Columbia law professor Tim Wu thinks your attention is being stolen. And he's not happy about it.
He's not talking about TV commercials, which pay for the show that you're watching. He's talking about ads that seize your attention while giving you nothing in return. He has a special dislike of gas station TV, in which saccharine fake newscasts appear on the pump while you fill your car, tethered by a short length of hose. But that's not all, Wu writes: "In that genre are things like the new, targeted advertising screens found in hospital waiting rooms (broadcasting things like The Newborn Channel for expecting parents); the airlines that play full-volume advertising from a screen right in front of your face; the advertising screens in office elevators; or that universally unloved invention known as 'Taxi TV.' These are just few examples in what is a growing category. Combined, they threaten to make us live life in a screen-lined cocoon."
To this, I'd add lame autoplay videos that start up when you go to a text page.
Well, there's nothing new in this. More than half a century ago, another law professor, Charles L. Black, wrote a piece entitled "He cannot choose but hear: the plight of the captive auditor," about non-stop audio commercials on municipal buses. (For extra cool points, Black quoted a then-new science fiction classic, Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, depicting a society in which advertising was inescapable, in its original serialized form.)
That sort of thing was a novelty in 1953. But Wu is right that things have gotten out of hand. From clickbait headlines to robocalls to sad waiting-room TV to, yes, those horrible commercials in taxicabs, people are trying to seize what is rapidly becoming the scarcest commodity of all: people's attention.
Wu doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions to this problem (and neither did Black) beyond perhaps a degree of societal shunning and shaming. (When I posted a link to Wu's piece on my blog, a number of readers said they avoid gas stations that have the annoying TV screens, so there's that.) He does propose municipal laws governing attention theft, though I suspect that the attention thieves would quickly find a way around them.
But I do have a proposal for addressing one particularly annoying kind of attention theft, the robocall. Robocalls don't just annoy you at a gas station or a doctor's waiting room, places where time spent is usually pretty low quality anyway. They interrupt you at your home, or on your smartphone. The Federal Communications Commission says there are 2.4 billion robocalls a month, and it's trying to do something. I have a solution of my own: Pay me.
Under my proposal, any incoming calls from people not on my contact list wouldn't go through unless the caller paid me something. Twenty-five cents would probably be enough to discourage phone spammers, who make huge numbers of (mostly futile) calls. (Though I'd be willing to go higher. Maybe I could charge phone-sex rates: I'd be willing to listen to most anything from anyone for $3.99 plus $1.99 a minute.)
Of course, hardly anyone would be willing to pay me that much, or even 25 cents, to receive a call. Which is the point. If it's not worth a quarter for them to call me, why is it worth my time to pick up?
Give the phone companies a cut, and they'd get serious about addressing number-spoofing and other robocall tricks: There would be money on the line, and they're nothing if not serious about revenue. (Plus, I'll bet a cellular carrier who added this option to a plan would get a lot of subscribers.)
I'd be happy to expand this approach to other fields, too. A 25 cent charge for an unsolicited email would drastically reduce my email volume. Again, why would I want to read an email that wasn't worth a quarter to its sender? That's roughly half the cost of a first-class stamp. I'm not quite sure how to extend it to gas station TV, but maybe some readers will have an idea - make your suggestions in the comments.
Napoleon famously told his generals, "Ask me for anything but time." For me, it's more like, "Ask me for anything but attention." Or at least, be prepared to pay. It's an idea whose time may have come.