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The NYPL Podcast

Podcast #135: Tim Wu on How the Internet Is Not Really Free

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Tim Wu is a scholar of media and technology best known for coining the phrase "network neutrality." His first book The Master Switch tells the story of the corporate powers attempting to consolidate control over the internet, while The Attention Merchants shows how attention is harvested in favor of free wares or services For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Tim Wu discussing the internet, attention, and the problem with free stuff.

tim wu


While devices like smartphones and fitness trackers have become nearly ubiquitous, Wu notes that the devices often come with consequences for their users, namely, that users are bombarded with advertisements:

"One of the things I'm really concerned about with the future of living is how much we can trust the devices that are in our home and that we wear? How often do they have your interests fully at stake or are they actually of mixed motives because if you are an attention merchant, you have an advertising platform. Many of our phones for example, they are both doing what we say, they call people, but they also want to be able to deliver us to advertisers at the right time... Most devices now they sort of do what you say but they also manipulate you. These devices, they want to buy stuff for you or the self-driving car wants to go where you say but they might also have some other things they'd like you to do. I'm worried about a future where everything is a trip to a gift store."

The internet is often framed as technology that seizes attention. Wu describes attention as highly valued in an economy rich in other resources:

"In a rich country like the United States where more and more things are in abundance, where very few people starve or don't have shelter, don't have clothing, there are only a few things that are in true scarcity, especially for richer people, and one of them is attention. So if you are Facebook or Google and you have this many hours of people a day or if you're the NFL or CBS, you have one of the last things that are truly scarce, that is, the human mind. What might be happening even though you're talking about three percent of GDP is maybe you're counting wrong, maybe you've got the wrong currency. Maybe the thing that really matters is the only thing that's scarce. One of the few things that's scarce anymore is time."

One unintended consequence of digesting free media, says Wu, is that media is degraded:

"We are obsessed, indeed addicted, to free stuff... People won't pay. Their idea is that news is free, and that's it. So we have a cultural problem. Some of it is faced off by subscription models or something. I think ultimately, we will get the culture we're willing to pay for. I probably wouldn't have said that twenty years ago, but I think now we expect everything to be free and imagine that we're going to be a country or a nation with a great culture, we're going to be sorely disappointed. We're going to end up with what we're paying for, which is free stuff leads you to pictures of cats, which I like now and then, but there's got to be more."

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