Attention merchants: How advertising distracts us

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BI Ignition D1 Lg 0370Business InsiderSpencer Reiss and Tim Wu at Business Insider IGNITION 2016.

These days, it's hard to get away from distractions. Everywhere you go, there are billboards, commercials, pop-up ads, pre-roll ads - not to mention the buzzing phone in your pocket. Each of these things is begging for your attention.

But how much attention do we really have to spare? According to Tim Wu, the author of "The Attention Merchants," 168 hours a week.

The 2016 IGNITION program director Spencer Reiss sat down with Wu at last year's conference to discuss the influx of advertising in the media landscape.

While it's easy to blame the recent boom in technology for the inundation of ads everywhere we look, Wu actually traces it back to 1833. At that time, newspapers cost $0.06 each. A man named Benjamin Day decided to "dramatically reduce the price to a penny" and make the rest up with advertising. "The world has never been the same," Wu said.

Fast-forward to today - how does this affect the web?

"The web model, which is all about attentional extraction at any cost, leads to a design of a web that's almost like a casino," Wu said. "You want people constantly clicking away, lost in vortexes."

The problem, according to Wu, is that if we are paying attention to all of this, we will give less attention to the things that matter. "There is a vast wasteland out there which is designed for that particular purpose, and I don't think it does much good," Wu said.

To learn more from experts in the digital field, be sure to attend Business Insider's IGNITION 2017!

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