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.

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