. The worst effect was that it planted a seed of doubt about the veracity of the book’s other photos in my child’s mind.

Nothing, for us, could compate to the realization that some flyingfish have butterfly-like patterns on their transluscent wings/fins*. Howell connects this delightful discovery to the larger problem of species identification, which is vital to conservation efforts. Apparently, the patterns do not survive the preservation of specimens, leading to a divergence in what one sees in the wild and what is analyzed in the laboratory. For Howell, the species identification problem cascades into many unknowns regarding flyingfish life history, population sizes, distribution, and seasonal variation.

For us, the conversation started by those beautiful wing patterns touched on the importance of different people with different interests and experiences communicating with each other. We even talked about what we can do to build knowledge when no one know the information we need. In other words, we can draw a direct, curiosity driven line between that image of yellow and black spotted flyingfish wings/fins* that you can see above and reinforcement of the scientific method. Not bad for a book with only 45-pages in it.

*I was informed by my precocious offspring that I am not allowed to call them “fings”.

DISCLOSURE: Josh Witten was provided with a review copy of The Amazing World of Flyingfish by Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press had no input or influence over the decision to review this book or the content of this review.

Science for the People: Science Up Your Holidays 2014

sftp-square-fistonly-whitebgThis week, Science for the People observes its annual holiday tradition, helping you find gifts for the science lovers on your list. Brian Clegg, John Dupuis, and Rachelle Saunders share their most-treasured science books from 2014, as well as classics to help fill out anyone’s science library. And they speak to writer/illustrator James Lu Dunbar about “The Universe Verse,” a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe.

Visit the Science for the People blog for more information and links to the books mentioned in this episode.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.