The Attention Economy Needs to Change. But How?

So... Could you run Facebook better than Zuckerberg?

AIRED: January 07, 2019 | 0:10:59

Now… are you paying attention?


Close your other tabs, put your phone away and bring your focus to this screen in




Your attention is a super power you kinda don’t realise you have.

Some people are saying this power is being threatened-- that we are in the midst of an

attention crisis.

Facebook, phones, emails, messenger, instagram, twitter, eternal autoplay of videos on Netflix

and YouTube, barrage of news notifications, oh a dancing panda!

Homo Sapiens is becoming homo distractus, a species with attention span of a goldfish.

Wait… what?

Now, you must have heard this crisis before.

Everyone keeps talking about how our attention is being hijacked.

“We can see that these systems have been designed with intricacy so that companies

can keep our attention indefinitely”

“Your attention is just tunnelled into these things.”

“These products are shaping what two billion people think every day and that’s more power

than any government in history”

“It’s literally at a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping

apart the social fabric of how society works”

So are technology and social media companies ruining everything?

I’m skeptical.

I use all of these technologies.

My work is made on these platforms.

So I want to take a closer look.

Because, these are huge claims.

And if they are true, the consequences would be too large to ignore.

Let’s go back to where it all started – New York City in the 1800s.

There were a lot fewer buildings, more horses and the city would smell even worse than it

does today.

One man who lived here, Benjamin Day, figured out he could publish a newspaper and sell

it for very cheap – just one penny – and then make money by selling ads.

It sounds obvious now, but it was the first time that someone did this:

Give people something free, and once you've got their attention, sell this attention to


So the industry somewhat depends on, you losing control of yourself and, and, and handing

over a lot of time and attention and then that is resold to somebody else.

Think about it.

We’ve always bought and sold things like gold, copper or crops, that have a physical

quantity and price.

And the economics seem to be straightforward: Whoever owns more is better off.

Your attention, too, has been compared to these commodities.

Just like gold, it’s a resource, precious and scarce, and you have a limited supply.

So what is the price of your attention?

This all is called the “attention economy,” where businesses compete for eyeballs, to

direct them toward commercial, well-packaged products – whether that be in newspapers

or the sidebar of Facebook.

In this business model, we, the people, are the product being sold.

And we are getting beaten up in everyone's race to get access to our minds.

You receive millions and trillions of bits of information from the external world at

any moment, but you only experience what you attend to.

One of your most amazing skills is called Attentional Control.

It’s the capacity to choose what we ignore and what we pay attention to and devote cognitive

resources to processing it.

For a long time ironically Attention didn’t get any attention by psychologists.

But once we noticed it we realised attentional mechanisms are crucial for many of our cognitive


One type of attention is bottom-up--it’s a reflexive brain system that listens in on

the environment to pick up anything that stands out, that is salient and so probably noteworthy.

That’s why you don’t have to scan your whole visual field to see the traffic lights.

This system is so automatic that it’s pretty much impossible to not pay attention to something

salient, like a red coloured notification.

We use this system from when we are born to build a model of what’s important, what

I should pay attention to and remember in the future.

We can then use our top-down attention and voluntarily decide to allocate brain powers

to something we find or have learned is important.

But even this system uses cues that might be false.

For example, brain imaging studies show increased activation in the visual cortex of the brain

when we view a photo with many likes versus the same photo with only a few likes.

In other words we intuitively pay more attention to something that looks like rated better


And what’s even worse is that that attention is limited and we can only spend it on one

thing at a time.

We have the illusion of being in control but we are totally ignorant of what we didn't


For example, did you see the gorilla just now?

So, it's not just our productivity that's at risk.

Not only will that momentary lapse of attention make you distracted, but also what you see

will form a memory.

Those memories make up our life experience.

We use them to make a model of the world and make decisions.

Those competing for your attention decide what gets priority and rewrite what’s important

to you.

And for those who obtain the attention of large numbers of people, the possibilities

go beyond selling them toothbrushes and merino knit sneakers.

They can determine whose voices are heard, what opinions and facts get exposure.

They can use this power to shape public opinion and politics.

They can sell ideas.

This isn’t a new phenomenon entirely – we’ve seen different iterations of Mass Persuasion

throughout history.

In fact, the attention economy really took flight on the back of propaganda.

At the beginning of World War One, the British government realised it needed persuasive methods

of advertising to raise an army to match the size of Germany’s.

They seized control of the population's attention to get in people's minds with one message:

serve your country, enlist in the army.

"The greatest admirers of British propaganda were the Germans.

They were amazed at the ability of the British to create a war will in their soldiers, to

recruit so many people willingly, to demonise the Germans so thoroughly.

Among the admirers, maybe the most fervent was a man who was determined he could do better.

He felt that the German propaganda had been too rationalistic, too much Immanuel Kant,

too boring.

He suggested that you really need to capture the attention of the public and then give

their messages.

He was writing this from prison, an ad man, an artist by the name of Adolf Hitler, and

he was determined that he could do better."

These historical examples show how mass harvesting of attention can have real, big scale impact.

I think that we're in danger of losing control of our collective consciousness and what I

call for is what I call a human reclamation project.

I think we need to come back to what it means to be human, uh, to realise fundamentally

that attention is a resource that we own and that we should decide how to spend and not

let ourselves be so directed, so entranced, so, so captured by whatever wants to lure

us for a minute of our attention.

And today, persuasion is being taken to the next level – for one thing, we now carry

the megaphone in our pockets.

And, it’s all personalised.

And this is where ethics become murky.

Personalised ads and content recommendation is much more effective at persuasively grabbing

your attention.

And what is happening there is that there's an artificial intelligence system that's not

visible to you, that's looking at what you're doing and saying, let me push her buttons

and let me just go and show her this.

And then you watch it, right?

YouTube owned by Google has just racked up the minutes of you watching and has served

you some ads and now even understands you better.

So next time you come it's going to target you even better.

So on the business side, that's how it's in their interest financially to keep us engaged

by any means necessary.

Now in 1890, William James, a pioneering psychologist, observed that “the mind is at every stage

a theatre of simultaneous possibilities.

My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

In all of this reflection, I've returned to a simple but fundamental question: What is

a good life?

What is important?

I’ve now become concerned about what I’m paying attention to.

What my own life experience will equal.

Let’s imagine that each of these dots is a month of my life.

If I spend two hours a day on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, that’s equal to a month

of a year of my life.

I’ve probably done that for the past 5 years, and what happens if I continue for another


When we started this project, I used to say that apps and social media sites were tools,

and it was the responsibility of people to use these tools in a sensible way.

But I’ve come to realise that these technologies are designed to be masters of our attention.

And even tech companies are starting to acknowledge the problem by introducing features to make

us aware of how much time we’re spending online.

Just this year, Google and Apple, have introduced digital wellbeing features for their phones

where you can set a time limit and turn on features to decrease your use of the devices.

As The New York Times put it, we’re now seeing the big tech equivalent of “drink


Those seem like good steps, but let's remember, every single one of the devices we own also

has an off switch.

We’re in the middle of a battle – the Attention Wars – between those harvesting

our attention and others fighting to free our minds.

Your attention is a precious resource and your future will be shaped by how you use


So, use your powers wisely.

Now if I still have your attention, I really do understand the irony in creating online

content about how, perhaps, you should be offline.

But the reality of modern life is that it isn’t so black and white and there’s a

lot more to discover – this is the first episode in a six part quest in understanding

the psychology of attention, persuasive design and how we can all have a healthier relationship

with technology.

I do hope you’ll join us, in your own time, at your own pace, to consider the impact tech


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