By Chet Yarbrough
The Attention Merchants
By Tim Wu
Narrated by Marc Cashman
Not since “The Powers That Be” (published in 1979) has there been a better history of the media industry. Tim Wu is heir to David Halberstam. First there were newspapers, then radio, then television, and now the world-wide web. Wu offers a modern vision of media’s impact on society in “The Attention Merchants”.
Gone are many of the famed “…Attention Merchants” like Bill Bernbach, Neil French, and David Ogilvy. They were the early influencers; i.e. the copy writers, and agents that created consumer advertising for Sulzberger, Chandler, Hutchins, Paley, and Luce. They worked for founders of some of the most influential newspaper, radio, television and magazine outlets of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were the “gods” of a newly formed consumer society. Consumers read, watched, and listened to pitches for everything from votes to vitamins to the latest model Cadillac. Wu shows pitches remain the same, but methods have changed.
Today’s social, political, and economic consumers are recorded, manipulated, spindled, and controlled by “other gods”. Modern “…Attention Merchants” are internet entrepreneurs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Microsoft’s Bill Gates & today’s CEO Satya Nadella, Apple’s (now deceased) CEO, Steve Jobs & today’s CEO Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings. Television, newspapers, radio, and magazines still capture our attention but not like past “…Attention Merchants”. Old media are still with us, but computer screens and mobile phones have joined the mix. Wu shows how the public’s decisions have become less volitional, more manipulated, and addictive as www. sites came into being and technology matured.
Wu recounts how advertising became a critical part of early media’s power, influence, and profit. Just as advertisers promoted false benefits of smoking in the 20th, internet advertisers promote false benefits of free access to information and entertainment in the 21st century. Neither smoking or “free” access to information is without harm or cost. The Marlborough man is dead, and “free” internet information is not free. “Fake news” has always been in the “…Attention Merchant’s” tool box but Wu shows that a new dimension is created with the rise of “free” information technology.
The internet not only informs the public, i.e., it distracts society, distorts facts, and reveals intimate details of personal lives. Internet users become products, rather than just consumers. Information gathered on consumers is provided to government and sold to private enterprise.
More ominous than media distortion by capitalist manipulators is government-controlled media that distorts truth to justify the Ukraine war.
Personal information is used by governments, and private sector businesses to achieve their own purposes. Power and control become centered on organizations rather than individuals. Data mining is a new industry. Decisions are less determined by personal being and private belief. Today, decisions are shaped by a society “under the influence” of government, and private sector’s “…Attention Merchants”.
Wu notes how today’s “…Attention Merchants” are different. Advertisers have always tried to influence individuals. Advertisers have always told lies or distorted truth to get buyers to buy and believe. Wu explains the difference. Now personal information is acquired with confused consent by users of the internet. In this Facebook age, there are few secrets about what one likes and what one is willing to pay for product.
Customers are no longer just consumers. Wu notes customers have become products. Customers are sold to the highest bidder without customer awareness or compensation. Today’s “…Attention Merchants” argue that sales pitches are customized to what the customer wants. Businesses rationalize access as the customer’s compensation. Government rationalizes access as a way of staying in touch and understanding the public. Wu implies both arguments are willful misrepresentations.
There is a cost to voters and consumers because personal information is being sold without pay for product that enriches “…Attention Merchants”, private enterprise, and government. The product delivered is the personal information that reveals who we are, what we think, what we desire, and what we are willing to pay. Consumers have less control over their decisions because “…Attention Merchants” use intimate personal information to seduce conscious and unconscious motivation.
The sinister aspect of Wu’s explanation is that “…Attention Merchants” now have tools that exaggerate the impact of “fake news”. By knowing intimate beliefs of consumers, “…Attention Merchants” are able to create algorithms that funnel “fake news” that feeds what consumer’s may either accurately or inaccurately believe. Prejudices and discrimination are reinforced. The worst characteristics of political populism are reinforced. “The Attention Merchants” expand control of individual thought so that the course of democratic elections, government policies, or business successes can be unduly influenced by false or misleading information.
Wu notes there are glimmers of hope with a growing recognition of the impact of the internet. The internet broadens human understanding of the world. The positive aspect of the internet is shown by sites created without advertising input; e.g. Wikipedia and some blogosphere creations abjure advertising as a source of compensation.
Exposure of blind spots in acquisition of personal data are currently being exposed in congressional hearings with Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. At the same time, Russian interference in American elections is being more seriously investigated.
As Marie Currie is to have said— “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Of course, one might remember, she died from the radiation she received from her discoveries. (Ironically, Marie Currie’s death was found not to be from radiation exposure. In autopsy, her body radiation levels were within normal range.)