The Attention Economy Is Eating Our Brains

What if we taxed it?

Dorian Peters
7 min readOct 25, 2018


Image: Otto Steininger/Ikon Images/Getty Images

By Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters

I start by discussing dinner but end up detailing an alien invasion by four-eyed chickens in bikinis just to see if my son will notice. We’ve all been there—madly wrestling for the attention of a loved one who’s buried deep in a digital device. Like a dance fight, we use various tactics, from guilt and shaming to sensationalism, only to give up in quiet resignation.

Incredibly, being abandoned by loved ones to email, Fortnite, or Instagram has become more common than a poor wifi connection.

Our most valuable resource—attention—is being traded at an unprecedented rate. We pay so much attention to technology (literally) that the numbers themselves sound like clickbait.

Selling Our Consciousness

Attention is a finite resource: 7.7 billion people on the planet, each only conscious for about 16 hours a day, can provide full attention for 123 billion hours. Bear in mind that work, sustenance, human contact, and some basic hygiene have to fit in there as well.

Now consider that 1 billion of these precious attention hours goes to YouTube each day, that’s about 1 percent of total available worldwide attention. Just on YouTube. Alphabet, YouTube’s parent company, does not disclose its revenues, but it’s estimated at $13 billion per year, so our time is worth about 4 cents an hour to them. How much is it worth to us?

Illustration: Dorian Peters

The problem is that as companies get better at making us pay more attention to their products, we have less time to pay attention to things that matter, that actually make the world a better place. Things like parenting, friendship, self-development, and contributing to society.

Our boss, our partners, our children, our parents—they all expect us to spend some of our attention budget on them, and if we don’t pay enough, everything suffers.

In fact, we suffer. We can get stressed, overwhelmed, eventually depressed, anxious, even suicidal. This is why excessive internet and…



Dorian Peters

Tech designer, researcher, author — design for wellbeing & ethical tech — Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge