As I sat down to finally put my thoughts on a word document for this blog post, I did what I usually do, I opened about ten different tabs, gathered information and research and started building an argument. Until I came across this –
“[Nicholas] Carr … explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources…We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”
Needless to say, I was made very uncomfortable and I hope to make this an equally uncomfortable read for you. But please do read it, the future of our information consumption depends on as many people as possible being aware of the attention economy.
So, what is the Attention Economy?
Economics is defined as the study of scarce resources. Human wants are infinite and there are only a finite number of resources (land, labour, capital, entrepreneurship). Thus, we must find the optimal use of these resources (that point e* where demand meets supply so there is no wastage).
With the growth of Information Technology (IT), the means of production and consumption changed fundamentally, and so did its economy. In 1971, Herbert Simon was the first to speak about the Attention Economy. He said, that in an information-rich world, the information available is infinite and so there is a shortage of what information consumed – our attention.
Our attention is finite. We only have twenty-four hours in a day, and there’s a limiting capacity to our attention. We use our attention to sort through all the information our brain receives and pick the most relevant ones (imagine checking your phone first thing in the morning, scrolling through and switching between apps).
Information providers realise that the internet is saturated with information, so instead of trying to provide us with more information, their goal is to make finding this information easier. They ensure that the first content we see is interesting and relevant. (Think of Google’s search engine, or Netflix and YouTube’s suggestions – they’re there to help us find something we’d like)
This sounds like a good thing, and it would be, except they’re not just trying to capture our attention. These platforms are designed to capture the most of our attention, make us spend the most time on their application.
There are some pretty basic ways to grab (and retain) attention, we do this all the time – I did it with this post. There’s a catchy title, I start with a personal anecdote and then I appeal to your self-interest by telling you why you should read this post. If your internet usage is similar to mine, you’re reading this right now.
However, applications have managed to capture our attention to a very terrifying extent – Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all have endless scrolls on their feed, YouTube and Netflix have autoplay, Snapchat has streaks that disappear if you don’t send one every day, and these are only their main features. There are endless other aspects of these platforms that are tweaked specially to ensure we stay as long as possible, and keep returning. (Read this brilliant piece by an ex-google design ethicist on all the ways technology has highjacked our minds.)
What do apps have to gain from our attention?
The business model of many of these platforms hinges solely on advertisement revenue. The motivation behind all the digital services that we use is profit generation. We have to remember, we’re not Facebook’s customers. Their service is not for us. We do not pay them. Their advertisers do. And the product they’re selling is our attention. This is measured by the number of “eyeballs” the advertiser’s content is seen by.
Platforms like Google and Facebook that rely heavily on ad revenue, have perfected the system of providing the advertisers with the best (most relevant) audience and their users with the most enjoyable and unobtrusive ad experience (so they keep coming back).
Try creating an advertisement on Facebook, just for fun, and you will be amazed by the unending options available for your “audience”. You can target your audience on the basis of demographics, interests and behaviour – each one of these leading to more and more subcategories.
Returning to my urgency about spreading awareness about the attention economy – our increased use of technology and social networking platforms has been a massive cause for concern. A quick google search (ha!) will show you the wide extent of the problem. The negative effect of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is seen in the social, physical and psychological aspects of our lives. This is primarily because these platforms are designed to be addictive.
Citizens of the attention economy are called the “distracted society”. In this increasingly connected world, we are isolated by our technology and limited attention.
While it is unacceptable to only look at the negative effects of ICT, this discussion surpasses ICT. It’s not a discussion about the technology itself, it is about how the providers of this technology are using our attention for personal gain, and the service they provide us in return is not necessarily in our best interests, and government legislation hasn’t caught up to ensuring it.
A non-profit organisation, Centre for Humane Technology, is working hard on reforming the tech industry with more humane design standards, policy recommendations and business models. It’s worth checking out if you’ve only scrolled to the bottom of this post and not read all of it.
We have to be more aware of where we’re directing our attention, and why. What is their motivation for attracting your attention? I know mine was to tell you about this cool thing that I can’t stop thinking about. Sign boards in college about waste segregation are to save the environment, but what about that Instagram notification about someone posting a story for the first time in a long time?
I’m just going to end by pointing you towards better written and researched articles by people with a lot more authority on the subject than me. In the meantime, please keep liking my Instagram pictures I survive on validation from my peers.
– Daksha Parmani TYBA