How Attention Merchants may also Be Harming Our Political Dialogue

After reading a great interview with Tim Wu on Vox, author of the recently published book The Attention Merchants, it got me thinking about how the digital-age forces impacting human attention may be partly responsible for the power of lies and misinformation to seep into our long-term-memory repository of beliefs.

First, some quotes from that excellent interview, then some reflections:

Tim Wu

One of the things I’ve been very interested in is feats of concentration that people used to perform all the time — [such as] writing a book in six weeks or a computer program in a few days. I don’t think that’s impossible now, but I do think it’s become considerably harder in our environment to enter important and deep states of focus and concentration, because we surround ourselves with technology, whose business model is to distract us.

Tim Wu

William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, is a personal hero of mine. He made a very simple point: Your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to. When you add it all up, your moment-to-moment experience is everything. It is your life, really.

Tim Wu

One thing I learned writing this book is just how difficult it is to control your attention. It has to do with the science of our brain and brain attention. We aren’t that great at paying attention to what we decide to pay attention to — the voluntary control is weak.

We’re subject to involuntary cues. And also just vulnerable to being pulled by enticing objects or ideas away from the things we ought to attend to.

 

And the following interchange about attention and politics:

Sean Illing (The Interviewer)

What are the political implications of allowing the “attention merchants” so much power and influence over our lives?

It seems to me that manufacturing distraction is just another way of manufacturing consent, and so it really matters what people think about and how they use their attention.

Tim Wu

I have to say, that’s a profound idea. This topic of politics and what people will pay attention to is enormous. One thing I thought about while writing this book is how politics has become more like commerce and commercial advertising.

Politicians are essentially vying to capture people’s attention in order to promote their brand. It’s marketing. And so they have to become even more outlandish to get people to notice them. Trump, for instance, understood that this was an attentional game more than anything else, and he was quite good at making all the right noises in order to get constant coverage.

Sean Illing (The Interviewer)

I thought quite a bit about Trump while reading your chapter on the rise of the celebrity industrial complex. How, in your view, did we reach a point at which a TV man could bulldoze his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity?

Tim Wu

I think Trump is the culmination of everything I’ve said in my book. The battle for attention is the first battle in everything, and those who have mastered the techniques of getting attention by all means necessary have a massive advantage. And you want to talk about someone who’ll use all means necessary, there you go.

 

Tim Wu is highlighting some very important issues for democracy and for society in general. I will add to his thesis. It’s not just about politicians being able to grab our attention, it’s about having our attention bombarded by information and not having time to deeply reflect and consider our own thinking on the issues of the day. It’s about how our attention deficits affect our ability to think clearly. It’s about how a good portion of the information we may be getting may be intentionally deceptive — lies, misinformation, misdirection.

This may be one of the leverage points that Truth For Democracy may be able to target for innovative solutions.

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