The internet wants our attention, but what do we want from the internet?
The last 10 years have brought all the world’s music, entertainment and information directly to your screen of choice. Spotify, Netflix, Facebook and YouTube are now the brand names we all recognise, but the underlying outcome is that we are rapidly approaching peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment when there’s so much competition for your attention that it reaches saturation point. When there is no more time to spare.
Time is the ultimate finite resource and increasingly, ours is being spent online.
In Attention Merchants, Tim Wu’s examination of the constant commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention, we are presented with a sort of paradox: To pay attention to one thing, we need to filter other things out. That has consequences.
Herbert Simon first coined the term Attention Economy way back in 1971. His simple conclusion was that an explosion of information must lead to a scarcity of what it consumes, our attention. From his office, it’s like he foresaw the entire rise of social media with its endless content feeds. We now spend more than 10bn hours a week on the main social platforms, and that number is still rising fast. The total attention equation is different still. Between online and offline media platforms, the average American spends one more hour per day on media than they did just 2 years ago – almost 11 hours a day in total.
It is important to say at this stage that some of this time is well spent. Connecting with friends and family, catching up on the world or just watching something you are passionate about can be important and relaxing, or even inspiring. Julius Yago famously won the World Championships in Javelin after learning to throw via YouTube.
However, the reality is that most of the commercial internet is driven by advertising, fuelled by content and services designed to consume our attention regardless of whether that’s a good or bad thing. The modern tech industry sells human attention as a commodity to advertisers. Together, Facebook and Google now control some 50% of the online ad market globally, a position set to earn them a combined $106bn in 2017.
Like the fossil fuel companies before them, Facebook, Google and the other attention merchants must continuously unlock new pockets of human attention to keep growing their revenues. And to continue the analogy, the negative externalities of the industry don’t seem to be something these companies want to confront. Little wonder then, that many of the tactics deployed by the industry comes from the addiction playbook of casinos and other restricted product categories like cigarettes and alcohol. When you open Candy Crush, your actual battle is not with little coloured gems on the screen, it’s with the hundreds of behavioural scientists, data scientists and developers behind the screen trying to get you hooked. Opening YouTube, Instagram or Facebook is no different really – but its less obvious and more pervasive, as opting out now has significant consequences for your “real” life.
We procrastinate, scroll, share and binge-watch largely by design – not just our own doing.
Have you ever wondered why notifications pop up on your mobile screen or videos automatically start playing in your feed? There is an attention arms race underway right beneath the sleek screen, and its forcing services to enter into a destructive competitive spiral for our continued attention, even if that increasingly means disrupting us or high-jacking our focus.
So, where does that leave us - the users of this brave new digital world?
It is well established that heavy usage of social media platforms or technology can be directly detrimental to our personal well-being. Everyone seems to live such rich, fulfilled and happy lives in their photos and posts.
This constant bombardment of aspiration and expectation causes depression and anxiety in many kids, teenagers and adults - problems that are now well described in the academic literature but rarely discussed in any seriousness and depth out in society. The more we participate, build profiles and social networks, the more identity we also stand to lose if we try to walk away. The lock-in is complete.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently proclaimed, jokingly, that their biggest competitor now is sleep.
The problem can be aptly illustrated with Daniel Kahneman’s idea of the experiencing self and the remembering self. Kahneman essentially argues that we are characterised by being short term actors and long term reflectors. While our experiencing self may easily fall prey to free services and addiction tactics, our remembering self can still feel upset about having procrastinated for hours on YouTube or Instagram instead of fulfilling important obligations, achieved our goal, or simply gotten a good night’s sleep.
Three reasons it’s different this time
On the surface, one could reasonably argue that digital media is simply playing out along the same trajectory as all other mass media before in history. Haven’t newspapers, radio and TV all seen their fair share of both nutritious ingredients and junk food before the internet came about? What exactly is different this time? Could Facebook and Google not simply be the next generation of ESPN or CNN, and famous YouTubers the modern Beverly Hills 90210?
One question is what exactly constitutes a meaningful use of one’s attention, another is this current wave of fake news and click bait is different from the other instances of “fake news” - dating all the way back to at least the great Moon Hoax of 1835?
In my opinion this analysis misses the mark in three important ways that means we have reached a fork in the road. We are facing a paradigm shift. As Fidel Castro once bluntly remarked; a revolution is not a trail of roses, it is a fight to the death between the future and the past.
1) The loss of gate keepers
This has been said a million times before, but it must be said again. As a culture, we are still only beginning to come to terms with the consequences of obliterating the barriers to production and distribution of information. We have witnessed a true explosion in content the last 10-15 years – good and bad, but most of it instantly forgettable.
