The dark side of the attention-based economy

Once upon a time, human needed food and shelter most. Then they lacked security from diseases and wars. They wanted to have love, to join a family, group, to belong to a community. From this community, they also wanted to gain prestige and self-esteem. The lucky ones who got even these things might wish for self-actualization too.

Yes, you remember well. These things are coming from the Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. It is not easy to achieve all these aims, fulfill all these needs. However, at least some problem seemed to be solved recently: lack of information, lack of community, lack of groups and people to connect with, thanks for the internet and the modern social media providing the technology connecting people on the other side of the globe.

Is this all well now?

Definitely not. It turned out that too much information through the net can also have material side effect: lack of or limited attention time span. In case of too much information and too much connection opportunity you have to decide that for what you will use your limited time. Moreover, your time has become a prize, a currency in itself. Whoever can grab and hold your time and attention can use this time to try to sell you something. Or he can sell your time to other sellers: what do you think Facebook, Google, and all celebrities are living on and profiting from? Yes, from your time and attention.

The business model is very tempting. The information flows freely and abundantly. You are receiving one fabulous story after another. You have access to news and articles of all kind, both Google and Facebook offer you free services: search engines to reach the global knowledge base of humanity and a useful platform to keep in touch with your friends and people interested in same things than you. The same goes to Twitter, Snapchat; you name them.

However it all comes at a price: they try to monopolize your attention with smart solutions, deviously designed “useful” applications and with algorithms knowing your tastes and habits better than you do. Computer game addictions are just the tip of the iceberg: obviously they are mostly useless, obviously they are developed to make you spend money in them or become a platform for ads and obviously they distract you from the reality, where you can have a meaningful life and where you can achieve you real (not virtual) aims and desires. In most cases, the “information” provided by them turns out tabloid-level “news,” celebrity stories or outright marketing and product placements. Even more useful applications and facts can distract and disturb you so much that your useful intelligence can drop by 10 IQ points. These providers and applications have become so efficient that even their designers may decide to break any link with them.

Certain analysis of this situation goes so far that modern media effectively limit your free will (as it limits your effective IQ). There are well-supported arguments that Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will. It is not just that modern media may have influence can distract you from real activities. There are arguments that they can hijack your brain: modern media specialists and marketers know too much about our brain and behavior. Using this knowledge they can tailor and title articles and messages to grab your attention and influence your behavior. They don’t even have to be perfect: analysis the results of an actual campaign and using A/B testing methods, they can correct their mistakes during flight. They can even cancel whole campaigns in the middle and try it from a different angle. Without their knowledge, budgets of few million dollars, tools and methodologies it is difficult to resist such campaigns.

Quite a dark picture, isn’t it? Where is the meaning of our life if we have become puppets of the puppet masters/gurus of the online social media?

Fortunately, this situations is not so severe. So far we have presented only one side of the coin, the pessimistic one. On the other hand:

  • The whole situation is partially coming from a positive development: scarcity of the information has practically vanished. It is not bad. With having an internet connection, you can have access to most of the information you need to gain a new skill, solve a problem or reach a practical aim. We can contact our loved one remotely in seconds now. In the Middle Ages sending a letter could have taken weeks or months, affordable to nobles only. Every bean has its black: we have to suffer some consequences of our luck of living in an information age.
  • Even the attention-based economy has its bright side: we have a scarce resource of the economy, our own time and attention. And there is a competition for this resource. We just have to use this resource wisely. Don’t sell it cheaply: don’t click on links, ads, picture and videos unless they serves your actual needs. Don’t click on any title without info on the content. Learn the most common clickbait titles and the related trash media organisations to ignore them! Don’t believe in bombastic, promising advertisements – make them work more hardly for your attention! The situation is familiar to the labour market. You control our workforce: don’t jump to the first job offer, choose a job with the best fitting terms, if you can. In the online social media paying your bill doesn’t depend on your quick decision. Just the opposite: you will pay less if you click more carefully. This competition for your attention can mean that you can get what you really want. This is actually happening: advertisers must (and already do) tailor their messages to the suitable audience. You just have to be even more selective.
  • For most of the population, the situation is not favorable right now. People are stuck to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and their computers and mobile phones, regularly ignoring reality. There is the learning curve here, however. People can learn their lesson in a hard way, having traffic accidents due to their unwise mobile phone usage. But they can be simply bored sooner or later, realizing that all those chats, posts and likes lead to nowhere. It may be just a childhood disease; we may outgrow it with more accumulated personal experience.


So what is the moral of the story?

Use your intellect, learn the nature of the beast and you will easily have the upper hand in this game. You just have to realize that the aces are with you already.


The Meaning of Life Team