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Photo: © Mikiko Hayashi
TIM WU is an author, policy advocate, and professor at Columbia University, best known for coining the term “net neutrality.” In 2006, Scientific American named him one of 50 leaders in science and technology; in 2007, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard’s 100 most influential graduates; in 2013, National Law Journal included him in “America’s 100 Most Influential Lawyers”; and in 2014 and 2015, he was named to the “Politico 50.” He formerly wrote for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas Gold medal for Travel Journalism, and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. In 2015, he was appointed to the Executive Staff of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a senior enforcement counsel and special adviser.TIM WU is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at email@example.com or visit www.prhspeakers.com.
Columbia Global Reports
Tim Wu: Our attention spans are getting stolen
Who among us has not emerged from the rabbit hole of the Internet and wondered, “Where did the time go?” Or felt exasperated while sitting through a thirty second commercial on YouTube? Or driven down a highway and wished for uninterrupted vistas instead of billboards as far as the eye can see?
Tim Wu certainly has. In his new book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Wu, best known for coining the phrase “net neutrality,” follows the advertising industry from its early penny newspaper and patent-medicine-shilling days, through the boom of wartime propaganda, to the advent of radio, television, computers and the Internet. But much more than a history lesson, The Attention Merchants is a wake-up call about the erosion of our most valuable resources — our time and attention — by the powerful joint forces of advertising and technology.
Wu recently spoke to Penguin Random House about the value of our attention, what we are or aren’t getting in return for it, and what we should do about it.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:You’re concerned about where technology and advertising are pushing us as a culture. Did you write this book as a warning?
TIM WU: I am of the belief, not to sound dramatic, that we are changing as a civilization. I think we are always changing, even as a species, and I think it’s really important to know who and what we’re becoming. One of the reasons I was motivated to write this book is the work of William James, a prominent 19th-century philosopher. He had this line that really struck me where he said your life experience will in the end be what you choose to pay attention to. And it just struck me that at some level, all of culture, even all of our lived experience, is how we direct our attention. I think that motivated me and it made me think, “How actually are we doing that? Who are we becoming?”
I also think a lot of people, myself included, find ourselves somewhat out of control when it comes to our own attention spending. I sometimes get trapped sort of floating around mindlessly, clicking on the Web and so forth. I think a culture can somewhat be defined by the mental states which we occupy, and if we are continually distracted, confused, kind of lost, I think maybe that’s not the best civilization to aspire to.
PRH:In the same way your muscles atrophy if you don’t use them, what might we be losing as a result of the effects of advertising and technology today?
TW: I’m not a neurobiologist, and I don’t think anyone really knows. But one of the things I’ve been interested in just by reading is, I think those states of very intense focus and concentration which sometimes people inhabit, and they’re able to do really deep and productive work, I think it’s gotten harder. I’m not saying impossible, but I think our own technological environment has made those kinds of states harder to achieve. You really have to go pretty far to block yourself if you want to concentrate carefully, and it’s become a very difficult state.
PRH:While researching this book, did you learn anything about advertising that surprised you?
TW: Many things. I hadn’t fully realized how new advertising is. It’s one of those things that’s so ubiquitous in our lives, you think obviously it’s been around forever. But the real advertising industry as we think of it only dates to the 1910s, 1920s. I hadn’t realized that the First World War propaganda has such a role in proving to the world that advertising was effective. I think I also didn’t realize how strongly the history of advertising and patent medicine are linked, and that so much of the early advertising would be one way or another efforts to sell cures. Actually, you see it still in a lot of contemporary advertising. When you look at a lot of contemporary advertising, either it’s branding, which is one thing, or at some level it’s trying to sell a solution or a cure for a problem and a lot of that goes back to the old idea of selling medicine.
PRH:Is there anything that people still regard as a sacred space that should be free of advertising?
TW: One thing I’ll say is that if there’s a line, you have to draw it yourself nowadays. It will not happen by itself. First I think there have been an extraordinary number of spaces that we would have considered inviolate, or not that they’re sacred, but just why would you put advertising there? I was thinking about the back of your key when you go to a hotel sometimes. Or the gas station sometimes will blow ads at you now. In back of taxicabs. Obviously airports, almost every part of them. Some of the more recent and more disturbing versions for me are the beginning of advertising in state parks and some proposals for national parks to introduce advertising; it’s limited now but may be becoming more intense. For now you can still somewhat go deep into the wilderness. So to answer your question, the only place left as far as I can tell is to bury yourself deep into the wilderness far away from any cell tower and then you will be somewhat free. Let me say this: I went to Antarctica, it was ad free. And the Utah desert, once you get far enough, is ad free.
One of the things I didn’t put in the book that was interesting to me are literally sacred spaces, the beginnings of advertising in churches. There are subtle but strong efforts to try and get pastors to product-place movies in sermons when a movie comes out. They’ll sometimes have a drawing — send in proof that you mentioned this movie and you’re eligible for this prize, a trip to England or $1,000 cash. Or the studios sometimes — when this movie “Superman: Man of Steel” came out, the backers of the movie distributed sermon notes to especially megachurch pastors, with “Jesus the first superhero” as their kind of theme, and tried to get them to give sermons. Because people are always hard up for sermon content on Superman.
PRH:Of all the forms of advertising out there today, which ones do you personally find most overbearing or intrusive?
