It’s Time to Redesign the Attention Economy (Part I)

Estimated reading time 4 mins.

What is the Attention Economy?

By reading these words right now, you — actually your mind — is an inhabitant of the attention economy. Your mind lives in it. Along with two billion other minds. And yet few of us even notice.

Because when you wake up in the morning and check your phone — BAM!– your mind is instantly jacked in. Suddenly the things you are thinking about are things that a few tech designers in California got your mind to be thinking about.

It’s important to remember that nothing can succeed without getting people’s attention…

  • If you’re a politician, you need people’s attention to win the election.
  • If you’re an artist on YouTube, you need people’s attention to survive.
  • If you’re a Snapchat or Instagram celebrity, you need people’s attention to become famous and promote products.
  • If you’re Fox News or CNN, you need people’s attention to succeed.
  • If you’re a meditation app, you need people’s daily attention to stay relevant.
  • If you’re a friend to someone — you need their attention to sustain a meaningful relationship.
  • If you’re a passion or dream of a person, you need their focused attention to be realized.
  • If you’re a civilization threatening problem like climate change, you need a lot of people’s attention to coordinate a lot of people’s actions.

The question is, what deserves your attention? And who gets to decide?

You would think that for a city that’s shaping what a billion people think about every day, we ought to put people in charge who are deeply thoughtful, deeply careful, deeply aware about the vast possibilities. Maybe even elected leaders, accountable to the people and without any conflicts of interest.

Unfortunately that’s not the case.

3–4 private companies run this city. And by accident: Apple, Google, Facebook, and perhaps Snapchat. And because of their business interests, they are designing the city around what will maximize engagement. Instead of building the city around what would most empower us to live our lives. Or designing the city around what would create the most informed, open-minded society — especially when our minds are vulnerable to being manipulated.

So if you’re one of these private companies like Apple or Google– how should you distribute people’s attention?

  • Should you make the news top of mind?
  • Should you make someone’s friends top of mind?
  • Should you make consuming content top of mind?

All these things need your attention. And if they’re a business, they don’t just want a small drop of your attention, they probably want as much of your attention as possible.

But the amount of total attention in the world isn’t growing. We only have so much in our lives, we can’t save it up or put it in a bank account.

And it’s a zero-sum game. If one app or news site or friend gets your attention, that means something or someone else loses it. It comes out of our sleep, our time with family or our reflective time with ourselves.

“[Netflix’s] biggest competitors are YouTube, Facebook and sleep.” — Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

So as technology designers — we’re making choices. When we promote one thing for people to put attention on, we’re leaving out something else. Facebook says it doesn’t want to be arbiter of truth, but it’s already the arbiter of thoughts by controlling what shows up in the first place.

And it’s creating a totally uninhabitable environment for our minds.

  • If we can’t focus our attention on what we care about– we can’t fulfill our goals.
  • If we can’t sustain our attention on the issues that matter in our towns, cities, communities or government– our democracy doesn’t work.
  • If we can’t sustain our attention long enough to understand complex challenges– our conversations about complex topics don’t work.
Welcome to the Attention Economy

So what should we do? Should we just move out of the city and unplug from our phones and social media completely? Are we doomed to squeeze too many demands on our attention, into the same amount of space? Are there just too many choices?

No. We need to re-imagine the city to make it work for us.

It’s time to fix it, by re-imagining the city…

There are four core drivers of the problem.

Congestion & Overcrowding. Every year, more and more friends, apps, media or news stories want our attention. We need a better way to organize all the kinds of choices we have.

Advertising’s Insatiable Appetite. Apps or media who make money on advertising are never satisfied with “enough” of your attention. They will always fight for more.

Increasingly Persuasive Hijacks. Media, apps and advertisers are only going to get better and better at hijacking how our minds work.

Incentives. None of most powerful tech companies answer to what’s best for people, only to what’s best for them.

There is an answer. And we’re going to get to it… in part II (coming soon!)

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