Tag Archives: Books

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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A Long View of the Scientific Revolution

wotton Been eager to get this doorstop of a book, which sat on my shelf for most of 2016:  David Wotton’s The Invention of Science. I’ll have more to say later, but for now, a few pages in, it’s clear that Wotton really takes the long view on science. “It is far too soon to say” how the Scientific Revolution will turn out:

But since 1572 the world has been caught up in a vast Scientific Revolution that has transformed the nature of knowledge and the capacities of humankind. Without it there would have been no Industrial Revolution and none of the modern technologies on which we depends; human life would be drastically poorer and shorter and most of us would live lives of unremitting toil. How long it will last, and what its consequences will be, it is far too soon to say; it may end with nuclear war or ecological catastrophe, or (though this seems much less likely) with happiness, peace and prosperity.

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.

My picks for weird post-apocalyptic SF

BlueprintsPKmech.inddThis week I’ve contributed to SF Signal’s Mind Meld. The question is essentially what science fiction you’d bring to a wedding:

Something old, something new, something borrowed. . .

Recommend three books to our readers out of your list of favorites: An older title, a newer title, and title you discovered because you borrowed it from a friend or a library.

Go check out all of the great responses. My answer focuses on, as you may have guessed, post-apocalyptic SF. The best SF book I ever borrowed from a friend was Dhalgren, a marvelous and very weird New Wave beast that takes place in a fictional ruined city. To go with Dhalgren, I picked two other outstanding weird post-apocalyptic classics, something old (The Night Land of 1912), and a strange new book that more people should read (the 2012 Blueprints of the AfterLife). Head on over and whet your appetite for some very weird post-apocalyptic SF.

Science for the People: Impossible Space

sftpThis week Science for the People is exploring the limits of science exploration in both fictional and fact. We’re joined by “lifelong space nerd” Andy Weir, to talk about his debut novel The Martian (and soon to be film, trailer below), that pits human invenitveness and ingenuity against the unforgiving environment of the red planet. And astrophysicist and science blogger Ethan Siegel returns to explore so-called “impossible space engines“, and what news stories about them can teach us about journalism and science literacy.

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