Autonomy in the Attention Economy

There are few things more important than our attention. We cannot alter anything, react to, or create in a space we are not focusing on. Likewise, no agency can influence us without it. So we must take care of it and spend it - because attention is finite - only on that which matters to us.

Big tech knows all too well that our attention is valuable. Indeed, it had been an ugly open secret for some time now that large corporations do not make their billions in services. Rather, they do so by showing us tailored content. As awful as it is, it only makes economic sense that they would want to steal and trap our gaze for as long as possible to this end.

To achieve this, the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook (sorry, “meta”) go to great lengths and spare no expense to collect as much information as possible about their consumers and make their platforms as addictive as possible.

But they face a growing problem: our rapidly declining attention is getting harder to grab. There is so much competition for it, and we’re so regularly bombarded with ads, that it’s all becoming background noise.

Their response? Ever-more intrusive and aggressive techniques. See Microsoft sticking ads in the start menu or collecting data from your OS, the introduction of auto-playing videos on YouTube and Facebook, or the sheer amount of trackers on nearly every modern webpage (to the point that Facebook can easily profile you without you ever signing up).

To put it bluntly, tech companies are waging a multi-billion-dollar war for your attention. And they are fighting it with your private information, sophisticated algorithms, and a complete lack of moral fiber. And the consequences are very real.

What the attention economy is doing to us

The average person now spends three hours a day staring at their phone, checking it around fifty-eight times every 24 hours. And considering it takes twenty minutes to regain a state of flow following one small distraction, it’s a wonder we’re able to focus on anything at all.

But as statistics show, you probably already know that our obsession with phones isn’t a good thing. And that’s where the real toxicity of it all comes into play.

No one wakes up and says, “I’m going to spend an hour scrolling Reddit feeds today” or “I think I’d like to engage with some toxic people on Twitter for a while.” We know these are awful uses of our time, but they happen anyway. We can’t help ourselves. It’s no surprise really since our psychology is being used against us from all sides.

And it’s not just our ability to focus on things that actually matter to us that is under attack. Our very self-worth is becoming tangled up in this endless chase for the next dopamine hit.

Autonomy is a matter of killing dependencies

“I will participate, but not as asked,”

― Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

When it comes to finding solutions for this problem, many people turn to apps that limit or track their screen time or block them from viewing certain content for a set period.

To me, this approach seems akin to trying fad diets or locking liquor in an alcoholic’s cabinet - doomed to fail. Besides, feeding the monster less is still feeding the monster. You’re still enabling the bad behavior of these tech giants when you stick around.

It’s cliche, but the key is to be mindful of how you use tech tools and how they might be using you. Mindful not to take anyone’s crap, that is.

Minimalism has been in vogue for a while, yet many of us still take a “keeping up with the Joneses’” approach to the digital sphere. But, with the exception of certain work circumstances, there’s no tech tool, website, or social platform in your life that is irreplaceable.

Fed up with Windows? Load up a user-friendly Linux distro. Is Chrome not privacy-orientated enough for you? Get back on Firefox and edit that config. Done with the Musk show? Find your instance on Mastodon already (or better yet, make your own space on the web). And if you feel like your smartphone is taking over your life, then dumb that thing down already.

I believe people shy away from making these changes because they appear inconvenient. But convenience is one of those things you pay interest on. And when the price is as valuable as our attention, then it’s rarely worth it.

We don’t have to go live in a cabin in the woods to regain our autonomy in our increasingly digitized world (there’d probably be Wi-fi there anyway). But we need to think about this relationship with tech that we are building to ensure that it works for us and not against us. What's more, we need to ensure that we are defining this relationship for ourselves.

cc-4 license

Written by Mike Grindle

Published on 20th April, 2023

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please note that quotations and images are not included in this license.

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