Your attention, please!

Recent history can be told as the story of a struggle for people’s attention. Propagandists and advertisers play leading roles.

Attention can be focused or fickle. You can be reading a blog (what else?) but perhaps you are thinking of something else or tempted to click on another story. This much is obvious. It is the way most people live their lives: their attention shifts from one thing to another, sometime lingering and focused, sometimes distracted.

It’s possible to say that life, at a psychological or perception level, is what we pay attention to. Most people would like to make their attention choices themselves, but many groups would like to influence these choices.

It may sound strange to write history in terms of attention, but this is just what Tim Wu has done in his stimulating book The Attention Merchants. Histories are usually written in terms of empires and wars, or perhaps the dynamics of class struggle, or in terms of oppression and democratisation, or the rise of agriculture and industry, or any of a number of frameworks that look at social processes. Each approach provides its own insights but also its own limitations. Wu offers a different approach, and it is illuminating.

            In essence, during the past two centuries there has been an evolving struggle to capture people’s attention via various forms of media and content, with governments and advertisers the key drivers and various forms of media their tools. Luckily, it’s possible for people, the targets of attention management, to resist.

It’s hard to imagine life before media. Try to think of a life without screens, even without any printed material. This would be a life of interacting with other people face-to-face, or engaging in hunting or farming or rituals. This is still the way of life for some people today, but in industrialised parts of the world it is rare. Instead, most people spend hours each day with one or more forms of media, most commonly involving a screen of some size.

Enter mass media

The earliest important mass medium was print. Wu recounts the experiences of US entrepreneur Benjamin Day who in 1833 pioneered a formula for increasing sales of newspapers: report on scandalous or amazing events, titillating the audience, sell at a low price, and make money by selling advertisements. It was an early indication of the commercial advantage of aiming low.

Skip forward to World War I. In Britain, government planners sought to increase recruitment into the army and came up with an effective method: saturate all media with patriotic messages. This meant billboards, leaflets, newspapers and magazines. It was hard to escape the messages, and recruitment soared. This was the first major use of mass propaganda and it was an outstanding success.

            Fifteen years later, the Nazis came to power in Germany and copied the British and US war propaganda techniques. By this time more technologies were available, notably radio. Hitler perfected the technique of mass rallies to muster patriotic fervour. However, rallies involved only a small fraction of the population. To take the message to others in the country, radio was the preferred medium; the Nazis controlled the broadcasts.

Saturation propaganda requires a near-monopoly over communication. It is easiest to implement when governments control media. Traditional government propaganda efforts remain important today, especially in countries with repressive governments like China, Iran and Russia.

Most of Wu’s story about attention merchants, though, is about efforts to capture attention for commercial purposes. He recounts the early days of television in the US when the small black-and-white screen was a novelty — and incredibly influential. Some early programmes were high-brow, but broadcasters soon learned that audiences could be drawn more effectively to entertainment such as the show “I love Lucy.” During the 1950s, significant proportions of the US population were watching the very same shows at the same time. It was truly a mass audience. It thus had elements of propaganda, except that the audiences were sold to advertisers.

The story of early television illustrates one of Wu’s key themes: a new medium can capture attention, but then competition begins a process of lowering costs and degrading the product.

One of the costs of producing television programmes is paying the actors. Is there a way to produce shows with the “talent” appearing voluntarily or at low cost? The answer is yes: so-called reality TV, which could draw in audiences. The stations could sell the audiences to advertisers while reducing their overheads.

To capture attention, media proprietors discovered, it is effective to lure people with stories of scandal and gore. This was true of the earliest newssheets and remains true in the age of social media. Rather than appeal to the rational mind and a concern for knowledge and enlightenment, media producers have found it more effective to appeal to the intuitive mind with what is now called “click-bait”: online stories seemingly so intriguing that it is hard to avoid clicking on them. Many of these stories are false or misleading and most are trivial, for example dealing with the peccadilloes of minor celebrities.

The same processes of degradation and cost-reduction have been played out with each new generation of media technology, including print, film, radio, television, desktop computers, and smartphones. Along the way, Wu describes how various other developments, for example video games and Google, fit into the picture.

