The Attention Economy, Part I: Commodity, or Human Right?

Earlier this month, a New York Times opinion piece caught my eye with what I found to be a useful, different take on the conflict and upheaval we’ve all recently experienced. The underlying idea of “the attention economy,” as technology writer Charlie Warzel explains it, wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but to see it articulated so simply and clearly gave me pause: “Every single action we take… is a transaction. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.”

The point of his commentary was to highlight how the current age of disinformation was sagely predicted more than 20 years ago in an essay by Michael Goldhaber, a now-retired theoretical physicist. In describing “the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource,” Goldhaber in 1997 presciently laid out the zero-sum demands that people today experience in a culture subsumed by social media echo chambers, where “alternative facts” are propagated largely on their presumed popularity with a particular audience, and where grievance and resentment can be easily stirred into emotionally-charged responses that feel truthful, regardless of the underlying evidence.

As communication technologies have gotten more precise at delivering content that matches our predisposed opinions and tastes, the information we receive has gotten more siloed; this isn’t a new idea, I know. But within these preferential siloes, the bombardment of content across media platforms leaves us with a diminished capacity to even process new and unfamiliar information. It’s like being wired into a feeding system that perpetually supplies your favorite food, leaving you less capable of considering (or trusting) other possibilities, even if they’re potentially healthier and more appealing to the palate.


Attention Economy = Attention Capitalism

Goldhaber goes on to note how with today’s consolidated communication platforms, existing social inequalities are perpetuated by those who hold a position of influence over people’s attentions. People who already have that privileged position will work relentlessly to protect their gains, leaving those with fewer resources to compete with each other for crumbs. “When you have attention, you have power,” he observes, “and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

While Goldhaber and Warzel question whether this system can agreeably coexist with a functional democracy, I think it’s fair to point out that the attention economy fits modern capitalism about as well as Cinderella fits a glass slipper. In the context of a social safety net that’s been steadily eroded over the past half-century, people seem more than ever to need the attention afforded by “going viral” to make the leap from obscurity and financial hardship to what can seem like some measure of fame, no matter how fleeting it ends up being. On the one hand, the plethora of social media channels available seems democratizing: anyone with a good idea can make it! But that’s  the same rhetoric Americans have been fed for generations, despite ample evidence of how those who are already materially privileged continue to reap exponentially more benefits than those who start life at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

Even in my own social work profession, our lofty rhetoric around equality and social justice is undercut by the reality of limited funding – and where being the cause du jour certainly helps to elevate one’s grant proposal or sponsorship request above a crowded field of worthy causes. In other words, the more that our attentions get monetized, to more likely they are to be monopolized and doled out to the masses like crumbs – just like every other natural resource that, despite belonging inherently to each of us, gets commodified as an end unto itself, rather than a means to broadly benefit everyone. Goldhaber and Warzel agree that the attention economy appears to be inescapable, but to me that raises a very “social work” kind of question: is basic human attention – i.e., the act of reciprocal acknowledgment and engagement with fellow members of our species – as inherent a human right as (some of us would argue) food, shelter, healthcare, safety, and education?


A Basic Human Need

Moving from macro to micro (i.e., interpersonal) levels, I’m going to bring in a fairly simple, widely-known psychological model: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As far as motivational theory goes, this is an “oldy but goody,” which still gets taught to students, especially in the helping professions, at a foundational level. Maslow observed that before “higher order” needs could be met, lower levels must first be fulfilled. From lowest to highest, the five levels are: physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization.

Taking into consideration not only the social habits of our species, but also our inherent fragilities and limitations, it’s difficult to imagine an individual being able to fulfill of any of these needs without some nominal amount of attention provided by others. Even with varying degrees of extroversion and introversion, we are simply too socially and materially interdependent to ever fully embody that pernicious idea of “rugged individualism,” which still permeates so much of the American narrative around success versus failure.

I’d even argue that the examination of attention as a standalone concept is a bit reductive, considering that it’s pretty much an essential building block for that larger, more complicated construct we call “relationships.” It perhaps goes without saying that in order to establish and maintain healthy, productive social relationships, we need to start by paying attention to each other. Simplistic as it may sound, this is a crucial step toward establishing more substantial bonds like empathy, attachment, mutual concern, and reciprocity. “Attention is a bit like the air we breathe,” Warzel comments. “It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce.”

Equally concerning, he raises the question of what can be done to reckon with an attention supply that, like the air we breathe, has become polluted. Now to be fair, we can find examples of toxic attentional transactions pretty much anywhere, not just on social media. Ask anyone who’s endured unwanted attention from a bully, or who’s been forced to compete for attention in their home, neighborhood, school, or workplace. Because our innate need for attention can render us vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in person just as it can online, I think it’s pretty safe to say that modern social media isn’t the root cause of the societal distress that Warzel and Goldhaber are discussing. But, social media can sure do a great job of amplifying and intensifying it.


If That’s All There Is, My Friends…

Now, it’s important to note how, even in this age of relentlessly monetized social media content, there are still valuable online spaces that help people form community and reduce isolation and stigma across significant geographic and social  distances. But, in my opinion, if we accept that the prevailing focus on attention as a form of quasi-raw capital is “just how it is,” we’re losing sight of any number of potential alternatives (like one of my favorites, The Capabilities Approach).

For now, I have neither the time nor the technical expertise to explore how this would look in practical terms, but imagine a society which supports those who want to cultivate their creativity and insight without needing to “make it or break it” in order to survive. Taken together with robust safety net policies such as universal basic income, publicly-funded healthcare, high-quality education for all, and guaranteed housing, our society could begin to re-imagine the ways we engage with each other that reduce our dependence on attention as, to build on Warzel’s metaphor, a scarce and highly-speculative natural resource.

Of course, like any large-scale systemic change effort, this would take careful research and planning, education, stakeholder buy-in, and probably some commitment of resources to carry out the resulting plan. As we see today with discussions around establishing a wealth tax and building a social safety net comparable to those of our Western industrial peers, such efforts would likely be met with stiff resistance by those with the most to give up. But, in the words of one of my political heroes, it would definitely be a “righteous fight.”

I know this can seem like lofty rhetoric and wishful thinking, but considering how inequality in the U.S. has continued to metastasize, and that the demographics of inequality always seem to favor the same “haves” over the “have nots,” I have a hard time accepting that the course we are currently on will somehow, magically, correct itself. I do, however, believe that by articulating a desirable end goal, we can start to have conversations that begin to realistically map out a course for moving away from a less than ideal present day toward a future where the work we do, and the relationships we form, can be less strained by what feels like an endless stream of conflicting, cacophonous information.

Coming Soon! The Attention Economy, Part II: The Curious Case of Randy Shilts

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