Internet giants are controlling our attention by essentially selling advertisers “available human brain time.” That’s according to Tim Wu, renowned columnist for The New York Times, author and professor at Columbia Law School.

Attention hacking is a concept that suggests that digital service developers are intentionally designing their products to attract the maximum amount of engagement from users. Seems obvious, but what isn’t so obvious is that some form of attention hacking has been going on for centuries. But Wu says that in our time, this is a historic phenomena.

In his Feb. 20 event at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoaʻs Art Building Auditorium, Wu gave numerous accounts through the century that propose that advertisers never had consumers best interests, the media attention today is overwhelming, and our attention span is shrinking by the day.

Now that we know why, the question is how can we take back our attention and time and fight back against this “state of bombardment,” according to Wu.

“It seems very clear to me that in a time when we value physical labor less and mental power more, the abilities to concentrate, focus, (and) execute – those are golden,” he said. “And if you don’t cultivate those, you’re pretty much hosed.”

Wu’s topic was on the importance of our time and attention and says that it’s valuable and scarce and that “a lot of it is being taken from us for very little in return.” 

Digital consumers are now spending an average of two hours and 24 minutes per day on social networks and messaging apps, according to the 2020 Global Web Index. Entertainment ranks as the third most important reason for using social media. 

Wu said in a Hawaii Public Radio interview Thursday morning that he believes (but not entirely to blame) social media has accelerated the divide in America by showing people what they want to hear more and “pulling people apart.”

“Nobody predicted, I think, that the President of the United states would communicate his policies through twitter,” Wu told HPR.

His interests in media attention and the tech industry lie with understanding the importance of attention for the future of humanity. His inspiration came from him wondering if he was “losing his own powers of concentration.”

“The contest for attention, almost become I don’t think everything, but it has certainly become one of the contests of our time,” Wu said.

He asked that “if someone from 100-200 years ago were to arrive in the U.S. today, what would they mostly be surprised by?” His thoughts were that they would be surprised by “the fact that every waking moment of our lives, someone or something is trying to get a little piece of your attention.”

Whether it’s an advertisement, email updates, or even children, Wu believes we live in a “constant state of bombardment”

Taking back the audience’s attention on the university level, Wu says, “rewiring your mind is about the best thing, trying to figure out what’s wrong with your mind and how you can rewire it and cultivate healthier brain habits, is probably a pretty important thing to get out of college.”

In regards to why he finds it important to host these discussions and spread his knowledge to Hawaiʻi, Wu says we’re presently in a critical shift.

“I’m trying to raise consciousness about consciousness,” Wu said with a laugh. “I wrote this book about two books ago and it just strikes me as a message that becomes more and more important of our time.”

Wuʻs ending notes from his talk brought us back to the beginning with saying “this is really it… when you are thinking about your life, and what it is and what you want to do, a lot of it comes down to how you spend your consciousness and where you put your attention.”

Wu is the author of five books, all of which discuss popular topics of the media and tech industries: “Who Controls the Internet,” “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,” “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads and, most recently” and “The Curse of Bigness.”

He joined the Julius Silver Professor of Law, Science and Technology at Columbia Law School in 2006 and since has taught antitrust, copyright, and criminal law. He is best known for coining the term “net neutrality,” the idea that internet service providers should treat all data equally and not block, speed up or slow down traffic based on their own agenda. 

According to the NYT’s, The Federal Communications Commission adopted net neutrality rules in 2015, “but led by its new chairman, Ajit Pai, revoked them on December 14.”

The Better Tomorrow series presents telling discussions and advanced solutions on some of the world’s most important questions of our time by bringing experts from around the world to the state of Hawaiʻi.

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News Editor

Geneva Diaz is a senior majoring in Journalism with a minor in Theatre at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her goals are to work in radio journalism as an environmental journalist.