The attention economy, and how and why Big Data is hijacking our mind

In 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber penned in Wired magazine, “the currency of the New Economy won’t be money, but attention,” proposing “a radical theory of value.” [1] The article was titled Attention Shoppers! Almost a decade after Goldhaber’s radical theory of the new attention economy, the first iPhone would enter the market and into the pockets of eager consumers, providing tech companies unprecedented access to human psychology, radically transforming the fabrics of society as we know it. Another decade later, Tristan Harris, a former Google product developer and the the co‑founder of Centre for Humane Technology, declares the iPhone a slot machine in our pocket. That’s not a good thing.

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 tech companies design their products in a way that manipulates our psychological vulnerabilities in a race to grab our attention; an expensive commodity in the attention economy.

The business model of the attention economy is pretty straightforward: harvest human 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 time we spend 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 any 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, it is what draws attention to various political parties.

In our current attention economy, “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.” The attention economy profits when tech companies seize our focus, learn exactly what ticks us, and sell our data to the highest bidder. Advertisers pay big bucks for our attention so they, then, can sell us their goods and services, and in some instances ideological beliefs.

But, how exactly did we get to this point?

The business model of the attention economy, harvesting attention for marketing and advertising purposes, dates back to the 1830s. In 1833, Benjamin Henry Day, the earliest pioneers of this business model, radically transformed newspapers by reducing their cost significantly. Back then, newsletters were considered luxury items and accessible only to those who had the financial means. Benjamin Day was looking for a way to make his newspaper, The New York Sun, affordable to the masses to increase his profit margin.

His solution? Sell advertising space on his newsletter and reduce the price of the newsletter to attract more readers. Benjamin Day reduced the price of The New York Sun from 6 cents to 1 cent, less than the production cost of newsletters. A bad business model if the real customers were the readers paying a cent for the newspaper. However, the real customers of Benjamin Day’s were the companies who placed ads in the newspaper to capture the attention of the readers.

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. The readers were actually the product sold to his actual customers, the advertisers. [2] According to Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, “Normal businesses sell a product or a service. Attention merchants sell access to people’s minds.” [6] As they say, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.

But there was something else just as critical as affordability for Benjamin Day to accomplish the task of getting people’s attention. Benjamin Day made the only criteria for a successful news story to be its ability to sell the most number of papers. Sensational, dramatic, and juicy news was very popular back then, as it is now. 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]

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.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

The attention economy is an economy of distraction through persuasive design. 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 mind, focus, and 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; in favor of tech companies and corporates. We are surrounded by technology that is “loaded with platforms to consume as much of our time as possible with ads and noise and distraction.” [6] Ads, apps, social media, our devices and the internet in general are all designed to 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 these devices, apps, and social media, the more personal information Facebook, Google, or Amazon gathers on us.

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 political and ideological stance. 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, attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically and unavoidably scarce. Attention can be a rich and complex economy because it comes in many forms: love, recognition, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, attending to one’s desires, advising, and assistance in developing new skills. There are also many ways to capture attention: via your thoughts, inventions, self-revelations, expressions, performances, artistic creations, achievements, pleas, and arresting appearances. [1]

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 and appreciated by our peers. Tag-a-friend feature 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 one-click confirmation button: “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 into “data-borne precision marketing” with sole focus on voters’ data to persuade, seduce, or manipulate them and influence which candidate they vote for. [2,6] Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 was the first to use targeted political micromarketing to mobilize young people and members of minorities to vote for the first time, and more specifically vote for Obama. [2]

The 2016 U.S. election is another example of political campaigns using voters’ data to emotionally prey on human psychological vulnerabilities to influence voting decisions. Just like in marketing, politicians are now in the business of vying to capture our attention by any means necessary, and promote their political brand more aggressively with better accuracy. 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 Trump bulldozed his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity status, Mark Manson made the argument that politics is less about actual policies and more about dramatic actions designed to draw either positive or negative attention to political parties. [5] Surely, Manson had no idea how accurately his prediction about politics would unravel only two short years later.

Benjamin Day, the OG harvester of human attention, could have only dreamed of getting this level of access to the psychological workings of the New York Sun‘s readers back in 1833.

The solution for the attention economy can get as complex as the problem itself, but it is not all doom and gloom. One solution is as simple as pay attention to where you pay attention. In his book, The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold lays out two guidelines for thriving in the attention economy: “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.” [1]

Some attention is essential. What is worth attention and what is not is up to the individual to decide. It is up to each and every one of us to consciously and actively choose what we value, thus what is worth paying attention to. This is the first and essential step towards thriving in the current attention economy. After all, life adds up to what you choose to pay attention to. [6]

We can also try and hold Big Data accountable. According to Harris, tech companies have a responsibility to practice ethical design principals that minimize exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities, and restore agency to users, and “there needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards. There is a way to design based not on addiction.” [4] Center for Humane Technology is a movement dedicated to radically reimagining our digital infrastructure. 

Yes, 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 connect with each other, our conversations and our social connection, and changing the very fabrics of our social democracy.

It affects you. It affects me. It affects everyone.

In the new economy, the most valuable asset we can accumulate is not money, nor wealth, or even knowledge; it is the ability to control our own attention.

Until next time,

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[1] Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, December 01). Attention Shoppers! WIRED.

[2] Hendricks V. F, & Vestergaard M. (2019). The Attention Economy. In Reality Lost (pp. 1-17). Springer, Cham.

[3] Harris, T. (2016, May 18). How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist. Medium.

[4] Bosker, B. (2016, November). Addicted to Your iPhone? You’re Not Alone. The Atlantic.

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

[6] Illing, S. (2018, February 11). There’s a war for your attention. And you’re probably losing it. Vox.

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