Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University. His specialities include competition, copyright and telecommunications law. So far, so conventional. But Wu is an unconventional academic. For one thing, he ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governorship of New York (and won 40% of the popular vote, though not the primary election). For another, he served for a time in the office of New York’s attorney general, specialising in issues involving technology, consumer protection and ensuring fair competition among online companies. “If I have a life mission,” he said once, “it is to fight bullies. I like standing up for the little guy and I think that’s what the state attorney general’s office does.”
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As I said, no ordinary academic. But it gets better. Wu is also the guy who coined the phrase “net neutrality”, which has turned out to be a key concept in debates about regulation of the internet. He was for a time a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, America’s main consumer protection agency. And somehow, in the middle of all this activity, he writes books that make a big impact.
The cue for his new book, The Attention Merchants, is an observation the Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon made in 1971. “In an information-rich world,” Simon wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”