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Publisher's Summary

From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch and who coined the phrase "net neutrality", a revelatory look at the rise of "attention harvesting", and its transformative effect on our society and our selves.

Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers.

In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the "attention merchants", contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to TV's golden age to our present age of radically individualized choices, the business model of "attention merchants" has always been the same. He describes the revolts that have risen against these relentless attempts to influence our consumption, from the remote control to FDA regulations to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants grow ever-new heads, and their means of harvesting our attention have given rise to the defining industries of our time, changing our nature - cognitive, social, and otherwise - in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.

©2016 Tim Wu (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Tim Wu has written a profoundly important book on a problem that doesn't get enough - well, attention. Attention itself has become the currency of the information age, and, as Wu meticulously and eloquently demonstrates, we allow it to be bought and sold at our peril." (James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History)
"I couldn't put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, The Attention Merchants is also a book of urgent importance, revealing how our preeminent industries work to fleece our consciousness rather than help us cultivate it." (Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package)
"Television entranced the masses. Digital media, more insidiously, mesmerizes each of us individually. In this revelatory book, Tim Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. The Attention Merchants deserves everyone's attention." (Nicholas Carr, author of Utopia Is Creepy and The Shallows)

What members say

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It's Been Sold

Ever wonder why you have so little attention for the important things in life?

Your attention is being sold; it's been sold incrementally over the years.

Marc Cashman beautifully narrates fifteen hours of a 'brief' history of tactics and trends in advertising.

This is great book for you if you're interested in gaining control of your attention, find out where it's gone, who has taken it, and how they stole it from you. The why is money, but not for as much as you would think.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Largely a history of advertising

Any additional comments?

3.5 stars. A well-done book that largely acts as a detailed history of advertising and how advertising has been amplified and exacerbated by the various screens in our lives (from the first screen, film, through subsequent screens of television, computers, and finally mobile devices). Wu briefly touches upon other, older forms of attempting to harness attention (religion and governmental propaganda being prime examples), but the bulk of the book is a catalog of the ever-evolving commercial efforts to wrest our limited attention from us in a ploy to sell goods. I think the book could have been better and more illuminating if Wu had spent some additional time explaining the science of attention, why we are swayed, and the cognitive reasons why the ubiquitousness of mobile devices is so devastating. That said, the book covers its topic thoroughly and is engaging if for no other reason than its topic permeates our modern lives. The book is at its best and most interesting as it heads into the 21st Century and tackles social media and the like, the way that social media makes us each a narcissus, and how the minute details that can now be tracked make attention harvesting easier and our need for escape from such harvesting all the more urgent.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Raleigh
  • greensboro, NC, United States
  • 03-08-17

perhaps george orwell was right


i travelled to connecticut recently, to attended my 35th college reunion
one of my classmates had been a producer for ABC news for many years
she told me, sadly, that she had recently decided to look for " non-TV " work

TV only exists, she said, "...as a method, to deliver the audience to the advertiser..."
network executives use programming only as the bait to catch retinas for commercials
the needs and wants of the advertisers relentlessly obliterate all other concerns

she suggested tim wu's book " the attention merchants " if i wanted to know more
wu's detailed examination of corporate efforts to capture our attention is stunning
advertising's " green-eyed monster " greedily wants to gobble up our very lives

wars, depressions and life's various setbacks have all been used as marketing tools
now, america's youthful fascination with social media is just " another way to get inside "
mr. wu's book as an insightful and cautionary guide to our modern media driven lives



2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Thought provoking

When I purchased this audio book I had hoped the author would elucidate what is going on with the rampant pillaging of personal private information. I fear nefarious use of such data. I was not expecting the author's deep, thoughtful historical analysis of the issues around advertising. Where he went, he went carefully and fearlessly.
I am not clear if cloud storage of data existed at the time of his writing. The level of cohersion to force individuals to use such data storage services is something I find dangerous and personally appalling.
I am an author and TV show host. Without my consent all my shows and the still photos I use to enrich the studio footage were uploaded to the cloud. I was then informed I had to pay monthly rent for the undesired storage or have the episodes removed from my home computer. Much data was mysteriously deleted from not only the mainframe but also my backup drive.
I rebelled and was able to reclaim my ownership of my own intellectual property, at least for a short while. Lately I faced a more subtle upload requirement of unpublished text and perfectly functioning portable storage drives are now malfunctioning. I heard the term ransomware. I would love to hear this author's opinions about that and it's impact on intellectual expression and ultimately freedom of speech. If someone you do not know can delete your thoughts and words at will, how safe are you as a creative?

