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.
In 2011, I quit Facebook. In 2013, I quit Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat. In 2017, I quit Twitter, and quit social media all together. In between, I paid close attention to, and learned about, the psychological implication of the digital world in our personal and social life. One of the most important lessons I learned was that technology isn’t neutral, it is addictive by design. Technology is deliberately designed to capture our attention.
With technological advances of the last two centuries, advertisers have achieved unprecedented access to our thoughts and feelings and have a plethora of useful personal data on each of us. Based on these personal data points, tech companies use persuasive design 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. Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, and the internet capture our attention with an endless parade of noise and distraction. The more time we spend on our devices, apps, and social media, the more personal information we give to Facebook, Google, and Amazon, to name a few.
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 allows 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.
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.
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.
The most successful sites and apps hook their users by tapping into our most innate human needs and desires. 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. We are evolutionarily wired to desire belonging to a group and be approved and appreciated by our peers. The 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.” 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, and their algorithm.
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. 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.
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 author of the Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, “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.”
Is it, then, any surprise that technology is deliberately designed to be addictive and capture our attention?
Back in 2014, long before the 2016 election where a man bulldozed his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity status, Mark Manson, in his article In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold, 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. Surely, Manson had no idea how accurately his prediction about politics would unravel only two short years later.
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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