Do you feel like you’re in a constant state of distraction? You are.
And you can thank the “attention merchants.” These tech-age sales agents — they include everything from TV networks and newspapers, to companies like Google and Facebook — are explored in Columbia University professor Tim Wu’s latest book.
“Turning on the internet has come to feel like swatting mosquitoes,” says Wu.
“We spend so much time avoiding ads, and [marketers] spend all of their time finding new ways to sneakily put them where we can’t get away from them.”
Of course, a business model that relies on capturing and keeping attention is always going to lean toward the sensational, says Wu, and these merchants have realized that entertainment is the most effective method.
It’s one of the main reasons Donald Trump was able to win the primary, Wu explains: He was incredibly good at attracting attention. In fact, his campaign came to embody the “strangely irresistible” world of reality television — a platform that relies on the highly unusual and erratic.
Traditional newspapers, government officials, and even the president, are all competing with the entertainment industry to get their messages out, says Wu.
People used to complain about television being all about the race for ratings, explains Wu. But he contends that’s more dignified than the web’s aggressive contest for clicks that aims to trap us in a vortex of wasted time.
“I call it the casino effect,” he says. “You sit down to write one email, then you click on something and suddenly four hours go by.”
Perhaps more frightening is the fact that we carry around these ad platforms in our pockets and are entranced by their glowing screens all day long.
“Imagine you told someone 50 years ago, we’re going to have a phone like ‘Star Trek,’” says Wu, “but as opposed to doing what they say, they’re also going to be trying to make you watch ads all of the time.”
We’re a free society, yet somehow we’re continually being watched and controlled by our devices, he says. Through most of our history, we’ve condemned countries for keeping files on its citizens, and now we happily hand over personal data to private companies just so we can play “Candy Crush” with our aunt in Spain.
But while it’s possible to reclaim our consciousness, explains Wu, harnessing the willpower to disconnect isn’t enough. “You have to set up rules and re-program your own life.”
His secret weapon? “I have children,” he says, “which forces parts of my day to be completely human.”