TW: I think it’s where the deal is crooked. So I am not against all advertising. I think sometimes it’s a fair deal. You’re going to watch this content and I’m paying by watching ads as opposed to paying full price. I don’t like the ads when I’m watching sports on TV, but I sort of say, “Okay, this is the deal. I can’t say I like it, but okay, all right, this is the deal. I’ve traded it.” It’s when they break the terms of the agreement. So you get into a taxicab, which just you’re paying to be in the space, paying a lot of money to be in a taxicab, and then they start blowing ads at you. And I was like, “Wait a second, when did I agree to this?”
I’m a law professor, and unconsensual contact is battery, and I feel like when I haven’t agreed to advertising and in fact don’t want the underlying content, and I’m essentially still being battered with it, then that’s when I’m the most offended. So that’s my feeling: Captive audience and a raw deal — that feels like a kind of battery. Actually, that is sort of a battery of your mind because it’s physically impossible to not watch it. It’s like secondhand smoke or something.
PRH: Those giant graphic ads that wrap around big buildings — I feel like those are battery.
TW: One other thing I’ve learned from my book is the necessity of citizen resistance. Early in the book there’s a chapter set in Paris where the Parisians revolt en masse against the posters because they’re making Paris too ugly. Paris is this beautiful city, and I think as citizens we have a say. There shouldn’t be the default that, of course, there has to be advertising. Why is that the default? Why can’t you say, “Okay, maybe not. Why is this so important?” It’s not like it’s the fire department. The fire department gets to make a lot of noise and trouble and annoy everybody, but they’re trying to put out a fire. You’re trying to make us watch a movie. So I think as citizens we have some collective rights to govern how we live and we should exercise them.
PRH:Is the right way to exercise them to insist on regulation of advertising?
TW: Sure. I think it’s very local. I wouldn’t say there should be the federal laws other than truth in advertising, but I think if local communities feel they want things one way or another, they should exercise those rights.
PRH:Is there such a thing as good advertising?
TW: Absolutely. I think advertising is sometimes almost essential. It serves its function of getting information out. How do you know that “five minutes could save you more” or something? How do you know there are cheaper alternatives out there? Sometimes it’s advertising, and sometimes you learn about things. So there is this kind of important function, but we’ve gone way beyond the amount necessary. I know what Budweiser beer is at this point. I get it. I haven’t learned anything new from a Bud ad in thirty years. So the important point of demonstrating prices, and advertising new things, and getting the word out there has far been superseded by endless branding trying to retain your loyalty or who knows what. We’re using up a lot of our mental energy, let’s put it that way.
PRH:You write about how primetime TV created shared awareness and a shared identity. What about popular programming today, like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” or the podcast “Serial”? Is that kind of content re-creating a shared awareness and identity even though people watch or listen on demand instead of at the same time?
TW: Interesting. I think what’s happening is a little different. So first I do believe that watching the same thing at the same time melds us closer into a single identity. And I don’t think it’s a surprise that the 1950s — where reliably 70 million people watched “I Love Lucy” at the same time or reliably there were 100 million people watching the same one of three shows, all of which were kind of similar — [were] a period we remember as being very unified, very homogenous, maybe conformist. These are the tradeoffs, but that’s how it was. Today I think it’s a little different. I think what we have is a culture of cults, little islands of people. So not everyone listens to “Serial,” but the people who do suddenly have this kind of even more intense bond. Or people who watch “Mad Men” very carefully — they went much deeper into it. So I think in the ’50s there was a mass culture, but it was fairly superficial and not particularly individualized.
Today we have things that are incredibly specialized to mild differences in our cultural outlook, which some people just find unwatchable and other people love. Some people completely fell for “Breaking Bad,” other people found it abhorrent, couldn’t watch it. Name five other, or ten different shows. They’re not aiming at everybody, but they do get millions of people, and those people are even more tightly organized or even more tightly bonded with each other. So I feel like we’re in a nature of subcultures, as opposed to if there was once a mainstream with little subcultures hanging off, sort of like weirdos, now the weirdos have taken over. Now the subcultures are dominant.
PRH:You conclude the book with the idea that we need a human reclamation project. Explain what you mean.
TW: I think you have to redefine the sacred in your own life. You have to redraw the lines which demarcate the profound from everything else. Whether it’s time, like certain times of day or of the week, you just duck out of that other world and return to a more natural environment, or whether it’s certain spaces, like your bedroom or even your whole house, it’s in some way fundamentally different — because it’s very easy for all these lines to become crossed, and the fault in fact is that they become crossed. So human reclamation partially has to do with line drawing. And I think at other times in our existence as a civilization, it was religion that did that, or frankly technological constraints. On the farm you were disconnected just naturally. Now you have to actually take steps to disconnect, and you have to program that into your life very explicitly.
When advertising does go too far, penetrates too invasively into our lives, I think we have the right as a community to do something about it, whether it means revolting or asking for local governments to get rid of the kinds of things, billboards we don’t like, or things that are too noisy, or flashy advertising that distracts drivers and causes accidents. I think that’s all well within what we can do as a community.
Getting straight into the world of content, I think you get the media you pay for. I do believe that sometimes as consumers we’re too addicted to everything being free. We’re too insistent that we not pay for stuff and then get angry about the advertising. Well, if you really support something, you really want it, sometimes you should pay for it. Whether it’s subscribing to the newspaper or paying for public radio, I think you’ve got to put your money where your interest in media is. And I think people are doing that, like there are more and more people subscribing to Netflix or buying stuff on Amazon Prime. I think maybe that means they don’t like the ads and they want content that’s purely content. And if so, do it — go straight to the content seller and buy it from them. Buy a book. You have to support what you believe in, and you’ll get the media environment you pay for. If you expect it to be free, free comes at a cost.
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