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In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold

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In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold

Last week, I logged onto Facebook to see a story about a man who got drunk, cut off his friend’s penis and then fed it to a dog. This was followed by a story of a 100-year-old woman who had never seen the ocean before. Then eight ways I can totally know I’m a 90’s kid. Then 11 steps to make me a “smarter Black Friday shopper,” an oxymoron if I ever saw one.

This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.

Last month, Kim Kardashian “broke the internet.” And by “broke the internet,” I mean she photoshopped a picture of her bare ass and put it on a magazine cover.

But, of course, because it’s a naked ass, and because that ass happens to belong to Kim Kardashian, the photo was republished umpteen bazillion times, as adults rolled their eyes and guffawed at the insanity of it all, while the teenagers giggled and masturbated.1

The media brought out the obligatory screeds about how lewd or classless the pictures were. People then complained that the media gives this woman — a woman who has accomplished nothing in her life other than being born rich and fucking rappers — way too much airtime. Then people pointed out that criticizing the media for publicizing Kardashian ironically just gives Kardashian even more attention and cultural presence. Being the internet, these people were then berated for being neckbeard virgins and their mothers were threatened with sexual violence. The neckbeards then respond by creating ironic memes that involved Kardashian’s bare ass with an espresso machine. Everyone LOLZ’d and moves on with their lives.

And this is why she’s still famous.

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Kardashian has come to represent pretty much everything we loathe about the social media age: bite-sized, meaningless content that you hate looking at, but for some reason you can’t look away. And because nobody has the self-control to look away, the bite-sized meaningless content spreads like wildfire, creating an online experience of a never-ending series of cultural car wrecks where we all gawk, rubberneck, discuss and/or make fun of something for 12 minutes until distracted by the next oncoming collision.

There are three common complaints against social media and the internet in general: 1) that it’s making us all narcissistic and shallow,2 2) that it’s crapping on our ability to maintain meaningful relationships and therefore making us lonelier,3 and 3) that it’s interfering with our ability to focus and get quote, unquote “more important shit” done in our lives.4

Interestingly, after quite a bit of research, it turns out that none of these claims are completely accurate. Social media doesn’t necessarily cause people to become more narcissistic, it just gives narcissistic people more opportunities to indulge their narcissism, and to a larger audience.5 It’s not interfering with either the closeness we feel to others or how many people we feel close to, it simply expands our network of casual acquaintances and the quantity of our casual social interactions.6 And while technology does present more opportunities for distraction (which we’ll get to), it also presents easier transmission of information, tools for collaboration and opportunities for organization.7

What I’m saying is that the whole “the internet is ruining us” argument is a big whiff. It’s likely just the anxiety that’s always wrought by new technologies. When TV and radio were invented, people complained that everyone’s brain was going to go to mush. When the printing press was invented, people thought it was going to destroy our ability to speak eloquently. Complaints about the minds of children being ruined by technology are as old as technology itself.8

Modern technology isn’t changing us. It’s changing society. There’s a difference. One is how we are, and one is simply how we react every day to the world around us. The social media age is changing the basic economics of our day-to-day lives. It’s changing them in profound ways, ways that most of us likely don’t notice. And surprisingly, it’s people like Kim Kardashian who are taking advantage of it.

The Attention Economy

If you’ve ever spent time in a really poor country or with people who grew up in awful poverty, you’ll notice how much they talk about food — their favorite foods, what they’re going to eat this weekend, how they like this and don’t like that, and so on.

Much of these people’s lives and conversations revolves around food for the simple reason that the scarcity of food makes it appear incredibly important. The fact you prefer strawberries to oranges matters a lot when you can rarely afford to have either. But in first-world cultures where food is never an issue, discussions of food among most people are superficial and usually over within a few seconds.

