The Attention Economy Is Slowly Driving You Insane

Peo­ple like to say we are in an infor­ma­tion econ­o­my — one based on knowl­edge, data, and pro­cess­ing, rather than build­ing things (indus­tri­al) or grow­ing food (agri­cul­tur­al). And this is large­ly true, but it doesn’t mean infor­ma­tion is the end state of where we’re going. Rather, just as how advanced agri­cul­ture gave us the spare capac­i­ty to ded­i­cate peo­ple to build­ing things, and advanced man­u­fac­tur­ing gave us the spare capac­i­ty to work on effi­cien­cy and man­age­ment, now our infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing is becom­ing so effi­cient we are focus­ing on some­thing else: atten­tion.

Think about the busi­ness mod­el behind Face­book. It is, essen­tial­ly, a gigan­tic adver­tis­ing agency (when Utah Sen­a­tor Orrin Hatch asked him in a recent hear­ing how his com­pa­ny gen­er­ates rev­enue, Mark Zucker­berg famous­ly smirked and respond­ed, “Sen­a­tor, we sell ads”). The extreme­ly inva­sive data-min­ing on their users is entire­ly in ser­vice to this activ­i­ty. In gen­er­al, they don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly care who gets hurt in the process or who buys the ads unless forced to, which is why they’re tak­ing action after the 2016 to pre­vent author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments from using that ad data to manip­u­late elec­tion infor­ma­tion.

Ads are atten­tion. As a mar­keter, if you get some­one to look at your ad, there is a high­er chance they’ll buy the prod­uct being adver­tised. An entire indus­try exists about under­stand­ing and track­ing how ad cam­paigns per­form, from the amount of time a per­son spends with an ad on the screen to whether their mouse cur­sor touched the ad to whether they lat­er searched for it on their phone (Face­book uses inva­sive meth­ods to track all of this behav­ior and far more).

At the end of the day, atten­tion is what mat­ters. If you can prove enough peo­ple engage with your con­tent, you can charge mon­ey for it. If you can get more atten­tion for your con­tent, you can prove its rel­e­vance. Espe­cial­ly in social media cir­cles, atten­tion is life: it is how “influ­encers” earn mon­ey through sell­ing impres­sions to brands. And it is how polit­i­cal cam­paigns dri­ve memes and attack ads against can­di­dates.

You could even make the argu­ment that the hor­ri­fy­ing rise of cor­po­rate sur­veil­lance over every­thing from the minu­ti­ae of our health to how often we have con­ver­sa­tions with friends after work is an arti­fact of the atten­tion econ­o­my: after all, if you aren’t pay­ing atten­tion in the office for some rea­son, you aren’t gen­er­at­ing rev­enue for the com­pa­ny. This sur­veil­lance isn’t pas­sive, and it isn’t lim­it­ed to blue col­lar work — shift work­ers at Ama­zon have their moves tracked down to the sec­ond about where they go and what they do, but office work­ers can get tracked with chips like they’re pets, have their con­ver­sa­tions online and offline mon­i­tored for sen­ti­ment analy­sis, and even their bath­room breaks.

While sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism is a new twist on how com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion can be abused, the chal­lenge of too much data is not exact­ly new. Her­bert Simon observed in 1971, “a wealth of infor­ma­tion cre­ates a pover­ty of atten­tion.” His con­cern was about how to get peo­ple to focus on the right kind of infor­ma­tion, and won­dered what the impli­ca­tions would be for a soci­ety that gen­er­at­ed so much data it couldn’t know itself any­more.

An impli­ca­tion of Simon’s the­sis that he did not grap­ple with was the clear impli­ca­tion that those who can com­mand atten­tion will be able to influ­ence what infor­ma­tion is con­sid­ered rel­e­vant. I once worked for Alvin Tof­fler, the futur­ist made famous by his 1970 book Future Shock, which pop­u­lar­ized the idea of “infor­ma­tion over­load” lead­ing to a sort of deci­sion paral­y­sis — much like Simon’s obser­va­tion about the down­side of too much infor­ma­tion being bad, rather than good.

