Our Mental Space, Under Attack

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 15, 2018 9:04 pm

Lots of people make New Year's resolutions that focus on conserving something. Some people pledge to eat less junk food. Others will commit to saving more money.

Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has a suggestion for something else people should consider conserving: attention. In his new book The Attention Merchants, Tim argues that our mental space is constantly being hijacked.

"You go to your computer and you have the idea you're going to write just one email. You sit down and suddenly an hour goes by. Maybe two hours. And you don't know what happened," Tim says.

"This sort of surrender of control over our lives speaks deeply to the challenge of freedom and what it means to be autonomous."

Companies ranging from Google to Fox News have found ways to grab our attention, package it, and then make money off it by selling it to advertisers. On this week's Hidden Brain, we discuss the strategies newspapers, television shows, and websites use to harvest our attention.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. As you listen right now to this podcast, you're probably surrounded by stuff - tangled ear buds, favorite sweater, half-empty water bottle, Legos scattered on the floor, a bike, plate of half-finished eggs. Try to remember what made you buy all these things.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As narrator) Hello, Moto.

VEDANTAM: Your phone.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As narrator) It's time to reimagine the smartphone.

VEDANTAM: Those sneakers with the frayed shoelaces.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As narrator) Skechers Shape Ups. Step into your new body.

VEDANTAM: Your car.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As narrator) Get on the holiday road in a Honda Civic.

VEDANTAM: Newspapers, radio and TV have helped us learn about these products. But in order to serve up billions of ads, these forms of mass media have had to first create a very special product of their own.

The secret product? You can't buy it in a store. You can't see it. But you are in the process of supplying it at this very second.


VEDANTAM: This new product...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Attention. Tension. Ten-ten-tension.

VEDANTAM: ...Is your attention.

TIM WU: We can lose our freedom and become entrapped really by doing what we think are voluntary choices.

VEDANTAM: Corporations ranging from Google to Fox News have found ways to grab your attention, package it and then make money from it. Their strategies are part of a long legacy of companies trying to capture and monetize our attention. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu calls these businesses attention merchants. Today we explore the rise of attention merchants and why Tim says the techniques they've invented pose real risks to our autonomy.


VEDANTAM: We begin today's show with an account of what may be the earliest attention merchant in history. In the early 1800s, the newspaper business in New York City was bleak. The New York Times wasn't around yet, but there were a handful of other papers, The Journal of Commerce, the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer. They typically charged six cents a copy, which was a lot of money in those days.

Benjamin Day was working in newspaper printing, and he thought the business model needed a reboot. Six cents was way too much. He decided to start his own paper, The New York Sun, and sell it for one cent. Everyone thought he was crazy, but he knew something that they didn't. His strategy was one that Jeff Bezos from Amazon could appreciate.

On August 25, 1835...


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSBOY: Extra, extra. Read all about it.

VEDANTAM: ...The New York Sun ran a front-page story titled...


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSBOY: "Great Astronomical Discovery Is Lately Made."

VEDANTAM: Readers learned that an astronomer in South Africa had built a telescope that could see minute details on the surface of the moon.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSBOY: Read all about it.

VEDANTAM: Over the next few weeks, The Sun released a stream of new findings.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Did you read the news?

VEDANTAM: The moon contained canyons, oceans, forests. The telescope also identified a new form of life...


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Gasping in unison).

VEDANTAM: ...A creature with the scientific name Vespertilio-homo.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I can't believe it.

VEDANTAM: It looked like a human with bat wings.


VEDANTAM: Here's how the newspaper described the creature. (Reading) They averaged four feet in height, were covered except on the face with short and glossy copper-colored hair and had wings composed of a thin membrane without hair, lying snugly upon their backs.

WU: And apparently a ferocious sexual appetite.

VEDANTAM: Obviously the paper was peddling fake news, but that's only obvious to us in the 21st century.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man...

VEDANTAM: To the average person in 1835, the discovery of moon bats was incredible. And for The New York Sun...

WU: It carried the paper to unrivalled levels of circulation.

VEDANTAM: Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has written a book titled "The Attention Merchants" where he recounts the history of the many ways our attention has been hijacked. By selling the newspaper for a penny, Benjamin Day captured market share, and this turned out to produce something much more valuable than newsprint.

