Tim Wu

Laws of the Internet

Air Date: December 31, 2016

Media scholar Tim Wu talks about his new book The Attention Merchants.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. From his Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information, circa 2010, to his newly published The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu is the preeminent internet thinker. The father of net neutrality, Wu is a devoted advocate of democracy. In fact, he and Zephyr Teachout challenged Andrew Cuomo’s governorship on an anti-corruption and economic fairness plank.

While their candidacy did not prevail, it was the most visibly contested gubernatorial primary with an incumbent in recent memory. For now Wu has turned his attention anew to these mercenaries of advertising, from analog to digital monopolies of information power. Booklist calls his book “an urgently needed national and global conversation.”

Wu is studying the seemingly inescapable advertising saturated culture. Indeed, clickbait that surrounds us is the new normal, as is the absence of regulation. In a revenue making formula, the financial gain on which powerhouses like Google and Facebook thrive.

Even as we may think we’re tuning out the ads, they no doubt have altered, and perhaps undermined the potential of our civic consciousness. And that’s what we’re here to discuss. Tim, a pleasure to finally meet you.

WU: Likewise.

HEFFNER: How have the attention merchants, stunned, if they have…


HEFFNER: our civic growth.

WU: You know I think they have completely affected how we live day-to-day life. Um I don’t know about you but uh, ah, most of us are subject to thousands, if not tens of thousands of appeals, solicitations, little efforts to gain our attention every day. Facebook updates, emails, you, you name it. And I think in that kind of context, where our attention is so uh, uh captured, or so uh, contested, the sort of normal civic discourse that you imagine in, in a democratic system is hard to maintain.

HEFFNER: How should we try to maintain it?

WU: Uh you know it’s, it’s a hard question. It’s always been the, uh, uh a question of how do you battle consciousness. But I think one of the things I say in the book is that it is important if we’re going to have an informed and educated citizen—citizenry, that we have more control over our attention, if that makes sense. If, that we… choose to use this resource—I mean, this, what I mean by that is our time, you know, 168 hours a week that we have, and spend it how we really want to spend it.

And one of those things is spending it on uh, not whatever comes to you, but, you know, what you really want to read. The movies you really want to watch. The news you really want to read, as opposed to, kind of just, f—uh… letting it become dissipated away.

HEFFNER: Where do you see, in this digital paradigm, the right relationship between the advertisers and their readers?

WU: Well it is, whatever it is, it’s not what we have right now. [LAUGHS] I think we’ve kind of… hit, especially with the web, uh we’ve hit uh, hit rock bottom, I, I, I like to think. We’re in this kind of war between readers, who are um increasingly frustrated with, with the number of ads, with, you know, stuff clogging their sites, click-baity content—and advertisers who are absolutely desperate to reach people. And uh they, they can’t uh, they, they can’t get people to sit still for ads, and so their ads become ever more intrusive, ever more privacy uh intruding.

At the same time, just to, to add to this further, there are demands on growth of Facebook, Twitter, Google, so they have to increase their ad load, increase their revenue. So we’re sort of in this terrible standoff, where the web keeps in some ways getting worse.

I mean you think about the web over the last five years, a lot of the sites have actually gotten worse instead of better as they’ve become a better platform for advertising as opposed to better for the users. So we’re in a bad place, and one of the things I call for in this book, is we kind of need to, to, to fix it, reboot. I don’t know what it is, but save the web.

HEFFNER: Save the web.

WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What is the most likely prescription um that is within reach? And I say this knowing from the book and your history, that you are… a pragmatic advocate of—
WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … digital equality, digital literacy. What, if anything, do regulatory—

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: organs…

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: …do to protect the actual democratization?

WU: Right. Uh, you know, I think it doesn’t start there, but starts with what you said which was uh, with the business models. So the web was this, you know, tremendous invention. The internet before, but the web in particular, tremendous invention. Uh with a lot of promise, um, idealistic in its way. Uh, the ideas connecting anyone who wants to share information.

The problem is that almost all the sites have decided that they uh… only, their only model is a high-growth, uh… revenue quarterly doubling every year or so forth, kind of business model through advertising. And if you’re gonna have that business model, if you’re gonna promise your investors, I’m gonna double your revenue you know every X years or every—maybe every year—it means you have to constantly make your product worse for users and better for advertisers.

And so we’ve seen you know, over the years, uh look at YouTube. YouTube, it was better just a few years ago. [LAUGHS] Now it is loaded. You know, Google itself is getting heavier and heavier with ads. And the demands are getting stronger and stronger. The sites and the web get worse.