Publishing and distribution of information was until recently a very limited resource due to the barriers of entry to the airwaves. Getting on TV or in the newsstands was either hard or very expensive. Now we are all creators, yelling into a great digital pillow hoping to get approval and recognition from a set of algorithms built in Silicon Valley. I love what has happened to the possibilities of communication between people and the unlimited creative options of expression provided by the web itself, but I despise the utter triviality of what its most prominent players feed us with daily.
2) The compounding competition for attention
Rather than simply replacing TV with social media in a zero-sum game, there is a compounding effect on competition for attention across all the media we consume. We enter a state of hyper-competition where everyone increasingly fights for the same attention, so something must lose out. TV and social media effectively competes with everything else that could command our attention - friends, hobbies or learning.
The Head of the Federal Communications Commission observed in a 1961 speech to broadcast executives, that the industry’s revenue was rising 9 percent annually, even in a recession. The problem, the FCC chairman told the group, was the way the business was making money: not by serving the public interest, but by airing more and more dumb shows. “When television is bad, nothing is worse,” he said. Since then the competition for attention has doubled many times, and the downsides of sensationalism has risen proportionally with it.
We sometimes read headlines about teenagers addicted to video games in South Korea or people that have dedicated their entire life to social media and become YouTube stars or Instagram celebrities, but do we do enough to discuss the potential pitfalls for individuals, communities and society? Fake news, clickbait and filter bubbles are now regular topics of discussion in some circles, but the true structural issue is that all digital services compete for the same 24 hours, and it creates a very real and compounding competitive effect that drives product decisions towards addiction patterns and sugary content. Addiction translates to money on the web, so trust the tech industry to find ever more appealing tricks to keep you hooked.
Like with the current obesity epidemic, we are fundamentally facing a crisis of too much, not too little.
3) The Feedback Loop
There is much talk about how AI will impact the future, but in our discussions about computers beating humans at Go and the inevitable singularity, we often forget that AI has already had a massive impact on the reality that we all face every day. Our media has been transformed forever.
I believe the advent of the data feedback loop from users, now a reality with all digital media, has started to form a non-linear curve in the performance of software with the same profound implications as Moore’s law has had for hardware. Software can now learn exponentially, powered by unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour. These new self-learning systems will inevitably get very good at hooking us in – and keeping us there.
Facebook’s newsfeed has rightly been called the most disruptive invention in media in the last 50 years, and one simple reason is the data feedback loop from its users. This allowed Facebook to get ever better at locating our emotional triggers - and serve content or notifications we would find it difficult to resist engaging with. Machine learning is the ideal tool for discovering how to optimise system performance within huge sets of personal data, and now we have colossal social graphs being trained to entertain us into submission.
Allow me to quote these two passages from Neil Postman’s introduction to “Amusing Ourselves to Death” as my point has already been said better than I ever could.
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to consider man's almost infinite appetite for distractions”.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Can we continue to resist the constant temptation without succumbing to decision fatigue and cave in more often than not? Technological evolution has exponentially surpassed the speed of human evolution. Technological evolution has been doubling every eighteen months, now accelerated further with machine learning. We, biological entities, only progressing at the speed of biological evolution, can easily start making suboptimal choices when faced with machines that have a superior ability for pattern recognition and endless persistence.
Next stop - Dystopia or Utopia?
The trouble with the current internet, Ev Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course, you look. Everyone looks. It is attention grabbing. The internet currently interprets behaviour like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
If this whole piece comes across as slightly dystopian reading, it is not a coincidence. It is important to outline some of the fundamental challenges we face with new technology, especially technologies that are now occupying such a central role in our lives and learning so much about us. Some days, all the original operating principals of the internet seem very far from the reality we all face daily.
To quote one of the TV heavyweights, Edward Murrow, as he concluded a speech in 1958.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
That battle for our attention, between triviality and continued progress, is still raging 60 years later – with ever increased intensity. But make no mistake, it is a war we ultimately can’t afford to lose. Our individual reality is the sum of the way our attention has been spent - and it is under renewed attack in recent years.
Luckily humanity has surprised in the face of adversity many times before. New business models and products could still appear and gain widespread adoption because it better serves people. Just look at the rise of organic food and vegetarianism in the last 15-20 years. In fact, we could well be seeing the first signs of change in media already.
In part two we’ll therefore turn our attention to the positive signs – the increasing evidence that quality, not emotion, may yet prevail as the dominant force shaping the future of media.
David Attenborough or Doctor Phil, that is the question.
Read Mads's follow-up, A Crisis of Attention - Part II, now!