After the 20th century’s Digital Revolution, information in the form of words, pictures, and videos now surrounds us everywhere; easy to gather, easier to transmit, it’s creating new markets while upending others. Our way of life has changed for good, and it’s impossible to predict what mankind’s political, social, and societal structures will look like once the dust finally settles.
But there’s one thing I would like to draw your attention towards, dear reader, and that is the way we have come to think of ourselves as online media consumers. That’s a lot like a cow or a chicken thinking of itself as a feed consumer, instead of beef and poultry. In both instances, without a holistic understanding of the respective roles we fill, we may think we’re getting a good deal and a free product… but in reality we’re the produce. Luckily for us humans, it is not our flesh that is being fed, bought, and sold, but rather our cognitive faculties, namely our attention.
How did we get here? Well here’s a very abridged “History of Information”as far as I see it. In ancient times, chiefs and kings would dispatch messengers on foot or horse to gather and share information on their behalf. People didn’t travel much back then, and these early information-providers were of vital importance, directly on some important person’s dollar, or denarii. The economics of attention was not much of a factor back then. Any news from afar, such as, “Men with spears from another village are coming, let’s get our warriors together,” would have probably been well received, and heeded.
These early couriers were the only reliable way for information to be carried over long distances, and the messengers themselves were elevated to the status of gods to be worshipped in the polytheistic pantheons, like Hermes, with his winged shoes, or Ratatoskr the mythical Norse messenger squirrel.
Skip forward a couple millennia, and not much changes until the advent of the printing press. From the 15th century on, printmakers have had the ability to disseminate mass information through books, papers, and pamphlets, precipitating a boom in literacy, education, and the rise of a bourgeois class of an informed, literate people who could communicate with one another horizontally, circumventing the opinions and official decrees of the ruling class. Say hello to modern democracy, but also to advertisements. Newspapers were so effective at disseminating their information, they opened up new revenue streams. Capitalism by this time was in full swing, and companies began to realize that they could make the most by reaching out with adverts to the new, highly literate population.
Fast forward through the rest of history: radio and television, again generating their own media revolutions, brought news and entertainment ever-faster to the middle and working classes, who, thanks to technological and political developments in the West, came to enjoy ever more leisure time. Two important reasons for our current state of 21st century digital media: #1) the traditional media revenue streams of subscriptions and state sponsorship gradually came to be superseded by the revenue generated by advertisers. #2) information no longer comes from a limited amount of sources, which in various other times could have been a town newspaper, a commercial broadcasting network, or a messenger squirrel. Most of us will take for granted the fact that today media surrounds us everywhere, and comes to us from a myriad of sources: magazines in waiting rooms of the doctors’ offices, TVs in the backseat of cabs and on subways, radios blaring in fast-food chains, not to mention your personal computer, tablet, and smartphone. Society is saturated with media. And for all these sources to survive, they’re competing with one another for one thing: your attention.
Now you’ve been brought up to speed to understand how our attention economy functions. Since you are reading this, you yourself are plugged in to the Internet, to society, and are privy to just how this free information game functions. Maybe now it’s time to sit and reflect on your own role within it. You put up with unskippable advertisements on Youtube and Facebook banner ads out the corner of your eye, all of which bear down and put claims on your attention every waking hour, every day. As economics Nobel Laureate H. A. Simon wrote in 1971, well before the advent of the Internet:
“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a death of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes… the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
Living in the 21st century one gets the feeling that one never has any time. In a sense, this is true; whenever we have a moment’s rest, we’re likely consuming media from one or more sources, and these sources are always improving their ability to get us to consume—scrolling through newsfeeds, Facebook, and Twitter at work, on the commute home, or in bed with the lights off.
Online, human attention today is measured by mouse clicks and page views, and you can hate Buzzfeed’s pandering “click-bait”” listicles all you want, but at least they’re giving the people what they want, psychologically speaking. BBC Future recently compiled a list of “Nine Psychological Reasons Why We Love Lists,” complete with a popping, attention-grabbing click bait photo. It grabbed mine.
It’s nice that they’re at least sharing that they know the score, no doubt paying attention to where the traffic flows to their online site. Like many other respected news sources, they’ll continue to bring us breaking news and in-depth journalism, but supplement it with photo galleries of cute or exotic animals for your more laissez-faire online readership.
The public is now having a conversation about breaches in privacy and government surveillance utilizing the data stores of Google, Yahoo, and others, but we’re not having much of a discussion about why that data is being stored in the first place. By having traces of your Internet history, companies in the data business are letting advertisers know how best to target you with specific advertising. After all, the data can show how best to get a person to look here, click there, and pay for a service. In other words, there’s an industry paying for your attention.
Any chance of these trends reversing? Not likely. But let’s at least count our blessings. Media and advertising have not yet reached that critical, all-pervasive point, where an individual has no ability to tune it all out. You can get good at mastering your own attention, and people feel better when they do. Yes, there will always be meditation, bike-riding, communing with nature, and self-help guides to tell you best how to “unplug”. All those wonderful things are there waiting for you when you’re ready. But, the simple thing you can do is to think before you click, every once in awhile, to become aware of that little automatic attention-nit-picker inside your own head, always urging you to pick up your smartphone or open up a new browser tab. Or the next time you’re sitting in some cab or waiting room as a member of a captive audience, your eyes following the bright, colorful commercials between segments of ABC’s The View or whatever it may be, maybe pull back on the reins of your attention, bring it back into your own hands. It’s your resource that’s been turned into a commodity, your link to the world that people are constantly trying to pry from you, use it how you want!