While the idea of com­mand­ing atten­tion isn’t real­ly new, the way atten­tion has been turned into a com­mand econ­o­my under the con­trol of a very small num­ber of peo­ple most cer­tain­ly IS new, and it has pro­found impli­ca­tions for soci­ety. Cor­po­ra­tions seem­ing­ly rev­el in their god-like infor­ma­tion ingest­ing and pro­cess­ing capa­bil­i­ties, no one seems to be ask­ing if any of this is good for peo­ple.

We are con­stant­ly in a bat­tle for what infor­ma­tion to con­sume and what to ignore in a process called “ratio­nal igno­rance.” When peo­ple decide to ignore infor­ma­tion — after all, one can­not be an expert in every­thing — they are choos­ing to not give it their atten­tion. For polit­i­cal cam­paigns, the impli­ca­tions are pro­found, and per­haps help to explain why they have become so divorced from any­thing sub­stan­tive or real (notable excep­tions notwith­stand­ing).

Yet, humans did not evolve to behave this way. Our phys­i­ol­o­gy did not devel­op in a way that could health­ful­ly man­age a 1‑to-many rela­tion­ship with hun­dreds of peo­ple pure­ly through text — which is itself removed from how we orig­i­nal­ly evolved to com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er. By out­sourc­ing our social activ­i­ty, and learn­ing to this sys­tem we give up impor­tant neu­ro­log­i­cal process­esthat our bod­ies expect to receive through social inter­ac­tion.

I sus­pect this is why some games have become so mas­sive — they pro­vide a way to engage in (some­what) medi­at­ed social inter­ac­tion beyond text. When you look at a mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er game like Fort­nite, which has more user engage­ment than Net­flix, the social ele­ments of the game have clear­ly led to its mass appeal. But this, too, is a chimera: while Fort­nite has become the most impor­tant social media net­work for young peo­ple, it is designed to be so addic­tive it is send­ing chil­dren into vio­lent tantrums when their par­ents take it away.

Fort­nite, in oth­er words, is just a bet­ter way to win the atten­tion econ­o­my.

Under­stand­ing what the atten­tion econ­o­my is can sug­gest ways to avoid being trapped by its most tox­ic aspects. Man­ag­ing how and when you con­nect with social media is one impor­tant first step: a grow­ing move­ment to delete social media apps from your phone, and to rely on the web inter­face instead, is one way to intro­duce just a lit­tle bit more of a bar­ri­er to find your atten­tion destruc­tive­ly monop­o­lized. Oth­er ideas, like default­ing to text mes­sages (or group chats on ser­vices like Sig­nal) can help break the cycle of end­less, emp­ty engage­ment through the atten­tion com­pa­nies.

But more broad­ly, it also seems like the atten­tion econ­o­my might be hit­ting a lim­it. Engage­ment over­all is declin­ing, even with­in the games indus­try that Fort­nite dom­i­nates. Media pro­fes­sion­als are also talk­ing about peak con­tent, where too much infor­ma­tion is cre­at­ed to rea­son­ably process, which could prompt peo­ple to sim­ply opt-out of chas­ing atten­tion.

In the mean­time, how­ev­er, com­pa­nies are going to become more and more aggres­sive in try­ing to cap­ture our atten­tion. They will gam­i­fy their engage­ment to keep you hooked. They will mod­i­fy their algo­rithms to trick your brain into crav­ing a feed­back loop of click­ing things on their web­site. And they real­ly won’t care about the long term effects it has on you or the cul­ture as a whole.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly we have only lim­it­ed means to respond to this. Too many jobs depend on the atten­tion econ­o­my, and it’s unclear what kind of alter­na­tive sys­tem could replace it. But in the mean­time, you can be more mind­ful of how valu­able and pre­cious your atten­tion — and judi­cious in how you choose to spend it.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.