Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Price We Pay for an Ad­-Powered Internet

The Price We Pay for an Ad-­Powered Internet By EMILY BELL NOV. 11, 2016, New York Times

image from article

The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
By Tim Wu
403 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

We don’t usually think of Timothy Leary as a consumer advocate, but in his
zealous promotion of LSD, the iconoclastic 1960s psychologist was searching for
what today we would call an ad blocker — though his tiny tabs relied more on
messing with our sensory receptors than dropping code on our mobile phones.

In his new book “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside
Our Heads,” Tim Wu reminds us that Leary pushed acid in the pursuit of “a
complete attentional revolution” in which his followers would reject the growing
external stimuli of commercial media in favor of an inward, spiritual journey.

It’s more than a bit ironic, then, that Leary felt compelled to resort to a classic
marketing trick, the jingle, to press his case. His “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was so
catchy that, though failing to smash the attention economy, it was ultimately
complicit in contributing to it, showing up in a campaign for Squirt, a grapefruit-flavored
soda: “Turn on to flavor, tune in to sparkle, and drop out of the cola rut.”

This gets at the heart of the compelling thesis of “The Attention Merchants,”
namely that the age of mass media and mass marketing is characterized by an arms
race between those who seek to capture the valuable commodity of our attention and
capitalize on it for gain and those who resist this harvesting of time either through
drugs; regulation; or most effectively, collective boredom, distraction and
indifference. Wu’s argument is that each boom in commercial media in some way
went too far and provoked an either minor or major revolt, pushing the advertising
industry to adopt more sophisticated or extreme methods to monetize our time.

Drawing a line from the snake oil salesmen of the early 20th century, through the
birth, rise and decline of broadcast to the “attention plantation” of Facebook, Wu’s
history also illustrates the cyclical resistance movements against advertising. First
came the unscrupulous false advertising, then the corrective of investigative
journalism; first the tidal bore of broadcast television, then the corrective of the
remote control; first the era of spam, then the development of filters and blockers.

The book is studded with sharp illustrations of those who have tried to stop the
encroachment of advertising on our lives, and usually failed. In the 1930s, for
example, Rexford Tugwell, an economist and member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s
administration, sought to introduce far stricter legislation on drug advertising,
which would have barred pharmaceutical and cigarette industries from making false
claims about their products. The pressure brought by manufacturers on broadcasters
to resist the proposed legislation saw both Tugwell’s recommendations watered
down and Tugwell himself smeared as a Communist. Newspapers and radio barely
covered the controversy, in part, Wu writes, as a response to pressure from

This struggle has only become more relevant today. Many media companies,
including The New York Times, are now almost entirely dependent on the ability to
build and sustain a business model that captures people’s time and resells it to
advertisers, or provides something so valuable to individuals that they will pay for
the journalism, programming or experience they receive. If you walk the floor of a
modern newsroom, you will most likely see journalists staring at real-­time charts
flickering with numbers, and dials telling editors where readers are spending every
second of their time. If you have got this far in the review, then I and Tim Wu are
doing well — around 55percent of readers, on average, will have stopped after 15

There is little sign of this trend slowing, only accelerating. Facebook and Google
represent the largest and most successful advertising-­funded businesses in history.
They are busy developing technologies that track not only our attention but also
every aspect of our online behavior and, in Facebook’s case, synthesizing it with
what is known as our “social graph.” That graph is the circle of colleagues,
acquaintances, families and friends we connect with online and determines as a
result what type of advertising and even what type of news or other content we see.
We are largely unaware of how the hidden tracking technologies operate and are
complicit in how much we surrender.

From his historical perspective, Wu can see that often a moment such as this
one, in which our eyeballs are so thoroughly monopolized, is followed by resistance.
But his concern is that we have not individually or collectively paid enough attention
to the commercialization of every part of our lives: “Our society has been woefully
negligent about what in other contexts we would call the rules of zoning, the
regulation of commercial activity where we live, figuratively and literally. It is a
question that goes to the heart of how we value what used to be called our private

Clearly not a fan of the selfie stick or the culture of “microfame,” Wu sees a
tendency to self­-aggrandize online, turning us all into miniature attention
merchants. As the man who coined the term “net neutrality” and a skilled thinker
about the importance of an open web, Wu is nevertheless largely disappointed about
where the internet has taken us. In a chapter titled “The Web Hits Bottom” he
describes in some detail the business model of the new­-media company BuzzFeed
and the quest for “virality.” Wu is steadfastly skeptical, seeing “little to admire”
online. Though he briefly describes “bright spots” like Wikipedia and Reddit and
name­-checks online legacy media that he grudgingly admits have improved their
offerings, he sees them as being “engulfed by the vast areas of darkness, the lands of
the cajoling listicles and the celebrity nonstories, engineered for no purpose but to
keep a public mindlessly clicking and sharing away.”

What his thesis doesn’t allow for is the possibility that despite his skepticism, we
may have become rather deft in developing our own spam filters and that while the
“open web” has in fact delivered a lot of cats falling over, it has also given us access
to more knowledge than ever before and more engaging forms of information. It has
done this in part because of the possibility of advertising revenue, not despite it. As
for his dismissiveness about our “selfie” culture, he never considers the
opportunities that the internet has opened up for women, minorities and those
outside the mainstream media’s boundaries of acceptability to take control of their
own image.

For someone uniquely skilled at advocating a stronger regulatory climate, Wu’s
ultimate point is surprisingly low-­tech: “If we desire a future that avoids the
enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and
celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and
resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have.” It might
be an idealistic aspiration, but it is a timely one.

What Wu achieved with his first book, “The Master Switch,” was to demystify
the recent history of the ownership and governance of our communications systems,
from telecom companies to the web, while identifying how open systems over time
became compromised and closed. In “The Attention Merchants” he applies the same
thesis of a business cycle to explain the development of the advertising market and
the ways in which it has adapted to avoid our natural inclination to ignore it. Despite
the book’s occasional finger­-wagging, Wu dramatizes this push and pull to great

When Vance Packard wrote “The Hidden Persuaders,” the revelatory 1957 book
about advertising’s hidden psychological manipulations, he did so just as the mass
media stood at a turning point. He did not stop the march of commercial television,
but he provided a powerful critical framework through which to think about it. Wu
has written a “Hidden Persuaders” for the 21st century, just as we stand squarely on
the threshold of a post-­broadcast world where the algorithmic nano­-targeting of
electronic media knows our desires and impulses before we know them ourselves.

Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia

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