For most of human history, the big economic scarcity in the world was land. There was a limited amount of productive land, therefore there was a limited amount of food. And because there was a limited amount of food, most day-to-day economic concerns and political squabbles involved land. Most people spent their lives contemplating what land they were going to work, what they were going to grow, what kind of harvest to expect, and so on. Food was always on the top of people’s mind.9

Eventually, when the industrial revolution hit, the primary scarcity was no longer land, as machines could now help cultivate more than enough food for everybody. Now the big scarcity was labor. You needed trained people to run all of these machines that did all of the cool new shit so you could make money and get rich. Thus, for a couple hundred years, the organizing principle in society was based on labor — who you worked for, how much you made, and so on.

Then, in the 20th century, there was more being produced than any one person would ever need or could ever purchase. The new scarcity in society was no longer labor or land, the scarcity was now knowledge. People had so many choices of what to purchase with their hard-earned money, but they didn’t know what to purchase. Thus, people spent most of their day-to-day existence trying to figure out what the best toothpaste was, what a toaster oven could do, how to spend their bonus money over the holidays and so on. The fields of advertising and marketing were invented and came to dominate society, as they were the means of disseminating the information people needed to allocate their resources appropriately.

Still with me? Because this is where the internet and smartphones have fucked everything up — or, ahem, where they’ve “disrupted” everything.

With the advent of the internet, the primary scarcity in society is no longer information. In fact, there is now more information than any of us could possibly know what to do with. If you want to know about a new product, you can have the Wikipedia article and 500 Amazon reviews up within 10 seconds. If you want a refresher on the process of photosynthesis, you can have it figured out within a few minutes. If you need to know every actor Kevin Spacey has ever worked with, you can figure it out in mere seconds.

The scarcity in our world is no longer knowledge. There’s an abundance of knowledge, just as there’s an abundance of labor and an abundance of land.

No, the new scarcity in the internet age is attention. Since there is a surplus of information, more information flowing through our society than any of us could ever hope to process or understand, the new bottleneck on our economy is attention. We now live in an attention-based economy.10

This is why today we are each bombarded with over 3,000 advertising messages per day. This is why these advertisements get zanier and more nonsensical — like the Geico gecko or the Old Spice guy — because the goal of advertisements is no longer information but simply attention.

This is why social media is plastered with ridiculous article headlines such as, “I Thought I Was Going To Die, But Then You’ll Never Believed How This Polar Bear Saved My Life,” and when you click it, it takes you to a series of stupid animated GIFs or a YouTube video that has nothing to do with polar bears but is instead slathered in advertisements.

This is why 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.11

This is why everything is becoming a version of softcore porn: music videos, commercials, movies and reality TV shows. And when it’s not softcore porn, it’s some other kind of porn: food porn, murder porn, disaster porn, or actual, like real life porn. Porn gets attention. And today, attention is what sells.

This is why Kim Kardashian is famous and has continued to be famous for the better part of a decade for no other reason than — you guessed it — she’s already famous! This woman has contributed absolutely nothing to humanity. Yet in the age of attention, she is goddamned Master Yoda. She’s got it all figured out.

Kim Kardashian is a genius. Not an Einstein-like genius. Not a “solves differential equations in her head but can’t tie her shoes” genius. But she’s a genius. A savant. She’s like the Rainman of attention whoredom. The same way an autistic prodigy can count 2,318 toothpicks dumped on the floor just by looking at them, Kim Kardashian can command the attention of tens of millions of people with the crack of her ass.

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. Millions of eyeballs follow her wherever she goes and she leverages the shit out of it. She earns millions off a crappy iPhone app that does nothing and a TV show that shows nothing. Just the fact she stands in a nightclub allows that club to charge $2,500 for entry. She gets paid more for public appearances than Nobel Prize winners. Forbes estimates her income last year at $28 million.

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But making stupid people rich and famous isn’t anything new in our culture. While the attention economy may exacerbate the problem, it didn’t create it. But when we apply the attention economy to the other areas of our lives, we run into some problems.

How the Attention Economy Promotes Extremism

Social networks are the business model of the attention economy. They are wholly dependent on eyeballs and clicks to make all of their revenue. To do this, they design algorithms that show you the most interesting and attention-grabbing information available in your social network. If your newsfeed was full of the boring and drab day-to-day stuff, you’d stop looking at it. So instead, Facebook shows you the most extreme occurrences in your social network for the simple reason that the extreme events draw the most attention.

