When something online is free, then the product being sold is you. Wu (Columbia Law School; The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, 2010) elaborates on that sobering note.
Think of this next time you’re browsing social media and a targeted ad goes floating by: how do they know to send that ad your way? The answer lies in the fact that there are legions of humans, and behind them busy bots and vast databanks, trying to get inside your head, determine your wishes and tastes, and, more than anything else, capture your attention. Wu opens his learned, skillfully delivered treatise by pointing to a phenomenon that ought to trouble anyone with a soul, namely, the selling of ads on school marquees, sports fields, and the like to fund school activities. The school board that approved the first such deal, Wu notes, realized that it “was holding an asset more lucrative than any bake sale”—namely, the students themselves, a captive audience almost by definition. But it goes deeper than that. As the author writes, every time we go online, we’re being tracked and monitored, ambushes being laid at every click. One of the most interesting passages is his account of “clickbait,” the villains of the piece, mild-mannered ad people, a brilliant MIT–trained scientist, and the Huffington Post, among others. The result is an all-out assault on our attention, as the “microfamous” fill our eyes and ears and the merchants work ever harder to pull down the wall between advertising and actual content. Wu closes this broad-ranging but closely argued argument by noting that given that our lives are what we pay attention to, we are now obliged to “defend the sheer reach of the attention merchant into the entirety of our lived experience.” Indeed, and it involves more than simply turning off the TV—though that’s a start.
Forget subliminal seduction: every day, we are openly bought and sold, as this provocative book shows.