WU: The New York Sun, which published these stories, was the first paper to run entirely on the harvesting of human attention, what we also call an advertising business model. And so its profit's entirely dependent not on its credibility or anything else, but how many readers it had that it could resell. So that was a crucial historic moment that began the commodification of attention as something very valuable that you could resell and make a lot of money out of. And that's why I think the paper was driven to stories such as discovering life on the moon so it could build a circulation.

VEDANTAM: Benjamin Day's business model was a profound discovery.


ARMSTRONG: One giant leap for mankind.

VEDANTAM: That model is alive and well today. Attention is the fuel that allows everyone from candy makers to car dealers to sell their wares. In fact, attention is so powerful that once you have it you can get people to buy things they didn't even know they needed. Like, for example, mouthwash. In the 1920s, Listerine came up with one of the first examples of something Tim calls demand engineering. It was an advertising campaign built around an unfamiliar word, halitosis. This dreaded condition, the ad claimed, makes you unpopular.

WU: Yeah. Well, (laughter), you know, I don't think people thought much about whether they had bad breath or not before the 1910s or 1920s. In that era, a new form of advertising was essentially invented, which the goal of which was to engineer a demand that did not already necessarily exist. It was seen as a scientific process done by professionals and necessary to support new products that might otherwise not sell, mouthwash being one of them, toothbrush, toothpaste being another. People didn't necessarily want them. The key there is that you could take human attention, you know, which you've harvested to some extent, and then transform it or spin it into gold by engineering new demands. And that was the magic or the science of advertising the 1920s, to make people want things they didn't otherwise want.

VEDANTAM: So Tim, I understand the Listerine sales grew from $115,000 to over $8 million as a result of this advertising campaign.

WU: Yeah. That's right. And there are abundant examples from the 1910s, particularly in the 1920s, of demand engineering working. Now, that's what powered, frankly, the growth of something called an advertising industry, which before had really been a marginal industry. In Listerine, to take a specific example, had previously been used for unclear purposes. It had been a disinfectant that had been sold as something to clean floors with, but the invention of it as a mouthwash to clear, to cure bad breath was the key to its success.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Light up a Lucky. It's light-up time.

VEDANTAM: The attention merchants of the 1920s discovered that they could not only create new norms...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) For the taste that you like, light up a Lucky Strike.

VEDANTAM: ...But they could undo old ones. One of the most effective campaigns was to undermine the taboo against women smoking.

WU: It was considered unseemly or taboo for a woman to smoke in public or even to smoke at all, and the tobacco industry, particularly Lucky Strike, took aim at that in two directions. One was to try to brand cigarettes as a symbol of women's independence and co-brand it with the suffragette movement. They invented this phrase, torches of freedom, to refer to the cigarette to show that women were in charge of their own destiny. And the second, which is a well-tried advertising technique, was to link cigarettes to weight loss. There's Lucky Strike advertisements from the era that picture an enormous fat woman and say, is this you in five years? Smoke Lucky Strikes, or, reach for a Lucky, not for a sweet. So they certainly went right at it, and the statistics are dramatic. They went from very little sales to many millions of cartons being sold to women specifically. And so I think it's one of the most successful examples of demand engineering.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) For the taste that you like, light up a Lucky Strike.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Relax. It's light-up time.

VEDANTAM: Ninety years ago, you might have heard that Lucky Strike jingle through a new medium that was taking America by storm.


VEDANTAM: Radio didn't just capture people's attention. It brought them together. Families gathered around the fireplace to listen to FDR.


FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: My most immediate concern is in carrying out the purposes of the great work program...

VEDANTAM: And what The New York Sun did in print, Orson Welles did on radio.


UNIDENTIFIED RADIO BROADCASTER #1: The Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.

ORSON WELLES: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century...

VEDANTAM: This opened up new avenues for attention merchants. Advertisers began sponsoring programs and often slipped the names of companies and products into shows.


UNIDENTIFIED RADIO BROADCASTER #2: Try Rinso. I know you'll join the vast army of women who whistle while they wash. And now the soapy-rich Rinso presents the new "Amos 'N' Andy" show.


VEDANTAM: The community aspect of radio harnessed attention in a way that newspaper publishers could only dream of.

