Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is part history and part social analysis. The history related in The Attention Merchants tells us something we all basically know—that economic forces simultaneously drive businesses to offer us “free” entertainment, while at the same time making our attention to that entertainment a product to be sold to advertisers. Hence the title. And, since everybody likes free stuff, and in a free market, new markets will always be sought and exploited, there is a natural tendency for advertising to intrude into previously private spaces, making the sphere of the truly private ever smaller.
Wu acknowledges that we get something for allowing our attention to be sold, which is why we agree to the exchange. This book is not a jeremiad against the free market; there is no implicit or explicit demand for less “free” in the “free market.” Nor is this a Larry Lessig-type call for more government control, always somehow tilted to benefit the Left, under the guise of pseudo-libertarianism (Lessig’s specialty—Lessig is all for less government control, as long as the result is calculated to deliver more power for the Left). Wu just thinks we should consider more deeply whether the bargain we each strike with the merchants is worth it.
The Attention Merchants follows the expanding sale of attention from the late 19th Century to Snapchat, tracing how technology makes capturing and selling attention ever easier, even though occasionally some segments of society resist. With television, intrusion into the private sphere expanded greatly. Then the 1960s and 1970s, a time of expressive individualism, resulted in even more advertising success—for the desire to be an individual “was a desire [the advertising] industry could cater to, just like any other.” And, as an advertising executive said at the time, “The hippies are in their peak acquisitive years, and their relative affluence enable them to consume goods and services at a rate unheard of for their age level.” Not for Wu a starry-eyed belief in the virtue of the Age of Aquarius.
Of course, with the rise of the Internet and then of mobile devices, advertising intrusion into the private sphere has become nearly continuous for the vast majority of people. This intrusion today is both nearly constant and extremely finely tuned to the individual target using proven methods of grabbing and keeping attention. Wu decries this, but not as a preacher would, rather with the knowledge that for most people, they think this is a good deal, or they wouldn’t do it. (And he’s funny: “On Facebook, all happy families were alike; the others may have been unhappy in their own way, but they were not on Facebook.”) His call is for more consideration, and a more measured approach, by each of us.
This is not a book of economics. Wu touches briefly on academic discussions about advertising, and describes attention as a commodity, but does not involve himself in questions of whether advertising is in part deadweight loss, as claimed by some. I suppose he thought that would be too much of a departure, and he’s probably right, but I would have been interested to learn more about different views on the topic.
Wu also does not explore another avenue that I think would have been profitable to explore—the effect of class. He does not seem aware, or at least does not address, that his concerns are confined to the educated classes—namely, the type of people who read his book. The lower classes are not reflective, usually, in the way that Wu suggests we be, and they will not hear his call. If they did, they would probably reject it with the contempt shown to Luke Wilson’s character in “Idiocracy,” as yet another way the snobbish elites are trying to control them and lord it over them. The lower classes do not debate taking “Internet Sabbaths.” Steve Jobs strictly limited all forms of screen time for his children; the lower classes use, whether by necessity or choice, all forms of electronics, accompanied by constant advertising, as babysitters, for both children and grownups.
In fact, many of Wu’s suggestions would actually increase the class divide in America—yes, premium TV, which Wu identifies as part of a current (and probably temporary) “retreat and revolt,” has fewer advertisements, but it’s generally not consumed by the lower classes. In an interview in The Atlantic, Wu said “We have to get over our addiction to free stuff. Suck it up and pay.” This message only resonates with those who have money. Those with extra money may choose to spend it on limiting exposure to ads and increasing privacy, but those with little money will more likely choose the bargain of cheaper entertainment, or free entertainment, at the cost of more ads and less privacy. And let’s be honest—lack of reflection and self-control is a key characteristic of the lower classes, one reason they ARE the lower classes, so they are unlikely to instead read “Middlemarch.” That’s just the nature of human society, and the reality of human nature.
On a broader level, although Wu is left-liberal (he ran as a Democrat for Lieutenant Governor of New York) this book at first appears non-political. True, it’s sprinkled with references to New Left nonsense philosophers, from Habermas to Marcuse. They’re used for pithy quotes, though, not for their ideological claptrap. (It’s not at all clear Wu really grasps the actual ideology of the New Left, especially since he claims that they (and the “youth movement” of the late 1960s) “envisioned an end to all forms of repression,” which was “a more ambitious aim than anything hoped for even by Karl Marx and his followers, who simply sought liberation from an unfair economic system.” I suppose at some level that characterization of the New Left, Marx and Marxism is true, but it omits everything important. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)
But as I say, these references to the Left are window dressing in what appears to be a non-political book. It is not non-political, though. In fact, “The Attention Merchants” is a deeply conservative book. Moreover, it is not conservative as “libertarian,” which is sometimes acceptable to our elites as long as the focus is increasing atomizing choice likely to lead to leftist goals like destruction of the family and traditional religious beliefs (again, think Larry Lessig). Rather the book is deeply culturally and socially conservative. I’m not sure if Wu realizes or would acknowledge this, but it is nonetheless true.
Why do I say is this a conservative book? First, Wu explicitly recognizes that the materialism that drives the sale of attention is a substitute for religious belief. Wu notes that as religious faith in the West has declined, “Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline.” This is a common conservative insight, but rarely seen on the Left, which generally believes that religion is inherently doomed, that disbelief does not result in reaching for substitutes, and that materialism is driven by malevolent capitalist forces, not by us.
