The Current

How your attention has become the biggest commodity

What used to be a straight-up scrimmage for advertising attention has evolved into clever, cyber seduction to harvest our attention and sell it. Author Tim Wu argues we're having so much fun online, we don't even realize that we have become the product.
Tim Wu's book The Attention Merchants looks at the rabid effort advertisers use to get inside our heads, and makes the case for paying to keep them out. (Knopf Doubleday)

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May I have your attention for a moment?

Since you're looking at a computer screen, or a phone screen right now, there's already a lot of competition for your attention — from advertisers, and from people who want to sell your eyeballs to advertisers.

The scholar and writer Tim Wu calls this "attention harvesting." 

Going back to the 1830s, a canny newspaperman realized that you could give away your paper for next to nothing (a penny!), but still make lots of money — because advertisers would pay a premium to get a piece of that attention, and get inside our heads.

"What you're really selling when you look at it carefully is you're selling access to the minds of those people," Wu tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"So you know when you're on Facebook or when you're watching regular commercial television, you are the product. You know the access into your brain is what's being resold." 
If you're not paying to read, watch, or listen to something ... then odds are you are the product being sold, says author Tim Wu. (Derek Gavey/flickr cc)

"We have created an ad platform out of our social lives. It's strange … But it is what has happened: the social sphere has been colonized by advertising."

Since then, the "attention merchant" model has defined every new medium, from radio, to television and — especially — online.

And according to Wu, the intolerance of boredom has led to some side effects.

"I mean tension is access to our brain and we're sort of constantly in this mode of being mildly distracted, or mildly stimulated," Wu tells Tremonti.

"I think that our brains are actually changing as a consequence of these ad models that drive us to shorter, 'clickier' content that we're constantly cycling through."

Wu doesn't just tell the history of media and advertising — he offers a warning. Because, at the end of the day, our time and attention is our most valuable resource. 

"Really think about how you spend your attention and try to direct it towards what you'd like to do with your life."

"I think it's part of a self-determined life, or even building of your own character, that you are very careful about how you choose to spend your attention."

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Peter Mitton.