A (very) short introduction to the attention economy

A while back, I wrote a very lengthy article on the attention economy, and how and why big data is hijacking our mind. To be honest… I don’t even read long articles on the web anymore. I simply don’t have the attention span for it. (Oops…) So, in all fairness, I’ve decided to repost the article in three parts. This is part two. See the original article for references. You can read the Portuguese version here.

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.

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

Until next time,

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