CM 065: Tim Wu on Reclaiming Our Attention

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blog-post-wuWhat is the hidden impact of constant demands on our attention? How does it affect how we think, how we act, and how we live?

We have clickbait on our mobile devices and computer screens, ads on buses, and commercials on radio and TV. But as Tim Wu, author and Professor at Columbia University Law School points out, this is a fairly recent development that has turned into a constant monetization of our attention.   

Tim is the author of three books: Who Controls the Internet?, The Master Switch, and most recently, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. He has written for the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Forbes, and Slate magazine. He points out that this constant barrage of messaging actually shapes who we are, often without our realizing it.

Highlights from our conversation include:

  • How does what we are exposed to determine what we decide?
  • The connection between early war propaganda and the rise of advertising
  • How the science of advertising was built on engineering demand
  • Why early suffragettes were hired to sell cigarettes
  • How the Paris poster period led to an early revolt against the attention merchants
  • How Consumer Reports grew out of frustration with ads
  • The original remote control took the shape of a gun to blow away commercials
  • Bringing TVs into our homes meant attention merchants now had more access
  • 1950s provided a captive prime time TV programming audience for advertisers
  • How advertising convinces us that to be individuals we need to buy things
  • How novelty and unpredictability makes things addictive
  • How idealistic tech founders work against own values in reliance on ads
  • Tech innovation of today focused more on getting inside our minds and featuring ads
  • Why harvesting captures so well how our attention is sought and used
  • How such a tiny sector of the economy has such a big impact on us and how we live
  • How spending time with others is actually a revolt against advertising
  • Where are the sacred spaces in our lives?
  • What is the role of public virtue in decision making today?

Selected Links to Topics Mentioned

Tim Wu


William James

Benjamin Day

Herbert Kitchener

George Washington Hill

French Poster Period

Singletasking by Devora Zack

Timothy Leary

Mad Men

Coca-Cola Commercial

Charlie Brown Christmas Special

Space Invaders

You’ve Got Mail

Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull




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