It is likely that every generation, at least since the European Renaissance, has fooled itself into believing that the world never saw the current wonders. We, too, may be tempted to fall for the same impression. This age has seen an unprecedented acceleration of historical developments and technology.
One thing, for sure, is absolutely new. The world is swarming in a glut of information. That much is true. But the cue for Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, is an observation the Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon made in 1971, more than two decades before the Internet entered the mainstream. “In an information-rich world,” Simon wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
In other words, the glut of information has now made attention scarce. People’s attention is already taken up by thousands of media outlets—from Internet news sites to social media in the smartphones—so vying for it is what is now precious. You can put out a masterpiece but without the right channels it will not grab anyone’s attention. So much effort is required to grab people’s eyes and ears that the right tactical efforts—anything from marketing to techniques to make content “viral”—will reward anything abundantly, regardless of whether it is your opera magna or a video of a particularly funny cat.
As The Guardian says about The Attention Merchants, “Much of what we have to grapple with today is genuinely new. But there also appear to be some eternal verities. One is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The other is that HL Mencken was right when he observed that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the ‘great masses of the plain people”. No kidding.