Returning “Attention” to its Rightful Owners

We live in a world where some of the brightest minds of our generation are expending time and other resources to understand newer ways to leverage technology to hold our attention. We often hear people talk about the efforts that they take to ‘switch off’ or limit ‘screen time’ (to resemble an illusion of our ‘informed’ decision making). I am afraid that is perfunctory at best and naive at worst, given the complex machinery that we pit our self-control against. Sophisticated models are being trained to understand and push the limits on how well products and platforms can capture and hold our attention.

The blame cannot be fully apportioned to Big Tech. The economics of attention is possibly a little over a century old. It started with the publishing industry, (read: Yellow Journalism) ably followed by the broadcasting and advertising industry subsequently. Here is pertinent commentary, all the way back from 1938, on the ill-effects of human attention being expropriated by corporations by Harold Hotelling, a renowned mathematical statistician and economic theorist:

Another thing of limited quantity for which the demand exceeds the supply is the attention of people. Attention is desired for a variety of commercial, political, and other purposes, and is obtained with the help of billboards, newspaper, radio, and other advertising. Expropriation of the attention of the general public and its commercial sale and exploitation constitute a lucrative business … But attention attracting of some kinds and in some degree is bound to persist; and where it does, it may appropriately be taxed as a utilization of a limited resource.

Harold Hotelling (1938)

For a large part of human history, access to information was limited or was at least subject to significant lag. This changed with the advent of the internet.

In my personal point of view, the ‘information/ attention tradeoff’ originated in what was a first-of-its-kind, 24/7 coverage of a little known incident in 1980 by Cable News Network (CNN) under Ted Turner. There was little traction for this kind of maverick coverage and established American networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC etc.) continued to lead ratings of news coverage through the 1980s. This turned on its head in 1990 with the live coverage of the Persian Gulf War. This article talks about how CNN setup their coverage of the War and Operation Desert Storm.

The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.

Bernard C. Cohen

Mainstream 24/7 news coverage was born. Soon, other established networks, newspapers, and news magazines followed suit and set up websites to keep pace with online-only news outlets and 24/7 cable channels.

Incidents of wide interest like the trial of OJ Simpson, the untimely death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent US presidential campaign etc., shifted the focus from ‘disinterested’ coverage that was a distinct attribute of traditional media to opinionated, personal, and unedited blog articles masquerading as online journalism.

Sensationalism and inaccurate reporting were no longer uncommon as scores of ‘network channels’ consolidated into a few media conglomerates worth billions of dollars. Online journalists started to play a significant role in defining the news agenda, which extended an increased occurrence of publishing news at breakneck speed, at times with factually inaccurate dimensions (like the Clinton-Lewinsky Story).

The tolerance for error increased for an industry that had very small margins to begin with.

There are a few credible theories as to why humans value sensational news. The short answer – it is engrained in our evolutionary psychology. Elements such as altruism, cheater detection, reputation, treatment of offspring all served as information in increasing reproductive fitness amongst our ancestors.

From an evolutionary point of view, the emotional impact of these stories makes sense. Our ancestors would likely have increased their reproductive success by gaining certain kinds of information about the world around them. Thus, stories about animal attacks, deadly parasites and tainted food sources remain salient topics, even millions of years after their likelihood of occurrence has become marginal…

Hank Davis, S. Lyndsay McLeod (2003)

(A quick sidebar – the subtext of this post is not that sensational news isn’t news, and that serious news is somehow better. The position that I take is that there is an overload of sensational news at the cost of serious news. Consequently, the ‘agenda setting’ ability of the fourth estate is heavily diluted)

Naturally, the advertising dollars went where the eyeballs were. The early 2000s was when Big Tech showed a lot more promise than threat. There was palpable excitement about the possibilities it offered for solving global problems, for common folk to indulge in public debates, for minority voices to be amplified in platforms which they would otherwise not have access to. This was also a time when the internet collectively laughed off a Guardian article published in October 2010 with the headline – “Donald Trump considers running for president”. (This indeed aged well)

The last decade turned this promise into stuff of dystopian novels (read: Cambridge Analytica Files), as products and services that emerged from the Silicon Valley and other global technology centres trained their business models to monetise our attention. Simultaneous advancements in technology infrastructure allowed for a rollout of high-speed internet, leading to a ceaseless filibuster of ‘curated’ content based on our personal preferences. With these developments, what is of public interest morphed into what we lend our attentions to. And we did this in self-built ‘echo chambers’, where different forms of loud bigotry was celebrated with widespread gusto. Our primal allegiances were solidified in these echo chambers.

Every topic or issue of ‘public interest’ flows through these platforms, gets disaggregated into different bubbles, and is reinforced independently – the results of which are fragmented, polarised communities of people often clueless about differing views. The surprise and the ensuing public outcry following the results of pivotal elections and referendums around the world in the last decade is a strong testament to this. We do not really move forward as a society, resulting in a social stasis that is ironically hyperactive.

In summary and to go back to what I said at the start of the post, we cannot apportion all of the blame to Big Tech. The economics of their business models mean they meet the demand that exists (the morality of what they do is a debate for another time), but there is no point to shifting the locus of control away from us.

Traction, or the opposite of distraction (sorry!) is when we do things with deliberate intent that pull us towards a pre-determined outcome. How many of us can say that about our online presence? Deliberate intent is required to determine the role of technology in our lives. We are the ‘patient zero’ generation of a variety of externalities that stem from technological advancements and the rate at which it is increasing makes it imperative that we be discerning.

We very well know what that means for our ‘screens’. I am not entirely sure if the onus rests on governments to reel in Big Tech, or if Big Tech should even be reeled in in the first place, given their influence is a consequence of our actions. Granted we did not fully understand what was ‘under the hood’, but we cannot irresponsibly continue to default to spending hours on social media and endless streaming, and conveniently point in another direction when the correctness of it is called into question.

It is on us to deliberately create the mental space to discern.

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