Second, Wu shows constant skepticism towards government, especially because it is a source of and key user of propaganda. As he relates in detail, this has been true since as soon as propaganda became technologically feasible and Americans temperamentally less resistant to it, from Woodrow Wilson on. This propaganda, Wu emphasizes, is not just the crude emotional manipulation of Kitchener’s “I Want You.” Rather, it lies in corralling the thoughts of the masses into certain patterns. He quotes one mid-20th Century writer, “the task of propaganda lies not in a scientific training of the individual, but rather in directing the masses toward certain facts, events, necessities, etc., the purpose being to move their importance into the masses’ field of vision.” Admittedly this writer was Hitler, but we would call this today “setting the narrative”—not by rational exposition and discussion, but by emotional appeals under the guise of facts.
And such emotional appeals are all the Left offers today, although Wu does not say this and does not take the step to realize that such propaganda is today less a formal government activity and more a coordinated activity of the ruling cultural elite, led by people like George Soros. Modern left-liberal appeals, from gun control to Obamacare to Not Trump to unrestricted abortion, don’t make the mistake of engaging the complex merits of an issue, before, or after, engaging the listener (which is what makes propaganda fail, as Wu points out). Raw appeals to simplistic emotions characterize today’s entire program of the Left—it is conservatives, lacking the megaphone of the news-setting media that allows the Left to set the narrative to whatever is today’s Left focus, who have to lead with the complex merits of an issue.
Third, Wu is highly skeptical of easy solutions. His measured approach to every problem shows repeatedly that Wu has the “constrained vision” identified by Thomas Sowell as underlying the conservative approach to the world. He is skeptical of magic solutions that promise something for nothing, again in contravention to Left ideology (and in contradiction to every single New Left idol that he quotes). Wu simply does not buy into the standard Left belief that human nature and human society is perfectible; he is an incrementalist, which means he is fundamentally a conservative.
But these are small beans compared to the main reason why this is a conservative book. Wu’s solution to the social problems he identifies is, although he doesn’t use these words, a call for a cultural renewal along conservative lines. He notes that until recently, “custom,” “tradition,” and “religion” “used to define certain inviolable spaces and moments . . . . And while there was much about the old reality that could be inconvenient or frustrating, it had the advantage of automatically creating protected spaces, with their salutary effects.” Here is the spot where nearly any modern writer, a foot soldier in the Gramscian culture wars, would perform a ritual denunciation of supposedly endemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., that characterized the “old reality,” and apologize profusely for suggesting that something good might have existed then, even if the author nonetheless maintained that a tiny thread of virtue did exist that might have been lost. Not Wu. He just says nothing of the sort—in fact, calling the past “inconvenient” and “frustrating,” but nothing else, suggests a deliberate choice to reject sacrificing at the altars of the Left’s gods. He just makes his point and moves on.
Next he channels, for all practical purposes, the conservative writer Yuval Levin, noting that today’s unprecedented individualism is both good and bad, but “What is called for might be termed a human reclamation project.” He calls for us to become like “the monastics, whether in the East or the West, whose aim was precisely to reap the fruits of deep and concentrated attention.” In essence, Wu calls for us to seek the Good. “At stake, then, is something akin to how one’s life is lived.” He calls for us to “desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture.” No different than Aristotle or Abelard, he notes that the Good is not obtained from passive acceptance of a barrage of materialist demands, but from a spiritual focus on obtaining something objectively good.
Along the same lines, Wu makes the extremely conservative point that man seeks above all transcendence, or meaning, and we obtain only false transcendence from accepting as key to our being the wares paraded before us by the attention merchants. As Wu says of Apple and other companies to whom brand loyalty and identity is critical: “What is offered to adherents is not merely a good product (though often it is), but something deeper and more deeply fulfilling—a sense of meaning that comes with the surrender of choice.” But true meaning cannot be obtained through this mechanism, only false meaning. That Wu, even implicitly, distinguishes between true meaning, that leads man to the Good, and false meaning, makes him deeply conservative.
In fact, Wu’s plan dovetails precisely with the plans advanced by conservative thinkers, such as Rod Dreher and Roger Scruton, to take back culture as part of an active plan of resistance to, and perhaps ultimate victory over, the New Left. A key part of that resistance is rebuilding intermediary institutions in which we actively participate, and, as Scruton says, “under whose auspices people can flourish according to their social nature, acquiring the manners and aspirations that endow their lives with meaning.” These institutions are the opposite not only of government social control, but also of the passive acceptance of commercial messages and the granting to those messages of control both over our private lives and, even, the meaning of our lives. Or as Scruton also says of consumerization, “The fact is we know the solution, and it is not a political one. We must change our lives. And to do this we need spiritual authority, the ability to make sacrifices, and a refusal to be degraded into the machines désirantes of Deleuze and Guattari.” That sentence would fit seamlessly into Wu’s book.
Now, it’s true that Wu effectively writes not only in opposition to left-liberals, but also in opposition to Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who think that the unfettered free market is inherently productive of the Good and refuse to recognize that powerful forces of social atomism necessarily result from the free market. Conservatism is much more fragmented than it once was. It’s not like Wu is going to be speaking at the next Republican National Convention. But his straightforward analysis and original thought is both very interesting and clarifying, and people of any political bent can benefit from reading his book.