How Your Attention Has Become the Biggest Commodity

Our most scarce resource is under attack from advertisers flocking to digital spaces. Author Tim Wu makes the case for redirecting our attention and carefully curating where we let our minds wander to.

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Between the many devices we carry each day, our attention is divided, with each gadget competing, each app buzzing and vying for our eyeballs.

But it’s not just a matter of each media outlet hoping we’ll absorb the latest information, says scholar and author Tim Wu. It’s about getting your eyeballs on the screen in order to sell your attention to advertisers—that’s been the business model for newspapers since the 1830s. You sell the minds of the audience to advertisers—that’s your product. In his new book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our HeadsWu highlights how this business model has permeated into so many areas of our life. For instance, posting a photo of your daughter on Facebook becomes “content for advertisers to piggyback upon”—and users aren’t paid for it. The amount of advertising available in free spaces, like clickbait articles. The sheer saturation of advertising online.

He calls this “attention harvesting.”

“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 on CBC.

“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.”

“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.”

How to redirect our attention

Wu warns that we shouldn’t get seduced by the web—don’t go down a rabbit hole, clicking through to the next random article you find.

“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.

With so many stimuli competing for attention, any hope for making it through the day without our brains feeling scrambled rests on being more conscious of how you parse attention over specific tasks.

Here are three ways to manage your attention, not your time.