WU: You know, there were some 19th-century, early 20th-century writing on the psychology of the crowd. There was the idea - not exactly contemporary psychology - that people listening to things in mass sort of shed their individual identity, became part of a group which behaved more like an animal, and, you know, in some ways was entirely wild. And that was the speculation, that we sort of lost it. You know, I think there's some support for that view. I mean, if you've ever been at a sports event or a political rally and you feel you sort of have submerged yourself into a group. But, you know, it was at that level of theorizing, nothing more scientific than that.

VEDANTAM: If radio came along and essentially showed that, you know, it could put newspapers to shame, a new product emerged in the 1950s and it quickly proved that it became the dominant way to capture people's attention. You say that something extraordinary in the history of the attention merchants happened on Sunday, September 9, 1956.

WU: Yes, and that is what I label peak attention, otherwise known as Elvis Presley appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show..."


WU: ...Which registered an audience share which has never been rivaled. You know, there've been larger audiences, but the share of the audience has never been quite as large as on that day.


ELVIS PRESLEY: This is probably the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life.

WU: And television, even beyond radio, had shown this incredible capacity to capture the entire nation at one time, watching the same information. You know, in retrospect, it's remarkable to think about today how divided people are, how they all listen to their own streams. The whole nation watching one thing at once is really a product of the mid-century and something that was never equaled before, and maybe in some ways never equaled since.


PRESLEY: (Singing) To a heart that's true. I don't want no other love. Baby, it's just you I'm thinking of. Mmm.


VEDANTAM: You know, it used to be that for a long time before radio and television that if you wanted people's attention, you actually had to capture it in something that looked like the public square. And of course with the advent of radio and television, what you have as far as the attention merchants are concerned is an ability to sell things to people even when they're inside their own home. So the home becomes an opportunity to capture this enormous mind space, if you will, this attention of the nation.

WU: Yes. I think that's a very significant development, one that people in the '20s thought, you know, radio advertisements in the home? No one's going to stand for that. The home is a sacred place, a place for family. You know, it's impossible to imagine that you'll have acceptance of commercial banter in the home.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As paper towel salesman) Uh-oh. Ketchup.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Mrs. Porter) I wish somebody would invent a ketchup bottle that squirts where you aim it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As paper towel salesman) Mrs. Porter? I've got the next best thing, a new invention from Procter and Gamble. It absorbs like magic. It's called Bounty, the new paper towel that actually attracts moisture.

WU: You know, but it came with a lot of sweeteners - Elvis Presley, other radio shows, "I Love Lucy." And so we reached a situation where everyone in the United States would, you know, faithfully sit down after dinner, watch television, and in the course of that, absorb a massive amount of commercial advertising in its most compelling form, namely full sound and full video. And its remarkable transformations almost remarkably allowed commerce to intrude in that way, but it fell, as I said, not with a stick but with a carrot.

VEDANTAM: By the late 1950s of course, people are recoiling from the amount of advertising they're seeing on television, and a new product emerges to cater to this concern, and this product is the remote control. The idea is this device is going to allow you freedom to avoid the advertisements, to basically be in charge of your own television-watching experience. Did it do that?

WU: Well, what many people may not know is that the remote control, as you suggested, was born as an ad killer. It was invented by Zenith as a solution to the problem of advertising. The early versions of the remote control looked like a revolver, a gun, that you would shoot out the ad, I guess basically turning down the volume or switching channels. And it was marketed as serving the individual. In the long-term, however - and I think most of us have experienced this - it didn't quite have those purposes. It instead began enabling a different kind of behavior, channel surfing, where you, you know, sort of sit there and push the button, push the button, push the button sometimes for hours on end. So there is this paradox that sometimes devices designed to liberate us or empower us end enslaving us in completely different ways mainly because of our weak powers of self-control.


VEDANTAM: This lack of self-control lies at the very heart of nearly every new invention of the attention merchants. Even as people try to liberate themselves from one form of mind control, skilled merchants find new ways to undermine people's ability to look away. One of their biggest victories in this arms race was the discovery of televised sports.

WU: And the turning point for sports was the 1958 National Football League Championships. The game of the - greatest game ever played between the Colts and the Giants. And, you know, it was an incredibly exciting football game.



