May I Have Your Attention Please | The Pitfalls of the Attention Economy

Much like shopping malls, casinos are designed to get and keep your attention for as long as possible. From the free drinks to the lack of visible clocks and natural lighting, every inch of a casino is meant to make you spend more time and money in there. 

The issue with today’s retail is that it’s all based on the attention economy. And, in turn, the attention economy is born at the confluence of slot machines and shopping malls.

Systems that were once meant to help you connect to other people are now widening the gap between different social groups. The abundance of information overflowing through the screens of our  3.3 billion smartphones is not a way forward anymore, but a way to build more lack of trust among people. 

The giant encyclopedia we call the “internet” is not a source of information anymore, but a source of disinformation too. In between fake news, conspiracy theories popping up every other scroll, and everyone shouting their opinions in caps lock, the world wide web has become a breeding ground for all sorts of unethical, immoral, and pushy maneuvers. 

It’s not just that there’s a seemingly infinite amount of data flowing (more or less) freely through cyberspace. 

It’s just that you, we, the consumers, are rapidly becoming agrarian fields for businesses. 

The crops they want to harvest on our soil? Our very attention, our time, and, ultimately, our mental health. The three resources no money can ever buy and no tech can ever create more of. 

It sounds rough and perhaps a little mean, but it is the absolute truth. 

The Game You Simply Cannot Win 

Imagine yourself playing a board game that flashes random sounds and lights at you whenever it “wants,” changes the colors of your pawns, and switches the rules around like they were never there. 

Like it or not, that’s where we’re all heading right now. 

Your entire life is a web of systems you cannot control, but which exert control over you. Your social media accounts, your smartphone, where you go on the internet – they have all created a playground for psychological tactics meant to keep you in the cyber realm. 

Your attention, your likes, your shares, your time, and, ultimately, your life – they are all but mere harvesting goals for Facebook, Google, and the other web giants out there. Based on your behavior online, they can sell ads to companies, which can target their products so efficiently it makes it almost impossible not to… click. 

It’s foolish to believe you can win this game. It is a game so carefully engineered to make us addicted to our devices that even the best of us can easily get swept in. 

And this is not meant to vilify the tech giants setting the tone of the future. They have their business models, and for the most part, they still bring amazing things into the world. 

Think of how much information you can access on Google about pretty much everything you can imagine. 

Think of how Facebook and other social networks have helped us maintain our sanity during the first lockdown of 2020. 

Think of how easy it is to find the products you need (emphasis on this word!). 

Think of #metoo and the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter and all the real-life awareness and changes they have brought into the world. 

Yes, the internet (social media included) can and should be used for better purposes, other than continuously harvesting our attention. 

But for that to happen, change needs to happen…

The Game “They” Should Not Win Either 

… It all starts with a two-fold solution. 

Yes, this is a two-fold solution, because there are two parts to this problem. The issue lies not only in the tech giants and how they run their businesses but also in the lack of awareness people have on how these systems work. 

In essence, when you open your Facebook feed in the morning, the algorithm behind it has been designed to provide you solely with things you will probably like. The more in-depth you go with your research on red ants on Google, for example, the more likely it is the algorithm will feed you only things it “thinks” you’re interested in. 

That works fine for cat videos, not so great when you fall into, let’s say, political discourse and find yourself wrapped in a bubble of non-communication with “the other side”. The repercussions of massive numbers of people doing the same can be, well, equally massive. 

In 2018, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, stood in front of Congress, trying to explain Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Although people (like James Williams, for example) have been talking about it for some time before that event, the moment marked the beginning of what could be a new era in how personal data is collected and used. 

Europe has made its first committed steps toward guarding the privacy of its citizens when GDPR was fully released into cyberspace in 2018. The US is still pending on regulation, and so does most of the world. 

Circling back to the two-fold solution, the only two doable ways  to burst the social bubble and forge a new future for the internet are: 

  • Raising awareness of how mechanisms like cookies and data collection work 
  • Imposing regulations companies in the internet space simply have to follow

Be Like Diogenes

On average, Americans use no less than two hours (and three minutes!) of their time to scroll down on their social media channels every day. And that number has been growing exponentially, by 10% from 2019 to 2020. 

What else could you do with two extra hours of your time?

You could probably read more or watch better movies. 

You could take a walk, cook something, and do a thorough workout. 

You could spend time with your family or friends. 

You could sleep more. 

Two hours of your time are taken away from you – and, like someone stuck with the Stockholm Syndrome, you are actually pretty much willing to give it away, not fully realizing the extent of the effects it will have on you. 

This has an effect on your: 

  • Self-esteem (because you keep comparing yourself with every shiny photo on social media)
  • Compassion and understanding of the world (because you are slowly becoming the prisoner of a demographic/ target audience, rather than have access to all the information out there) 
  • Sleep patterns and sleep quality (because you just have to give it one more scroll, thus spending precious minutes and hours of your sleep time looking at a screen that will eventually make you sleep even worse)
  • Budget (because, believe it or not, all of this has one main goal: to make you spend more money in this digital mall we call the “internet”)

James Williams sees the issue of the attention economy as a matter of human rights. And it makes sense. Your attention is a limited resource that is currently magnetized by beeps and tings and social media newsfeed refreshes tens, maybe hundreds of times a day. 

To exemplify what might be a healthier attitude consumers have towards the attention economy, James Williams brings up the example of Diogenes. As the original troll, this ancient Greek philosopher did everything in his power to not abide by any social rules of his time. While that particular behavior might not be that healthy, his rudeness did give us an invaluable lesson on at least one occasion. 

As outrageous and offensive as Diogenes was, he somehow managed to attract Alexander the Great’s attention and admiration. One day, Alexander (perhaps one of the most important people in the world at that time) went to Diogenes (who, by the way, lived in a barrel in the agora). 

At that particular time of the day, Diogenes was basking in the warm sun of Greece. So, when Alexander told him that he can grant him any wish he might have, Diogenes of Sinope replied simply:

Stand out of my light.