Uh I think you, you put your finger on the button. I, I don’t think the first response is you know, regulatory, uh, you know, here’s the rules of the web. Um I think the first response is a profound rethinking of the business models, of the major companies.

Uh Wikipedia, you know, it’s not perfect, but has certainly maintained its character of the years. It’s a non-profit. Uh Twitter is uh currently in trouble for example, because they only make a bill—you know, a billion dollars a year. A billion dollars a year is a decent amount of money, sustained, you know, a company that basically, what do they do? Distributes conversations.

Uh so this… uh idea—and I think there’s some hope for example, for Twitter, to move to a co-op or non-profit model, where they can last a longer and try to focus on being better as opposed to trying to generate more ad revenue.

‘Cause once you’re in the trap of constantly trying to get more ad revenue—if this show was about ad revenue—[LAUGHS]


WU: You know you would be in a completely different—you, uh state. I mean somehow we would—

HEFFNER: We, we wouldn’t be the accidental billionaires.

WU: Right. You would be throwing some native advertisements in.


WU: I would be talking about like Chevrolet or something. I mean, you would have to warp the show a lot, to keep that ad revenue coming in. And that’s what’s happened, that’s the trap the web has gotten in.
HEFFNER: Right so, in an environment in which we are primed to… be the… victims of those ads—

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: … or subliminal messaging… how do you rethink the business model in such a way that… the… goal is not the IPO bonanza—

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: …but preserving a communications apparatus that is going to serve the best interests of the country.

WU: Uh I’m an optimist and you know I think that media can be reborn. They go through ups and downs. Television, you know, has gone through multiple incarnations. It was, you know, s—idealistic in the early 50s. By the late 50s everyone’s like given up on it. It was the game shows and uh Gunsmoke and western. You know they had sort of fallen, all the good shows had gone.

But you know, TV’s had a tremendous come back. I think the web can come back. Um and can come better. I also think the internet itself uh… isn’t limited to the web. You know sometimes people get the two mixed up and you can have things that run on top of the internet that are not the web, but have content.

One of the things that has emerged over the last ten years, which I think has been uh great in a, in, in many ways, is, is streaming video. You know, new T—paid TV models over the internet. I mean Netflix, Amazon Prime, and… uh sh—uh, you know, and that has really changed television, but it’s actually part of the internet.

So I wanna say that it’s so—what I’m trying to say is not only can we try to save the web, but have new, new things, new platforms, new forms of media, which we try to, from the beginning uh preserve a better public character to them. We sort of blew it on the web, I think. [LAUGHS] You know we were too optimistic, too idealistic. We thought, okay, we’ll just put it out there and everything will be fine.

And it’s gotten way down. And you could build something from the outset that was, that was a better media. Ultimately, we get the media we build and I think that’s what I’m trying to say.

HEFFNER: Right, in, in terms of the classification of the internet as a utility rather than a luxury. I think that very much speaks to the point that your making, which is, in order to safeguard institutions within the web that are of paramount significance, to ensure our civic livelihood…

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: We, we have to reclassify not just their status as utilities, but not gauge them as these…

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: … um, big pay days.

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: And so as you looked in the book, as the history unfolded of advertising, one of the things you say is it was darker than you ever envisioned.

WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But… for our viewers, how, is it truly unprecedented, the scale and scope to which the internet as we know it today is unrelegated, if you look at—

WU: Hm.

HEFFNER: …the way these monopolies from analog to digital evolved?

WU: Well they’re not fully un—that’s a, it’s a hard question actually, ’cause it depends what you call regulated. Uh, you know the advertising on the internet is still in theory, regulated. It’s um… uh… uh, it’s uh, still illegal to lie—supposedly illegal to lie in your advertisements and you know, promise this pill is gonna lose you 40 pounds when in fact it, you know, drives you crazy or something.


WU: So that, that stuff is still in technically illegal. I think what there isn’t, is a kind of norms that evolved in print journalism for example. You know in print journalism, um… I don’t say the ad, the wall between ad and editorial is perfect, but at least it somewhat exists.

On the web, all that stuff is up for grabs. It’s, you know, the entire, look at uh, you know, something like Buzz Feed. You know, everything they do is driven towards trying to maximize ad revenue. And so I think there—we just kind of have a chaotic situation on the web, no strong norms that preserve um… editorial independence. Eh and I think that’s one of the main problems.