WU: But, more to the point, you know, football had not been watched on TV by large audiences and no one quite understood to that point just how captivating it was. And it has proven to this day. There's been some weakening, but sports audiences are very loyal. They're an exceptionally valuable, maybe the most valuable attention-harvesting opportunity. And this is another of TV's inventions in the 1950s.

VEDANTAM: And I have to say as a sports fan myself, I find myself sitting through two and a half minutes of ads at the two-minute warning of a game, asking myself, you know, what in God's name am I doing? But of course I keep doing that every Sunday.

WU: It's one of the few times I think that the old model of the '50s still has its sway in an era of streaming and other competitors. Sports is the Gibraltar of the traditional broadcast model. And, as you said, you know, I like sports, too, and I will sit through ads (laughter) when I would never do it for anything else. So I think you're right.

VEDANTAM: As the television networks captured an ever larger share of people's mind space, new entrants found it difficult to compete. Producing compelling television was expensive. In 1992, MTV was looking for a way to grab and hold people's attention without spending too much money. The solution they came up with? Pure genius.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is the true story...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: True story...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Of seven strangers...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Picked to live in a loft.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And have their lives taped...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: To find out what happens...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: When people stop being polite. Could you get the phone?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...And start getting real.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: "The Real World."


VEDANTAM: Talk about this idea that this was in some ways the discovery of what today we would call reality television.

WU: Yes. No, absolutely. You know, MTV '90s started to think, well, you know, it could be that the era of Michael Jackson's videos are coming to an end, or, Duran Duran. You know, people aren't going to watch videos anymore. We need something else. They actually thought about broadcasting football. They did a game show for a little while, but then someone had the idea that what they really needed was a soap opera.

And, as we already suggested, they looked at soap opera and realized that they were far too expensive. MTV was run on the cheap. You know, they had basically no costs other than the veejays who they paid, and parties and, you know, some minimal salary. So they had the idea of getting a bunch of amateurs or regular people together, putting them in a house and then just seeing what happened. The house was in SoHo.

The result was a show called "The Real World." And as you already suggested, it was the founding series of reality television and driven really at bottom by cast-cutting, (laughter) you know, the idea that we needed a show on the cheap. The participants in the original "Real World" were paid $1,400 for the entire set. So, you know, not very expensive.

VEDANTAM: And the argument made to the participants was we are going to pay you, not in dollars and cents, but we're going to pay in attention and fame.

WU: Yes. This was the genius discovery in a way - that's one way of putting it - is that, you know, as opposed to shelling out for a big salary, especially for a famous actor, you could instead get, you know, so-called normal, somewhat normal people to do it for the idea that they would themselves become celebrities, at least for a little while.


VEDANTAM: Thousands of people have taken this idea and run with it. You don't need to be a large corporation anymore to be an attention merchant. The screens on our desks and in our hands have enabled a new breed of merchants who have found ever more powerful ways to keep us coming back. That's coming up after the break. But first we need a moment to monetize your mind space with some messages from our sponsors. Yes, we're attention merchants, too.


VEDANTAM: Today, we're talking with author Tim Wu about his book "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." Attention merchants are television shows, newspaper articles and podcasts that draw you in and then sell your attention to advertisers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Support for this podcast is the following...

VEDANTAM: The Internet has redefined the notion of what and who an attention merchant can be. You don't need to be a Fortune 500 company or an advertising behemoth. You can be someone like Jonah Peretti. In 2001, the MIT grad student had an idea. He decided to order some personalized Nike sneakers with the word sweatshop printed on them.

WU: Nike didn't really take to that suggestion. They rejected it - or some employee did - as inappropriate slang. He wrote back and pointed out that sweatshop wasn't slang. That it was in the dictionary. And they just canceled the order. And he wrote a final email saying, well, you know, could you please send me a picture of the 12-year-old who's making my shoes.

VEDANTAM: He also went on to write a blog post about his experience - or shared this material. Describe to me what happened and sort of the turn of events that turned this, you know, relatively innocuous private interaction into something that was close to a global phenomenon.

