>>How did the corporate influence-peddlers get “inside our heads,” from the 19th-century penny press to today’s fake-news firehose on the Internet? Tim Wu, media scholar and activist, has chapter and verse in The Attention Merchants. Woody Woodruff reviews Wu’s analysis of the persistence of monetized attention.
A review of Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: the Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. 403 pp. Knopf, New York, 2016. $28.95
The Washington Socialist <> December 2016
By Woody Woodruff
Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump on advertising by a four to one factor at the least and still lost. Is the time-honed political ad, famously effective in the negative, losing its ability to galvanize or mesmerize the voting public?
One aspect of Tim Wu’s fascinating treatment of the contest for attention – of individuals and of the masses – is his view of the historical ups and downs of this process, as commerce and capital gain near-hegemony over the public’s attention and consumer behavior. Such is [BM1] followed by mass shocks of recognition about the process and a discernible public rebellion against the “attention merchants.”
Yes, this is the same Tim Wu who was Zephyr Teachout’s running mate when she took on Andrew Cuomo in the New York gubernatorial race, so his political stance is not to be doubted. It’s also the same Tim Wu who teaches law and technology at Columbia Law School, coined the phrase “Network Neutrality” and authored a previous history of modern communications and their corporate domination, The Master Switch. Here he turns from how corporate powers commandeered the means of production of public communication – the telephone and broadcast empires – to how they commandeered the means of reproduction, the hegemonic power to harvest attention.
We think of our brains as limitless and they may be; we are still finding out. But our attention is time-bound, limited and measurable, and therefore commodifiable. Wu quotes the psychology pioneer William James to the effect that our identities, our selves, are pretty much defined by what we attend to. And as the economist Herb Simon famously said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” That leaves us open to clever modes of exploitation and a continual reinvention of the shiny object.
Wu starts at the beginning, with the penny press building circulation in 1830s New York with a potentially viral blend of sex and crime. The quest for avenues to the attention of masses evolved with technology to both progressively amass and disaggregate a consumer public, with women’s underappreciated purchasing power in the home exploited by targeted print media, to radio and then film and television’s capacity to create a ceremonial group (family or audience) experience within the larger mass audience that led to the huge simultaneous audiences for, for instance, “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke” and “M*A*S*H.” The 1950s through 1970s, with their huge TV audiences, were what Wu calls the “peak attention” period during which the same message was received by more people than ever before, or since.
Advertisers, though, are ever mindful in the truth of the old joke about the department-store ad buyer, who says “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted – I just don’t know which half.” More and more targeting for efficiency appealed to the bankrollers of the attention merchants, and they responded in different ways. Some targeted their ads, some were good at creating a desire for a new product the consumer hadn’t considered wanting, and some worked to build major-brand loyalty.
This multiple pitch, from a radical perspective, was a multipronged attack on the individual sensibility, working to create a hegemonic consumer society with normed – usually centrist – political views and practices. The contradictions abound. In some periods, emblematically the 1960s and 1970s, countercultural themes and memes dominated the ad repertoire – as also demonstrated in Tom Frank’s The Conquest of Cool and earlier in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style – normalizing and taming the visible aspects of political and cultural dissent for an uneasy majority.
And, Wu suggests, the “ascendant self,” a culture extolling individualism, was a core theme of a good deal of advertising in the second half of the twentieth century even as the self was relentlessly broken down in the labs of the attention harvesters and their social-science accomplices and made more vulnerable to stimuli. J.B. Watson, the founding behaviorist psychologist, was an early recruit to the design of attention harvesting. Freud, Jung and other luminaries were the more frequent guides as the attention biz hewed closer to human motive – sex, security, success – but Watson’s notion that much of human behavior is nonvolitional and stimulus-based is replicated in the success of BuzzFeed and Gawker, whose headlines are so calibrated for emotional “high arousal” as to elicit clicks and shares before they are even consciously read – the essence of virality.
The notion central to Wu’s point in both books is that the capitalist corporations overreach by their very nature, their actions become obvious to the public (or to the regulators who are the public’s advocates), and a pushback reduces corporate power and empowers less profitable but more public-spirited entities to supplant the mega-corporadoes – until they find another path to dominance.