This has drastic effects not only on our perceptions of society as a whole, but also on how we perceive our personal lives.

  1. If it seems like “everybody” is getting married or having kids or having amazing trips around the world or doing something cool and fun and sexy, it’s only because we are exposed to these events in disproportionate numbers. It’s not that everyone is having amazing life experiences all the time, it’s that we’re always shown people’s amazing life experiences all the time. As a result, many of us begin to feel a constant gnaw of somehow “missing out” when really, we just have a heavily-biased perception of what’s going on in our peers’ lives.
  2. The attention economy rewards people who are narcissistic and self-promotional because these people excel at getting attention. Therefore, it seems that everyone is becoming more shallow and self-absorbed, when in fact, we are merely becoming more exposed to other people’s self-promotion.
  3. Politically, the most extreme, radical and ignorant views get the most airtime because they’re the most unique and they grab the most attention. Therefore, it appears as if the world is spiraling into a festering shithole, when really, we’re just getting exposed to the people on the fringes more often than ever before.
  4. Threats such as Ebola or terrorism become sensationalized, not because they’re actually that threatening, but because of their extremity and how much attention they garner. You’re more likely to get eaten by a shark while getting struck by lightning than dying from a terrorist attack. You’re more likely to die from the flu this year than you are from Ebola, ever. Yet, in our culture, it feels as though the world is in a constant state of imminent collapse.
  5. Pointless but dramatic events such as nipple slips, gaffs, errant interviews, and celebrities doing stupid celebrity stuff seem as though they are taking on a much greater cultural significance than they actually are. If Kim Kardashian got hit by a truck tomorrow and died, I’m sure you’d see the usual media-driven mourn fest and televised funeral, but would anyone really miss her? Would anybody’s life be altered? Probably not. In fact, we’d probably get another really good Kanye album.

When you look at all of the complaints about social media, smartphones, and the internet at large, most of the complaints boil down to one thing: attention. People don’t have any attention span anymore. People don’t focus on what’s in front of them anymore. People don’t even fucking talk to you at dinner anymore.

Typical "date night" these days.
Typical “date night” these days.

The problem is that the attention economy makes it economical to spread one’s attention across eight different interests and 23 different friends each day. And because we’re all spreading our attention so thin, many of us are losing the all-important life skill of focus.

Focus is what generates long-term success. Focus leads to deeper and more meaningful relationships. Focus determines how well we can improve at something. Yet our current economy is constantly providing incentive away from focus and towards — whoa, did you see that video of the guy on the motorcycle who landed on the car? That was crazy!

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah… focus. The new age presents problems of attention, not of happiness or narcissism or loneliness. And as the technology’s critics point out, this issue is not going to go away, it’s simply going to get worse.

The Silent Benefits of The Attention Economy

But the attention economy brings with it a host of social benefits, many of which are not immediately obvious to us. In fact, some of the benefits are actually painful to bear in some ways.

Take, for example, the recent exposure that Bill Cosby is (very likely) a rapist. This is a man that was a role model for decades and took that role seriously, traveling around the country lecturing people on values and responsibilities. Women had been accusing him of rape for years, yet it was the attention economy that finally allowed the allegations to make their way into the public consciousness in a significant way.

Pre-internet, things such as sexual assault or gay rights or intransigent racism or the failed drug war, they were all abstract concepts that we never had to confront in any tangible way. They were fairy tales of some far away land. They had nothing to do with us.

But new technologies bring these issues right in front of our face, over and over again, whether we like them or not. Sexual assault does happen and most of the perpetrators do go unpunished. LGBT people are humans too, and they deserve to be treated like humans. The drug war is a dismal failure and ruining millions of people’s lives. And because these experiences are now easily transmittable and experienced by large swaths of the population, we see these social policies changing faster than ever before.