WU: Well, Jonah Peretti was - here he was in the early 2000s. And he touched a live wire that no one really understood well, which was the tendency of certain stories - I don't know if it was quite a blog post. I think he just sent an email out. And the email got forwarded, got forwarded, got forwarded, got forwarded until millions of people had seen it or read it. We now call that going viral. But that phrase didn't exist back then. You know, Jonah told me he then ended up on, you know, the "Today" show talking about sweatshops. The thing blew up. And, you know, that's something we're kind of more familiar with now. But at the time, it was a new phenomenon - especially, you know, an unknown person having their email just go viral. And it showed that there was something new and unusual about this medium the web and the Internet.

VEDANTAM: Now Jonah, of course, was not a one-shot wonder. He went on to do several other things. In fact, he had - he demonstrated that he had something of a knack for finding things that went viral. Describe to us some of the websites that most of us have visited that are the brainchild of Jonah Peretti.

WU: Yeah, so Jonah, in some ways, did a lot to invent our present. Something about virality fascinated him. I think he just thought that experience with the shoes was so strange and weird and unexpected that, you know, he went back almost like a scientist to see if he could bottle that lightning. He founded two websites. One was the Huffington Post, which he co-founded with other people including Arianna Huffington, which was designed to use these sort of web techniques to push a more left-leaning form of journalism. And, you know, it was a tremendous success, transformed journalism - not all in good ways, but it did. But he even went further and went to the pure distillation of attention with a site name BuzzFeed Laboratories - now known as BuzzFeed. The only goal of which was the pure harvesting of attention by creating viral stories. And that - BuzzFeed has obviously transformed web content today as we know it.

VEDANTAM: I remember some time ago, Tim, I was watching something that was forwarded to me by a friend. And it showed a video that BuzzFeed had posted where they had a watermelon sitting on a table, and these two people working at BuzzFeed essentially wrapped rubber bands around the watermelon. And they kept doing so until there were probably hundreds of rubber bands.


CHELSEA MARSHALL: Six-seventy-eight.

JAMES HARNESS: Six-seventy-nine.

MARSHALL: Oh, I see her bursting.


VEDANTAM: And the idea was, of course, that at some point the rubber bands would exert enough power on the watermelon to make the watermelon explode. And you sort of knew this was going to happen, but you didn't quite know when it was going to happen. And people like me sat and watched this video unfold for - I don't know how long it was. It might have been even ten or twelve minutes. And all this was of people - was people putting rubber bands on a watermelon. And throughout that process, I found myself asking, why is it that I just simply am not able to look away? And in some ways, it is an act of genius to create content like that.

WU: Yeah, BuzzFeed Laboratories - I think the laboratories is an important part of the original name - is they just kept experimenting until they found stuff that, for whatever reason, just grabbed people and wouldn't let it go. And watermelons with rubber bands - maybe more obvious ones like cat photos. They just - people kept coming back. And, you know, I guess we know more about the human mind as a result of BuzzFeed's experiment on us although I'm not really sure that we like what we found. Or at least we found that the things we're interested in, you know, aren't necessarily, you know, reading Tolstoy or something but are these strange things like the one you mentioned.


MARSHALL: Six-ninety.


VEDANTAM: Let's talk for a moment about Silicon Valley and the work of companies like Google and Twitter and Facebook. They have, in some ways, become masters not just of capturing our attention but monitoring where our attention goes and building products that cater to the drift of our attention. Talk about these new attention merchants and in some ways their enormous power over our lives.

WU: Yeah, sure. A big turning point in the history of humanity came at the end of the last century - the last millennia when Silicon Valley, headed by Google, first really started to get into advertising and turned all the resources, all the know-how, all the expertise of engineering and computer science to the art and science of capturing as much attention as possible, getting as much data as possible out of people and reselling it to advertisers. That has been a change with profound consequences.

I think many or most of us are hooked on one or more online products, which know more about us than anyone else and frankly are like this incredible supercomputer designed to get as much resellable attention out of us as possible. I think this is something that goes beyond even what television or radio was capable of doing because they know so much more about us. They know so much more about you - your vulnerabilities, your desires. And, you know, customized marketing can really work. And it's something we really need to watch in this next decade.

VEDANTAM: Many celebrities have come to understand that attention online translates to money. I was reading a website the other day that was describing the Indian cricket star Virat Kohli, who has nearly 17 million Instagram followers. And the article said that Virat Kohli makes half a million dollars per Instagram post where he promotes a product. That is just - that's just mind-boggling.

