The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
By Tim Wu
Review by Robert Morris
As Tim Wu explains in the Introduction, “As an industry, attention merchants are relatively new. Their lineage can be traced to the nineteenth century when in New York City the first newspapers fully dependent on advertising were created; and Paris, where a dazzling new kind of commercial art [e.g. posters created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec] first seized the eyes of the person in the street. But the full potential of the business model by which attention is converted into revenue would not be fully understood until the early twentieth century, when the power of mass attention was discovered by any commercial entity but by British war propagandists.”
In their business classic, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (2001), Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck examine a subject of special interest to me: ADD in the business world. Almost everyone continues to experience information overload. Some who have studied this phenomenon invoke metaphors such as “blizzards” of “tsunamis” of data. Meanwhile, information providers struggle to get through them to reach those who are most important to them. How to attract their attention? Then, how to capture that attention with what has been described by the Brothers Heath as “stickiness”?
After conducting an extensive research project, Davenport and Beck concluded that attention is "the new currency of business." Perhaps Michael Wolf agrees, having published a brilliant book in 1999 about “the entertainment economy"; perhaps Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore also agree, having published a book (also in 1999) about "the experience economy."
At least since the marketplaces in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the basic purpose of marketing is to create or increase demand for whatever the given offering may be. Those unable to go to those markets were alerted by “drummers” – literally people, usually children, sent ahead to beat on drums -- to a merchant’s imminent arrival. All commerce begins with a need to be filled, often a problem to be solved. Who can do that?
Wu explains how merchants have responded to that question throughout the centuries, generating interest by attracting attention. As communication and then social media developed, buyers and sellers have found it much easier to connect. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century especially, separate but related disciplines such as demographics, market research and most recently analytics have concurrently developed.
During the 17 years since The Attention Economy was published, the global marketplace has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember. One result is that attention has become even more valuable and remains “the currency of business.”
These are among the subjects discussed by Wu that are of greatest interest to me:
o How attention merchants conducted business pre-radio
o Then, with radio and television
o Competition for attention online
o The power of social media, for better and worse
o The rules of zoning
o The regulation of commercial activity
o The nature and extent that our so-called “private lives” and become public
o Why goals to reclaim our time and attention continue to be so difficult to achieve
o The extent to which attention merchants have [begin italics] improved [end italics] our quality of life
o The extent to which [begin italics] potential [end italics] threats posed by attention merchants
These are among Tim Wu’s concluding observations: “At bottom, whether we acknowledge it or not, the attention merchants have come to play an important part in setting the course of our lives and consequently the future of the human race, insofar as that future will be nothing more than the running total of our individual mental states...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 out attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we have so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”
Indeed, I presume to add, reclaim ownership of our humanity.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Robert Morris. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.