On the Attention Economy: How and Why Big Data is Hijacking Your Mind

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber penned in Wired magazine, “the currency of the New Economy won’t be money, but attention – A radical theory of value[1].

The article was titled Attention Shoppers!

Almost exactly a decade after Goldhaber’s “radical theory” on the attention economy, the first iPhone would enter the market, giving tech companies unprecedented access to human psychology and radically transforming the fabrics of society as we know it.

Another decade after the first iPhone made its way into the pockets of eager consumers, Tristan Harris, a former Google product developer and the the co‑founder of Centre for Humane Technology, called the iPhone “a slot machine in my pocket.”

Harris, whom the Atlantic called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” is one of the first Silicon Valley insiders to ring the alarm-bell on how big tech companies design their products in a way that manipulates our psychological vulnerabilities in the race to grab our attention.

The business model of the attention economy is pretty straightforward: harvest attention for marketing and advertising purposes [2].

That itch to glance at our phone incessantly? It is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to capture our attention and get us scrolling as frequently as possible [4]. The more we stay on these apps and websites, the more big tech learns about the inner workings and vulnerabilities of our psychology.

The average person in America is exposed to 3,000 advertising messages per day, not with the goal of sharing information on a given product or service but to simply grab our attention [5]. Today’s politics is less about actual policies and more about melodramatic Twitter meltdowns of presidential candidates to draw attention to various political parties.

The quality of that attention doesn’t matter. What matters is the attention. That attention is an asset, the most valuable asset in the new economy.”
Mark Manson

The attention economy profits when tech companies seize our focus, learn exactly how our brain works, and sell our data to the highest bidder interested in selling us their goods and services, and in some instances ideological ideals.

But, how exactly did we get to this point?

The Attention Merchants — The Harvester of Human Attention

If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.”

The business model of the attention economy, harvesting attention for marketing and advertising purposes, dates back to the 1830s.

Benjamin Henry Day, the earliest pioneers of this business model, radically transformed newspapers, which were considered luxury items back then, when he reduced the cost of The New York Sun from 6 cents to 1 cent.

At 1 cent a piece, newspapers were sold at less than the production cost, a bad business model if the real customers were the readers paying a cent for the newspaper.

However, the real customers for Benjamin Day, one of the earliest attention merchants, were the companies who placed ads in the newspaper to buy the attention of the readers.

In the attention merchant business model, the readers are actually the product sold to the real customers: the advertisers [2].

According to Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants, “Normal businesses sell a product or a service. Attention merchants sell access to people’s minds[6].

But, how did Benjamin Day accomplished the task of getting people’s attention?

Benjamin Day made the only criteria for a successful news story its ability to sell the most number of papers. Sensational, dramatic, and juicy news was also very popular back then. As Hendricks and Vestergaard put it eloquently, “when the sole criterion for success is to sell as many papers as possible, truth is of little or no consequence[2] (p. 9).

The attention industry hit its primetime during the first World War, when systemic propaganda techniques proved effective in accessing the public’s mind and persuading public opinion [6].

Before [the first World War], no one really cared what people were thinking. It was thought irrelevant to the business of selling products. But after the British government was able to persuade millions of people to volunteer for the army on the basis of an advertising campaign, big business took notice and said: If they can get people to join the Army, we can get them to buy a car.” Tim Wu

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Attention Economy Economy of Distraction and Persuasive Design

The attention economy is something real, and like every real economy, it has its shortcomings. Among its problems are these… The possibility that increasing demand for our limited attention will keep us from reflecting, or thinking deeply (let alone enjoying leisure) [and] the possibility that we will be so engrossed by efforts to capture our attention that we will shortchange those around us, especially children.”

Michael H. Goldhaber (1997)

Technology isn’t neutral. It is deliberately designed to capture our attention.

With technological advances of the last two centuries, advertisers have achieved unprecedented access to our attention and have managed to gather a plethora of useful personal data on each user.

Persuasive design is used by tech companies to capture the attention of billions of people and influence our way of thinking towards a certain direction. We are surrounded by technology “loaded with platforms to consume as much of our time as possible with ads and noise and distraction [6].

Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, and the internet capture our attention with an endless parade of distractions. Behind these distractions is an entire industry devoted to capturing our attention and selling it to the highest bidder, turning us into products to be bought and sold [5,6].  

The more time we spend on our devices, apps, and social media, the more personal information we give to Facebook, Google, or Amazon.

Our data is used in two important ways: data is used to persuade us, and data is used to manipulate us.