HEFFNER: What are the implications of this network of ad buyers and—

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: …sellers in equalizing access to the web?

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: You of course were… a leading advocate of net neutrality as instituting a norm—

WU: Right

HEFFNER: …for the way the internet ought to operate.

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: And not have super highways for the rich—

WU: Uhhuh.

HEFFNER: …and internet access that is of a lesser quality for everyone else. How is the attention merchant culture rewiring us?

WU: Sure. Uh that’s a great question. I, I think that the attention uh merchants that I describe in the book do get at some of the concerns that net neutrality was also concerned about.

Net Neutrality’s fundamentally about some equality of arms on the web. Some sense that uh the big owners of the pipes don’t get to dictate who wins, who gets to speak. And that, that was its principle. But that same eh equality principle has come to have I think increasing importance on the pipes in the content world.

Um. We once thought that the web would be this kind of incredibly egalitarian, everyone speaks and gets listened to, a kind of network. Uh, you know people believed that for—I, I was one of the ones who believed it. We believed it. Uh now you look at it, it really has become a platform dominated by a few really big speaker—you know, plat—Facebook, Google, uh Twitter. Now they sort of facilitate other people’s speech, but Facebook’s almost more about Facebook than it is about, about us. It, it all—we almost sort of all seem the same there.

So, eh, to the extent there’s an attentional contest, they are also powerfully warping it. Uh in other words, you know, either you get your message through Facebook or it’s very hard to get heard. All the publishers uh complain about this. You know the newspapers and so forth.

So I uh think—I, I don’t have like—unlike net neutrality, I had a very clear solution—here, I don’t know what we do, but I think we have to do something to try to kind of um… deal with the power uh of the main platforms on the web. Um. You know there’s, there’s antitrust investigations sometimes.

But I think above all that is one of the big concerns of the next uh ten years, is the power of the uh, internet’s main platforms.

HEFFNER: And how, how do you foresee that battle being waged?

WU: Well it’s somewhat being waged in Europe right now with various antitrust uh investigations.

HEFFNER: I was saying to our viewers, if you use the web in Europe, you’re in another society!

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: In, just in terms of the kinds of advisories that you receive.

WU: Right. Yeah, no, it, that, that, that is uh going on. Uh as again I don’t think it… I’m not, uh, of the belief there’s a one—you know, one silver bullet legislative solution to this challenge. Essentially, I mean this book is about our attention. Our moment to moment experience. It’s a very subtle thing. And so part of what I call for in the book is, you know, ourselves kind of taking… uh our own control over your attention. Being more conscious about how you spend your time.

So I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. Uh, you, you decide you’re gonna write an e-mail and you go to your computer, and then like, three or four hours later you clicked on a million links and you just kinda lost yourself? I, I think this happens to us a lot. I think we’re always kinda losing control of our attentional autonomy. And part of what I call for in this book is, is reclaiming that. And I don’t think like a bill of Congress can reclaim your consciousness for you. [LAUGHS]

Uh it would be nice if it could. I think we have to limit the power of the main players. But I think that it starts with us and seeing and thinking carefully about what we pay attention to in our lives. And realizing that if you are spending you know, most of your life on a screen, that that might have consequences.

HEFFNER: So a kind of psychological evaluation?

WU: Well I think just a self-awareness. Um I think it takes a different kind of self-control in our period. It’s, it’s incredible the kind of self-control you need actually, to do what you want to do. Because everything you want to do it starts by what you pay attention to. [LAUGHS] And… it’s very hard to control our attention in this day and age, because as I said earlier, there’s so many powerful entities who want you paying attention to them for this reason or that reason.

And you get sort of sucked into things. Uh I know a lot of people you know just at their day jobs and at their desk, you, you know can’t get their work done anymore because they just spend so much time clicking or getting lost and um…

I, I, think that we need uh, you know, to become very wise about how we spend our attention.

HEFFNER: The genius of the web from its inception was to practically connect you to resources.

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: In your interest. In the utility of time. And instead, it seems to have… shortened our attention spans.

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: In the process of… that kind of utilitarian use.

WU: Right. I think that what you spend your time with affects your life very profoundly. Part of the thing—part of the motivations for writing this book was uh the study of the work of William James—


WU: … a philosopher of the 19th century. Very focused on attention. And the one line in particular that he made that had an affect on me, which was, the idea that your life, when you get down to it, is just what you choose to pay attention to. [LAUGHS]

And so, you, you know to um… whether—so the web um… you know in theory offers the potential for a much more realized life, in the sense that you have many more options… for what you can spend your attention on. You just go to this site or that site. It’s not like there’s three big networks and that’s it, and you either watch I Love Lucy or a game show.