Thus, for instance, the patent-medicine boom in which many of the earliest advertising geniuses learned[Cc2] their chops was, ironically to us today, then propelled by a public faith in the powers of galloping science at the end of the nineteenth century. It was not understood, but certainly believed. And as the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (“2001”) said, “sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.” It was conventional media, including the turn of the century muckrakers, who outed the nasty and science-free base of patent medicine and brought advertising into disrepute. That did not, however, stop Woodrow Wilson from putting George Creel in charge of a draconian propaganda effort to promote US entry into World War I, which among other things was what put Eugene Debs behind bars, as Wu is at pains to remind us.
A radical perspective on today’s consumer-communicative culture finds plenty of echoes in Wu’s account but no forthright statements. The attention merchants are major players in the creation of a consumerist hegemony that supports capitalism’s ruinous growth-at-any-cost imperative. It’s the context in which the lords of capital can manipulate artificially tight labor markets, panicky and anxiety-producing swings in the apparent consumer economy and planet-wrecking evasion of regulation – all the while enjoying a serene life in the one-percent stratum without the bumps of the managed business cycle while watching the proles scuffle in the sandpit from their box seats.
Equally important is the degradation of information quality and the obscuring of class society in a churning mass of quasi-falsehood that has, perhaps, yielded this latest, most astonishing of election outcomes. The fiction of “perfect information” held by all in a market society was always a shuck but has, in an age of a faux “wealth of information,” become a poverty of consciousness. Most of Wu’s account supports this view implicitly but he has other phish to fry.
Wu’s range in both books shows the cycles of public or consumer acquiescence and pushback as corporate practices become obvious and oppressive, in the cases both of big telcom (The Master Switch) and big attention harvesting (the volume under review). This cycle, nicely parsed as well by Emily Bell in a well-tuned review in the New York Times Sunday book review, is nevertheless a little more Hegelian than just a repetitive sine function, crashing rhythmically on the shores of consciousness. [Cc3]
Marshall McLuhan gets only a few mentions in Attention Merchants but we see his dictum that every new technology turns the old technology into its content (“The medium is the message”) recurring in the lapping waves of attention-harvesting over the decades. So television had to discover its visual advantage over radio after a trial period in which radio’s format was dominant. The Internet, despite its interactive capacity for enabling individuals to talk and make contact in an almost frictionless fashion, also adopted the one-way communicative format of print and broadcast before submitting to its own unique ability to be the Petri dish for dynamic, if often consumerist, culture.
Perhaps because it rests inconveniently between his book on the communication/telcom industries and his book on the attention merchants, Wu does not pay much attention to the ways that the Internet itself has been profitably monetized by corporations. Although CERN, the European research group where Tim Berners-Lee famously “invented the World Wide Web,” made its technology public domain, in the late 1980s the people who had tapped into local university access for free (this reviewer was one) were rudely informed that their free access was inhibiting to free enterprise and they would have to sign up with one of the paid Internet Service Providers, such as Compuserv.
For many, the ISP is now the first bill they pay before they can even think about spending money online. Comcast and other ISP providers reap huge profits selling ISP access for $35-$50 a month (it is estimated to cost about $5 a month to provide, as a technical matter). CERN’s original idealization of an interconnection that would free people from bondage, economic and otherwise, around the world was quickly snapped up by the forces of capital and most people do not think of those up-front fetters when they think of the “free stuff” for which they surrender their attention to the merchants thereof.
Wu has a good chapter on America OnLine (AOL) and its generative role in the email explosion – really the first instance in which consumers of web products became producers (or “produsers” in the interactive realm). From email issued blogs and other personal expressions that transformed the top-down, one-way communication that every previous technology save for the telephone had represented. But AOL’s role in homogenizing and naturalizing the role of the ISP is only hinted.
Wu also betrays a blind spot in his otherwise solid chapter on Facebook’s self-discovering rise to dominance: the role of sheer information, accurate and otherwise. For many, the operative attraction of a Facebook page is the “news feed” that displays FB friends’ attractions in real time. It is scarcely mentioned by Wu, making his account of the appeal of Facebook hollow and unconvincing. In a review of this book in NYRB, Jacob Weisberg noted that “Facebook’s News Feed is the largest source of traffic for news and media sites, representing 43 percent of their referrals, according to the web analytics firm Parse.ly. So when Facebook indicates that it favors a new form of content, publishers start making a lot of it.” Though as we have heard recently, the “fake news” that nurtures the confirmation bias of millions may flow unfettered through the Facebook news feed, most users, including this writer, calibrate our frequency of return to the neverland of FB Blue by the newsfeed activity of our contacts and the speed of the news cycle.