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

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OTHER gods

Not since “The Powers That Be” (published in 1979) has there been a better history of the media industry. Tim Wu is heir to David Halberstam. First there were newspapers, then radio, then television, and now the world-wide web. Wu offers a modern vision of media’s impact on society in “The Attention Merchants”.

Gone are many of the famed “…Attention Merchants” like Bill Bernbach, Neil French, and David Ogilvy. They were the early influencers; i.e. the copy writers, and agents that created consumer advertising for Sulzberger, Chandler, Hutchins, Paley, and Luce. They worked for founders of some of the most influential newspaper, radio, television and magazine outlets of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were the “gods” of a newly formed consumer society. Consumers read, watched, and listened to pitches for everything from votes to vitamins to the latest model Cadillac. Wu shows pitches remain the same, but methods have changed.

Wu recounts how advertising became a critical part of early media’s power, influence, and profit. Just as advertisers promoted false benefits of smoking in the 20th, internet advertisers promote false benefits of free access to information and entertainment in the 21st century. Neither smoking or “free” access to information is without harm or cost. The Marlborough man is dead, and “free” internet information is not free. “Fake news” has always been in the “…Attention Merchant’s” tool box but Wu shows that a new dimension is created with the rise of “free” information technology.

There is a cost to voters and consumers because personal information is being sold without pay for product that enriches “…Attention Merchants”, private enterprise, and government. The product delivered is the personal information that reveals who we are, what we think, what we desire, and what we are willing to pay. Consumers have less control over their decisions because “…Attention Merchants” use intimate personal information to seduce conscious and unconscious motivation.

The sinister aspect of Wu’s explanation is that “…Attention Merchants” now have tools that exaggerate the impact of “fake news”. By knowing intimate beliefs of consumers, “…Attention Merchants” are able to create algorithms that funnel “fake news” that feeds what consumer’s may either accurately or inaccurately believe. Prejudices and discrimination are reinforced. The worst characteristics of political populism are reinforced. “The Attention Merchants” expand control of individual thought so that the course of democratic elections, government policies, or business successes can be unduly influenced by false or misleading information.

As Marie Currie is to have said— “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Of course, one might remember, she died from the radiation she received from her discoveries.

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Indispensable Guide Book to the Age of the Ad

Tim Wu’s book is an extraordinary review of processes he says began to be industrialized about 200 years ago. From New York broadsheets to internet clickbait, it’s all here. It isn’t just about advertising and its close cousin propaganda. It’s about the farming of human consciousness for profit. The book is prescient. It was published before the exposure of Facebook’s feckless behavior, but it could have incorporated that debacle seamlessly, and sounds the broadest possible warning that there is more to come.

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A great history of "attention harvest"

The book tells the story of how advertising, pop culture, technology, and psychology created the world we live in now.

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  • Doc B
  • New Orleans, LA
  • 03-04-18

Amazing book

This is my first Tim Wu book, but he has definitely made me a fan. His presentation of history, facts, and story are in the vein of writers like Matthew Syed and Charles Duhig. I am ready to dig into his other books. Tim Wu has amazing insights, which when sprinkles though the text really help you place context to some of the actions of histories biggest attention merchants.

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Too much history on an interesting subject

I enjoyed the last parts of the book. It had a couple of great stories about the companies that made the internet to what it is today. The author does focus on the negatives of advertisement in a sensible way, but does not mention any alternative for companies to try to engage their public.

There is however way too much history in this book for my taste. I guess I was wrong to think the book was more about internet-attention than the first-printed-newspaper and first-radio-show attention. Those chapters were not very interesting to me.

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A helpful historical perspective

The story is missing the latest development of internet hacking. Otherwise a helpful historical perspective.