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 game use have been proposed as pathologies within psychiatry.

The reason companies are getting so good at getting us hooked is that the incentives to do so are so high. The business model that drives corporate behavior has negative effects on everyone.

Making money off attention, rather than off actual goods and services, is part of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes as a move from market capitalism to a new kind of “surveillance capitalism,” which relies on the extraction of customer data. In Zuboff’s eyes, the “deals” we make with internet companies do not establish constructive producer-consumer reciprocities and are closer to selling our souls to the devil than they are to standard exchanges of goods and services in traditional market economies.

Changing the Equation

So how do we save our souls? What if we took the time-honored approach governments employ to account for the societal costs of things like smoking or drinking, and we start taxing the mining of attention for profit?

This might sound bizarre, but is it? If we think of big data as the “fuel” of the attention economy and the problems we have with overexploitation of attention as climate change, then why not tax attention “extraction” in the same way we consider taxing carbon?

Research has shown tax-based disincentives are more effective than all other behavior change initiatives.

Taxes used by governments to pay for things like security and health are also used to curb behavior that costs citizens. Tobacco taxes raise significant funds (which can go to the treatment of lung cancer and birth defects). The tax also reduces the problem without removing people’s right to smoke. The cost of smoking is thus transferred to those who smoke. Those who pay the tobacco tax are most likely to require health care because of it.

Research has shown tax-based disincentives are more effective than all other behavior change initiatives. So what if we thought of clickbait on a website as equivalent to nicotine in tobacco?

But how do we tax the extraction of an immaterial product like attention? In fact, what is attention? William James, the founder of American psychology, defines it this way:

[Attention] is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one, out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction.

Attention Must Be Paid

Not all business models require selling attention. Most paid apps have no ads and are designed to support a task we consciously agree to. When companies make a profit from selling attention, they design the interface to encourage us to change our activity without express consent.

As Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook employee, put it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads … That sucks.”

When they design to hijack our focus, as measured by click-through rate, this is when they could be taxed.

For example, when I decided to write this article (intended activity) I went to an internet service. If the interface were designed to hijack my attention toward other things (e.g., by flashing a weight loss product at me), then it would be “extracting” attention in ways I did not intend and which have costs to me and others.

Who isn’t getting tired of every interaction with technology becoming a wrestling match for unfragmented focus?

Many content producers have been reluctantly driven into an ad model, unable to sustain themselves on subscriptions alone. This attention-hijacking model is designed to manipulate you into paying for its content with your diverted attention. Essentially, you end up engaged in other activities, not in reading that producer’s content.

Some will argue that consumers can’t have it all. If they don’t want to pay subscriptions for everything, then they’ll have to deal with ads. But as with television, different networks have struck the ad balance in different ways, and the wins often go to companies that take the innovative lead in response to consumer backlash and life hacking (i.e., the mute button). Ads can go before and after a show rather than interrupt it incessantly, and subscription-based streaming television (e.g., Netflix, which still has no ads) has rapidly surpassed traditional cable network models.

More users are demanding new business models exhausted by constant attention-hacking. Who isn’t getting tired of every interaction with technology becoming a wrestling match for unfragmented focus? This is, of course, why ad blocker usage has grown every year and surpassed 30 percent in 2018.

If the government doesn’t tax advertisers, companies will “tax” consumers instead. Google Contributor is a recent example of a commercial solution to the “ad blocker problem.” You pay Google to remove ads on participating sites, and Google pays those companies who provide the content a kind of compensation fee (so they can still function in the attention economy).

You’re basically buying your attention back from Google. As the middleman, Google gets money either way: from the companies paying for a share of your attention or from you for protecting it (sweet deal). But should we have to pay to get back something that is deeply our own in the first place?

It would also put a dent in the covert attacks on democracy unleashed via “moral outrage” clickbait.

To be fair, Google is also working to help users better manage their time. They have heard the consumer outcry and the Google Digital Wellbeing initiative is devising tools to help users understand and manage their attention so they can “focus on what matters most.” Efforts like these place responsibility for managing attention back on users. But is it enough?

Perhaps what we need are more innovative business models, and perhaps a tax could motivate companies to develop these. At the very least, it would dramatically reduce the amount of distraction we are bombarded with, helping us focus on the activities that matter.

It would also put a dent in the covert attacks on democracy unleashed via “moral outrage” clickbait. M.J. Crocket of Yale has studied how social media has changed its nature and maximized its negative social impact via emotionally armed attention capture. Attention hijacking is reshaping global politics.

But it may be the folks who brought us JavaScript and Firefox who swoop in to save the day. The Basic Attention Token (BAT) is an open source, transparent, and decentralized approach to an attention market that uses the Brave browser to track user engagement with content anonymously and send proportionate cryptocurrency (BATs) back to advertisers and publishers. The promise is more privacy, less fraud, a better deal for publishers, better targeting for advertisers, and less distraction for users. Users also earn BATs, which they can spend on the premium content they value. It may be time to browser switch again.

The Brave browser aims to change the business model that broke the web.

One way or another, we need a way to curb the excesses and abuses of the insatiable attention economy. Surely the answer is about finding a respectful sweet spot where business can communicate with consumers but not in ruthless excess and not at societally harmful levels. Whether a tax is the answer or not, it certainly provides some fascinating (even attention-worthy) food for thought.