Located in the upscale Equitable Building, a handsomely restored landmark skyscraper in lower Manhattan, the New York State Attorney General’s office is a typically drab government space, a rabbit’s warren of featureless rooms with nondescript furniture. Tim Wu loves it here. He’s on sabbatical from his day jobs at Columbia University—professor at the law school and director of the Poliak Center for the First Amendment at the journalism school—to serve as a special adviser to AG Eric Schneiderman and as a senior lawyer in the antitrust division. That means “chasing around the cable companies to make sure they’re actually delivering the services they promise,” Wu explains, and “looking at these new high-tech scalpers who grab up all the tickets online; we’ve tried to get laws passed to criminalize that.”
“I’m old-fashioned,” Wu continues. “I like having a job where I look at something and say, ‘That is not right; someone should do something, and that someone should be us.’ ” This statement cogently describes the impetus behind The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, which will be published by Knopf in October. Wu’s pointed history begins with penny newspapers in the 19th century and moves through radio and television into the age of the Internet, to examine how various information and entertainment industries have built audiences primarily as means of creating advertising revenue.
It is in some ways a companion volume to Wu’s first book, The Master Switch, which chronicled the consolidation of power in communication technologies. “The Attention Merchants covers the same period but a different set of industries,” he says. “The Master Switch was about the pipes, the giant communications empires: ATT, the film industry, the people who control how information moves. This book is about content, and the strange business models born in the last century that have come to dominate it.”
“I’ve always thought that this business model, where you attract a crowd and then sell their attention, to be kind of weird,” Wu says, seated at a table in his large and not overly air-conditioned office on a sizzling summer morning. “It’s counter-
intuitive; the more natural business model is paying for stuff. But now so much of our lives is involved with things that we’re not paying for with money but with our attention, and maybe they make us buy things later or influence us in other ways. This book is in part a history of advertising, but I look for what hasn’t been written about, and that’s the muscle that gets us looking at ads. Ads don’t enter our brains automatically; we don’t go looking for them. Something has to get you to them, make them unavoidable, and that’s the attention merchants.”
“I think that’s an under-recognized part of the history of American communications,” Wu says. “It’s more profound than it seems at first. The old debate was about how much advertising you had to tolerate to watch the one TV show you really liked. But what’s going on now, which I think is even more pernicious and really almost dangerous for us as a species, is advertising’s invasion of every time and space. Two hundred years ago, once a day you might pick up a newspaper with ads; it was unthinkable that anyone would ever advertise in people’s homes, because no one would put up with it. They tried to have ads in movie theaters in the 1910s, and it was a total failure. What I fear most is not the volume of advertising but the shrinking amount of spaces that are noncommercial. I think it’s really important to have some spaces that are sacred or blocked off, like schools and churches, where we don’t accept as a norm that every moment of our time is ripe for commercial exploitation.”
Countering this invasion “will need to be mostly an act of will on the part of the individual,” Wu concludes in The Attention Merchants. But the book also concludes that the attention merchants’ worst excesses “may have no remedy but law,” and Wu stands by that statement in conversation. “I believe in disaggregated power,” he says, “and in America there’s a lot of concentrated private power. The government, which is a public power, needs to be a countervailing influence.”
Wu didn’t always see things that way. Fresh out of law school, when he went to work marketing telecom equipment in Silicon Valley, he bought into the prevailing ethos of the late 1990s. “There was this amazing faith in the private sector having all the answers,” he recalls. “ ‘Government doesn’t know what it’s doing, the era of big government is over’—that was the mood even among Democrats in the Clinton administration. Then I went to work in the midst of deep corporate America, at the cutting edge of tech strategy during the first dot-com boom, and I found out that these guys didn’t know what they were doing!”
Wu, a low-key guy who seems to dislike speaking ill of anyone, sounds almost incredulous as he elaborates: “It wasn’t like they had any special knowledge or wisdom; they were just people, and when they ran into trouble they were willing to lie their way out of it. About everything: the finances, how much their companies made, what the stuff could do, all those future projections—it was all a house of cards. It was incredibly deceptive and unethical at the center, and I thought, ‘Wow! This is what we’re supposed to defer to?’ It was a very Heart of Darkness period of my life, but out of it came net neutrality.”
In a scholarly article written in 2003, Wu coined the phrase net neutrality, arguing that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. “I realized that the business plan for the Internet was, ‘Get control of the wire, then speed up some stuff, slow down other stuff, and make everybody pay.’ I knew this was not going to be good; it was going to turn into cable TV.” To his surprised delight, the phrase and the concept caught on, and his academic paper laid the foundation for the Federal Communication Commission’s 2010 outline of six net-neutrality principles.
“I’ve always aspired to blend the academic life with public service,” says Wu, who ran for lieutenant governor of New York in the Democratic primary of 2014, on Zephyr Teachout’s anticorruption ticket. “My greatest admiration is for figures like Zhu Ge Liang, a [second-century] Chinese scholar who lived in the mountains. He was sought out by emperors to advise them on how to win wars, because he was this brilliant strategist, but he preferred to spend his time writing poetry in the woods. My ideal is to have a career that melds the academic and contemplative life with the life of action and consequence. Even if your goal is to be a scholar, if you care about the human condition, there’s a lot to be said for being right where policy or laws are being made as a source of insight.”