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.

Condemning curiosity 

About a year ago, I took a one-day course on continuous improvement. Part of our discussion that day involved examples of people wasting huge amounts of effort (and money!) to keep not-fixing problems. They’d tackle individual symptoms and then move on as if all were well. Sometimes that was enough; other times, it just led to greater total resource drain.

I offered up an example. I described a situation where folks in one region of China were having some pretty extreme health problems. Some Western medics came in with vaccines against what seemed to be a variant of another virus. Someone else cautioned against vaccinating without further root cause exploration, so they explored. They discovered soil extremely low in selenium, and so gave those ailing selenium supplements. That took care of the problem, whereas vaccinating against it could have yielded even worse problems from selenium deficiency.

I couldn’t remember where I’d read about this, a puzzle I just solved.

A couple years back, I bought Dr. Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own. I read up through the section cautioning against unquestioning praise of vaccines, and then set the book aside. “Man, is this lady paranoid!” I told myself.

Recently, though, I’ve had a hard time getting back to my previous healthy ways. I still eat mostly Paleo and walk a bunch, but I’m “supplementing” my Paleo with beer and not dedicating nearly enough time to quiet, restorative time necessary for stress management. My husband asked what he could do to help me get back on track; I replied candidly that I needed to dive back into my old readings and get in the right frame of mind, so that I want to do the right-for-me thing instead of just trying to force myself into it based on dusty old recollections.

So I picked up this book, and it’s cracking me up to remember how I felt about all this then. What seemed totally paranoid before I read dozens of books on politics seems perfectly reasonable now.

Most things mandated by the U.S. government these days aren’t mandated for the sake of citizens, whom legislators commonly refer to as “consumers.” They benefit transnational companies who long ago captured the government, enabling transfer of huge amounts of government funds to corporations.

Technology and epinephrine in schools, for example? Sure, there are arguably good things that come from that, but those are distractions from the core purpose: profit by engaging far, far more lucrative customers (governments) than any individual human. If individual consumers crushed by neoliberal policies can no longer increase consumption to improve profits, well, what then? Get that profit on a grander scale!

If any of this were really about human well being, my country’s government would not tolerate tens of millions of citizens–many of them children–starving, unsafe, and living (often dying) on the streets. It would not station millions of military personnel (and, increasingly, contractors–because profit!!!) at hundreds of bases around the world at great detriment to local peoples. It would not be the world’s most massive arm dealer, or itself kill so many millions of people overseas in pursuit “strategic” objectives.

Does this mean I think vaccines are bad? No. It means I know enough to understand that I should look deeper than this ridiculous good/bad dichotomy to explore the deeper context. Are vaccines as they exist now, mandated by the government for some corporations’ immense profit, really an unmitigated good? Who is regulating these vaccines, exploring their peripheral ingredients to ensure those aren’t detrimental in isolation and, especially, in combination? How much funding is given to such exploration? Is there independent oversight? If so, who oversees the overseers? Who responds to reports of adverse reactions, when, and with what urgency? My list of questions now is endless.

In another world, one where my government didn’t so often and flagrantly show its disregard for human life, I might be more unquestioningly accepting of vaccines … as I was when I set aside this book a couple years ago.

Now, I know enough to be wary and to always, always ask, for answer not by my government but by myself, cui bono?

Where most everyone around me kicks, knee-jerk, at the suggestion questions should be asked, I take that as virtual confirmation of a highly successful campaign of indoctrination. Why ought mere curiosity inspire such condemnation?!

The devil is, as always, in the details.

Founding Myths

arundhati.pngLast Thursday, I readwalked outside L.A.’s Aratani Theater while waiting to hear Arundhati Roy speak. Though I’d received a copy of her new The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with my ticket, I was reading another book: Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past.

I finished Founding Myths just before the program (which was so moving I cried one half-syllable in). The book takes apart thirteen different American founding myths, many–despite having been debunked–still passed along as truth in U.S. textbooks. More than that, it explores why those founding myths hold such power … and how much power they continue to have.

I recently wrote about Winner-Take-All Politics on my main blog. One quote I’d hoped to include but couldn’t quite fit in that post was as follows:

That we tell the Everest saga, and so many others like it, as one of individual initiative is revealing. Such a view is deeply rooted in our culture. Observers of the United States have long identified the tendency to see the world this way as distinctively American. More than most societies, Americans believe that people rise or fall as a result of their own efforts, and therefore get what they deserve. Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms …

This preoccupation with specific personalities and insistence on attributing everything that happens to the qualities of individuals is a form of blindness. We see individuals, but not the organizations that help to pool their resources and can vastly extend their range of social action.

But for Founding Myths, I’d have gone on thinking this “form of blindness” was a phenomenon of the last few decades. Founding Myths revealed otherwise, demonstrating how such blindness was cultivated over centuries to foster a pliant and politically disengaged populace.

Take, for example, the tale of Paul Revere, who barely warranted mention in historical texts before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took literal poetic liberty with his story more than a hundred years after it transpired. Longfellow’s poem, which was treated as source material in many subsequent texts, brought people to worship the individual Revere and what he represented, all while failing to address the hard work a great many “country folk”  had done to prepare for battle for months prior. While ignoring that several others rode that night, including one unnamed messenger who “successfully delivered [the] message … three hours before Revere would mount his horse.”

Sam Adams was elevated for different reasons:

Not wanting to grant legitimacy to any form of protest, conservatives in the 1760s and 1770s maintained that all troubleds in Boston were the machinations of a single individual. In the words of Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed chief justice who was later exiled, the people themselves “were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.” Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, they needed a director who could “fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw.”

According to this mechanistic view, one man led and everyone else followed.

Like distortions around Paul Revere, those around Sam Adams were quite purposeful:

Without Boston’s Sam Adams, there might never have been an American Revolution,” the Tories once said, and today we are saying it again. This is not a good sign. The reason we can pass off Tory tales as truth is that we have unconsciously adopted their way of looking at political processes. The tory way of thinking, to which we have regressed, sees common people as “perfect Machines” who need someone else to tell them what to do. One man leads, while the rest follow adoringly.

Had I not kids and tons of work to do, I could go on and on. Because I have plenty else to do, I’ll conclude by saying: This book is a quick, engaging read, and was well worth each of the 798 pennies I paid for it (yay, clearance!). I’d recommend checking it out if you’re interested in probing your own blind spots, as I’ve become in probing mine.

There are reasons for the stories we tell about our past and our present. This book especially helped me see both the embellishments and their democracy-subverting rationales … all while reminding me how much richer my life is for understanding that the present, far from being without context, is instead a (slowly evolving) continuation of all that preceded it.