“As Tim Wu writes in what might be the central thesis of ‘The Attention Merchants’, “Where the human gaze goes, business soon follows.” When that gaze eventually shifted to the smartphone — portable, social, location-aware, always on — whatever last reserves of human attention were still left unexploited were suddenly on the table. The smartphone would become “the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchants’ manifest destiny.”
Picture Thoreau now, on his obligation-shedding saunter through the Massachusetts woods. There are unanswered emails from the morning’s business a twitchy finger away. Facebook notifications fall upon him like leaves. The babbling brook is not only lovely, but demands to be shared via Instagram, once the correct filter (“Walden,” natch) has been applied. Perhaps a quick glance at the Health app to track his steps, or a browse of the TripAdvisor reviews of Walden Pond (“serene and peaceful”). There may be Pokémon Go baubles to collect—the app may have even compelled his walk in the first place.
One question that Wu never really resolves is what exactly constitutes a meaningful use of one’s attention. He laments that we have taken our attention and parted with it “cheaply and unthinkingly,” but at one point, he seems to hold up cable shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones as harbingers of “deep engagement.” Exactly why ten hours of binge-watching is qualitatively better or more life-affirming than ten hours of pursuing one’s active interests online, he does not convincingly say, but it speaks to the reflexive distrust of time spent, as Goldsmith terms it, “clicking around.” But, as a journalist, clicking around virtually defines my job these days; what matters, I suppose, is where, and how, you are clicking.