The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Tim Wu

Book cover

I had a mixed relationship with this book. I saw Tim Wu speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year and thought he had interesting things to say. I guess I probably got to thinking about this book again recently because of Facebook being in the news. It turned out to be a little different than what I was expecting; namely, Wu spends a lot of time on the history of advertising and attention-reselling, and only gets to current issues and social media at the very end of the book. I almost wanted to put it down near the beginning because I didn’t feel that interested in reading about the rise of the ad-supported newspaper model, the first sponsored radio shows, etc. But I kept at it, partly because I was on a long trip and it was the only book I had with me, and I think in the end patience was rewarded. The book gives a strong sense of “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again,” not necessarily in a fatalistic way, but more that Wu identifies the cyclical pattern of attraction to nominally free stuff followed by disenchantment and backlash.

There were several aspects of the book that specifically interested me. First, Wu’s identification of organized religion as the original institution attempting to corner the attention market, and relation of later developments to religious ritual. Second, the extended discussion of how the modern advertising world had its genesis in the British military recruitment propaganda campaign during WWI–I think I was dimly aware of this but had never thought too much about the connection of government and private sector advertising. Third, Wu’s discussion of how capitalism co-opted the counterculture movement of the ‘60s is very good. In particular I was really interested in his section on Timothy Leary. I was only aware of Leary in the broadest sense of “guy who advocated doing a lot of drugs in the ‘60s.” But he’s a really fascinating figure and seemingly a lot deeper and more thoughtful than that description conveys; among other things, Wu portrays him as extremely focused on spiritual life (and I also didn’t know he had taught at Harvard!). I’d like to read more about him.

My main disappointment with the book was that Wu leaned so heavily on the narrative frame. He does not, thank God, spend much time talking about the biographies of the major players. But the book is essentially structured as, X happened, then Y happened, etc. What I felt like I was missing was an analytical framework in which to think about these issues, as for example I do think is provided by Zeynep Tufekci in her book. She works through the implications of various different specific features social media can have in a way such that I left the book feeling like I could use her ideas to make sense of something new that arises. I didn’t really feel this way after Wu’s book, other than the very broad principle of acceptance and backlash.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars