Home / Tech / The attention economy is breeding addiction, fraud, and hate — and this is what we need to do to save it

The attention economy is breeding addiction, fraud, and hate — and this is what we need to do to save it

Ashlyn Gentry

  • Ashlyn Gentry is a managing director at Human Ventures Co. 
  • In this op-ed, she says that whether we want to or not, we’re living in an “attention economy” — and that it’s damaging us as a global community.
  • To fix this, business must prove that it’s possible to be both profitable and ethical. 

You are worth trillions.

Got your attention yet?

Every time you pick up your phone, turn on a screen, or open an app, you are for sale. It’s perhaps the most influential economic force on the planet, yet few have been able to define its importance.

We call it the “attention economy.” It’s the money companies make every time you pick up your phone.

It’s a significant portion of the 80 trillion dollars that constitute the global economy — all of which is driven by companies that need to command your attention in order to sell you their products.

But human attention is a finite resource. There’s only so much time in a day, and every day there’s more “stuff” seeking your attention. With endless demand and limited supply, attention is arguably the most valuable resource in the world.

How is the attention economy broken?

Whether we want to or not, we’re participating in the attention economy every day. The tools we use to live, work, learn, and play — Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Amazon, and more — are all cash registers waiting to make a sale. And this multi-trillion-dollar industry of harvesting our attention is broken.

We need to study the attention economy’s unintended side-effects to recognize the damage it’s done:

First, we’re using technology that’s designed to be addictive.

The average person looks at their phone 150 times a day. Your phone, it turns out, has features that were designed specifically to keep you actively engaged.

Every time we get a notification, the brain releases a flood of dopamine as addictive as the reward signal a gambler gets as they pull the handle on a slot machine. What is it this time? A new text? Some emails? More followers or likes?

Many features — like infinite scroll on Facebook and Instagram or automatic sound on YouTube — are designed to increase the likelihood of keeping our attention once we’re in. It’s so effective that some of the product designers who created these technologies have since left their posts and are publicly acknowledging their regret in developing them.

Second, the attention economy is making our emotions and behaviors more extreme, causing psychological imbalance

News headlines are not designed to inform us. They’re designed to get us to click.

Headlines frame situations in ways that command your attention and cause physiological responses that mimic real-life threats. In fact, the human brain reacts to a story about a car crash much in the same way it actually reacts to a real car crash. And, when salacious headlines report some threat in the world, they not only create a strong physiological reaction, they also trick our minds into thinking that threat is a more clear and present danger than it really is.

By creating misleading headlines that entice us to click, publishers cause us emotional and physical distress — just to make a buck.

Half of internet traffic is fake

Third, almost 50% of the money made by the attention economy is fraudulent — but no one has had enough incentive to stop it.

Almost half of the traffic on the internet is fake, most of it from bots — automated software apps designed to hit the same websites over and over again and look like human web traffic while doing so. Bots range from “click farms” where hundreds of phones are connected to a computer that constantly hits ‘refresh’, to more sophisticated AI bots running remotely from a single laptop.

The attention economy’s business model has yet to come under much legal or regulatory scrutiny, but there is finally some encouraging movement: the US Justice Department recently took action against the largest fraud operation ever reported — a company accused of defrauding advertisers out of $36 million. Yet, both the demand and supply sides of the industry — brands and publishers — are equally complicit in approving fake metrics as real, and don’t seem to care.

Fourth, the attention economy fuels hate and division.

Today, we can never be sure of what’s real. Even some of our most trusted news sources and political leaders are exploited by technologies like ‘deepfakes’ — doctored videos of politicians making outrageous statements or photos of celebrities endorsing products — all designed to look exactly like the real thing. Less sophisticated methods of online fakes include bots who troll online content and post ridiculous comments. These comments drive more engagement on a site as real humans unwittingly go to battle with them.

Troll bots and deepfakes drive a wedge between humanity by polarizing and bringing out the worst in us. And because misinformation spreads 10x faster than truth on the internet, this tactic effectively plays into our innate confirmation bias, further entrenching us in our existing belief systems, preventing us from exploring new ideas, and shutting down opportunities to consider new world views.

Okay, so what’s next?

First, let’s have honest discussions about the impacts the attention economy has on our time, our mental health, and the ways we communicate.

Next, let’s learn from history. In 2008, few of us understood that we were in the midst of a massive subprime mortgage crisis. Mortgages that were low quality, low value, and built on fraudulent numbers caused a major financial collapse, the impacts of which are still felt today.

Some insiders have drawn this comparison to suggest we’re now living in a subprime attention market. The attention economy profits from our engagement, but damages us as a global community. Brands and advertisers don’t seem to care and regulatory authorities, just like in 2008, are barely just beginning to play catchup. The companies and investors in the middle are making too much money to seriously consider an alternative. So what can we do?

We can prove that it’s possible to be both profitable and ethical. We can prove that it’s possible to build commercially viable businesses that operate successfully in a healthy attention economy even while producing healthier outcomes for their users. And we can find these companies and make them the new standard-bearers for a renewed industry.

It wasn’t that long ago that companies balked at the idea of corporate social responsibility. Today, no company becomes successful without it. Consumers around the world began to demand that their favorite brands do something more with their power than make money. When equipped with information on the broken attention economy and tools for how to fix it, consumers will galvanize a generation of change and with it, dollars will shift into a rapidly growing healthy attention economy.

Ashlyn Gentry is a managing director at Human Ventures Co., a new company funding startups, and has a PhD focused on political attention.

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