Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Attention Merchants (2016)

Tim Wu is a New Yorker writer so it's not surprising that his history of advertising—or, more properly, the advertising model—was never less than entertaining and informative. He reaches back to the New York Sun in the 1830s for the birth of this economic model, which is confusingly captured in today's conventional wisdom about social media, "if you're not paying for the product then you are the product." That is, the New York Sun took the attention readers focused on the newspaper, and distracted it with messages bought and paid for by advertisers. You bought the newspaper for the news. Advertisers bought your inadvertent attention for their commercial messages. Wu traces this dynamic, through its eventual interaction with propaganda in public spaces, and on into the brave new worlds of commercial capitalist broadcast radio and TV, cable-TV, the internet, and smartphones. I thought I understood the history of broadcast media pretty well but Wu had some details that surprised me. I hadn't grasped what a phenomenon the Amos 'n' Andy radio show was in the late '20s and '30s, for example. Radio and the human voice and then TV and images added more layers of immersion than newsprint and the audience exploded. Wu is good on the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian approaches too, where the attention of large audiences was mandated by force, using in-home speakers, outdoor loudspeakers, neighborhood monitors, and a system of snitches who could rat you out. I'm not sure why the customer / product model in the West confuses me, but it does. Perhaps because I'm so steeped in it. It has ruled and still tries to rule radio and TV. I grew up conditioned to movies on TV being interrupted every 10 or 15 minutes, just like everything else. It used to seem normal.

The government-funded PBS and subscription cable channels like HBO eventually came to compete successfully for new ways of looking at TV, but still, about three or four minutes of content to one minute of advertising remains the rule on lots of TV yet. I have felt for some time that the advertising model fails and continues to fail on the internet. Wu seems to agree with that, pointing to aggressive, invasive, and worse forms of advertising online, which can actually harm computers. At best it is an annoyance that slows computer performance to a crawl. I use an ad-blocker now and skip the sites that scold me for it, though occasionally I relent for the sake of reading something, only to see an instant flood of dismaying clutter that must be cleared away (which isn't always easy). The situation is not getting better. Wu is best on illustrating how things like clickbait and eyeball-counting metrics (for the sake of ad rates) have done a lot to bring out the worst in us. He articulates the experience of going through a social media feed as a process of managing distraction, which helped me get my finger on that problem a little better (agreeable as the problem can be, which is another part of the problem). In the long run it has become very frustrating and obviously others on the internet are frustrated too. In this media world we have created there is always something new and shiny. One more thing to look at, click on, scan, react to, share, and forget, buried in public archives impossible to fathom but open to researchers. It sometimes feels as if we are literally losing our intelligence, our ability to be intelligent. The phenomena might be anything at this point, including something profound about human psychology, but I still want to blame the advertising model, which Wu traces from nearly two centuries back until the publication of his book in 2016. No doubt a good deal has happened even since then, but his book will update you to that point and it's fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. One thing I realized reading this book was that I hadn't read a history of advertising since the '80s. So the last few post-70s chapters about Oprah and branding and the like were the most interesting to me. Although, Surveillance Capitalism still offers a more compelling account of big tech after 2001.