WU: It does show the commercial value of attention, which is really what my book is all about. And it also speaks to the transformation of celebrity. You know, there was once a point where famous people - you know, say the queen of England or a famous scientist - they sort of tried to stay out of public view. They usually had jobs other than being celebrities. Say - I don't know - Einstein was trying to discover things. And their mystery seemed to add to the sense of wonder or fame. That's not our model at all.

Celebrities or aspiring celebrities seek to eke out any minute or second they can get of our attention and stay there - never go away. And as you've suggested, there's commercial reasons to do so - that you can frankly make a lot of money not only doing your job but just by being famous. You know, I think maybe Paris Hilton gets some credit for the theory of just being famous for being famous sake. Famous for being famous is the phrase. But certainly a celebrity has transformed in our times.

VEDANTAM: It isn't just megastars who can monetize their celebrity. Increasingly micro-celebrities, often called influencers, are finding there's real money to be made in harvesting the attention of their friends and followers.


SUE TRAN: Hi, I'm Sue Tran. I'm currently an associate creative director at Refinery29 working in the brand and content space. I also have a micro-large following on Instagram with my Instagram handle Sue Tran with three Ns.

VEDANTAM: Sue Tran has about 23,000 followers on Instagram. She joined the site five years ago. Since then, she has built up a following of people interested in food and art around New York City. Scattered among some 1,500 photos are pictures of Yankee Candles, portable printers and most recently pictures of Sue posing with a Google Pixel smartphone.

TRAN: Google was actually through an influencer agency. Influencer marketing agencies has been growing in the last like one or two years just because people want to monetize influential Instagram and bloggers and all that stuff. So they kind of create a platform to make it easier for influencers to seek out sponsors or sponsors to seek out them.

VEDANTAM: Sue says companies pay influencers based on the number of followers they have.

TRAN: I have a rate of 150.

VEDANTAM: There's a homemade quality to Sue's sponsored posts.

TRAN: Some of them are obviously a little bit more staged, but I don't think I would ever post anything that I didn't feel like was 100 percent me.

VEDANTAM: Companies want these messages to feel like authentic recommendations from one friend to another rather than advertising messages directed by a multibillion-dollar company. In one picture, Sue poses with her Google phone in front of a building in Brooklyn. In another, she's holding the phone while sitting in a Chinese restaurant. To a friend, it might look like she loves her Google phone, but...

TRAN: Don't tell anyone. I'm still on my iPhone (laughter).

WU: It just is - indicates sort of a new type of media environment where, as you suggested, many more people can be famous - not in the older traditional sense of, you know, everyone in America knows your face or everyone in the world knows your face, which was the old criteria for People magazine putting your face on the cover, but that, you know, millions of people or hundreds of thousands of people know who you are. And therefore, in some smaller way, you are micro or nano-famous.

VEDANTAM: When we think of celebrities, we think of people most often in movies and on television. People like...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My name's Donald Trump. And I'm the largest real estate developer in New York.

VEDANTAM: You have a particular interpretation, Tim, of how "The Apprentice" led to Donald Trump's election as president.

WU: Yes, I think that Donald Trump through "The Apprentice," and to some degree other parts of his life, understood deeply the power of capturing and using human attention. Now on "The Apprentice," I think he studied what it takes to capture an audience - some of these things we talked about - BuzzFeed, the sort of plot twist, the unusual, surprising behavior. And I think he has, in his presidency and during his campaign, saw it as his primary directive to always win the battle for attention. Sometimes even losing or appearing to lose, it doesn't matter as long as there's a good show, a big fight, and everybody's paying attention to me. In his mind, he thinks he's won.

And to some degree, it is truer than any of us would like to admit. At some deep level, there's some genius to it - understanding that the battle for attention is primary to a lot of other battles. You know the whole country, and to some degree the world, is reacting to his agenda, his presence, his tweets, everything he does. That's also known as power. You know, even if people are resisting you, they're still paying attention to you. And so, you know, the mental resources of the entire nation - much of the world have been devoted to this one figure, Mr. Donald Trump.