No uh you have almost, in some ways, unlimited options. But… one of the things that I think we learn about ourselves is we’re not great sometimes at dealing with freedoms [LAUGHS].

You know offered a full plate of, of every possible freedom, uh sometimes we, I, I don’t know squander it, or, or aren’t good at controlling it. And we almost have to set up systems to discipline ourselves. And that’s what I think has happened over the last 15 years. I don’t know if it’s a utilitarian or, or what, uh, it is.

But it certainly, the fact that we have this enormous menu of options and have found that kind of confusing and have, you know almost acted like people at a buffet who’ve been stuffing their faces and you know—


WU: … taking tiny little pieces of a million different types of food. That’s kind of our intentional diet right now.


WU: Is we just run around randomly like eating pieces of shrimp, and you know carrots and—


WU: … whatever comes our way, and uh… yeah.

HEFFNER: There is a certain mindlessness—and I wanna ask you about how politics influenced—

WU: Sure.

HEFFNER: …your notion of the attention span of the electorate or the—

WU: Sure yeah.

HEFFNER: …consumer base. But, prior to writing this book, you had run for lieutenant governor here. And… addressed a host of constituent concerns.

WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Public policy. And had to grapple with how you… achieved that minimal degree of attention for—

WU: Sure.

HEFFNER: … something nuanced that you might want to say.

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: How is that process?

WU: You know, running for office is a good [LAUGHS] eh, experience for anyone who wants to learn how attentional markets work. Because you then, or how any of our markets work today because you realize, before the substance. Before the like, am I right, are you right, is the point of getting anyone’s attention at all.

So you could be the better candidate. You could, you know, be vastly more qualified, better ideas, whatever it is. If you don’t have the attention of uh anyone, you, you just don’t get anywhere. You’re a zero.

Um it’s, you know, it’s the same with products. You maybe have a better mouse trap. Well if no one hears about your mouse trap, it doesn’t sell. So [LAUGHS] uh it, uh Joe Trippi, we, the uh advisor uh gave me this advice. You know, we were unknown candidates, and he said, uh, “You know your name isn’t out there,” he said, what you need to do uh is light yourself on fire. Uh and then uh everyone will know who you are. The problem with that is then you will have lit yourself on fire [LAUGHS] and so, you know, you’re gone. So you need to find a way—

HEFFNER: That’s what happened to Lawrence Lessig when he—

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: …said that he would resign upon his ascension to the Presidency—

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: … and then no one took him seriously.

WU: Right, so he said, so you know, he said if you light—if you do light yourself on fire, well that, that… so you need to find a way where you come close to that, and get, you know, sort of so you get on the page with people… uh you know all of our contests are, are, are two step.

Number one, get people’s attention, then you can get to the merits. So in the case of our campaign, um, it did take a while. Eventually I think we did reach at least the voting public—primary voting public, which is a small segment of the population. Uh we had the fortune of, of uh Andrew Cuomo uh suing us to try and get us off the ballot, and that created a lot of attention. It was kind of a, uh, poor move on their part.

And I, uh we also had you know more coverage than you, you might uh usually get for an in—for uh insurgent candidacy but… Uh it was a real lesson in just how hard it is to get started, you know, in politics if you don’t have a big name already, or if you’re not a millionaire.

Those two things—if you are let’s say a, a Clinton, or a Trump, that’s your name—I mean you don’t have to be Donald Trump, you could be any of the Trump family—then you start with a huge advantage.

Uh if you are a billionaire, then you start with, well the billionaire is here. So they, they are running. Uh. Yeah.

HEFFNER: The most interesting thing, according to the Shorenstein report, uh at Harvard… Tom Patterson studied the extent to which these candidates while their name recognition was through the roof—

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: … were both the recipients of the most negative coverage in the history of the American political press.

WU: Right. Well the one thing you learn is coverage is still coverage. I mean there’s, the, the old idea that no publicity eh is bad publicity, is somewhat true in politics. I mean there’s some that can be bad. But you know, Donald Trump during the primaries season endured a lot of bad publicity. But he had publicity [LAUGHS] you know. Anything he did got people interested. And so he reached many more people than he ever might have otherwise.

Uh, you know, it’s a trick to doing that while maintaining your viability. But uh… being scandalous, I think, in the future’s not necessarily going to be as bad for politicians, especially with the decreased attention spans. So I, I, I see a future where more and more candidates are like reality TV show people, where somehow they’re—

HEFFNER: So they, they are lighting themselves on fire.

