The Price of Your Attention

One of the major industries today is the economy of attention. How did a man manage, in a relatively short time, to pass such a long way, from in-kind, commodity and monetary exchange, to virtual transactions with something so abstract and volatile as human attention?

Some authors have even forecast that attention transactions would replace financial transactions as the focus of the economic system.

When you look at it, everybody's fighting for our attention, exactly because it is so volatile and of a short span.

A rapid focus shift to immediate danger used to help us survive in nature.

Those who remained focused on a juicy apple or fresh and clear water in a brook, failing to notice a sabre-toothed tiger lurking around, could not be considered out ancestors.

A rapid focus shift and setting of priorities have become vital for survival and that is something embedded in our DNA. The primal instincts and the survival of the fittest.

That bug in the system has been thoroughly studied to date, psychologically defined and widely manipulated with in order to seize human attention. That is why our attention has turned into a commodity.

The economy of attention has just as like become the economy of pastime, flourishing in capitalism, where free time is filled with trivial content and people are transformed into cheap content users and mindless consumers,

What is the economy of attention?

Herbert A. Simon was probably the first person to address the attention economy concept:

’’In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41)’’

Tristan Harris says that the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.

Simply put, technology has outmatched our brains, diminishing our capacity to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

The advertising business model built on exploiting this mismatch has created the attention economy. In return, we get the “free” downgrading of humanity.

This leaves us profoundly unsafe. With two billion humans trapped in these environments, the attention economy has turned us into a civilization maladapted for its own survival.

When we consume a content on the net, we are not just consumers, we are the merchandise at the same time. In other words, our attention becomes the object of further trade.

We leave digital traces behind, about our behaviour, interests, desires, purchase habits. Large tech corporations have these data at their disposal, and they sell them further to advertisers, marketeers, salesmen.

The only issue here is that in the attention economy, the primary supplier (content consumer in this instance), is left empty-handed. Not only does he end with short of nothing, he gets additionally hypnotized with similar content that take up what remains of his attention, intellectual capacities, the time he could use much better.

Pure opportunity costs and a loss of profit that we get no compensation whatsoever for. We are convinced we get something for free, whereas we are actually donors without consent (for truth's sake, now we have these strange GPRD windows popping up now as a notice).

No such thing as a free dinner

Yuval Noah Harari says that ''the idea of free information is extremely dangerous when it comes to the news industry.

If there’s so much free information out there, how do you get people’s attention? This becomes the real commodity.

At present there is an incentive in order to get your attention – and then sell it to advertisers and politicians and so forth – to create more and more sensational stories, irrespective of truth or relevance.

There is no penalty for creating a sensational story that is not true. We’re willing to pay for high quality food and clothes and cars, so why not high quality information?"

Photo by Connor Danylenko from Pexels

Yuval couldn't be more right, but how to separate the wheat from the chaff? And what is quality information nowadays, who can tell that?

There is no better example than the current corona pandemic and infodemic. How to get relevant and quality information in this pool of fake news, sensationalism, contradicting views, even in scientific circles.

We live in the post-truth era robbed of credible sources of information, institutions or authorities. The humankind is in its adolescence stage, information-wise, when idols and authorities are being toppled down.

And that's ok, but what should we believe in then? What can we focus our attention to, being absolutely sure we are not making a mistake?

It results in the army of frustrated people, rambling disoriented through information wonderlands, trying to find a safe harbor. After all, we all need to believe in something.

We fall an easy prey as such to the ones who are skilled in marking our soft spots and snaring us into self-built echo chambers which we have already mentioned in the post about social networks. Attention engineers are trying to make their products as addictive as possible.

Natasha Dow Schüll, the author of the book Addiction by Design,in text published in the Guardian, says that "it’s not just Facebook commoditizing the web; it’s most every site you visit, whether it be Instagram, Amazon, or Google.

Also, the public isn’t just the product, we’re customers, too. We’re all participating in a cleverly orchestrated, capitalistic symphony, shrink-wrapped in the feel-good rhetoric of something called The Attention Economy.

Facebook, Twitter and other companies use methods similar to the gambling industry to keep users on their sites. In the online economy, revenue is a function of continuous consumer attention — which is measured in clicks and time spent.

Companies must be careful of burnout and the overwhelm factor. There can be too much of anything. Even a good thing."

How to get one's eyeballs in the information age

In the aforementioned "information overload" circumstances, it is increasingly difficult to get one's attention. Yet, there is a vital element for grabbing the attention. Trust.

Modern consumers are extremely picky and highly literate in digital terms. Therefore, conventional marketing - billboards, TV commercials, unsolicited emails, SMS or Viber messages, special offers and discounts are pretty inefficient, even when they are accurately targeted and retargeted.  

Exactly because of a lack of this vital element - trust. Cheap and short-term solutions don't hold water as the trust climbs the stairs and descends by the elevator, as someone has nicely put it.

That is why permission-based marketing is gaining a growing popularity, where trust is acquired gradually, just like in real life. Customers expect a useful content with and added value, free of charge if possible, at least in the beginning.

You have to arouse their interest and prove as an authentic authority in the field in order to get their eyeballs. Only then you can offer your commodity or services.

It is a highly demanding job for those who wish to be immersed in digital marketing, and it requires a lot of efforts and coming up with personalized solutions that will bring loyal customers with lifetime value.

It is particularly important for startups and joint ventures, entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized companies. All those who are not supported by safety nets of major brands or franchises or multinational companies.

Attention (il)literacy

For the very end, I will quote the outstanding author, Lazar Džamić, who speaks of six new literacies which are necessary in the present-day world, and this is what he has to say about the economy of attention:

"The attention is the capital. Beggars used to ask us if we have something we can 'spare' and now they ask us to 'share'. Professional emotional blood-suckers have discovered hundreds of methods to ignite our impulse, and thereby attention, to their benefit, leaving us to stumble through the mist and stupor of our daily lives, incapable of self-reflection, empathy and quality decisions.

Technology has no drive of its own. It desires nothing of its own will. It is just the market that expresses itself through technology - the operating system behind all our different computer interfaces and platforms that often the developers themselves are unable to decipher. Such operating system is called capitalism and it dictates the anti-human ultimate goal in our society, at least to the same extent as the one dictated by any technology.

The illiteracy of attention is one of the greatest barriers to our education and general conduct in the future, where individual learning and upgrade will be in high demand. Trivialization of our lives (and our attention), as observed by prof. Neil Postman, quoting Huxley, is our primary problem. The illiteracy of attention is actually 'the obesity of attention', overfeeding with distractions to the brink of addiction, which prevents us from focusing on other, more important things."