The past five years has seen a wave of protests and political mobilization, mostly throughout the developing world. From Egypt to Turkey to Brazil to Mexico, millions of people are able to react immediately upon major political issues and demand changes from long-corrupt governments. Sure, most of them don’t work. But some of them do. And at the least, they alter the political discourse. Just look at what’s been going on lately with racism in the US and Ferguson and Eric Garner. Regardless of what you think, the issue of racism and police brutality is forced on you. You can’t turn away. There are videos. There are dead kids. It’s impossible to not see it, and therefore an issue that has lasted for as long as the country has existed is being confronted more seriously than it has been in decades.

But beyond politics, technology does benefit our relationships, even if we don’t always recognize it. We are the first generation that is still within easy contact of old friends from grade school, summer camp and college. We are capable of being in constant contact with one another, for better or worse. It’s never been easier to transmit important life events and emergency situations worldwide. Travel and long distance relationships — romantic or otherwise — are easier than ever before. One can spend months or even years abroad and never feel “out of touch” with what’s going on at home.

Obviously, technology shouldn’t replace face time and in-person interactions. But it can definitely supplement them.

And, of course, there is simply the breadth of information available at our fingertips. For all of the headaches the attention economy can cause, it’s the cost of having limitless information accessible at any time. You used to have to go to the library to do research. You used to have to call stores to find out if they had something in stock. You used to have to buy a map and spend five minutes studying it to figure out where you wanted to go.

We forget so easily what the whole point of all of this was in the first place: the availability of limitless and free knowledge. These benefits are so widespread and ubiquitous that we can’t even remember what it was like to not have them. And as a result, we overestimate how much these technologies are hurting us and underestimate how much they’re helping us.

Yes, the attention economy has come with new social challenges like identity theft and cyber bullying and assholes who text while they drive. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here.

The problem is not the technology itself, it’s how we choose to use the technology. Is it serving us or are we serving it?

These are the new challenges new generations must face. Our grandparents had to learn to master their time and their energy in order to take advantage of the labor economy. Our parents had to master their minds and their problem solving in order to take advantage of the knowledge economy. We must learn to master our focus and our self-awareness to properly take advantage of the attention economy.

Limitless access to knowledge brings limitless opportunity. But only to those who learn to manage the new currency: their attention. In the new economy, the most valuable asset you can accumulate may not be money, may not be wealth, may not even be knowledge, but rather, the ability to control your own attention, and to focus.

Because until you are able to limit your attention, until you are able to turn away, at will, from all of the shiny things and nipple slips, until you are able to consciously choose what has value to you and what does not, you and I and everyone else will continue to be served up garbage indefinitely. And it will not get better, it will get worse.

In the future, your attention will be sold. And it may be that the only people able to capitalize, are the people that can control their own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some stupid cat videos to watch.

Footnotes

  1. As a general rule, teenagers are always giggling and masturbating.
  2. Buffardi, L. E., & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Narcissism and Social Networking Web Sites. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1303–1314.
  3. Marche, S. (2012, May). Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? The Atlantic.
  4. Vitak, J., Crouse, J., & LaRose, R. (2011). Personal Internet use at work: Understanding cyberslacking. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1751–1759. Quotes are totally made up by me and not theirs.
  5. Ryan, T., & Xenos, S. (2011). Who uses Facebook? An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness, and Facebook usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1658–1664.
  6. Vitak, J., Ellison, N. B., & Steinfield, C. (2011). The Ties That Bond: Re-Examining the Relationship between Facebook Use and Bonding Social Capital. In 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) (pp. 1–10).
  7. Leif Jarle Gressgård. (2011). Virtual team collaboration and innovation in organizations. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 17(1/2), 102–119.
  8. Superstar Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has a great op-ed in the New York Times about this: Mind Over Mass Media. He also discusses this in his new book
  9. Many of the ideas in this section are from The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization by Ron Davison.
  10. I was so proud of myself years ago when I thought I came up with this idea — of attention as the new organizing principle in the coming century. But of course, somebody smarter than me was there like 10 years before I was. Michael Goldhaber wrote a famous article in Wired in 1998 called “Attention Shoppers!” where he first described the attention economy. It’s been a “thing” ever since.
  11. Example just from a couple days ago: seventeen Republican-led states are now suing Obama over his immigration executive orders. This is a clear headline-grab with a case that likely has no substance or chance of changing anything.
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