VEDANTAM: You say that because Trump is an attention merchant, his biggest vulnerability, you know, might not be the risk of impeachment but the risk that people will eventually get bored of him. Talk about that idea - that one of the risks of being an attention merchant is that people will eventually start to tune you out.

WU: Yes, you know, I think this happens with all advertising, almost all content and many celebrities, with a few exceptions. We have some innate tendency to get bored, to get used to things, develop some immunity. You know, even a hit show like "I love Lucy" eventually lost its audience. And so much as Donald Trump rose to power on an intentional move - you know, almost running his campaign and presidency as a reality show - I think when people begin getting bored, begin tuning out, you can expect a loss of power. He may fade less in the way of Richard Nixon and more in the way of Paris Hilton.

VEDANTAM: When you step back and look at this long arc of how attention merchants have captured our attention and monetized it and sold it and found ways to figure out what works and what doesn't work, are there broad patterns that emerge about human nature and human psychology? Are there lessons to be drawn about how the mind works from the story of the attention merchants?

WU: Yeah, I think there are. So first of all, there's lessons as to how we decide what to pay attention to. It's a mixture of voluntary and involuntary mechanisms. The science suggests - and I think the history suggests it's true. So we like to think we control what we pay attention to. But in fact, we can sort of be conditioned or involuntarily attracted to things. Have you ever found yourself, you know, clicking on Facebook and wondering, why did I do that? Or if you ever find yourself, you know, startled by an ad and watching it, not sure what got you there, you'll know that it's not fully within our voluntary control.

VEDANTAM: There's an even deeper message in the history of the attention merchants.

WU: Part of this book is motivated by a deep interest in human freedom and, you know, a sense that we can lose our freedom and become entrapped really by doing what we think are voluntary choices. I mean, I don't have to read email. I don't have to be writing tweets or something. Nonetheless, these voluntary choices, in a certain environment, can leave one trapped.

Another motivation for this book is the experience, which I'm sure many listeners will have had, where you, you know, go to your computer, and you have the idea you're going to write just one email. And you sit down, and suddenly an hour goes by - maybe two hours. And I don't know what happened. You know, this sort of surrender of control over our lives - the loss of control, to me, speaks deeply to this challenge of freedom and what it means to be autonomous in our time and have a life where you've sort of, to some degree, chosen what you want to do. These are values that seem to me under threat in our times.

VEDANTAM: So there's been a war for our attention for a very long time - at least a century, probably much longer than that. Are we just helpless victims in this war, where, you know, people are waging, you know, this battle for our attention? Is there a way that we can in some ways take back this battlefield and own our own minds again?

WU: Yeah, this is, as you said, something only a century old. You know, advertising 100 years ago was just getting started. So we're in a relatively new - over the course of human civilization - environment. And I think we can adapt. We still have our individuality and ultimately some choice. Now, the challenge is that we face an industry which has spent a century inventing and developing techniques to get us hooked, to harvest as much attention as possible. And they're good at it. But we do have choices. And I think it begins with the idea that attention is a resource, that you own it and that one should be very conscious about how it's being spent.

I was motivated writing this book by the work of William James, the philosopher. And he pointed out something very straightforward, which is, you know, at the end of your days, your life will have been what you paid attention to. And so deciding how that vital resource is spent, in my view, is the key to life, frankly, the key to it meaning, the key to doing and having a life which you think is meaningful.


VEDANTAM: Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School. He's the author of "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." Tim, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

WU: Yeah, thank you so much.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Maggie Penman, Jenny (ph) Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen and Renee Klahr. Our unsung heroes this week our Enzo Doran (ph) and Trey Warman (ph). You heard these two young gentlemen at the beginning of the episode.

ENZO DORAN: Extra, extra, read all about it.

TREY WARMAN: Great, astronomical discoveries lately made.

VEDANTAM: And we greatly appreciate their voice acting work.

TREY: Great, astronomical discoveries lately made.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Astronomical.

TREY: Astronomical discoveries lately made.


TREY: Great, astronomical lately made.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Do it again. But don't forget discoveries.

VEDANTAM: For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. From all of us here at the show, we wish you a happy new year. If you're looking for a New Year's resolution, I have a suggestion for you. Recommend HIDDEN BRAIN to as many friends and family members as you can in 2018. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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