Media enter private life

As new media technologies emerged, they made an amazing assault on traditional barriers between public and private. In the years before radio, people believed home life was inviolate. There might be posters in public places, but it was unthinkable for advertising to enter the home. Along came radio, initially in a public interest form. But then commercial stations figured out how to entice audiences while including ads as part of broadcasts.

Media infiltration into people’s personal lives has largely been voluntary: for most individuals, the immediate benefits seem to outweigh the costs. So today many people carry their smartphones everywhere, even into bed, allowing click-bait into nearly every personal situation. Smartphones are the fourth screen in the evolution of media entrants into people’s lives, following the big screen (film), the little screen (TV) and the desktop computer screen. Each screen initially had amazing success in capturing attention with high-quality fare, then entered a decline: a degradation of quality and an increase in commercial exploitation.

Wu’s story would be unrelentingly negative except that audiences usually rebel, eventually. An overload of advertising and trivial content triggers a cultural shift towards consumer choice in a different direction. The latest iteration of this rebellion is the massive uptake of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, with many viewers bingeing on episodes or even entire series.

Tim Wu

Learning about struggles over attention

The Attention Merchants is engaging to read. Wu tells about successive developments through the lives and strategies of key players in each era, making the book an enjoyable way to learn about media. It might be said that the book serves as an antidote to the media degradation described in it.

Much of the story centres on the US, especially in the previous century. Wu does not recount the history of media in diverse countries or under different political systems (aside from Nazi Germany). Compared to most other countries, the US is very high in individualism and commercialism. So whether a similar narrative involving the struggle for attention, with advertising playing a key role, applies elsewhere remains to be determined.

That Wu’s analysis is US-centric need not detract from its potential value. Decades ago, I taught a course titled “Information and communication theories” and introduced students to a series of theories, for example signal transmission theory and semiotics. Today, if I were teaching the same course, I would add attention theory to the syllabus and add extracts from The Attention Merchants to the reading list. My guess is that Wu’s approach to understanding media dynamics via a struggle over attention would speak to students’ experience far more meaningfully than most other theories.

Later, Wendy Varney and I wrote a book, Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression. In one chapter, we canvassed a variety of communication theories for their potential relevance to nonviolent struggles: transmission theory, media effects theory, semiotics, medium theory, political economy and organisational theory. Attention theory, Wu style, definitely needs to be added to this list. Nonviolent activists live in a world saturated with media in different forms, and to get their message out and to build support for campaigns, they must deal with communication systems and attention merchants with other agendas. This is an issue for another time.

Wu’s story to me highlights a great imbalance in efforts to attract attention. Media companies and advertisers have enormous financial and political resources. They hire the best and brightest of skilled workers, many of whom devote their creativity and energy to trying to entice people’s attention, often in ways difficult to resist. In the face of this attention-harvesting juggernaut, opposing forces are unorganised. For example, school teachers aim to encourage learning but have to compete with attention-grabbers that are highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, commercialism is increasingly entering classrooms. When teachers use digital devices in the classroom for educational purposes, almost inevitably they open another portal to advertising and attention capture. Where are the educational planning research centres with researchers developing strategies that will appeal to young people and build habits of attention control to counter the merchants?

            No doubt it would be possible to identify quite a range of initiatives that provide alternatives to the efforts of attention merchants, for example movements against public advertising, designers of ad blockers, promoters of mindfulness and a host of others. These efforts are worthy but for the most part are a limited challenge to the likes of video games, Facebook, Google and other corporate behemoths that push advertising out along with their services. There is much to be done to regain personal and collective control of attention.

“The attending public were first captured reading daily newspapers, then listening to evening broadcasts, before they were entranced into sitting glued to the television at key intervals, and finally, over the 1990s, into surrendering some more of their waking time, opening their eyes and minds to computers – the third screen – in dens and offices around the world. … By 2015, the fourth screen would be in the hands of virtually everyone, seizing nearly three of the average American’s waking hours. And so it would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchants’ manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes, too, and of course the ads.” (pp. 309-310)

Brian Martin