Our personal data has allowed tech companies not only to sell our attention, but to also predict with almost precise accuracy our needs, interests, and stances. It is much easier to persuade someone to do something or influence their behavior if you know them and know which buttons to push [2].  

The attention economy has achieved such success because attention addresses a fundamental human desire. According to Goldhaber [1],

Attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce. It can be a rich and complex economy because attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. There are also many ways to capture attention: via your thoughts, inventions, self-revelations, expressions, performances, artistic creations, achievements, pleas, and arresting appearances.

The most successful sites and apps hook their users by tapping into our most innate human needs and desires [4].

In his famous article, How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Harris describes ten ways tech companies and product designers hijack our mind by tapping into our psychological vulnerabilities.

One example is Facebook’s tag-a-friend feature. Humans are vulnerable to social approval, with the need to belong and to be approved appreciated by our peers, and tag-a-friend exploits that need for social approval.

As Harris explains it, “When I get tagged by my friend Marc, I imagine him making a conscious choice to tag me. But I don’t see how… Facebook orchestrated [Marc’s] doing that in the first place[3]. Facebook automatically suggests to Marc all the faces of people he should tag by showing a box with a 1-click confirmation, “Tag Tristan in this photo?”

Our social approval is in the hands of a few tech companies [3].

The power of data in persuading and manipulating us is even more evident when it comes to politics.

Politics have become more like commerce and commercial advertising, and political campaigns have turned to “data-borne precision marketing” to know the voters’ profiles, and use such data to “persuade, seduce, or manipulate them and influence which candidate they vote for[2,6].

Barack Obama’s campaign did it first in 2008 with targeted political micromarketing to mobilize young people and members of minorities to vote for the first time, and vote for Obama [2]. The 2016 US election is a glaring example of political campaigns using personal data to emotionally pray on our psychological vulnerabilities in the race for our attention.

Just like in marketing, politicians are increasingly in the business of vying to capture people’s attention by any means necessary in order to promote their brand.

According Tim Wu, “The battle for attention is the first battle in everything, and those who have mastered the techniques of getting attention by all means necessary have a massive advantage[6].

Back in 2014, long before the 2016 election, where a man would bulldoze his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity, Mark Manson made the argument that “politics is becoming less about actual policies and more about dramatic actions designed to draw either positive or negative attention to various actors and political parties[5].

Surely, Manson had no idea how accurately his predictions about politics would unravel only two short years later. Benjamin Day, the OG harvester of human attention, could have only dreamed of this level of access to The New York Sun‘s readers back in 1833.

What Can We Do About It? Pay Attention to Where You Pay Attention

It’s not all doom and gloom.

The attention economy, despite all the implications discussed above, brings with it a host of social benefits.

Social media has provided the platform to bring social justice issues to our awareness and reach a larger audience than otherwise possible [5]. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought the issues of institutional racism and police brutality in the U.S to a global light, and it all started with a simple hashtag on Twitter back in 2013.

Social media has provided families, friends, and acquaintances across continents a platform to stay connected. Many friendships, partnerships, and connections are made between people who would have never meet otherwise, all because of social media. There are just as many apps to increase the quality of our lives, as there are apps designed to waste our time.

Some attention is essential. 

In his online book Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold lays out two guidelines for thriving in the attention economy [1]:

Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention”

Consciously choosing what we value, thus what is worth paying attention to, is an essential step towards thriving in the attention economy. Your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to [6].

On a more macro level, Tim Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design. According to Harris, tech companies have the responsibility to practise ethical design principals that minimize exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities, and restore agency to users [4].

There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards. There is a way to design based not on addiction.” — Tristan Harris

Join the movement for humane technology.

The attention economy has infiltrated every aspect of our life, hacking our psychology, taking our agency to choose how we spend our time, impacting the way we have our conversations and our social connection, and changing the fabrics of democracy.

It affects everyone.

Until next time… 🙂

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[1] Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, December 01). Attention Shoppers! WIRED. https://www.wired.com/1997/12/es-attention/

[2] Hendricks V. F, & Vestergaard M. (2019). The Attention Economy. In Reality Lost (pp. 1-17). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-00813-0_1

[3] Harris, T. (2016, May 18). How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist. Medium. https://medium.com/thrive-global/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3

[4] Bosker, B. (2016, November). Addicted to Your iPhone? You’re Not Alone. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/the-binge-breaker/501122/

[5] Manson, M. (2014, December 04). In the future, our attention will be sold. Mark Manson. https://markmanson.net/attention

[6] Illing, S. (2018, February 11). There’s a war for your attention. And you’re probably losing it. Vox. https://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/11/17/13477142/facebook-twitter-social-media-attention-merchants

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