Facebook’s purchase of the photo-sharing startup Instagram, like many of the other transactions in this history, demonstrates that these mergers take place mostly to acquire an existing audience, not because of a significant tech advantage. The “selfie” photo (Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013, beating out short-listed “binge-watching”) was as easily accomplished on Facebook as on the more narrowly tailored Instagram, but Facebook couldn’t resist the 30 million users and their narrowcast incentive to bring more (a few years later Instagram had 400 million; how many were actually on loan from Facebook is a question Mark Zuckerberg may not care to answer).
Facebook and its rival, Google, are paradigms of the most modern dilemma about what Wu calls the “rules of zoning” protecting our personal lives. Their harvesting of our personal data (in the case of Facebook, freely given) as their ad clients harvest our attention has posed those new questions. Wu addresses them in a coda to the book and speculates that they might be qualitatively different than the overreach that brought public pushback in previous iterations of the cycle – “what is called for might be a human reclamation project… an act of will on the part of the individual.”
The final pushback in Attention Merchants is twofold, or at least synchronic – a flight from free-but-trashy to a pay-for-quality environment, on two poles. The early success of movies and newsreels in gaining a huge audience is left largely alone by Wu for a good reason – the film industry never devised a way to monetize the filmgoer’s attention during the experience and so survived the old-fashioned way, by charging for admission. When Wu arrives at his final peroration, suggesting the recent value-seeking pushback against mindless clickbaiting on the “free” Internet, he invokes the immersive narrative experience that was and is film’s principal selling point to illustrate today’s “Golden Age of Television” (much of which is streamed on the frequently overloaded Internet, confounding his own argument for Net Neutrality).
In his final illustration of geek intrusiveness before the pushback, “The Web Hits Bottom,” Wu points out the granular, empirical refinement of attention command by unabashed geeks like Jonah Peretti, on the founding of the HuffPost and Buzzfeed – skilled feedback reporting showing which LOL cats, which Kardashian tushies and which celebrity mishaps bring the most clicks. These devices are then available to the advertisers, who creepily follow the user all over the Web with ads for an item she or he may have clicked on out of idle curiosity. This is the ultimate perversion of the expressed goal of advertisers who want, more and more, not to have to approach the individual with the “unique selling proposition” of the Mad Men days (“Coke. It’s the Real Thing”) but to approach them with something they already have persuaded themselves they want to buy. Experiences like this ad-tracking mania make the penultimate chapters of The Attention Merchants pretty sourly disdainful of the efforts of people like Peretti and ready to buy the arguments of authors like Nicholas Carr that “the Internet is making us stupid.”
For that reason, Wu’s suggestion that the “Golden Age of [streaming] Television” represents the latest consumer pushback against the latest clickbait iteration of attention merchandising might feel a little thin and contrived. He is certainly right that a significant segment of the consuming public is turning to “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones” as an uncluttered (if expensive) alternative to the clickbait revolution, that mindless parody of the myth of the “Invisible Eyeball.” But the Internet’s “usual suspects” – Amazon, Google, Facebook and other reliable consumer-driven, ad-fueled monetizations of the consumer life – do not seem to be flagging. And Buzzfeed is now partially owned by Comcast, at an outlay that valued the company (still earning chump change by Silicon Valley standards) at a billion and a half bucks.
The final pushback in which uncluttered quality itself is available at a price came in late 2015 when Apple introduced an ad-blocker app for its iPhone operating system, partially justifying the higher cost for its products and putting rival Google on notice that it could do the same for its Android phone OS, keeping up with the post-Jobses but further crippling its revenue stream. The attention-merchant industry wailed that Apple was guilty of “robbery” and that “ad-blocking threatens democracy.” It certainly put Apple’s biggest rivals, Facebook along with Google – who began as ad-free but gave in to the attention-merchant temptation – in a potential revenue bind. As Wu points out, once advertising’s pervasiveness is diluted or disappeared, it is denormalized, and once users experience life without it, they will be hard to get back.
Still, Google and Facebook have hardly collapsed into the dustbin of hi-tech history. The latest pushback episode against the commodification of attention identified by Tim Wu, then, may be the pursuit of uncluttered quality at a price – but only between views of Facebook, email check-ins and other momentary diversions immersed in the great intergalactic time-suck we have all grown to deplore and love, and on which after all, reader, you are reading this review.
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