In June 1836, French newspaper La Presse had a novel idea — charge businesses to put messages in their weekday edition. They were among the first to discover the value of selling the attention of their captive readership. In other words, advertising.
Advertising is at the root of today’s “attention economy” — a system in which human attention is the commodity being bought and sold. But if your attention is worth money, why is it being stolen from you at every opportunity without your permission?
Print ads may have paved the way, but today, giants like Facebook and Google have built entire businesses on selling the attention of their users — businesses so lucrative that all of their services are offered for free.
For example, let’s say you Google Jane’s Moving Company. Now Google knows you’re planning a move and you’re more likely to pay attention to related ads. So they sell your attention to storage facilities, rental vans and rival moving companies in the form of display ads. This is only one of countless targeted methods to capture and sell your attention at a profit.
Today, marketers increasingly hire psychologists and data scientists to mine your online activity and figure out how they can capture and retain your attention — by whatever means necessary. When you’re on the web, the ads you encounter are sophisticated messages which target your desires, insecurities and fears. You can’t help but pay attention to them, and I use the word ‘pay’ quite literally. Internet platforms are selling, advertisers are buying, but you have to pay.
Why do I keep getting pick-pocketed?
If a pick-pocket sneaks up behind you and takes your wallet, they’re breaking the law. It doesn’t matter that you chose to walk on that particular street at that particular time. That pick-pocket had no right to your wallet.
You volunteer to watch a video, browse a website or use an app, and the next thing you know, an ad has stolen your attention and slipped a message into your head.
Is this any different from advertising? You volunteer to watch a video, browse a website or use an app, and the next thing you know, an ad has stolen your attention and slipped a message into your head. These ads play on your triggers and you’re wired to notice. You never agreed to this exchange. Boisterous videos, promoted search results, sponsored social posts, and relentless app notifications prey on your situation and hijack your mind. You don’t have a choice.
But remember, in today’s economy, your attention is worth money! Doesn’t it seem unfair that it’s being stolen from you so often without your permission? Maybe Banksy put it best:
Aggressive, but his point resonates. Many of us find ourselves exhausted and deeply affected by largely unregulated messages from nagging phones and blaring ads (negative body image and advertising’s effect on obesity are powerful examples).
At best, the attention economy is an unfair system that robs our minds to grease the wheels of big business. At worst, it’s causing a growing mental health epidemic.
Scientists are beginning to document the impact on our health and well-being. One Harvard study shows that the more your attention wanders, the less happy you are. At best, the attention economy is an unfair system that robs our minds to grease the wheels of big business. At worst, it’s causing a growing mental health epidemic. In either case, we need to do something about it.
Taking back our attention.
So if we’re being robbed, how do we rise up against this new form of theft? Mindfulness offers us a tool to take our attention back. Is popular culture, media, and science’s renewed interest in meditation a coincidence, or is it a visceral reaction to our culture of attention theft?
Mindfulness meditation asks us to skillfully notice and respond to distractions. This practice effectively trains and enhances attention as a skill, which seems to have positive impacts on mental health and well-being. There’s evidence of secular mindfulness-based interventions reducing anxiety, depression and pain, as well as indications of improvement to the management of chronic pain, reduction in depression relapse, better substance abuse outcomes, and more.
With time, we learn to counter society’s demands on our mental capacity. Mindfulness equips us to navigate a world of cognitive assault.
Mindfulness as attention activism.
Meditating to regulate our own mind is only the first step. I believe we also need to work together to reveal the injustices of the attention economy on a societal level. I can’t imagine a group more perfectly suited for this type of “attention activism” than the growing secular mindfulness movement.
Meditators who train the skill of attention are well positioned to catalyze societal action. As our awareness becomes more nuanced, we clearly see the battle of attention taking place in the modern world.
It’s not just about health and well-being anymore. It’s about exercising your right to decide what to pay attention to. It’s about resisting those who want to profit from selling something that belongs to you. Mindfulness empowers us to personally stand up to an economy that trades our attention — and possibly our well-being — for profit.