The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.

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90 seconds isn’t enough

When I was a child, reading was my escape from … everything painful about my life, which is to say, everything. I read a book or two daily.

As an adult, I was lucky if I read one book a month. I had a long commute and work to do, even before I had children and a husband. After building a family, I reached the point where I was lucky to read even one book a year. I forgot books were important, and stopped wearing my “Bibliovore” shirt.

Last year, I picked up a book on politics. Since reading an article here and there wasn’t illuminating anything (meaningfully), I sought a longer read to explain what only seemed inexplicable. Glenn Greenwald’s Liberty and Justice for Some answered a bunch of questions, but left me with many more …

… so I read Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Rebecca Solnit, Chalmers Johnson, Neil Postman, and many single books by other authors. Each cast a little bit more light in what had been darkness.

I didn’t see it as darkness, of course; my eyes had long since acclimated to it.

I’ve tried to speak to many friends about all the things I’m learning from books, and the people who studied and interviewed and learned and fought to write them, but to no avail. They have Huffington Post and Facebook to give them their version of news in digestible formats. What good are un-entertaining books? No good, comes the answer, in silences, stony glares, and few words. We get everything we need in tweet-sized bursts. If it can’t fit that, it’s not worth consuming.

A year ago, that seemed just fine to me. Today, though, I see the difference between fragments of “news” and entire frameworks built from intensive study. The difference isn’t minor; it’s like traveling from one side of the United States to the other, in one case, or like traveling from Los Angeles to a planet ten times further away than Mars, in the other.

Try to explain this to people who don’t read books, and they’ll say you’re elitist, never mind that you grew up in poverty and pain. They’ll say many things that reveal how they have no idea what big readers many early Americans were, nor any questions about why things changed from that once-was.

Books are bad. Facebook is good.

In reading books, I found so much history and coherent information I’d never have found otherwise. This is phenomenal, but also depressing as hell. The pace of change today is accelerating to the point that yesterday’s lessons are virtually irrelevant, but people keep on planning for tomorrow as if yesterday is everything. As if tomorrow (and decades of tomorrows afterward) will be just like what we dreamed yesterday was.

This seeing what-was instead of what-is and what-will-soon-be may be the death of humanity.

If, that is, we don’t get back to reading. Reflecting. Looking at and talking with each other.

The words are out there. The books are out there. But they’ll never be found by folks who won’t commit to reading–or conversing–more than 90 seconds at a time.