The Attention Economy

02 July 2022

The "attention economy" refers to the treatment of human attention as a scarce and valuable commodity, something to be bought and sold. Unlike most commodities, attention cannot be seen nor touched, and like most things of that nature, it's easy for us to take for granted.

When we engage in anything, whether online or in real life, we give our attention to it. Attention is focus; it requires human effort - even when it seems effortless. Effort of any kind is work, regardless of whether it's profitable or 'feels' like work.

Attention is not an infinite resource, as we all have come to know too well. It takes a certain degree of energy to be able to maintain attention. It comes and goes, like many other features of being human.

The current design of much of our technology (especially social platforms) is to mine our attention like a precious metal. 'Keeping users engaged' has become synonymous with 'making the most money'.

The concept of the attention economy really stood out to me after reading Jenny Odell's book How To Do Nothing. This is how she explains it:

"We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like 'annoying' or 'distracting.' But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation (1), making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to 'want what we want to want' (2). Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self."

The highlights above are mine, because these are two concepts I want to expand on a little, and why they're important.

(1) [distractions] undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation

    Our capacity for self-reflection is the extent to which we self-reflect on our own thoughts and behaviors and our thoughts and behaviors toward the world around us. One who avoids reflection tends to stay distracted, or rely heavily on escapism in its place.

    Without self-reflection we are out of touch with ourselves. When we are out of touch with ourselves, it becomes difficult to identify our thoughts, emotions and the logic behind our actions. Another way of putting it is that we are on autopilot.

    When we are on autopilot, we become extremely profitable to corporations at the expense of losing touch with our sense of human-ness. We think of social platforms as free to use, but they actually cost far more than we realize.

    Odell expands upon this as well,

    "In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on 'nothing.' It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive."

(2) [distractions make it harder] for us to 'want what we want'

    "To want what we want" is only possible when we are in touch with ourselves. When we aren't, it's more common to want what other people have, without reflecting on whether or not we truly want it ourselves.

    Corporations pour billions into marketing teams which closely study the psychology of the "consumer" and use that information to manipulate people into wanting certain things, or a particular lifestyle.

    This is just one example of how the attention economy obscures and distracts.

In How To Do Nothing, Odell says, "Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community."

This 'vigilance' is essentially the 'nothingness' which the title alludes to. "The ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm."

The first half of 'doing nothing', she says, is about disengaging from the attention economy. The second half is about re-engaging with something else. "That 'something else' is nothing less than time and space, a possibility only once we meet each other there on the level of attention."

Odell pays special attention to biology - specifically biogregionalism, which she describes as having to do with "an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans." Some examples given in the book include her experiences with learning about the concrete world around her - which in her case was learning the names and calls of all of the local birds, and learning about the trees and wildlife.

She also realistically acknowledges that "there is a significant portion of people for whom the project of day-to-day survival leaves no attention for anything else" but she urges us, if we can pay a different kind of attention, we should.

"Doing nothing" is also about transforming our understanding of the word "productive". In a society focused on profit above all else, the only kind of production that matters is the kind that results in more money or fame. This is opposed to reality - the laws of nature and of being human, where the concept of "work" and "production" is so much wider.

To illustrate her points, Odell tells a poignant story of a famous tree where she currently lives in Oakland, CA. It is the last living old-growth redwood, a type of redwood tree that used to grow much larger than the ones which exist today.

For a moment, she reflects on the centuries of history that tree has stood and watched over the city. Then, she reflects on exactly how it's still standing today:

It's not as tall as the old-growths were on average, and its branches are gnarled and twisted. It was also located on the side of a hill, in a place that would be difficult to chop it down. The features of that particular tree were considered useless by loggers. As a consequence of its 'uselessness', it managed to be the last-surviving old-growth redwood.

This true story is similar to an old Taoist tale "The Useless Tree".

Odell suggests that this tree teaches two lessons: the first, resistance. Through the usefulness of being useless to its enemies (the loggers who wanted to chop it down). When we think of the word 'useless', it often translates to 'good-for-nothing'. Sure, the tree wasn't able to be chopped down and turned into lumber, but on the other hand, this ensured its survival.

The second lesson is: "To look at the tree is to look at something that began growing in the midst of a very different, even unrecognizable world: one where human inhabitants preserved the local balance of life rather than destroying it, where the shape of the coastline was not yet changed, where there were grizzly bears, California condors, and Coho salmon (all of which disappeared from the East Bay in the nineteenth century)."

Her analysis of our situation encompasses destruction towards the environment and destruction towards ourselves - both perpetuated by capitalism and imperialism. Humans and nature suffer at its hands.

For me personally, I found Odell's analysis very true to my current understanding of the world.

As someone with ADD, it's excrutiatingly clear to me what a limited resource attention is, and how fragile it can be. But, part of the human experience is having attention to begin with - so what I took away from this book is a call to take back control of this previous resource that is stolen from us every day.

It's like the age old scheme where someone bumps into you, you lose focus because your attention is on that, and you don't realize someone else came in and stole your wallet - except it's not your wallet, it's your attention.