Living in an Attention Economy
When you look at the amount of time the average technology user spends using products or services created by Google, Facebook and Apple, the volume is striking. While we think of the technological world and the internet as a diverse and dynamic industry, the truth of the matter is that these three companies dominate an astonishing amount of people’s time and, by extension, their attention. This gives the star companies a subtle but troubling amount of power.
This idea of the “attention” economy is credited in large part to Silicon Valley ethicist and former Google employee Tristan Harris. Also the co-founder of the non-profit group Time Well Spent, Harris is increasingly a vocal advocate for us to change the relationship and view we have of these three major companies who quietly dominate our attention. His main point is that in an era where information is so incredibly abundant online, our attention is an increasingly precious resource.
“There is this myth that technology is neutral, that it’s up to us to choose how we use it and therefore these platforms are not responsible,” Harris said on a recent episode of the Bill Maher show. “It is not true. It’s not because they’re evil, but because these companies need to get as much attention as possible. So, if something is sensational, they have to show you the sensational thing that gets more attention than if they show you complex things that get less attention.”
What Harris is saying is bold, mostly because it flies directly in the face of what companies like Facebook want you to think about their service. In practice, Facebook is a company that has the power to manipulate the attention and emphasis of what 2 billion users think every day. That’s a tremendous amount of power, but it’s one that the company doesn’t often fully publicize. Instead, Facebook wants users to think of the granular ways in which the service helps them relate to their network, but the reality of their impact is so much bigger and more consequential to the way we live our lives.
Harris is also asking these companies to work counter to their capitalist motivations. As the Atlantic wrote in a profile of Harris, he “is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices.”
So what can be done about the staggering amount of time and attention that these “big three” technology companies are silently stealing away from their user?. As TechCrunch wrote in a piece about Harris’ philosophy, there are two strategies that must be established in conjunction: “The first is for all of us to recognize that we are all vulnerable and for us to all ‘curate our own lives. And the second is for the platform companies to recognize that their users have ‘vulnerable minds’ and for them to make a conscious effort to avoid feeding our ‘lizard brains,’ Harris says. Neither, in themselves, are complete solutions. To fix the problem requires a joint effort both from all of us and from these platform superpowers of Silicon Valley.”
It’s unlikely, though, that tech companies will do this of their own free will. After all, their customers are their advertisers, not their users. Only when usership begins to decline because people are tired of having their attention stolen away from them will there be the potential for change. These companies need not only a high number of users to please their advertisers, but also a lion’s share of those users’ attention spans to sell to their advertisers: users have to be the first link in the chain to prompt change.