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Review: Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants charts the battle for our mental landscape

Tim Wu’s new book details the philosophy of the ‘attention merchants’: You don’t sell things to people, you sell people to advertisers.

Penguin Random House Canada

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
Tim Wu
403 pages

Never have so many attended to so much to so little purpose. Ours is an age of distraction and anxiety – typified by the laptop junkie cruising among 20 open tabs, sampling a stew of news and entertainment and social grooming. We seldom stop to wonder why our experience of the Internet should be so manic, why our attention should be so aggressively solicited again and again. What Tim Wu makes painfully clear in his new book, The Attention Merchants, is that our distracted state is not some "natural" byproduct of online life; it is a highly manufactured experience engineered by those who capture our attention for a living so that they can sell it to the highest bidder.

"There have always been two ways of converting attention into cash," Wu writes. The original way was to charge admission to the spectacle – a ticket to the theatre, say. The newer way is to give away the spectacle (or sell it at a loss) in order to gather as much attention as possible – and then turn around and sell that attention to advertisers. This is the model used by Wu's "attention merchants" – and it underpins our digital zeitgeist.

Nearly every aspect of our lives is now commercially exploited and Wu argues that a creeping baseline of acceptability has left us with an ad deluge we once found abhorrent. There was a time when even the intrusion of a radio advertisement in a domestic sphere was seen as nearly obscene. Today, Wu notes, elementary-school report cards are emblazoned with McDonald's logos. Indeed, advertisements have insinuated themselves into every corner of our lives: "The winning strategy from the beginning," he writes, "has been to seek out time and spaces previously walled off from commercial exploitation, gathering up chunks and then slivers of our un-harvested awareness."

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Nowhere has such harvesting been so awesomely executed as online. The so-called free products of Google and Facebook (and YouTube and Twitter etc.) are, in Wu's estimation, enormous reaping machines designed solely to harvest attention. In this scenario, it goes without saying, you and I are the wheat.

Wu's book is far more interesting than the usual tech-diatribe because he takes us on a tour of the problem's history. His story begins in the 1830s, when new technologies allowed for the ascent of mass advertising. A 23-year-old New Yorker called Benjamin Day, for example, disrupted the fledgling newspaper industry when he launched the New York Sun in 1833. He sold his papers for a penny, vastly undercutting his rivals. What's more, the Sun would be "alluring to the broadest segment of society – by any means necessary." This meant stories of "melancholy" suicides and lewd murders. Anything to grab eyeballs. Within one year, Day's paper had more readers than any in New York. "At some magical moment during that first year," writes Wu, "it happened: The lift generated by paid advertising exceeded the gravity of costs … the New York Sun took flight, and the world was never really the same again." Imbedded in the story of the New York Sun is the very essence of the attention merchant's philosophy: You don't sell things to people, you sell people to advertisers.

Wu's historical chapters are key, but his book's heart is contemporary. His vision of the Internet is fatalistic in some respects: "Where attention is paid, the attention merchant lurks patiently to reap his due. … The fall of the Web to this force was virtually preordained." From Google's introduction of AdWords to clickbait-driven slideshows laced with Nike spots, the myth of a "free and open" Internet is debunked time and again until we see online life for what it has become – a rapacious extension of capitalist interest.

The Attention Merchants can sit smartly next to Astra Taylor's excellent 2014 book The People's Platform as a tale of capitalism's warping of the Internet's grand potential. And, like Taylor, Wu offers some hope. Alternatives to the attention merchants are always emerging. Consider the debut of House of Cards in 2013: Millions binge-watched episodes without consuming a single commercial. Subscriber-based Netflix proved it could make a fortune without selling its viewers to advertisers. And new "ad-blocking" programs, which detect and prevent advertisements from appearing onscreen, may undo the attention merchant's game entirely. What would happen to our online lives if profits were only made via direct sales of content and services? We may one day find out.

Or not. Wu concludes that "the attention merchants have always found a way to overgrow the bright new machines that seemed to be hacking through the old-growth foliage." He describes a system with a terrible "logic of its own," a system that bends forever toward the harvesting and reselling of attention. Ultimately, this deeply intelligent book describes a dynamic, a battle for our mental landscape that has no end in sight.

Michael Harris is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014. His next book, Solitude, will be published in 2017.

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