WU: They are lighting themselves on fire. Um you know why, why did everyone watch juice—Jersey Shore? It was like not—it was Snooki. You know like this crazy person who just did random stuff.


WU: Um [LAUGHS] I think that’s kind of where some of our politics is headed.

HEFFNER: Of course we have to pay homage to Neil Postman—

WU: Uhhuh.

HEFFNER: … in the amusement to our death, possibly.

WU: Yes.

HEFFNER: I like to say, can we mute—amuse ourselves back to civil society? Back to a [LAUGHS] functioning democracy?


HEFFNER: The jury is out.

WU: Right, I agree.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be a, a bit more optimistic about the potential for, for those… fires to—

WU: Right. Mm.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the, the attention merchants um… sort of uh abiding thesis of—

WU: Mhm.

HEFFNER: …sensationalism, right?

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: Is what has hijacked… all elements of discourse today?

WU: Uh, I mean, I, in a word, yes. I, I think that we have moved towards a society where it is far less about, you know, the merits of an issue, but much more about who first can get enough people to pay attention. Yeah.

HEFFNER: From your experience running—

WU: Sure.

HEFFNER: …for public office—

WU: Sure.

HEFFNER: Were there any examples of where you did to someone extent light yourself on fire—

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: … and you felt that the substance came through?

WU: I mean, yeah, I think so. One day uh somehow, we got Mark Ruffalo to show up. [LAUGHS] You know. The incredible Hulk is here to endorse our candidacy. People go crazy—that was like… all the press showed up. And, you know, Mark Ruffalo was there. That, that was the substance of the, of the event. We were talking about fracking—


WU: …so that was an important issue. So I think that, you know, there are ways in which you can [LAUGHS] create a sensation and deliver uh, uh, a message. And so I’m not completely saying that everyone needs to be boring and you know we should never have um… any interesting things going on in the campaign.

There’s just a question of the ratio of the way we make decisions in our society, and how much of it is driven by the spectacle. Society of the spectacle, [LAUGHS] another famous work. And how much of it, you know is… uh the, uh really people thinking about important decisions.

And uh I think we’re sort of out of balance. I don’t want to say like politics, as I said, should be completely boring. But the fact that is, you know, closer and closer to reality TV is something you might want to think about. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: You have two young kids.

WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: How, how do you… want to, in this next phase of the internet—

WU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: sort of secure that promise um so that their experience grappling with the attention merchants is perhaps more constructive than their father’s [LAUGHS]…

WU: [LAUGHS] That is a great question that I haven’t uh thought about to this point. I think I might, just putting it out there… limit… say, yes the internet is great, but the web not so much. You know so, for example—we’ve already used uh the internet to watch Winnie the Pooh and this Japanese uh movie Totoro and so forth.

So in a way we’ve already used the internet with them, but it’s mainly been for… programming. Uh that sort of, getting on Facebook, social media—I think I put a brake on that. Now by the time they uh grow up, it’ll probably be, you know, I don’t know, virtual reality. A.I. based, self-driving [LAUGHS] version of something…

I guess I would look very carefully at the business model of anything my children are exposed to. That is what I would fundamentally do. And it’s not that old. I mean when I was a kid we watched Sesame Street and kind of trusted it better than commercial television. And I think I would just be very careful about all the business models that my children are exposed to.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time but I—

WU: Sure.

HEFFNER: I think you said it, the business model speaks to the larger motive.

WU: Right.

HEFFNER: And when you enter a library versus when you enter a brothel on 42nd street.

WU: [LAUGHS] Right.

HEFFNER: There’s a different motive.

WU: Right. Um.

HEFFNER: And those, and, and that’s why your digital footprint, your young kids, and all of the youngsters watching this, or the children of our viewers—it, that’s why the digital footprint matters just as much as a, a carbon footprint.

WU: Yeah. Uh I, I, I believe, if there’s one thing from this book is like—the business model of media drives everything. And, you know, the kind of media you’re getting exposed to, is always warped or sometimes corrupted by how they need to earn the dollars. You know, it’s not evil. It’s just the way it is. And uh, I, I… uh, so, I, I think that we would do better um… you know we, we would do better in a world where we knew more about, and understood better the business models that drive what we see.

HEFFNER: Tim Wu. Thanks so much for being here today.

WU: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @openmindTV for updates on future programming.