Thought Leaders, Attention Merchants, and the Rituals of Common Knowledge

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TED talks are a bit like Marmite. To some, the idea of being able to hold an audience of millions for 18 minutes is a worthy career goal. After all, what’s the point of all that thinking and hard work if it doesn’t reach anyone? To others, TED talks are to be avoided. Not because audiences don’t matter, mind, but because the very idea of one-big-idea-that-will-change-the-world is a warning sign on par with “Danger of Death” notices dotted around power plants.

For this second group, if ideas require a degree of domestication in order to communicate them to non-experts, then TED talks — and the fawning hoopla that surrounds them — are roughly equivalent to pugs. As Instagram-friendly a dog as it’s possible to be, pugs are born damaged beyond all repair because, well, humans thought they looked better that way.

I have long belonged to this second group of people, but two books that I’ve read over the last 4–5 days provide interesting angles on the topic — Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry and Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. Although perhaps it is a stroke of luck that I’ve read them back to back, the two books approach a single question from different angles: Why do we pay attention to what others have to say?

The Ideas Industry is, at heart, about the emergence of intellectual celebrities — “thought leaders” — who are, in Drezner’s mind, different to the public intellectuals of days past. Drezner offers a persuasive argument that these people are pretty much the future — thought leaders are better equipped to operate and disseminate their ideas in an atmosphere of political polarisation, economic inequality, and a loss of faith in institutions. People paid attention to public intellectuals because they cared about merit derived from institutional affiliations and would also pay attention to arguments from across the political spectrum. Nowadays, not so much. Drezner highlights a slew of important economic changes, notably the rise of billionaire benefactors who want to change the world now — notably in ways that they think it needs changing — rather than leave their wealth to a foundation for a board of directors to decide what to do with. In this environment, evangelists with one-big-idea-that-changes-everything out-compete the public intellectuals discussing their way to something.

To his credit, Drezner offers a balanced look at the new breed of intellectual superstars — he takes it as given that “thought leaders” act in good faith. However, at the end of the day, this is about public policy (Drezner is primarily concerned with foreign policy) and The Ideas Industry is filled with examples of true believers wasting a hell of a lot of public and private money with very little accountability to anything or anyone. Although Drezner offers some interesting ideas at the end of the book for attempting to survive as a public intellectual, this isn’t a What Is To Be Done?-style manifesto for displacing the Aspenocracy or going back to the old ways. If you’re that way inclined, it’s a good starting point for discussion, but Drezner highlights the merits and flaws of both worlds. After all, a world of intellectual gatekeepers excluded many people and ideas (notably women), just as an ideas industry driven by corporate cash and billionaires excludes ideas unpalatable to the globalised plutocracy. Until reading through Drezner’s chapter on the private market for public ideas, I hadn’t quite understood the merit, scope, and importance of for-profit think tanks, which made me consider my own biases about important ideas.

Like The Ideas Industry, Wu’s The Attention Merchants is an exercise in diagnosis, rather than a proposal for a cure. Going back to the first newspapers to survive on advertising revenues, Wu identifies a pattern of innovation (in grabbing public attention), diffusion (everyone with something to sell jumping on the bandwagon), recognition (people realising something’s up), and rejection (public outcry or disgust at a given advertising technique). While from time to time Wu focuses on what people were trying to sell (for instance, actual snake oil), the unifying theme of the book is the perpetual quest for public attention, and its social effects. Wu’s book intersects with Drezner’s arguments in a couple of important places, notably the birth of public segmentation (advertisers being able to target specific audiences as opposed to an undifferentiated mass), the explosion of user-content that reduced barriers to entry to the attention market, but most importantly in the growth of celebrity culture and the recognition by celebrities that public attention was both an asset as well as a focal point of their labour.

At heart, Drezner’s thought leaders are Wu’s attention merchants, albeit with good intentions. They are people who are fantastically good at grabbing your attention, or the attention of people who can help them get your attention. Niall Ferguson, for example, does an excellent job of getting into a newsworthy argument every time he has a new book to flog. In the marketplace of ideas, large-scale attention or the ability to gain the attention of a select number of plutocrats, leads to success. The problem, as Drezner notes, is that by the time a thought leader’s wilder ideas have gained traction, it’s difficult for experts to reel them in (Drezner depicts this in terms of asset bubbles). Moreover, while Drezner notes that there’s a positive to this (opportunities for public intellectuals to clip the wings of bad ideas) I suspect that the ability of thought leaders (and their bad ideas) to hold attention will increase over time, and the ability of public criticism to reign them in is unlikely to match this.

Is there a downside to the ideas industry that lies beyond the standard arguments against thought leaders? One, I think, is found in Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s Rational Ritual. Chwe’s book analyses the connection between coordination requiring common knowledge — how individuals know that other individuals know about a given thing, in order to act in concert — and public rituals, “social practices that generate common knowledge.” Both public intellectuals and thought leaders use rituals to establish themselves as people worth paying attention to. A person becomes a public intellectual, or thought leader, when it’s common knowledge (particularly among intellectual elites) that they are such a person. I think I’d liken the public intellectual ritual as participating in a never-ending conversation with peers, published by credible institutions. People become public intellectuals by arguing in The New York Review of Books, not by making the same argument in an academic journal with a readership of near-zero. The impression that I got from Drezner’s book was that the ideas industry now has an established set of rituals — a thought leader is considered important because they can take the stage at the World Economic Forum, or a TED talk, not just because of the ideas that they bring to the table — but these rituals also crowd out, corrupt, or choke, similar rituals that public intellectuals performed to gain the attention of the elite and the general public.

Consider Drezner’s example of The New Republic’s disastrous pivot from the (loss-making) world of public intellectualism towards the ideas industry, which amounted to a bonfire of intellectual cachet. If, or when, the ideas industry buys/pivots/“disrupts” every institution that public intellectuals used to position themselves as public intellectuals, what kind of rituals would be available to potential public intellectuals except those that inherently require a person to become a thought leader? I don’t see academic publishing or open access research communication coming to the rescue. As excellent as The Monkey Cage or Political Violence at a Glance are, blogs are a different institution to established titles, and as Wu points out, the blogging industry now looks a lot like Drezner’s Ideas Industry — attention uber alles. I admit it’s a hazy argument, but it seems to me that the danger of the ideas industry is not that thought leaders outcompete public intellectuals in the market of ideas, but that they destroy the set of institutional rituals that public intellectuals need in order to gain admittance to said market in the first place.