I’m just about old enough to remember the flash of excitement that would arise whenever my PC would announce, “You’ve got mail”.
How fascinating it was that anyone could send paragraphs of information with such immediacy – and not a single stamp was licked.
As the Internet became commonplace and e-mails came in a steady stream, life became a bit more exciting and a little less like a To Kill A Mockingbird Sunday afternoon.
It was great to have the world at our fingertips, to be better connected than ever before, to be able to communicate with almost anyone any time.
Oh, how naïve.
Fast forward a couple of decades and many of us are desperate to find a few elusive moments in which we can unplug, switch off and … honestly, if I see another e-mail notification or Twitter update today, I might scream. On the other hand, that YouTube “recommended” list isn’t going to watch itself….
I digress. In Attention Merchants, Tim Wu examines the smorgasbord of entities that continuously vie for every last morsel of our conscious – and not-so-conscious – attention.
In the early 20th century, people in the United States were familiar with billboard advertising, and just a few decades later, advertisers made themselves at home in our homes as they sold their messages through our televisions and radios during previously sacred family hours. Then came the home computer, followed by the Internet (remember dial-up connection? Simpler times), and now we’ve arrived at smartphones and “wearables”, which we apparently check at least 150 times per day on average.
Brands and advertisers must feel like they’ve truly hit the jackpot with an always switched-on audience awaiting our next little hit of dopamine from whatever pops up to grab our eager attention.
Wu’s latest offering isn’t all doom and gloom, though; in fact, the book presents itself in a matter-of-fact manner that serves to pique the reader’s interest without too much recognition of the sinister undertones.
The Internet has its virtues – who can argue otherwise? Is it not a good thing to be connected to the world and enjoy all the opportunities that come with such an advantage?
Aren’t those people at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter lovely in allowing us to share our thoughts and build useful connections and networks without any cost?
Not so fast.
As we share our every thought, likes and dislikes, and favourite cups of coffee over social media, related companies are able to mine and make use of an abundance of data built up over time – a condition to which many remain unaware they implicitly consent to when signing up for their “free” account. As Wu describes it, “It is a more thoroughly invasive effort than any NSA (the US National Security Agency) data collection ever disclosed.”
As prominent authors such as Adam Grant and Daniel Goleman line up to tell us that focus and perseverance are the keys to success in this new age of attention deficiency, Wu’s Attention Mer-chants gives insights into why our minds are becoming increasingly pulled from one distraction to another at an alarming rate.
To prove the point, how many of us have the idea to write an e-mail or start on a detailed piece of work, only to find ourselves half an hour down the line going from watching video clips of dancing cats on YouTube to reading up on how to cut the perfect mango? How does that even happen?
Wu offers a few ideas about how exactly that happens, and how attention merchants have been going to work on us for much longer than we care to realise. We live in a time where there is so much to connect us, with much to see and much to do and yet, it can feel as though life has never felt more isolating, and being busy can often seem worlds apart from being meaningfully productive.
If you can tear yourself away from the Facebook feed and the enticing Instagram photos for long enough, Attention Merchants is an eye-opening read that’s very much deserving of your undivided attention. Having said that, I can’t swear that I avoided reading the odd movie review in between paragraphs.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads
Author: Tim Wu
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, nonfiction