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If attention is a scarce commodity, then how should you manage yours? Unlike money, you can’t save your attention up: you are always spending it on something! But on what and for what in return? Consider, for example, what exactly you give and what you get back from powerful-attention harvesting machines like Google and Facebook…

Late 19th-century thinker William James once said, “My experience is what I agree to pay attention to.” In the age of hyper connectivity, clickbait, and fake news, it’s a sobering thought. In his book, The Attention Merchants, activist, lawyer, and author Tim Wu (who is most famous for coining the term “net neutrality”) puts a spotlight on the pervasive costs of today’s thriving attention economy. “The book’s thesis is that there is a strange business model called advertising-supported media that was once restricted to a small area of our life, like newspapers, but now it is taking over every area of our life,” says Wu. Starting with the government propaganda campaigns of WWI, he traces the history of the “dramatic and impressive rise” of the advertising industry up to today’s incredibly subtle, invasive, and profitable online ads. One of Wu’s primary objectives is to show that advertising’s omnipresence today isn’t inevitable: it has grown out of a century of negotiation between “attention merchants,” companies, and consumers. Wu argues that Google’s AdWords, which are so subtle you may not even notice them, call for greater vigilance. “We have voluntarily, or somewhat voluntarily, entered into this grand bargain with the attentional industry, and we enjoy the benefits,” he writes. “But it is essential that we understand the deal.”

Turning attention into cash: the birth of advertising

Wu dates the birth of advertising to the turn of the 20th century. According to The Guardian’s Ben Tarnoff , advertising emerged around this time partly in response to the productive excesses of industrial expansion in the West. When serving its ideal function, advertising increases market efficiency by objectively informing consumers about their choices: “Information cannot be acted upon without attention and thus attention capture and information are essential to a functioning market economy, or indeed any competitive process,” Wu explains. In reality, however, the drive to maximize profits often distorts advertising so that, rather than inform, it’s used to “confuse, mislead, or fool customers”, thereby serving the opposite of its intended function. Hence the rise of the consumer movement and its eff orts to protect consumers from advertising’s darker sides.

Google’s AdWords: the most profitable advertising system ever invented


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The Attention Merchants


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